The hour of BOF3 I played — that game, a game like that, it REALLY doesn’t exist anymore. Not because in an hour of play I got an hour’s worth of play done (free-roaming exploration, non-overbearing storytelling, no bloody tutorials). But because it’s a game in a genre crafted for people who understand and like the genre, and the medium, for what it is. If that sounds like I’m pooh-poohing ambition, I’m not; but there’s a lot to be said for this era, which seems so very naive by today’s standards, in which you could just make games, and do it competently, and they’d be happy little hits that kept the bank account filled with Zenny. Those days are so incredibly over; Capcom is probably working on a new Street Fighter with microtransactions and a five-year content and community plan and a 100 million dollar budget. That’s where we are now. And it’s not really where I, as a player, want to be.
It’s a cool read about Breath of Fire in general, but I really echo Christian’s thoughts here. But I see those things—tutorials, overbearing storytelling, restricted exploration, and knife’s edge finances—as inextricably linked. After all, when your game costs X^10 million dollars you create for the lowest common denominator. It’s not that the game thinks you’re stupid when it gives you some bad audio log exposition or an eternal tutorial (Shadow of Mordor is borderline tutorial for almost its entire run) it’s that someone else is stupid, and they can’t afford to leave people who are imperceptive, bad, or easily bored behind. Their demographic is “everyone,” because that’s the best hedge against losing your shirt; that’s the only safe way to make bank.
I’m frustrated by the rising costs of game design, almost singularly in service of graphics, because they leave no room for the sort of games I like, their genres almost completely vanished outside of the indie space (survival horror). This is the lesson of Tomb Raider: there are mega hits and there is nothing. With so little room at the margins, the options for the non-Call of Duties are:
1) Become one of the few games with a relatively small but very loyal fanbase, like Dark Souls (good luck!) or stuff like what Tri-Ace puts out, moderately big budget games buttressed by bigger companies who keeps them around for god knows why (but I dids like my Lightning Returns)
2) Cannibalize something special or unique in service of the mobile market just so the series survives at all (Valkyria Chronicles)
3) Just make one really good, interesting, quirky thing and then die because not enough people cared or, at best, stick around on life support so you can be some company’s prestige studio (basically everything from Clover and Platinum).
Almost any way you slice it, your work will be submitted to endless and increasingly frequent rereleases to recoup costs. Which feels at least moderately positive when it gets Okami in front of a couple fresh faces and borderline insane when Halo 4 and Tomb Raider are getting new editions while they’re still hot from the oven (10 months later, in Tomb Raider’s case).
It’s no longer sufficient to make games for an audience of a few thousand, or few tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands. It hasn’t been for decades, but technology increases an at exponential rate. So do costs. If technology exists, you use it to the fullest extent. You’re not a bunch of indie babies after all, throw some god damn money at that thing and make the normal mapping and 16xQ CSAA really shine.
Playstation Greatest Hits titles could sell as few as 250k. The idea isn’t even fathomable now. Oh, not even a million? What does Resident Evil look like in a world where selling a few million copies over several years is no longer sufficient? It looks like Resident Evil 6, I guess: a muddled mess desperately serving all comers and satisfying none. Want some great action gunplay shooting? We got that (kind of, not really!) Want some spooky survival horror zombies? We got that (kind of, not really!) Milquetoast upgrade systems? Running-at-the-camera sequences? QTEs? Well, we definitely got that!
And they do have those, in spades, because it’s more cost effective to make a cutscene that asks you to push a few buttons than to create an intricate combat system from scratch (see God of War, see also, taming a Graug). It’s easier to waste ten minutes of the player’s time running down a corridor than it is to make a building with a bunch of rooms they can poke around in and explore. It’s easier to make a Gun that does +1 Damage and then +2 Damage and then +3 Damage than it is a Gun that fires a spread shot, or an acid explosion, or distracts an enemy, or gives a flower to a cute bear so he’ll join your nature commune and take up a hard but rewarding life of farming among a similar group of like-minded anarcho-communist anthropomorphic fuzzy animals.
