A video game enthusiast spells out some steps developers can take to help 2009 match last year's great strides
The art of game design made a strong showing in 2008, with innovation and excellence coming in packages both big (Mirror's Edge) and small (Braid). We got some of the greatest sequels ever created (Metal Gear Solid 4, Fallout 3 and Grand Theft Auto IV, to name just a few), and new properties sure to have franchise legs (LittleBigPlanet). It's going to be hard to top the past year in terms of great games, but there are a few key steps developers can take to ensure that 2009 is just the start of something big. Here, then, is our list of New Year's resolutions for the people on the production side of the games industry. Take heed, developers, and prepare to be excellent.
It's incredibly difficult to spend hours, weeks, months and years of your life working on a labor of love game, only to put it out into the world and listen to people tear it apart. But rest assured, developers, the people who are raising the loudest voices over every little flaw, foible and f-up in your game are doing so out of LOVE. Nobody wants you to succeed more than they do, because they want only the best experience every time they play. It's understandable that you can't take every point of criticism or if-only-it-had-this-feature forum post into account, but there is plenty to be learned by listening to the people who are spending their time and money on your efforts. Listen, learn and incorporate as much as you can into your work.
Don't Equate Mainstream With Dumb
Thanks to the success of some of the more family-oriented stuff on the Wii, we're seeing a bit of a trend toward dumbing things down in order to reach the broadest possible audience. This is a cop-out. Please, spare us more commercials featuring super-generic cool kids yukking it up around a console and TV, laughing at inappropriate times and making it look like gaming is "hip." Grand Theft Auto became a pop culture touchstone without dumbing itself down. Starcraft sold a bazillion copies. Even The Sims had a level of complexity that makes the simplified stuff on the horizon seem downright primitive. Take a lesson from the failure of the Madden "All-Play" titles. People want good games, and will take the time to learn how to use TWO whole buttons if that's what it takes. Honest.
Beat World of Warcraft
World of Warcraft is great, and deserving of its status as the 900-pound gorilla of the gaming world. But as fans of video game football can tell you, competition is a good thing, and it's not healthy for the genre for the massively-multiplayer online RPG arena to have one name dominant for this long. There were some contenders in 2008—Warhammer Online offered a more PVP-focused experience, while Lord of the Rings Online was a viable alternative for Tolkien fans and players who prefer to solo—but you know things have gotten bad when even industry insiders are grumbling that any MMO without Warcraft in its name is doomed from the get-go. Perhaps Bioware will lead the charge with Star Wars: The Old Republic (despite whatever damage Lucas has done in the past decade, there are still few licenses stronger than that born in a galaxy far, far away), but it's time for other developers to step up, too. Azeroth awaits your challenge!
For the Love of All That's Holy, Don't Sell Your Film Rights to Uwe Boll
Seriously, this man must be stopped. It doesn't matter if, somewhere in his black, black soul, he has the potential to make a good movie—the damage he's already done to the very concept of video games as a viable source for quality films negates any future good that he might do. And this goes for every studio hack who would churn out childish crap like the DOOM movie (ooh, a "first-person" sequence! Whee!) and expect gamers to line up at the box office. There are developers working overtime crafting interesting stories for their games, worlds full of characters that would light up the big screen... and, instead, we get Postal. Peter Jackson's involvement, brief as it was, in the development of a Halo film was a good first step, but the time is now for games to get their cinematic due. Give us a Psychonauts animated film. Give us Mass Effect as the next great sci-fi saga. Give us Halo as the gritty far-future war movie Starship Troopers failed to be. Just please, please, keep Uwe Boll far away from all of them.
