I was watching a 2 part interview that Adam Sessler had with Michael Pachter which discussed various different issues that gaming and the gaming development scene face today. Setting aside the fact that Sessler agrees with a man who has been more incorrect about his predictions than any average person trying to play along with an episode of Jeopardy, I was listening to what Pachter was talking about and thinking about the state of gaming today. For how incorrect Pachter is, he certainly talks a good game. The discussion moved to the Plight of AAA games and how companies like Square-Enix forcast sales numbers they never meet and then consider good numbers to be failures. The interesting part of that is just how these publishers make these predictions, but that's a story for another time. I was thinking about games like Tomb Raider and other high profile games and what possible explanation could be given as to why they don't "meet expectations."
I came to the answer, and of course it's just my own opinion, that variety is seriously lacking in the industry and not only is it lacking but it's highly discouraged. Now, it's easy to blame gamers for this. How often have we heard about how terrible Call of Duty is and yet it sells millions? Is it really the singular fault of gamers though? Here's the thing, Call of Duty is an aberration, it flies in the face of everything core gamers would generally agree makes a good game. It sells because of the climate of gaming today. This entire generation of gaming has been one where priorities are terrible.
Think about games today. Most of the best selling or most high profile games were either sequels or reboots. Old ideas milked over and over again. This was the gen of shooters, Call of Duty clones. The previous gen was the gen of GTA clones but still had much more variety available. Why though? Well you can cite money as a big reason, but I think that there are many reasons.
The Review System: This is a broken system right down to its basics. The stigma of bought reviews will never be undone because they do happen, though not as frequently as many think, but that's not the biggest problem with the review system. The biggest problem is that it's predominately internet based and that allows a site like Metacritic to steer the direction of the industry's creative process. Many publishers use Metacritic to gauge the reception of their games, and Metacritic has a serious problem with which websites carry weight to contribute to their aggregate scores.
Publishers actually care very little about gamer reception unless you have an incident like Mass Effect 3 where they can't ignore it. Publishers are quite content to take review scores to build forecasts on and then judge success from there. There is also no standard present for reviews and, often, the gaming community will completely disagree with the reviewers assessment of some high profile games. I don't have to remind you about Dan Hsu's Gears of War review do I?
So we can see that the entire reviewing system from bloggers to Metacritic have a huge impact on what kind of games are made.
Casual vs. Core Gamers: Publishers LOVE casual gamers. There are varying definitions for casual gamers, ranging from the kind of gamer that plays nothing but facebook/mobile/wii games to the kind of gamer that may play "core" games but does so without any research into them and is doing it just because their friends are. This gen's surge of social aspects, apps, the idea that mobile games are going to dominate and take over the industry over console games, and microtransactions are all a result of the casual gamers. Publishers know they can get away with putting out the most bare bones experiences because the casual gamers won't care and just buy up in droves. Peter Moore explained it perfectly when he mentioned that millions of gamers are paying for microtransactions, so how can they be evil if people are buying them.
Publishers, as has been established, care about numbers. They care about scores, they care about sales, they don't care about reception or perception. Core gamers KNOW that an increase in social aspects can potentially mean a decrease in substance. Core gamers KNOW that microtransactions have and will continue to be abused. Casual gamers don't know, and don't care, which makes them the perfect audience to target and flood the market with the same types of repetitive and banal experiences that audience loves. With this attitude comes the philosophy of "accessible" games. This philosophy has destroyed franchises, resulted in many instances of backlash from the Core gamers, and yet won't change because Casuals simply don't care. This is philosophy means that variety is a hindrance to profit.
Having a Bark that is worse than our Bite: The final reason variety is so scarce this gen is because of us. We constantly lash out at developers who subscribe to the "accessible gamer" philosophy, or to the greed of publishers, but the numbers show that we don't back up our words as a large group. There are isolated incidents of the Core audience actually backing up their claims (DmC) but the sales of games like Call of Duty, or the Street Fighter 4 expansions, or RE6 aren't ALL casual gamers. They are also core gamers who will whine about it, but still buy the game because they are a slave to multiplayer or the hope that their favourite franchise hasn't been ruined. Gamers are a highly unstable community, nearly impossible to gauge a common perception from, so it should be no wonder that Publishers will trust numbers more than words. How many times have there been complaints about how cookie cutter experiences this gen only to have those games see 6 million sales? We need to reward the developers that take risks and stop feeding into this mentality of milked sequels, annual releases, and all of the other decisions that kill variety.
A new gen is coming up. Sony claims that they are all about games and gamers first, everything else second. Nintendo has no focus right now it seems, and Microsoft is looking to be more all-around entertainment than just gaming. We have an opportunity to remove Metacritic's power, reward the devs putting out unique and innovative games, and bring gaming back to the kind of variety it enjoyed during the SNES to PS2 days. Let's not have another gen of graphics over substance, shooters trying to hybrid with every known genre under the sun, shoehorned multiplayer or single player modes, and developers casualizing games. Let's strive for variety. Look passed photo-realism and towards artistic value, and finally stick it to greedy publishers like EA or Activision. I don't think any of us want a repeat of the worst aspects of this gen do we?