Are videogames worth looking at seriously? Are they more visceral than other types of entertainment? I looked at these questions in a recent column, Why I Hate Zombies. I followed that up last month with a look at the perils of franchised material with regard to Star Wars videogames, and claimed that not all tie-ins are crap (even when it's a videogame adaptation of a movie).
I've just about exhausted my store of videogame knowledge, but I would like to make a few more points, particularly about audiences that are not currently served by the popular videogames.
One thing that I've become more convinced about is that the current market that buys videogames and the current culture that surrounds games will be drastically different in a few years. And for one simple reason: money, and the bucketloads to be made thereof.
The bestselling game of all time is The Sims, and it's a game that appeals to casual gamers as well as the oh-so mysterious demographic that doesn't play videogames at all. That is to say, the majority of people (which is the case in North America; other cultures, especially Japanese and South Korean, are not included in my generalizations). The "majority of people" is a huge market. The Sims almost didn't get made because it didn't fit a defined genre. More on that minute.
The lesson should be obvious—try new game types!—but the industry has hurried in the opposite direction. Instead of innovation, the big publishers crank out more sequels and slavish imitations of what worked once. It's the law of diminishing returns however, as happens with sequels. Again, the lesson should be obvious, but creativity continues to be stifled (see the pessmistic version of what might happen: "The industry is in for a gaming crash").
The problem is partly the same one that afflicts the movie industry: it's (relatively) easy for a solitary writer to bang out some innovative material over the course of a year, but you have to multiply that investment by 50 or 100, in the case of the big videogame teams, or by 500 or 1,000 for a big movie. Bigger investment means bigger risk. That's a structural thing that's hard to change, apart from the valid approach of stripping down the complexity of a game (making it less graphics-intense, for example).
Are there other reasons why games might not be able to expand to bigger audiences?
Some Basic Limitations
Last month, I mentioned that I suck at space combat games because I can't visualize the three dimensions of space. When I'm watching a movie or reading a book about space combat, I don't have the same problem. Here are some basic reasons why games might be more limited than other types of media, with each of these limitations representing huge breakthrough potential for anyone who can figure out a way around them.
Limitation 1: Games are ergonomically destructive. If you shrug this off, just think about the repetitive part of repetitive strain injury (RSI) for a minute: the damage is cumulative. And why are games so ergonomically challenging? For one, many are addictive, leading to long sessions without breaks. If I'm sitting at my computer at work, I don't have the same temptation to sit there otherwise motionless for several hours. Secondly, games usually abstract reality in some way. That is to say, your physical body is not walking, but rather you are pressing a key to make your virtual character walk. This is probably not going to change until we all have our own holodecks; until then the majority of games are not going to be a balanced, full-body workout.
Limitation 2: Games require some basic level of spatial awareness. There's not really any way around this. We all navigate our daily 3D environment, obviously, but we've been learning to walk and not bump into sharp objects since we were toddlers. Playing a 3D game abstracts this bodily awareness, and not everyone is wired that way. Consider the famous example of people getting nauseated while playing first-person shooters. It's the disconnect between the movement as perceived by the eye and the movement as not registered by the inner ear.
Even the three games I've listed below require the capability to mentally map out a gamespace, despite their unpressured gameplay and no-trigger-finger-required style. Sometimes this also rules out younger players, depending on the complexity of the gameplay.
Limitation 3: Some hand-eye coordination is required (or in the case of a game like Dance Dance Revolution, foot-eye coordination). Again, there's very little wiggle room, at least currently. The games I mention on the short list below are ones that can be paused and pondered, but you will still have to coordinate for a certain amount of computery tasks. Movies are on the opposite end of the spectrum—if you can keep your eyes open, you can watch a movie—while books require literacy training but not much in the way of physical skills.
Limitation 4: On a different note, current gaming culture puts people off. This is a nebulous catch-all, and it includes the bogeyman of the much-derided 12-14 year-old boy. For example, is everyone who plays online a homophobic, sexist, foul-mouthed teenager? No, but that's the stereotype, and one that's unfortunately often reinforced by reality (see OMG Girlz Don't Exist on teh Intarweb!!!!1).
Once again, I have to point out the excellent and intelligent resources on The Escapist, which has become an indispensable part of the field in a short few months. Their cover article on Girl Power is pertinent to the discussion at hand; why ignore half your potential audience? I would also like to mention Otaku, which has some interesting discussion about Asian culture and computer gaming (the section on games that never made it to North America includes something described in a too-kindly manner as a proctology simulator). Weird games aside, it's neat to see that videogames don't need to be ghettoized or infantilized.
