Tuesday, May 15, 2012

What's Wrong With Today's Games?


Has the golden age of video games come and gone? Are we really lusting for the past where games were just about fun?

Zach Starr thinks so. His article focuses on how today’s games are not like the games we have come to expect. While I agree with him about not needing a Call of Duty or Madden every year (I’d like to play something different for once!), I’ll have to side with Steven Johnson, author of Everything Bad is Good for You, on this one. Johnson’s basic argument is that today’s popular cultures, including video games, are making us smarter. Though we as a gaming community see repetitive products, Johnson sees progress.

All of that button mashing that we need to do for Call of Duty just to throw a grenade, and running in circles in a seemingly endless manner to “farm” experience has a purpose. That aspect of luring the gamer in is creating a much greater immersive quality then the games released 10 years ago. It’s why a few people would consider earlier games archaic, not in terms of graphics but design and cognitive ability needed to achieve a goal.

Take Super Mario Bros (the original NES game) versus Super Mario Galaxy. I’m going within the genre and series to prove the point, so bare with me.

In SMB, your path of logic is something like this:

Your goal is to save the princess. To save the princess you walk right across the screen. To walk right you push the right arrow on the controller. Sometimes you have to jump to kill an enemy.

It’s very basic in terms of what’s expected for the player. This isn’t a limit on technology but in game design. Look at Crono Trigger or Legend of Zelda. You need to keep track of dozens of quests just to get from Point A to Point B. With SMB your only goal is to get to the end of the stage without losing all of your lives. You don’t even have to kill any enemies or collect coins if you choose to do so. Now let’s show how SMG works:

To save the galaxy you need to collect stars. To collect stars you need to learn how to fly. To learn how to fly you have to use your controller to move up, down, left, right, a, b, x, y, z in a myriad of sequences. To get to the stars you have to travel through stages multiple times. To get to the first star, you need to find so-and-so and bring him a brush. To locate the brush you have to go to the green planet.

By comparison, there is a lot of crap you have to remember just to get to the first star in SMG and keep track of in subsequent plays because you can’t access some stars until you have obtained new abilities. So inevitably you’ll have to run back through those earlier stages just to get that one star you missed, because now you have the water power, and the extra jump, and the brush, and the map, and the hat to get that star.

Want a Call of Duty example? Ok. Seeing how I bash on them enough, I can show how it works for their franchise too.

Call of Duty has always been a series about complex tactical maneuvers. Even in the earliest iteration you had to know which buttons to mash for which weapon to finish your objectives. Take the first game, you have to calibrate your movements based on the recoil of the gun, your position, and the trajectory of the bullets. In Modern Warefare, you now have the quest and online element. There are extra tasks that are involved outside of your primary mission to accumulate more points. Not only are the guns a little more tasking to master, you have more of them. And the introduction of going online means you now have to think much faster. You can’t take your time to pause and review the scenario, you need to be on your feet and ready to move in an instant. Now not only do you have to think about your mission and mastering your weapons, you have to think about everyone else too.

As much crap I give Call of Duty for using the same formula over and over again, they have expanded upon the immersive and detailed nature of the game play.

And for a lot of us, the complexity of playing these newer games is fun. Its self-inflicted pain, but we enjoy it. I like spending 100 hours in an RPG just to get to level 100. It’s crazy, I know, but I find fun in it. For Starr to say that today’s games have lost the “fun” aspect is a bit far-fetched. Fun is what you make of it. One person can have fun solving complex math equations while another would see fun as researching the current supreme court justices.

Is there a lack of creativity and originality in today’s games? Absolutely. But to say they are no longer fun and we need to return to the old days is undercutting the value of current games. Starr’s article should focus more on the need for new ideas to be introduced into the industry. Cognitive development and fun are not a problem.

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