My thoughts always go back to Resident Evil Revelations. If most games looked as good as that game does on 3DS, I’d be fine with it. I’d still like a nice all-out blockbuster from time to time, but once things get to a certain level of proficiency, I’m content. I just don’t care about the difference between 720p and 1080p. If it’s not side by side I usually can’t even tell. And there’s an art to Final Fantasy 7’s popeye arms, something you can look back at and think “that was the style of the times” and it’s not bad graphics, just different. Take the time you would on the bump mapping and give me a system that shines instead—or at least moderately glimmers. Give me a modest game with crunchy, tight, fun gameplay. In some ways handhelds are better on budget bloat, if only because they’re a few years behind on the hardware. They’re not immune, they’ll get there too and then what? Where’s the next space to which modest games can retreat?
You can argue that’s what indie games are for, but that’s the not where the hole is. If you want Super Puzzle Platformer, you got it. If you want Call of Duty, you got it. If you want Valkyrie Profile… welllll, Lightning Returns is kind of that with the personality serial numbers filed off. If you want Valkyria Chronicles, Front Mission, Zak and Wiki? Replay what you already got, because if they’re giving you anything, it’s not what you want, it’s what they think the maximal amount of people want. It’s a big boy world now and that’s the surest way to make your bread—or that’s the perception, anyway.
So that’s why Christian’s mention of Breath of Fire 5 stoked a need in me, because I’ve always heard people talk about how cool and weird and just not-like-anything-else it was. And kind of bad? But these days I want my games to be kind of bad. That suggests they didn’t (probably for lack of time and money) burnish away every single thing that might flummox, bother, or stall the LCDs. It’s a crazy thing to say, but sometimes you’ll take anything suggests maybe, kind of, possibly this wasn’t designed by a committee of five hundred people in teleconferenced boardrooms across twelve different countries. If a game has clunky, cumbersome bits, maybe that’s the last, best indicator we have to suggest it might still have a tiny crumb of personality left in it.
So I’ll hop on Amazon and grab a copy of Dragon Quarter. I want experiences that a small team—not a microscopic one or a single person—can provide. Something aspirational and complicated, but less mired by its sales expectations. That’s not really what indie’s about right now and it’s definitely not what the megacorps are. I like shooting aliens (not so much army dudes) and I’ve had a fun enough time with Shadow of Mordor, but fewer and fewer are the careful, small, constructed experiences that exist somewhere between a Twine game or the mechanics-light Amnesia and that big-budget model.
Maybe indie’ll get there, if the economics shift and new small teams can be born without crowding out the few that exist in a tentative market. Maybe more universal tools will make gigantic companies willing to try little tiny passion projects (Child of Light) or prestige titles that won’t make bank, but increase public perception of who brought you it—Hi Bayonetta 2.
But it seems there’s space for few of those in a crappy economy where you can’t make enough money designing games to feed your kids and the consumer can’t make enough money to buy a bunch of games at $60 or even $15 and, hell, we’d all wait for a Steam sale anyway. The little, quirky, interesting-but-dense things, the things you never seen before: they’re thinner on the ground, because rough edges get sanded off, for fear they might alienate even one person, which would mean $12 less in the bank, after retail and publisher cuts.
My binder of old games has more Dark Clouds and Typing of the Dead, Echo Nights and Parasite Eves and Steel Battalions than my contemporary binder has Trauma Teams and Niers, those models crowded out by Halos and Dead Spaces and Splinter Cells, which I like, but that’s not all that I like. And, sure, I’ll cling to that Silent Hill on the horizon—maybe this one won’t be absolute garbage like every other one from the past decade—but the stuff that isn’t lucky enough to get Kojima and del Toro’s name slapped onto it just poofs in a smoke cloud, never to be heard from again.
Until someone finds a way to make a cellphone CCG out of them…