Some New and Non-Twitchy Games
On that note, here is an admittedly short list, and one that has its own problems, as I will discuss. But these are all new games, available now which means that they will run on current computers.
1. Myst V
The Myst series is a good place to start, and it immediately brings up the issue of sequelitis. This game, and the next two on my list, are all sequels to earlier hits. Are there any original games coming out now?
Frankly, no. If you want a glossy game like Myst V that takes up a whole DVD, you could become independently rich and then risk your own money, or else bow to the risk-aversion strategies of a publisher with deep pockets. Also, the Myst series has always been hardcore puzzle gameplay, and that's not as popular anymore (for various reasons not necessarily related to the quality of any particular game). The Myst name makes it more likely for a game with puzzles in it to get made.
Allow me to put my reaction plainly: this is crazy! Someone 15 years ago took a risk on the original Myst game and created an entire genre, as well as popularizing the then-new CD-ROM format. Sure it's easy to coast after that point, and that's partly the point of a franchise. But why be satisfied with the size of the audience as it stands now? Innovating into a new space is just as hard as (or harder than) competing in the old space of course, but the payoffs are huge, as the original creators of Myst found out.
Is Myst V a widely appealing game? Over the history of the series, the Myst gameplay has never been twitch-based. If anything, the tasks in the games have been too cerebral, too deep. The story is an intriguing one about a family that can create new worlds by writing books (a somewhat simplified version) and what happens when familial strife enters the picture. Unfortunately, the story is not everything, and it's the stymied-by-puzzles feeling that I take away from each game. I don't want to make the assumption that a new audience for games would be scared by complexity—someone is buying all these Myst games after all—so maybe it's just that the franchise doesn't feel fresh anymore. It happens.
2. The Sims 2
The Sims franchise, taken together in all its umpteen variations, is the best-selling computer game of all time. The game is a life simulator, as you control virtual characters and try to supply their wants. Will Wright, creator of the SimCity games, had a tough time getting the game made (and these same problems seem to have killed the potential of The Sims Online). Kudos to Wright as well for his upcoming project called Spore; if it lives up to any of its hype, it will be quite amazing. Evolve from a single-celled organism all the way to a spacefaring civilization? Nobody has done that game before.
Back to The Sims. When the first game came out, I read a lot of angry criticism from hardcore gamers along the lines of: this game is a waste of time, why don't all these people go out and run their real lives rather than micromanaging virtual characters!
To me, that is a reason to play the game rather than avoid it. I often find that with games. If something is claimed to be low-brow or a waste of time, then it's probably going to be fun. Also, in the case of The Sims, we have a stark illustration of control, and the appeal of control in a game. I can make the sims make life decisions that I wouldn't do in real life, either good or bad. And the gameplay parallels real life directly; The Sims differentiates itself by not taking the escapist approach, which pervades most other games.
This control of an ordinary life has turned out to be hugely appealing, to a wide variety of audiences. It doesn't seem to matter if the interface is clunky, or if there are way too many add-on packages that empty your real-world bank account. Mark The Sims down as one of the few genuine successes in the industry in the last few years.
3. Civilization 4
Another huge waster of time! And another sequel. I don't have as much to say about the Civilization series, except that it has as long a pedigree as Myst and the latest entry in the series is a very polished upgrade.
Each Civilization game has been turn-based, which means that players can play at whatever pace suits their abilities. As befits the name, the games let you build up an entire culture from scratch, up to the point of spaceflight or world conquest (the latest game has a few other victory conditions as well).
4. Other games
I have not had the time to look at these myself but here are a few other games that might belong on this list. Out of Boneville is a faithful adaptation of the first volume of the excellent comic by Jeff Smith. Apparently Telltale Games, the company that made the game, is planning to go all the way through Smith's epic fantasy, which would make it a unique project. Lionhead's movie industry simulator, simply called The Movies, is another unusual project that looks like it has potential. A game called Fahrenheit or Indigo Prophecy, depending on where you live, has been getting good reviews and looks like an old-school adventure game mixed with action elements. In terms of projects with lower profiles and less funding, it's harder to make recommendations, since that could be an entirely separate column. I'll be keeping my eye on initiatives like Manifesto Games.