Thursday, March 10, 2011

Old school vs New School

I've been very busy lately and did not have time to catch up with my thoughts.During the past few months I have seen many complaints from veteran gamers who've been gaming from 90s about how the current crop of games have no soul. They claim that the games have become shallow, cash cows rather than being made with a heart and a soul. I went down my memory lane to see what I think of this clash of generations. I started gaming way back in 93/94. The first sweet memories come with Wolf-3D, Paratrooper and Prince of Persia. Then I got the RTS bug with Dune and C&C. Every game I played those days was a refreshing experience. There was always something new to explore,something new to see. They were far more challenging compared to the current games as well. Most games could not be completed in one try.

However, the purpose of this post is not to directly compare the old games vs new games. Its more about what caused this change and see whether its good or bad. My view point on this subject would be totally different from some others' for sure. But as a veteran gamer, I will lay down my side of the story. 

At its infancy, gaming used to be a hobby for the geeks. Games were made by programmers in their free time. Then some people grew a passion for it and decided to make money out of it by creating something they like and love. They made the game the way they wanted it and released it. The games were designed by the gamers themselves. So they knew exactly what people wanted. The current generation of games started to come through when the so called next-gen consoles were introduced to them market in the 2005/2006 period. The Microsoft's XBOX 360, Sony's Playstation 3 and Nintendo Wii bought the gaming to masses. Nindento Wii with its innovative motion control managed to capture the interest of casual gamers like no other gaming platform before. Moms,dads, children and even grandparents were finding it fun to play. Gaming was not seen as a geeky childish thing anymore. The geeks' hobby transformed into a multi-billion dollar entertainment industry surpassing the movie and music industries in terms of revenue.

The popularity of gaming as an entertainment medium meant that developers had to cater to a wider audience. They were not building games only to appease the geeks with their hardcore gaming needs. Games needed to be accessible to everyone. They needed to become noob friendly. Unfortunately the geeks are outnumbered by casual gamers and all the big gaming companies are focusing more on casual gamers rather than hardcore gamers.

Publishers, Are They Devils in Disguise?

Since gaming is a huge industry now, the budgets of games have also become larger. This has made it difficult for game developers to develop a game on their own. This had given rise to the developer publisher model. The game development is now financed by a publisher who in most cases own the right for the gaming franchise's Intellectual Property (IP). Publishers are totally business oriented organizations that are mainly focused on making profits from their investments as soon as possible. With this model, developers no longer have the freedom to develop games the way they like. Now, the development cycle is all about meeting deadlines and delivery titles. The mantra has changed from quality over quantity to quantity over quality. For new gamers, this is not a huge problem since they have not experienced the glory of past games when games were developed by the total free will of the developer. Even during the 90s there were publishers, but the competition was not fierce as today and the focus on quality was still there. There was far more room for improvement and innovation back then. The improvements I am talking is not about the graphics or sounds, but about game design. The current trend is to create one big title and clone that title in sequels and earn money using the hype generated from the first title. There are very few titles that can be considered true sequels in my opinion. Look at the most popular franchise today, call of duty. COD4 introduced the cinematic story telling that every other FPS has been trying to copy nowadays. It had a well designed multiplayer game that revolutionized MP gaming. It truly is a genre changing title. But look at its successors. WaW, MW2 and  Blackops. They do not offer anything significantly new other than the change of setting. It is not fair to expect every successor to provide the same novelty that COD4 or any other major hit provided. In my view, if you cannot come up with something new or different, spamming titles every year is not the way to go. Same goes to the venerable C&C franchise. EA spammed so many C&C titles that even the most hard core fan lost faith in the franchise. 

Light at the End of the Tunnel?

However, the rise of the Indie or Independent developers who are not constrained by the requirements of publishers are providing a breath of fresh air. The recent hits like Minecraft, Limbo, Braid, Super Meat Boy, Amnesia: The Dark Descent etc all have something different from the mainstream titles. They add something new to the table that really find the roots of the old school games. Modders should not be forgotten here. Mods usually complete and polish the games. In some cases it’s in the mods that the real value of the game lies. In some titles, communities have come up with patches when the developer was forced to cease support for the product due to pressure from publishers who want to churn out another title.

The major problem however is not with publishers going after money or catering to a wider audience resulting in losing the depth of games today. Its more about the focus on quantity over quality. There is nothing wrong in adopting the principle of "why fix something when its not broken". You don't need to change every successive title with something innovative, but it is very important to pay attention to detail and polish the product. This is lacking in most games of today.In my opinion sequels are spawned for major titles all too often. There is a tendency for publishers to release a title for a major franchise on an yearly basis. Thats my main complaint.

The newer generation who grew up with PS3s and X360s does not know about the classics in the 90s and early 2000s. They do not exactly know what it was like during those days. More importantly what they have missed. Some argue that times have changed and the so called "Old School" generation should move on. I am all for changing the game play style, but what we have today is not something superior to what we had during the past. Its more about re-using what is successful without even doing a proper quality check.

I think my rant has gone long enough. There are many things that can be written about this subject. But I believe that my point is clear. We need quality over quantity. With modern hardware, there should be enormous possibilities for a well refined novel games to come through. We are yet to see a game of that caliber. Few companies still have the caliber and the passion to deliver awesome things consistently. So far, Rockstar has produced some very good modern titles like GTA4 and Red Dead Redemption. The reason is quite simple, they take their time with the releases. I am looking forward to their next title L.A Noire which also looks very interesting. I just hope that others would follow suite and come up with something all can enjoy, irrespective of their gaming pedigree.