Make Your Tools Available
User-generated content took some big steps forward in 2008, with LittleBigPlanet's level design tools and Spore's creature creator leading the charge. Unsurprisingly, these two games were a part of the highest-profile experiences released this year, in no small part because they made the relationship between the player and the game a two-way street. There's no doubt that game designers and developers do some amazing work in crafting levels and gameplay mechanics, but as PC gamers have known for years, a group of dedicated fans working on a level, a mod or a total conversion can do wonders, too—remember, the venerable Team Fortress (and, with it, class-based team FPS play) was born as a user mod for Half-Life. In 2009, developers should allow end users to muck around with the very nuts and bolts of the games they play and not just designing levels. It might not be easy, particularly with the limited interface of consoles, but the potential rewards are as great as the enthusiasm of a game's fanbase can make them.
Make DLC Work
Downloadable content got off to a rocky start with the likes of Oblivion's ridiculously priced horse armor, but it's proven its worth time and again in the past year, whether your poison is new tracks for Rock Band or weapons, modes and maps in Warhawk. DLC is a viable tool for extending the life of a game, and if it's cool enough and priced reasonably enough (nobody wants to pay $10 for a new character T-shirt), people will buy it. That's why every game developer should follow the advice of Stardock's Brad Wardell. The president of the company behind Galactic Civilizations II, which has made a habit out of massive and game-changing post-release updates, has asserted that every developer should go into every project with a post-release budget already in place, and plans to make use of it. If your game is good enough, fans will want more, and there's nothing but goodwill to be gained by giving it to them.
Use Motion Control Wisely
This generation is a bad one for the standard controller; with the success of the Wii and the PS3's inclusion of SIXAXIS technology, everybody's looking to break the analog-stick-and-buttons mold. But there have been plenty of examples over the past year of why just slapping motion-oriented control into your game isn't enough, and that knowing how to use it, first, is key. Take Lair, for example, a game that should have been awesome (a flying dragon combat game? Come on!) but was scuttled at least partially by horrific SIXAXIS implementation. Or check out the aforementioned Wii, which has yet to see a killer app for its motion-based controls. This is a new paradigm, and wrinkles are not unexpected, but the golden rule here should be that, if you're not 100% sure that your motion controls make your game more awesome, you should toss 'em and stick to the basics.
Mix Up Your Settings
We're big lovers of fantasy, horror and science fiction, but let's be honest: We've fought more aliens, zombies and orcs (or orc equivalents) than should be expected of any sane individual. We've fought World War II fifty billion times, and managed an empire through the colonization of the New World over and over again. The time has come to mix things up, a bit. There are positive moves being made in this direction. Obsidian is at work on espionage RPG Alpha Protocol, and we'll be graced in 2009 with the fantasy sports game Blood Bowl—but it can go further. Why not create an organized crime-based MMO? Or an FPS set during the Revolutionary War? Or an RTS that puts you in charge of a record label and has you sending bands out on the road to make it big in the rock world? The boundaries are there, and we know you know how to play in them—now, it's time to break them.
Bring Down Prices
We're not professional economists, but we'd say the fact that that the Wii is the least expensive gaming alternative plays a significant role in the Wii's successes. This is a tough one, for sure, because the amount of money and resources required to develop a top-tier game continues to grow, so there's only so much a publisher can do if it hopes to turn a profit on a release. At the same time, the economy sucks and at $60 a game, players are restricting their gaming purchases, which means less revenue for publishers, which means more restrictions on developers... it's a vicious circle. If the industry drives prices down, more people will play, which can only mean good things in the long run.
More Original IP
As with any form of entertainment, sequels are big business in gaming. Fans want them, the developers, for the most part, want them, and publishers are more than happy to rake in the dollars as franchise lovers greedily snap up the latest installment in their favorite series. And let's not forget licensed titles, which come with their own built-in fanbases and a lot of the thematic legwork already done. But everyone should remember that, if we hadn't had the original Warcraft all those years ago, we'd never have World of Warcraft, and if Metal Gear hadn't graced the NES, we wouldn't be on our umpteenth mission with Snake. The games world needs new and original mythology if it is to survive and thrive. It's riskier, financially, for sure, but if you do it right, you're building a foundation for worlds and universes gamers will want to occupy for years to come.