The More Things Change, The More They Stay The Same…

So many promises...

The gaming industry is always talking about and implementing change as it pushes fowared. New tech leads to new innovations which leads to new “experiences”, both which are welcomed and not welcomed by equal parts of the community. And while we have come along way from The Vectrex to the Xbox 360, my question is has the core gaming experience really changed that much?

Lets not think about graphically advances and how we evolved from Cartridge to BluRay,  yes all of this indicates big change in the industry and strides fowared no doubt, but on a Gameplay level how radically different is everything to arcade gaming really?

I am asking a lot of questions here but not really giving any answers, so I shall attempt to explain a view that myself and my brother shared recently.

A modern day concesus and look at statistics shows us that video gaming as an entertainment medium is maturing, i.e the age of current day gamers as we know is roughly sitting around the 25-35 age group. A lot of developers are picking this up and running with it and age approriate content is constantly debated around video games, mostly due to misconceptions and a misunderstanding of what video games are in todays culture. They are not toys anymore but rather an industry that dwarfs even Hollywood. It is on the back of these trends that its no suprise that a lot of games are coming out as more a mature storytelling outlet. But while the storytelling are getting more and more mature I cant say the same for gameplay itself.

Lollipop Chainsaw - the other end of the spectrum.

I dont want the word mature to be seen in the context of mature Vs immature – in other words this is not a stab at video games like “Duke Nukem” or “Shadows of the Damned”, whose Gameplay matches their story and the overall vibe. There is nothing wrong with this kind of gaming, infact “Shadows of the Damned” I love for the fact that it is so “video gamey” from start to finish and never takes itself seriously.

My contention is that for as much attention is paid to the story and character building in most modern games, when it comes down to it the gameplay progression is not much different to arcade games of yester-year. This being that the opening stages of the game are very basic and easy to complete and as you progress further and further through the game the difficulty ramps up to ridiculous levels. This kind of idea works well within intself in most games where the story is more a passanger to fill out the fun of the journey, but in games like Grand Theft Auto, Mafia, Deus Ex and even Alan Wake where the story is behind the wheel it may be a bit detrimental, and kind of lazy even.

I liken it to the progression through a game like Mortal Kombat where it doesn’t hide its gameplay progression at all. Its clear that the first opponent you face will not be as difficult as the next and we all know how annoying fighting Shao Khan is when you finally reach him.

In most cases the arcade progression is embraced and used well by developers who use the early missions/levels/stages as a tutorial for the mechanics in the game. This isnt a bad thing at all but  its what follows that usually becomes frustrating.  As much as I love the Grand Theft Auto series, Rockstar do this A LOT.

This equals that...

You will often start off doing small tasks for like taking a guy out with a baseball bat because he is stealing from your boss and this is good because it teaches you the mechanics of how to beat somebody with a baseball bat and it fits in nicely with the tone of the story. By the middle of the game your hanging from a helicopter and its your 15th attempt to complete the mission all the while your being asked to engage in this deep story with interesting characters and it may make the player feel to frustrated to care. This is part and parcel of a GTA gaming experience but it can feel like to much of a juxtaposition.

The disappointing thing about the way the gameplay escalates from easy to harder is that its usually;

1)throw more guys with guns at you

2)throw more guys with more armour at you

3)throw more guys at you with bigger guns

4)all of the above.

I will use an example from a mission that had the potential to be really cool and challenging in its own way is from GTA: Ballad of Gay Tony but turned into a cover based shoot out in a nightclub with tons of hired goons to shoot through.

Mission: Boulvevard Baby: Luis goes to Bahama Mamas to seduce the owner of the clubs girlfriend who quickly gets on her knees. The owner enters the room you kill him and then fight through the club and his personal bodygaurds.

Mind you this isnt ridiculously difficult in any way but it displays answer 1) from the question above – “throw some guys with guns at the player”.

Why not use this as a chance to put in something a little different? GTA is filled with cover based gunfights, why not have it become a situation where you and the girlfriend or even just you need to figure out a way to get the body out of the club. Imagine the impact of this when you hear on the radio later that police are still looking for the owner of Bahama Mamas who has been missing for a week. Call me crazy but more often than not some menial tasks give me a greater sense of achievement and a better memory of my experience.

Speaking of the term “Experience”, its been made a dirty word by Kinect, Move and Wii based gaming. See for somebody like me I love immersion, it adds to my experience of the game. When I play Batman I dont run like a madman through the halls unless to reach somewhere where somebody is in peril. Or playing Mafia 2 when I had a body in the trunk and 2 drunk men singing Sinatra in the back seat, i stuck to the road rules, enjoyed the ride and soaked it all in, or arriving home and WALKING to my mothers house and soaking in all the little details the developers put in. Hell I even played Assassins Creed 2 with headphones in and the audio set to Italian. I dont remember many of the action set pieces but rather those moments,  That to me is a great immersive gaming experience. But to speak about an experience in gaming now has a direct connotation to Wii Sports or Kinect Adventures.

Absorbing all the sights and sounds of Lost Haven

So why my concern for this? I mean video games are doing fine the way they are right? the answer to that is yes they are without my pro mature gaming medling but a report caught my eye recently by Blake Snow of CNN that only 10% of players are completing the games they start. In a quote from Activisions production contractor Keith Fuller indicates that 90% of gamers are “bouncing” (quiting before completion) and will never see the end of the games they begin.

Infogamers Matt Helgeson claims that while there are no solid numbers to back this claim up it does seem to be something that could be plausable. He gives good reasons as to why this trend is on the rise from the rise of Multiplayer, the outside distractions of facebook, twitter even the idea that with the average age of a gamer being 37 nowdays ones personal life and family life doesnt allow for as much gaming as one would like.

 These and other reasons are logical and probably contribute to alot of the 90% of people “bouncing” but from my experience personally with gamers I know some games just become repetative and ultimately frustrating through that repatition. This means that a vast majority of people who brought Red Dead Redemption never would have experienced one of the greatest ends to a video game story made, which to me is really really sad.

I want games that dont have to ramp up the challenge and make the gameplay turn to ridiculous mission sets and premises just because well its a videogame and Donkey Kong levels used to get more challenging. I want to see games really challenge film. Personally I dont think this will happen with current generation gaming, I think gamers attention spans on mass is still not quite up to where developers are trying for which is why we see this Juxtaposition between story and in game behaviour.

One idea is that with the way the industry itself is changing now and moving more towards digital distribution perhaps it could be the beginning of a move just like film makers and writers went from Hollywood to HBO. Television is experiencing a Golden age at the moment with shows like Sopranos, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire. Television is offering filmmakers a chance to expand their stories and characters without making you sit through a 4 hour epic movie in the cinemas, Why cant games follow suit?

Scoresese and Terrence Winter have brought Hollywood quality production value to the small screen

Perhaps releasing still a phsyical gaming disc itself – as so many I speak to proclaim to still want- to contain a lot of the data like the game world and processes, but using digital distribution to release episodic content and story that allows a certain amount of gameplay to be completed within the storyline of the game. The signs and symptoms of this move are plastered all over the walls everywhere with GTA episode packs, Fallout 3 expansions and even The Back To The Future games.

Look we all know Digital Distribution is coming down the pike at some point and this is a way it can be used to make more mature videogaming that caters to both story and gameplay.

There is room in video gaming to have different types and varying levels of maturity in gameplay and storyline, but perhaps at this stage the creative minds are a few steps ahead of the majority of its audience in terms of what they want to give us. Perhaps the medium isnt as mature as it would like to be. Perhaps the average of the gamer today isnt as mature as its number indicate.

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