Much like Hypnos, I have been mulling over the Wii Overlords article for the past few days. Much of the discussion I have read has focused on the viewpoint of the author. Certainly, as the brother of one of the designers for Gears of War he is not unbiased.
My initial reaction to the article is one of great caution. The urge to cater to the hardcore element of the industry is one fraught with danger. One could look at the state of comic books in the United States to see the state of an industry that has done exactly that for the past twenty years. Sales are down to a fraction of what was achieved, and the actual media has been marginalised. Certainly it is not due to a lack of interest in the product; even mediocre movies based on comic books regularly earn blockbuster status in the theatres.
While the video game industry is not a direct comparison, over the past five to ten years it has increasingly catered to the so-called hard-core element. Sales have not yet suffered, but competition has narrowed (both in terms of focus and the number of companies providing products) and budgets have continued to increase. Continuation along the same path could be a very unwise decision, economically.
However, there may be a valid point of core concern within the argument. At the very least, he brings forth some interesting questions. In truth, I do not think the concern is truly about hardcore versus casual but rather a focus on game design choices. What importance should technological advancement play in video games design?
The recent focus on hardcore gamers has gone hand-in-hand with a near religious adherence to advancement. This makes sense, in as much as those players are more likely to be people who will have the latest multi-channel audio systems, large flat-panel HDTVs, and computers running five-hundred dollar video cards. This approach has clearly worked in some ways. Games aimed at this market are very pretty. The production standards are high.
But I must stop and wonder, right now, why is such advancement tied to game design so closely? I cannot think of any other industry where this is true. In most cases, a revolution in design will happen in two ways. First, someone working on a product will consider a piece of technology and how it can make the product better, easier, more efficient, or more impressive. The internet was not a piece of technology developed for fiction writers, but they have managed to utilise it quite well to further their craft.
Second, a creator will want to do something and be force to figure out how to do it. In some cases, this leads to technological innovation. You can see this with movies, as new technology is developed to make special effects more impressive.
In both cases, the creation comes first; technology is a tool, not a directive. In video games, the paradigm seems to be backwards. Technology drives the game design. What this sadly seems to generate is a situation where emphasis is put upon the technology and not the design itself.
We can look at Gears of War as an illustrative example. During this year's Game Developer's Conference, it did quite well in the Game Developer's Choice Award, winning awards for technology, visual arts, and game of the year. Afterward, there was a bit of discussion among the Ringers about the appropriateness of these choices. When I finally got a chance to play the game, this discussion crystallised itself.
Gears of War is a visually impressive game. I am sure it does quite well with the technology it uses. However, as a game, the design felt very dated. The third-person action setting is not innovative and despite the addition of a few interesting manoeuvers it felt derivative of many games that have come before. In comparison to the other options available, it seems the award was more for popularity than innovative design.
While I do appreciate pretty games, I must question why so much energy is dedicated to utilising new technology rather than pushing the boundaries of design. I honestly cannot see, as the overlords article, that the hardcore game design truly provides an in-depth and unique experience that truly utilises the advantages of video games. While I may enjoy the occasional console RPG, I usually do not find the storytelling, characterisation, or immersion to be any more advanced than a choose-your-own-adventure novel. In many cases, even that amount of branched storytelling is too much.
I shall explore some design choices and options next time, as I am more sure that, contrary to what the article argues, technological adherence is detrimental to good game design rather than an enabler.