Saturday, September 10, 2005

Played Halo 86 Yet?

Here’s an amusing statistic for you.

Currently in the top ten best selling video games (all platforms), only one of them is an original title.

In the top 50 best selling video games (again, on all platforms), there is a grand total of 6 original titles.

In short, if you want a sequel, you’re in luck. If you want to try something new…not so much.
So what’s the cause of this outbreak of non-originality? Why are the games manufacturers churning out sequels, instead of establishing any new franchises?

Well, the answer to this question is the answer to nearly all life’s questions. It all comes down to money.

Computer gaming was born as the ultimate cottage industry. Once you owned a computer, you didn’t need anything else to create a computer game, just time and expertise. ‘Games studios’ often consisted of a couple of guys in a garage.

However, recently gaming has become big business. Today, gaming has established itself thoroughly in the main stream. Basically, it’s gone from small potatoes catering to a few dedicated hobbyists, to big business. Games are starting to surpass sales of DVD movies.
This influx of cold, hard cash into the industry is arguably a good thing. The overall quality, production values and voice talent of video games has gone through the roof. Whereas games used to be made with literally no budget, today games are being produced that can cost around 40 million to make, incorporating the likeness and voice talent of A list stars (Samuel L. Jackson and Michael Caine to name but a few).

This shift can be seen best in games based on major movies. Being just another part of merchandising, movie games are rarely any good. For one, the studio’s were rarely willing to go to the expense of paying the actual movie actors to star in the game. A good example of this was ’Enter the Matrix’, where you played through the game as two minor characters (Ghost and Niobe), and followed on the fringes of the movie story, IE, you would arrive at a location just after the main characters had left.

Whereas the Wachowski Brothers claimed this was intentional, as they wanted to tell more of the story, many cynical gamers (like myself) saw it another way. It was a hell of a lot cheaper to feature those characters, than pay Keanu Reeves to do a voice over session, and pay him for the use of his likeness.

Fans avoided the game like the plague. It was an ok experience, but what the point of playing a Matrix game if you don’t get to play Neo?

Basically, it wasn’t financially viable to pay A-list stars to be in a game that was only going to sell around a million copies.

Things are slowly changing. Two of this summer’s major blockbusters (Fantastic Four and Batman Begins) have both given birth to games that uses the films actual stars. In short, games are becoming popular enough to where budgets can actually justify using the film stars.
However, this influx of cash is a double edged sword. Games are, at least, getting bigger budgets (but not even big budgets can guarantee a good game, as games like Advent Rising show), but at the cost of originality.

It’s simple enough reasoning. A game studio sinks anywhere between 10 to 40 million into a game. That is one major financial investment. Any game can technically make or break a company.

So game studios are faced with a choice. Do they attempt something original and attempt to establish a new franchise? Or do they make a sequel to an already established and popular series?

An original game brings a lot of problems. First of all it has to be marketed immensely. There’s always the chance it will be completely missed by the fans. It’s a sad fact that some excellent games in the past have failed miserably. Due to lack of marketing, or that it just happened to be released along side a popular established franchise.

Sequels are easy. Even if they’re mediocre, chances are they’ll sell through name recognition alone. It’s not guaranteed, but there’s a lot bigger chance.

Take Halo, for example. An absolutely excellent game that spawned a decent sequel. If Bungie announce that they’re going to release Halo 3, it’s going to be on pre-order before it’s even been made! Sequels to popular games also almost market themselves. The response to the news that a studio like Bungie are going to release an original game is luke warm. People will look forward to it because it’s the same studio that created Halo. If Bungie announce that Halo 3 is going to come out soon, it sets the internet ablaze!

The money factor also introduces another problem that stifles originality. As the budget for games increase, so does the sale price.

A new, full priced game will cost you around 50 dollars, and that cost is only going to rise. For the average person, this makes a new game a fairly major purchase. So when your average Joe is getting ready to part with a large chunk of his hard-won greenbacks, he wants to make sure he‘s getting his money‘s worth.

Let’s face it, if you’re going to drop a large amount of cash on a new game, you want to make sure that the game is worth it. There’s nothing worse than spending a large amount of cash on a game, and then finding that the game is complete crap. Unfortunately, you can’t return a new game, just because you don’t like it.

So when you find yourself at the shelves of your local EB, are you going to risk your hard earned pennies on an original game, or are you going to choose a sequel to a game you already own and like? It’s a hard choice. In the past, you could buy a new game for around $20. If it turned out to be crap, you weren’t out a hell of a lot and could chalk it up to experience. If you’re spending almost $60, you’re not likely to be as adventurous.

I can only hope that the new found mainstream popularity of games takes us to the point where game prices will drop through sheer volume of sales. While games sequels don’t follow the trend that movie sequels do (IE, games sequels tend to be superior to the original), this lack of originality can only be a bad thing.

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