Sunday, April 22, 2012

The King is dead. LONG LIVE THE KING!

There are certain types of game that proliferate all over iOS gaming. Endless runners are everywhere to be seen, City building games are ten-a-penny, and cutesy physics-based puzzlers are in no short supply. It would be fair to say that quantity is the biggest defining characteristic of the App Store.

But, every so often, there comes along a title that offers something different. A developer gets an idea, follows their dream, and releases something that is simply unlike anything else available up until that time. Often, this uniqueness lasts mere days, as word of it spreads and copies inevitably start to flood the charts. And the task of finding the sparks of originality amongst the literal masses is made all the more difficult.

Couple this with the ever-increasing risk-averse nature of publishers. Even on the App Store, where games are frequently priced at throwaway and impulse-purchase levels, there is often a temptation to stick with the tried-and-tested instead of pushing the boundaries. Better to play it safe with another Doodle Jump clone than to go out on a limb. All of these factors generally conspire to convince casual observers that iOS gaming is little more than a diversion, or perhaps an appetiser; separate from the main course of gaming that the consoles provide, more of a bite-sized snack.

The problem with this view is that some of us actually quite like bite-sized portions. Some of us don't have any problem whatsoever with smaller and more frequent episodes of the titles we are playing. Some of us, as it turns out, have woken up to the fact that games are perfectly adequate to give us our needed fun fix even if all we have time for is a 5 minute session.

Some of us have accepted that mobile gaming is, basically, its own platform these days. In fact, it would be fair to say that mobile gaming is two distinct platforms.

Interestingly, this schism is not just one that can be found on iStuff. It also exists on the more traditional platforms. The XBox is a perfect example. Walk into a store to buy a disc-based release, and the chances are high that it will be a shooter, using the Unreal Engine, set in the future. Or perhaps it will be some sports title, or a driving simulator. What is unlikely is that it is something you haven't seen elsewhere. Whereas, should you delve into the downloadable games on Live Arcade or especially the Indie channel, it is entirely possible that you will be amazed.

What seems to have happened is that as publishers have pushed towards an increasingly homogenised release schedule, pumping millions into development which brings with it an inevitable risk-aversion, a kind of underground uprising has taken place. Many are taking advantage of an entire slew of available tools to create the games that they themselves would like to be playing. Witness the proliferation of 2D shmups on the Indie channel. Go and see for yourself how many point-and-click adventures are available on Steam and Desura. Genres that are simply not available on the big consoles any more have found themselves a home. More importantly, they have found themselves a market. One that the big publishers seem to have written off.

Don't get me wrong, here. I love Halo as much as the next man, and am genuinely intrigued to see what 343 are capable of when November comes around. I will probably buy it, but right now I am not overly bothered about the date it comes out on. The same way I wasn't bothered about not getting hold of Street Fighter X Tekken, Mass Effect 3, or FIFA Street. I do believe that the only disc release I have bought so far in 2012 has been SSX, which now that I have played it I think could just as easily have been downloadable. (Certainly, the interesting aspects of it take advantage of online connectivity, and the only real reason to have it on a disc at all is the volume of information it contains. All the stuff that makes it great could have been done entirely digitally.)

The more I think of it, the more I am drawn to the conclusion that what is happening in games today is just like what happened to music in the late 1970's. In that case, a counter movement against what was seen as the over-commercialisation of the art form led to the explosion that was punk rock.

In 2012, we have punk GAMES.

The independent scene, not to mention the sudden validity of crowdsourcing, has seen a new kind of development come to the fore. When a developer as loved and respected as Tim Schafer can't get a major publisher to listen, he turns to the internet and gets nearly ten times the amount he was asking for within hours. Minecraft was in Alpha for months, but Notch was able to finish it because people believed in what was being created and were actually happy to pony up the pennies DURING DEVELOPMENT!

So, excuse me if I don't feel the need to queue at midnight for this year’s Call of Duty game. I am much more likely to be engrossed in something small and overlooked by the mainstream games sites. At time of writing, the re-released DMC HD Collection has 23 reviews on Metacritic, whereas the brand-new and better received Botanicula has a mere 6. In an industry that has previously been focused almost exclusively on new and next, this seems like an oddity. But then, the industry is also focused on so-called AAA titles, and it is clear that the marketing techniques that the big boys use are working for them.

There is hope, though. Trials Evolution, a title available exclusively on XBox Live Arcade, has broken the record for most downloaded game on launch day. Over 100,000 people bought it, and the servers weren't prepared for this influx and they inevitably collapsed. Which means that the game is a success, in a way that many traditional big released have failed to emulate. Which in turn means that many games will copy the model, and forego the whole laborious process of getting discs printed, shipped to stores, and have to compete against the behemoths that are Halo and CoD come November.

See also: Legend of Grimrock, which made profit in just TWO DAYS!

The future, my friends, is bright. The future is downloadable. It is smaller, cheaper, and potentially infinitely more interesting. And it is my biggest hope that in much the same way that punk music reinvigorated the music scene, punk games development can affect the games industry for the better.

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