Nowadays game developers don't have to lose too much sleep over a negative review or a community uproar over a tragic glitch, a shoddy ending or an overpowered weapon. To the contrary, the biggest problem facing developers today is the all-seeing all-knowing ever-present sigh of indifference. The internet has a word for it - 'meh.'
Allow me to set the scene if you will. I'm standing in a grassy canyon, tall rocky walls creating a playpen of mayhem beneath a scorching sun and blue skies. A bright purple alien aircraft flies over dropping an enormous green projectile before barrel-rolling out of view. An explosion follows, three of my team mates are scattered throughout the battlefield like rag dolls. The purple beast turns back into view and makes another pass, only to be swatted out of the sky by something slower but certainly more lethal; a tank rolls by, blasting away at the opposing force before itself exploding into a ball of flames, the victim of a bright red laser beam fired from some unknown corner of the landscape. A team mate sprints by, an enormous alien hammer in his hands. He swipes and pulverises one, two, three enemies before a bright blue ball is attached to his face at point blank range. It beeps. It blows. He disappears into a burst of blue electricity.
While all of this is going on, bullets whizz by, friendlies spawn and respawn, rockets fly overhead and impact behind me as I run for cover. A bright purple lance jets across the screen. I hit the deck. Time to respawn.
So what's the problem? Well, it's quite a doozie. I'm bored. REALLY bored. Amidst all of this carnage and mayhem, a rainbow of alien explosions and projectiles, constant noise and war-zone atmosphere sits a gamer, controller in hand, with a blank expression on his face and a complete disconnection from the events on the screen. At the end of the day, it's just another round of matchmaking. You'll probably play ten in one sitting. You'll earn some points. Your space-dude will unlock some new shiny colors and you'll be back playing another ten rounds tomorrow.
Or at least, some will. Me? I've reached the apex of indifference. I've sighed, laid my controller down and uttered the most vile and distressing word facing the industry, and about one of my favorite game franchises of all time no less - 'meh.'
I take the disc out of the trey and retire it to the shelf, where it has remained for almost a month now. Which brings me to the point of this rambling nonsense (you read this far? yikes).
If one of the biggest, most well-budgeted and sought-after franchises in gaming history can no longer hold the attention of never mind the average gamer, but its most ardent fans, what hope is there for the future of gaming as we know it? Much like the complete market saturation of shoot 'em ups and bullet-hell games that ruined gaming in its infancy, it seems gaming as a hobby has once again reached a critical mass. A point whereby every experience seems the same, regardless of the window dressing.
Be it pew-pew-pewing in Halo or brap-brap-brapping in Battlefield, it's all just one never-ending carousel of matchmaking games and experience points, cosmetic unlocks and levelling up. Reach max level? WELL DONE! I guess? Wait a month or so and the next Battlefield or Halo or Call of Duty, Gears of War, essentially *every* game on the market these days will release its next iteration and you'll be right back to repeating the same tiresome sequence all over again.
Call me jaded, you're probably right, but it seems gaming has fallen into a creative ditch and cant quite drag itself out. The emphasis now is on compelling the gamer to keep playing, keep earning XP, keep unlocking garbage, keep being compelled to play rather than playing for the sheer fun of the experience.
It's easy to point out the problem, but what about the solution? Well, it's been mentioned in many blogs over the last year or so but it's worth mentioning again - review scores. We're moving in the right direction. Call of Duty is no longer slapped with a 9.5/10 despite releasing the same game every year. Even Halo is no longer a sure-fire AAA critical hit. But we need to go further. Dull, uninspired films aren't met with excellent critical reception for being well-directed with lovely cinematography and an excellent soundtrack. If the movie sucks, it sucks.
Such a perspective doesn't seem to exist in gaming. Reviews are still a very technical affair. Does the game work? Does it have nice graphics? Does it support online multiplayer? How many maps? How many players? What if the game is just plain bland? What if for all of its technical brilliance and competent craftsmanship, it's just not that new or interesting a concept? These are 7/10 experiences but are too often heralded as the best the industry has to offer.
When review scores reflect creativity and novelty of experience, developers will feel more inclined to focus on making their games creative and novel. So long as we're quite happy to tell developers that they've done a fine job on yet another spin of the compulsion matchmaking carousel, we can't complain when that's all the industry wants to give us.