Saturday, 24 October 2009

Big name games: are they really that bad?

“Guitar Hero is exactly what’s wrong with the games industry”, said my colleague, after I’d found out that Santa Monica by Everclear would be appearing in the upcoming pop spin-off, Band Hero.

But why?

When it debuted in 2005, Guitar Hero was universally adored. Everyone loved its innovative take on the rhythm action genre (never mind that guitar games have been popular in Japan for years), and everyone seemed to enjoy the dodgy cover versions that made up the games 48-song track listing.

The game exploded in popularity: Guitar Heroes 2 and 3 came to pass, expanding the track list and replacing cover versions with real songs, and Rock Band entered the arena, a blatant copy of an existing formula, albeit one with drums and microphones. The fourth game in the series, World Tour, belated brought instruments to Guitar Hero’s table.

The state of play is now thus: Rock Band 2 suffered from patchy distribution but still enjoyed good sales thanks to Microsoft’s heavy-handed faux-exclusive advertising, and Beatles Rock Band and Lego Rock Band are diversifying the franchise.

Guitar Hero, on the other hand, has brought out Metallica and Aerosmith editions, with Van Halen soon to follow, and Band Hero is forthcoming, offering pop songs and classic cheese amid soft-rock. DJ Hero is, well, a DJing game and comes with plastic decks.

I don’t see what is wrong with this. Guitar Hero and Rock Band have both become phenomenally successful, and their publishers have capitalised on this trend by releasing more titles.

The same can be said of the Call of Duty series, which churns out a superb title every year and, before its improvements over the last couple of years, the FIFA games were well known for being minor refreshes designed purely to make eager punters who hadn’t discovered Pro Evo part with £40.

Worse than all of these is, arguably, The Sims – a series which, alongside its three main titles, has spawned 16 expansions packs, with only one of these compatible with The Sims 3, which was only released in June.

Critics would argue that this sort of development exists to do nothing more than gouge money from eager punters who don’t know any better but, if that’s what they enjoy playing, then that’s fair enough – that they won’t experience Fallout 3’s wastelands or Uncharted 2’s masterful storytelling is their loss, and you can hardly blame the big publishers for supplying such demand.

I don’t agree with the charge that this sort of production line development disrupts the rest of PC and console gaming, either. EA has, since 2006, had a separate division to develop its Sims games, and development duties for the Call of Duty titles are shared between Infinity Ward and Treyarch, who take turns to product the yearly titles.

Meanwhile, EA's 29 other studios - which stretch from established areas in the US and Europe to emerging markets like China and India - are free to concentrate on other games, both franchises and original IP.

It could also be argued that the vast amounts of cash that Guitar Hero, The Sims and its ilk is conducive to more innovative and risky development elsewhere - publishers are more likely to take a chance on some original IP, say, if they've got bucketloads of guaranteed income elsewhere.

Activision, publishers of Guitar Hero, are bringing out social networking racer Blur in 2010 and have already unleashed Prototype, and action game crammed with Parkour and shapeshifting. Even DJ Hero, despite its status as a Guitar Hero spin-off, is one of the most inventive games of the year thanks to its unique peripheral and mixing gameplay.

Ubisoft, the world's fourth-biggest games publisher, is also responsible for exciting and original IP - Assassin's Creed is the biggest original IP title of the current generation.

EA is even more prolific, publishing games like Mirror's Edge, Mass Effect, Crysis, Skate, Spore and Dead Space in the last two years alone. It wouldn't be possible to publish all of these games without the funds that EA Sports titles, once the much-maligned staple of the studio, brought in.

It's not a modern phenomenon, either. FIFA and Madden have both been cash cows for EA since the early 1990's, and old warhorses like Pacman and Tetris continue to live on in new formats and in countless new "Extreme" editions, even more than twenty years after their respective births.

It's not a modern phenomenon, then, and it's not one that will be going away any time soon - in fact, I reckon that the continued success of big-ticket franchises can help secure the future of plenty of games - and even entire genres and consoles - from potential obscurity thanks to the money and publicity they bring into the industry.

You could certainly accuse some publishers of being cynical with some releases - take some of the FIFA games from the beginning of the millennium for a prime example - but I, for one, hope that they don't vanish anytime soon.

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