Phil Hartup on videogames

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AAA games are supposed to be boring and unoriginal

To criticise the AAA game for a lack of originality is to misunderstand the fundamental nature of a video game with a multi-million pound development budget, says Phil Hartup.

A still from Grand Theft Auto V, which aims to give the masses what they want.
A still from Grand Theft Auto V, a game that unashamedly aims to give the masses what they want.

So it came, it saw and it conquered; GTA V, the Big Kahuna, the King of the Wasteland, the two hundred million dollar paragon of mass market media done right. Mark it well, because this, ladies and gentlemen is what exactly what every AAA video game is trying to be.

Forget those who question why the characters are men, forget those who wanted a significant divergence from the established game style, forget the questions about tone, violence and torture scenes, forget GTA V even, this is bigger than that. We are talking about giving the masses what they want, not what they think they want, and doing it right when huge sums of money are involved.

There is a criticism that is often aimed at AAA games, the big tent titles, your Call of Duty, HALO, or Gears Of War type games. This criticism is that they are all alike, that they are repeating the same tired tropes and the same staggeringly unoriginal methods of game play. You can bounce from one AAA action game to the next these days and be reasonably certain you’ll end up inhabiting the character of a white man with a military background fighting his way through a series of action packed corridors, equipped with regenerating health and a vicious array of weapons. Your principle mode of interaction will be shooting people multiple times in the face and most of the interesting things will take place in scripted events or cut-scenes. There are exceptions, but the norm is frighteningly common.

But here is the thing, to criticise the AAA game for a lack of originality is to misunderstand the fundamental nature of a video game with a multi-million pound development budget. When you’re spending that sort of money on developing a game it ceases to be a work of art, it becomes instead a product, designed to appeal to and satisfy as many people as it possibly can.

When you play any AAA developed video game you are not experiencing the creative expression of a single person, or even some big collective artistic endeavour, instead you are seeing thousands of different components designed by dozens, even hundreds, of different people that have been meticulously assembled by other people into a finished creation. A game in many ways is more like a car than a traditional piece of media, because not only does it have to look right and sound right, it has to actually function, it has to function well, it has to be fun to use, it has to make you happy when you press the buttons.

But why are so many games not original? Considering that originality is something that gamers, reviewers and critics will generally profess to love about a game it would seem logical that games developers would seek out original ideas, right? Well, no. Games developers aim for the known quantity for the same reason that car companies keep making four door saloons. They know that when push comes to shove most people will stay in their comfort zone with a buying decision, they’ll prefer the promise of limited satisfaction where they know what they are getting to the risk of disappointment with something new and so they’ll play safe. It’s easy to forget too that the games market is riddled with some absolute shockers. Gamers are wary of the unknown with good reason.

The stock formula of the console action game - follow the corridors, kill all the people, guide your hero to his goal, that is the saloon car of gaming. That is your four door family car, the one that sells best because it fulfils the needs of the most buyers. Gamers don’t always want to be challenged, they don’t always want to have to adopt a new set of skills, sometimes they just want to sit and play a game without it slapping them around or forcing them to learn things. This applies even if a player doesn’t care for the action genre, some players feel compelled to catch every new Pokémon game while others flock to Angry Birds. That’s not to say radical, unusual or difficult games won’t necessarily sell well, but they won’t sell as well as a known quantity. This is one reason why so much of the MMO and MOBA market is now free to play, to overcome the psychological barrier of the buy-in and get people to try the game out.

Another big reason why AAA games tend to be conservative in terms of design is one of development costs and the risks they bring. If you are sinking tens of millions into a development and you’re not as certain as you can be that your game is going to make that money back, you’re doomed. Chancing to luck rather than pursuing the best possible sales figures with the sort of budgets that AAA games demand is playing an unending game of Russian roulette with your company. Maybe you dodge the bullet one, twice, or even more, but sooner or later you’re going to release something that tanks and if that happens too often that’s you done.

So if you’re the sort of company that has hundreds of employees, offices in different locations, livelihoods and careers riding on every major project you make, are you really going to make that idiosyncratic 3d platformer about an inflatable crocodile that saves Portsmouth, or are you going to make Man With Gun 3: Shootface safe in the knowledge that will keep the company rolling for another couple of years?

We can complain about it, about how AAA games are boring, how they are all the same, how nobody ever takes any risks, but that’s sound business. Would we have better games to play if the companies took risk after risk, imploding and reforming over and over again? No, not really, because it would not be possible to get the budgets and time invested in titles like Skyrim or GTA V.

This sounds pretty grim for fans of originality and new ideas, and it would be if not for the fact that there is a relatively accessible independent and sub-AAA publishing scene in gaming that provides plenty of game series that are not necessarily going to be the biggest thing ever, but which can grow if properly supported. The Witcher for example was a decent game and it made good money on a fairly modest budget, and that money it made manifested itself in The Witcher 2, which was such a step up in terms of production values and game design that it could almost make up for the fact that the first game thought it was appropriate to give you a little card every time you successfully got Geralt laid. In keeping with this progression The Witcher 3 is looking, well, damn.

The iterative nature of video game improvement is another of their qualities that defines them more as a work of craftsmanship and engineering rather than art. If I sat down to rewrite King Lear using modern technology there’s a pretty good chance it wouldn’t be as good. Why? Because the written word now is as good as it was all those centuries ago. Same applies to film, if I tried to remake Cool Hand Luke I would fail, because Paul Newman could never be bettered.

A video game however can always been improved upon as technology improves, not just in hardware but in game design itself. Take the classic Vampire The Masquerade: Bloodlines for example, it had one of the best stories ever found in a game and the game itself was so good that it bears replaying multiple times, to the extent that fans of the game reading this sentence are thinking of replaying it right now. But could VtM: Bloodlines benefit from a remake? Absolutely. Graphics and animations can be improved, interfaces smoothed out, bugs squashed and controls refined, mechanical and cosmetic upgrades that need not impact the core qualities upon which the game is based but which can improve the experience nonetheless.

A sequel or remake will not always be an improvement, the developers of Dragon Age 2 for instance thought that the best way to improve Dragon Age: Origins was to give the systems and storytelling a lobotomy so severe it bordered on decapitation. Devil May Cry also suffered a hellacious remake when the developers decided to abandon the roots of original games. However in spite of this sort of mistake there is always a reason to try again. Fans of games always want to see their beloved classics updated because it doesn’t matter if you know the story, you want more of the game and its world. Kickstarter is riddled with teams trying to remake old games, with fans of those old games usually the first on the list to contribute. Syndicate, Total Annihilation, and Elite have all seen projects backed by fans to update them.

Contrast this eagerness to the sounds of retching and crying that accompany any announcement of Hollywood plans to reboot yet another beloved 80s movie.

It is through iterative improvements and gradual market growth that small games become series, then franchises and ultimately flashy yet functional AAA titles. So don’t bemoan the lack of originality in AAA gaming, because AAA isn’t about originality, that’s what indie games and the small developers are for. AAA gaming is about getting you another shot of your usual, hopefully a little better than last time.