Nov 20, 2010

Clone Culture, or, How I Learned to Hate Mainstream Gaming

So recently Activision released the newest entry into their behemoth of a franchise with Call of Duty: Black Ops. Here's a statement by Bobby Kotick, Activision CEO and resident asshat, as reported on Ausgamers:

"Call of Duty has become the first entertainment property in history to set five-day launch records for two consecutive years across all forms of entertainment,” said Robert Kotick, CEO, Activision Blizzard. “The title’s success illustrates the mass appeal of interactive entertainment as millions of consumers are choosing to play Call of Duty: Black Ops at unprecedented levels rather than engage in other forms of media. The number of people playing online and the number of hours they are playing demonstrates how online gaming has become a mainstream form of entertainment and certainly validates Activision Blizzard’s leadership role in online entertainment.”

Gloating about the success of one of his franchises aside, he makes a fair point. Gaming is more and more big business, and is rapidly becoming a very mainstream form of entertainment. One would be inclined to imagine that this would be only a good thing – that it would bring more money to the industry and expand the gaming community, resulting in bigger and better games. I don't think this is actually what we're seeing, though.

 In short, the problem is that all the biggest and most popular franchises are derivative crap that focus on releasing a retexture of the last game as quickly as possible, and that more interesting titles that dare to try something new are, largely, strangled by a lack of exposure, and therefore a lack of players. This is a problem that's becoming more and more severe recently, and the Call of Duty franchise (or, more specifically, the last four games in it), as undoubtedly the most successful gaming franchise of all time, is at the core of it.

It's true that the sequel has been a major part of gaming since the very beginning, but the way sequels are used has been changing significantly over the past few years. In the olden days, developers would usually give games post-release support for a couple of years, often including the release of several expansion packs. These packs would include new content – sometimes as much as half of the content in the original box, or even more – that would expand on the basic game, as the name implies. When a proper sequel came out, it generally represented a big step forwards or a significant change for the series. A great example of this is the Quake franchise. Quake, Quake 2, and Quake 3 are all very different games and play quite differently. They each also feature expansion packs or mission packs, for more minor content additions, as well as pretty significant technological upgrades.

But let's compare Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. They certainly added a fair bit of content – new weapons, new perks, a whole bunch of challenges and such, and a new (admittedly very short) single-player campaign. But it's still built on the same engine as Call of Duty 4. The game-play feels almost identical, because it is. Some of the changes were actually large steps backwards, such as the removal of dedicated servers. It came out only a year after Call of Duty 4, while that game still had a large, very active community, and it had the effect of splintering away some of that community. I'd definitely argue that the end-user would've been much better served by an expansion pack than a whole new game.

Look at the first Call of Duty game. It had two expansion packs, and when they released the second entry, it came with a heavily improved graphics engine, and a game that played a fair bit differently from the first. Call of Duty 2 didn't feature any expansion packs, but when Call of Duty 4 was released (let's ignore the third game in the franchise – it wasn't very good, or very successful, and was made by a separate developer) it was a huge change-up in terms of game-play and technology. It was a very, very different product. The point being that this current way of doing business is relatively new.

Even outside of the Call of Duty franchise, we're seeing a number of games that are essentially clones try to capitalise on its success. Even recent titles in one of Call of Duty's most significant competitors are stealing elements from it instead of trying to establish their own identity. I'm referring here primarily to Battlefield. Bad Company 2 is certainly its own game, and some pretty big differences from Call of Duty, but it plays a lot more like a Call of Duty game than did earlier entries in the franchise. The recent Wii remake of the N64 classic Goldeneye resembles Call of Duty 4 so strongly that when I first saw a multi-player video of it, I actually thought I was watching a mod for that game recorded by somebody on very low graphics settings. That pissed me right off, because the original was both one of the best shooters of all time and nothing at all like Call of Duty 4. If they had kept the same feel as the original, though, they would've actually released something that seems original in the current market.

