There was time [from the 80’s to the 90’s, says Wikipedia], when you could count on top games to have something new. From the FPSs like Quake and Unreal, or RTSs like Civilization, Age of Empires and C&C, the “largest” games mostly provided a fundamentally different experience.
When you get down to it, almost all that innovation has been lost in big-budget games today. What’s happened to the big devs? Medal of Honor is fundamentally the same as COD MW , which is virtually identical to COD MW 2 and Black Ops; we can safely expect MW 3 to be the same. Need for Speed went of a downward spiral since Most Wanted,with Carbon and Undercover being worse than their predecessors. Titles like Uncharted, Mass Effect and Heavy Rain strike out occasionally but nowhere like they used to do. The Witcher loses to Dragon Age in terms of profit. EA innovates with Battlefield 3, but nobody pays any notice, since MW3 is on the horizon.
Meanwhile, we have stuff like FLOWER, Dust, and the Journey [in progress] – stunningly original games which very few people have even heard of, let alone played.
Where has all the creativity gone? The indies have it all, say most. And they’re right; where traditional developers have failed to innovate, indies have bravely taken up the slack. But how many indie games were successful enough to compete with your average big-publisher-big-studio outfit? That’s right, there’s only one: Minecraft.
Is it because people dislike innovation? Is it because gamers prefer to stick to what they know? I don’t think so. It all boils down to a single thing: PR.
In this day and age, there are so many games being made and released that a developer has absolutely no hope of standing out from the rest without having an effective PR campaign in place. Public Relations has become second only to making the game itself, and just as instrumental in turning profits.
Consider Portal. A stunning, unique game, but it would have died as “Narbacular Drop” if Valve hadn’t stepped in with its stunning PR. Teaser, trailer, notices on Steam; the Portal 2 ARG; the “play to unlock” promos across Steam; they provided crucial publicity that the team could never have afforded on their own. But few indies are that lucky. What happens to those who don’t get grabbed by Valve?
They make a few sales and are forgotten, remembered only by the community of game developers.
How can one-to-five man indie teams complete with the extensive press campaigns of Battlefield 3 or MW 3? They can’t; it’s far too expensive; you need a big publisher for that kind of money. Publishers, in turn, prefer to keep studios focused on the tried-and-tested cheese that we’ve been seeing year in and year out. People have just lost vision. Or [even worse] they’ve joined the business department.
Consider: Activision spent $52 million making Modern Warfare 2; it spend $200 million marketing it. Now imagine giving your Minecrafts, your Terrarias that budget. Better yet, give it to some almost-unknown, but polished indie and watch sales skyrocket.
Consider two more cases: THQ’s Homefront. which hit the rocks on Metacritic ad just about every other review site – and went on to ship 2.5 million copies, because THQ backed a shoddy game with superb marketing.
And Brink, which was plagued by Ai issues, but nevertheless hit the top 5 charts because of the hype generated around it.
But indies, by definition, are relatively low-budget efforts. They cannot and do not have the vast army of developers, managers and marketing personnel available to your average high-end studio. And, more important, they don’t have the money.
It comes down to PR, which in turn comes down to money.
secondhand gameplay + big bucks = a good game
innovation + big bucks = a roaring success
Unfortunately, big developers are getting further and further away from innovation. Game designers are being crushed by executives with business degrees and no more gaming sense than a dead rat.
Are all the big developers a failure in this respect? No: there are a few, like Valve. I admire Valve, because they’ve proved time and time again that innovation + good budgets make for superb games. They took risks and did it well. They took FPS storytelling and physics puzzles in Half-Life; they bought in community modders for CS; they financed a group of students to make Portal. Here’s to hoping others will emulate their success.