The Future of Console Gaming
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You also have games being designed, or conceptualized by marketing teams, or management types who at best, either haven't played a game since the Atari 2600 they had as a kid, or if they do play the occasional game, it is only passively. From these people you either get game ideas based on 1) what else is hot in the marketplace (ie, "just like Mario" being the most blatant example) or 2) "I've never seen a game like this so it must be innovative" coming from someone who isn't a gamer and not realizing that their "new idea" is likely such a dead horse that it's even beyond beating with a stick. No these scenarios aren't totally unique to video gaming. In fact this has occurred with various toy lines and animated series over the years. But the fact is, this type of game development is the way a surprising majority of titles get created. It is also frequently considered to be a selling point.
This one is very hard to provide examples for without someone screaming libel, but is evident once you have sat through dozens of meetings at a tradeshow, only to hear from each company about how their new Doom/Quake clone "is the most innovative title ever". Well, more often than not it isn't. Sure you have some new features. Sure your game can do more because the machine you're running it on is 100 times better than the 486DX2 66/Pentium 180 running with a 1MB/4MB video card (which was common with gamers when Doom and Quake were at their peak). But technology is frequently what has made your game better, not innovation. Of course, when their game doesn't sell, or gets bad press, they quickly start pointing fingers. Or in the case of some games, they start shipping patches to fix all of the fatal bugs in the title because it went out the door early to meet an arbitrary deadline (ie, "gotta ship for Christmas!" or "gotta have something to show for CES/E3!"). It may have been a good game, but nobody cares because it's broken. Or worse yet, the gamer media has either so badly pre-hyped the game, or ripped it to shreds based on nothing but beta releases and video footage that the game develops a bad name without even being played.
Other "just like" examples are the mega-hyped Bubsy the Bobcat, first released for the SNES and Genesis. At a trade show, we actually had a company representative claim "...this game is just like Mario and Sonic, only more attitude!" Unfortunately attitude and hype alone may sell a few copies of game, but they don't make a good game by themselves. We even encountered someone representing Naughty Dog at an E3 booth for Sony, showing off Crash Bandicoot prior to it's launch. This fellow went so far as to compare it Mario64, emphasizing how their's was 3-D as well, but with more detailed graphics and textures. Of course in this case the game was very successful in the market for a number of reasons other than being like Mario... which it really wasn't.
On the subject of company representatives, this raises the point of another problem in the industry. The common, complete lack of understanding of both a product and it's market by many of the public relations staff at game companies, or the agencies they outsource to. The most blaring personal example of this has to be the time when myself and several of the other editorial staff were at a tradeshow booth run by Sega, receiving a tour of their current game line up. When we got to a particular game that featured "Full Motion Video" in it, the representative proudly announced that we were looking at a game that featured "full movie thingie..." for the character graphics. To this day we still laugh about this. We knew better, but think of the more mainstream visitors who are told things like this. They likely don't know better, and may not even know to ask for clarification. Worse yet, the majority of trade show visitors are actually buyers from retail/wholesale chains who are looking for product to stock in the future. Whether or not the game showed was good or not, do you think a PR person stammering through a product demonstration sounding confused really does the product justice? Or equally as bad, a PR person who hypes every game they show (good or bad) as the best thing since the wheel?
This industry also lacks an "indie-scene". Or better stated, an environment that fosters new artistic talent into the industry without direct industry intervention and manipulation. Music has night clubs and alternative music venues where up-and-coming musicians can practice their trade. The movie industry has it's film festivals such as Sundance. TV even has it's entry level area of Public Access broadcasting. The closest thing the console gaming industry has is the "Demo Scene", and that's debatable mostly because of the shear animosity between "demo coders" and "game coders". Both have little if no respect for the other's work, writing each other off as hacks. This line even spills over at times between console and PC game programmers, although with modern "PC like" consoles coming out this distinction is beginning to blur.
What little we do have in this country of an "indie-scene" can be found in the GameBoy development community. In this community a newly growing scene has been blossoming over the last couple of years, thanks mostly in part to the availability of three items. The first is a free C compiler that has been modified to support the additional functions of the custom Z80 processor in the GameBoy. The second is a vast library of programming documentation built up over the last ten years by pioneers in the emulation and underground development community. The third, and most important to the novice developer, is products from a company named "Bung Enterprises (HK) Ltd." that allows a game programmed for the GameBoy to be downloaded from a PC to a special ROM cartridge and actually played on a GameBoy with little effort.
While there are a number of more hard-core enthusiast in this community who actually hand-build the ROM components they need, the skills required to do this are not the norm. Using pre-built products drops the entry cost of learning GameBoy development to around $100 with some additional time spent downloading free compilers and documentation from around the web(5). All of a sudden, a high-school student can afford to learn to write games for a major platform, and actually distribute them freely around the internet to other owners of these ROM units or gamers who play software via emulation. There are even yearly software competitions where these budding game developers (who frequently refer to themselves as "demo coders") get together to give awards for the best games.
The big problem here is that these ROM products are also used by people who pirate commercial game releases. Because of the piracy situation, Nintendo has recently received an injunction blocking Bung from shipping any of their products into this country. A number of members of the U.S. GameBoy "demo" scene have already expressed concern about the setbacks this may cause in the scenes growth in this country. Oddly enough, the concern is that the Europeans and Asians will now have an edge in competitions because they still have cheap unrestricted access to the development hardware for newcomers to the "scene".
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