And what I'm realising more and more is that the mainstream gaming market doesn't give a shit about originality. Games that are near carbon copies of other games (including later games in the same franchise) are lauded as being totally awesome by major critics and by gamers alike. Nobody cares that they're playing the same game again. And again. And again. And the medium as a whole starts to stagnate.

I think Halo has a lot to answer for. So many of the current trends in gaming can be traced back to Halo as both the starting point and the game that made them popular. Regenerating health, the two-weapon carry restriction, same-y sequels, a primarily conslol targeted market. Halo had it all. Other games and franchises featured some of this stuff, but Halo had it all, and Halo was a huge hit. It's also a much better game than most of the recent titles that rely on the same tropes. Because at the time, it was fresh, and new, and I wasn't so sick of it yet. Plus co-op was awesome.

I was hoping we were getting near the end of the deep dark. Modern Warfare 2's player numbers dropped off much, much faster than Call of Duty 4, despite incredible launch performance. I though people were starting to realise it was the same game again. But then I saw the Black Ops sales. I obviously knew it would be a commercial success, but I was hoping it wouldn't sell as many copies as it did. Hoping that people were starting to get tired of it. Not yet, I guess, but I think there's a light at the end of the tunnel.

More people gaming in general – often attracted by these huge titles – means that there's a larger potential market and more exposure for developers who ARE working on something novel, and for indie game developers. I'm hoping that as time goes on, we'll see these kinds of games becoming more and more successful. I think (but don't quote me on this) that a similar thing happened with film near the beginning of its life as a medium (and games are still a very new medium) – a shrinking of the market when big business realised how much money there was to be made, followed by a massive explosion of diverse content once the market was large enough to expand it. I'm hoping that this is the next step for gaming, and something we'll see in the next few years.

Either that or major devs will keep rehashing the same game with JUST ENOUGH difference to convince people to shell out another $60. People are idiots, after all.


  1. Let's not get started on brand loyalty, where fans of two different game series will be at each others throats regardless of how similar the two might be: Medal of Honor and Call of Duty are good examples of this. They both play and feel differently, but are fundamentally similar.

    Going back a bit, the first Call of Duty had only one expansion pack -- United Offensive -- and it was made by a totally different developer. That said, it added Battlefield-style large maps, vehicles, new weapons, and three new campaigns almost the size of the original. For half the price.

    Let me put something to you for a future rant that pisses me off greatly: DLC.

  2. Hrm, I'm not sure why I thought Call of Duty had two expansion packs - possibly because the one that got released included so much content.

    It's interesting how a publisher can backflip from giving a game followed by a huge expansion pack and then a very different sequel to releasing game after game that are almost the same thing.

    Activision used to be cool - they were a publisher that I actually LIKED. Now... Well, let's just say "not so much"

  3. Yes. Activision were previously quite good publishers whereas EA was Satan and Ubisoft on the sidelines. There seems to have been a bit of a backflip with EA taking Activision's previous role, but it might just be a case of the 'lesser of two evils'.

  4. I like to think this relentless sequel pumping is due to growing pains of a relatively young industry. Reality is, its probably going to continue for the foreseeable future if the profit motivations of business remain the same and people fuel them blindly - which I think you can add to death and taxes as a certainty in life. Hell, I admit to purchasing a large portion of the COD series/ DLC map packs since Modern Warfare. It still achieves the greatest return on investment in terms of (mostly enjoyable) hours of play. Refining an incredibly successful formula is hardly a shameful concept in itself, but the inevitable cost to more creative ventures is the true tragedy - in my opinion.

    However, there is still a large portion of the marekt left for greater creativity. This space is currently filled (for the most part by indie developers) - with Braid and more recently Limbo coming to mind as glowing examples. I really hope that there is space for successful bigger budget titles to explore new concepts and methodologies in game development. As the gaming market matures with the industry, I think the possibility will be realised - but it might be a painful journey.