Thursday, 21 February 2008

Refinement is Futile

With the recent release of No More Heroes, a reoccurring thought entered my mind yet again. In general, the game faired well critically, if not so well financially, but there are still a number of journalists and gamers who found too much fault with the game to properly appreciate and enjoy it. The same can be said of the reception of Killer7. As stylistically powerful as the games was, it suffered somewhat when it came to the gameplay which put a lot of people off. It got me thinking, when a developer makes something new and unique, creating gameplay mechanics that are dissimilar to anything released before it, does it really stand a chance of holding up quality wise to games that follow in the tradition of the well trodden path?

Take the first-person shooter genre for example. It’s gone through minimal design changes in over fifteen years, yet is perhaps the most popular genre of videogame today, and has provided us with some of last years greatest games, including Halo 3, BioShock, The Orange Box and Call of Duty 4. It’s down to refinement. There may not be too much structural difference between Doom and Half-Life 2, but to gamers they’re opposite ends of the spectrum. If Doom was the blueprint, then HL2 is the finished construction. Fifteen years of tweaking and small scale innovation to get to what most people cite as some of the best games on the market.

So how is a No More Heroes, a Psychonauts, an Indigo Prophesy or a Shadow of the Colossus meant to compete in terms of quality? The focus of those games is unique and fresh from the developer’s mind, but they’re essentially just laying the foundations for others to take the idea and refine it over years and years of development, game after game. But the initial idea never sells, and the foundations are abandoned due to the lack of an audience. How will anything new truly take off if it’s never built upon from the original blueprint?

One recent success story would be that of the music rhythm genre, more precisely the success of Harmonix. Since their debut in 2001 with the well received FreQuency, Harmonix had repeatedly tackled the music rhythm genre to no avail, from titles such as Amplitude in 2003 through to Karaoke Revolution Party in 2005. Yet eventually they hit upon the idea of Guitar Hero, and have since gone on to become one of the most popular studios around as can be seen in the continuous success of the Guitar Hero franchise and the more recent Rock Band. It took four years worth of development time to finally get to something high in quality, and it was rewarded substantially in sales.

Rez arguably provides a good exception to this argument. Mizuguchi hadn’t really tackled anything along the lines of Rez before in his career, yet finished up with a product that cannot be faulted in its design, despite the poor sales it received, though these ‘nailed it first time’ instances are rare. Killer7 was met with control issues, Shadow of the Colossus with camera problems, Indigo Prophesy with a story that trailed off into confusion at the end, Psychonauts with erratic changes in difficulty. All had a great idea as its central vision, but all left much room for improvement, room that publishers now see as too risky to fill.

It’s an issue that will rarely be resolved. When a team makes something new, they have no previous examples to build off from, unlike the FPS world where innovative features (such as Halo’s recharging health system) can be widely adopted as the new standard, meaning improvements in all future similar titles. Goichi Suda didn’t have that comfort when writing up Killer7, and nor did Shinji Mikami when building P.N.03, or Fumito Ueda when conceptualizing Ico. Some designers get lucky enough to repeatedly tackle their vision – I’m sure Suda 51 will one day get his gameplay mechanics to the same level as his visual execution, but until then, he and everybody similar will just have to hope that publishers keep their faith, and give them the opportunity to evolve their vision into something that stands up to the same high standards found elsewhere in accomplished ground.

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