Blockbuster releases are homogenising around a narrow range of experiences and it could be driving creative people out of the industry
Gears of War
Up in arms: the mainstream games industry still relies heavily on weaponry. Photograph: Microsoft
The Guardian Last modified on Thursday 10 September 2015 09.12 EDT
There’s been a lot of chat lately about why people might stop playing games – in particular why little girls who grew up with consoles don’t seem to stick with the hobby as they get older. I’ve experienced this firsthand; girls I knew at school who were gamers before I even got my first console just seemed to stop once the industry switched from the Mega Drive and Super Nintendo to the PlayStation era. It baffled me, especially as games were making the big leap from 2D to 3D at the time – how could you not be excited?
In her recent article, No girl wins: three ways women unlearn their love of video games, Juliet Khan posits the main reasons why girls in particular might quit playing: disqualification of the sorts of games they like (“Gone Home is not a real game!”), marginalisation (It’s less socially acceptable for girls to play games as they grow older), and the way most big games are marketed at young men through violence, competition and sex. Importantly, the article asks girls for their experiences and doesn’t just assume from dry stats what’s really going on.
Most of the time when we discuss why girls don’t play games it often boils down to representation: there still aren’t as many female characters to relate to. For the past few years, this situation has been improving: titles such as Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst, Horizon: Zero Dawn, Dishonored 2 and ReCore all have women front and centre and are all either out now or on the way. Obviously, that’s great – having more female characters in games is a step forward. But to be honest I think we need to ask a different question. The problem of marginalisation in games development isn’t just about women, or people from different religious or ethnic backgrounds, it’s about entire genres. Marginalisation is happening in the very fabric of the design process, and this is just as damaging to the health of the industry and its ability to hold our attention – both as developers and as gamers.
The thing is, I don’t really care if you put a female avatar into Assassins Creed. You can put as many women as you like into Fifa, or make the entire cast of Gears of War tough action chicks – I still won’t play those games. I don’t care about climbing a tower to reveal more of the kill-map, I don’t care about shooting people, I don’t care about winning the World Cup. You can’t put a pink bow on a tank and assume different audiences are going flock to it because you gave them some token aesthetic validation. Adding representational diversity to those kinds of games is important, but how often do we consider diversity of genre; diversity of experience?
Mainstream big-budget video games have been shifting towards a mechanical singularity for years, and it’s really time to ask if that’s something that might be keeping people away too? I’m still waiting for an excuse to upgrade to PlayStation 4 or Xbox One myself, but I’m not excited by the prospect of more detailed chest-hair physics in what are basically the same games we had last gen. And what if I just never get that excuse? I’ll have indie games, sure, and Nintendo will always be there for me, but nowadays, AAA titles are just something other people play. The kinds of games that I enjoy have been pushed out of that space and I’m being pushed out with them.
In 2001, then-major publisher Eidos published the eccentric musical game Mad Maestro in the west. Would that happen now? Photograph: Eidos
This is a contentious issue, and there are always going to be exceptions that run counter to the trend, but it seems a lot of play styles, genres and core mechanics have been polished out of a mainstream industry preoccupied with adolescent power trips and gritty revenge sagas. Consider the fact that atmospheric survival horror stopped being a thing in mainstream development several years ago. The most recent titles in the Resident Evil series dropped the old inventory management system, got rid of the hacking puzzles and upped the ammo count, turning this tense and terrifying series into a sequence of mindless cover shooters. Of course, Resident Evil 4, the game that signalled the change in direction, was hugely successful, but subsequent (inferior) titles thoughtlessly accentuated its action-focused gameplay. This is presumably because somebody pointed to a pie chart and said that young men like to feel powerful and you can’t do that if you only have a torch. The thing is, the recent excitement around Capcom’s decision to release a remastered version of series favourite Resident Evil 2 suggests there’s still a large audience for the original recipe.
Underlying all of this is a central notion that games are best for shooting or killing things – or scoring goals – and all other intricacies are subservient. The excuse that “games are good at binary states – alive or dead – not the complexities of emotion” is often carted out to explain why violence is the focus of the majority of blockbuster titles. But games have always been about more than that. What of exploration? What of puzzles? What of rhythm action and strategic salt-on-the-fries theme park economics?
Narrative games, multidirectional platformers, strategy sims and “casual” puzzle apps aren’t weird outliers, they’re all the bits of games that have been jettisoned in the race toward the perfect shoot-’em-up mono-experience; they’re every idea a dev has had that was considered too much extra effort to fit into a sprawling AAA epic, or was “too girly” to appeal to the target audience; they’re what happens when people want to focus on mechanics that do something other than kill, race or score. Indie games (and to some extent the smartphone sector) are now the spiritual remnants of a time when mainstream titles were still trying to figure out what games were, when they could just as easily be about jumping on platforms or dancing or talking to weird fish men. Now, the console and PC mainstream is increasingly focused on dynamic beard growth, modular weaponry and chucking money at voice actors.
Nintendo’s recent Wii U multiplayer “shooter” Splatoon provides a pretty good example of how thinking outside of the box – mechanically as well aesthetically – can turn a “core” genre on its head and make it speak to people who enjoy a slightly different way of playing games. It’s not just about the bright colours and cute characters, though those help a lot – the slight shift in your priorities and in the game’s mechanical focus from “shoot the men with bullets” to “shoot the walls with paint” makes a huge difference to how you approach the game. For some people, gameplay principles such as learning the map and cleaning the space of enemies are just as enjoyable as getting the perfect headshot and racking up a killstreak. Splatoon puts those elements at the core of the experience.
We all like different things. That’s not about gender, that’s about being human. Narrative and character diversity are both important; representation is a fundamental way of saying “you are welcome, games are for you”. But then so is gameplay variety. The lack of genre diversity doesn’t just affect players, it affects employees within the industry – especially women, who are more likely to have grown up enjoying slightly different games, the ones that now don’t count as games – the one’s outside of the epic shooter-killer wavelength. With fewer and fewer of these titles being made by big studios, eventually the mainstream industry will feel like it’s just not a place for people who aren’t as interested in heavy weaponry.
If your dream job is to work on a game such as Halo, there are multiple studios that have touched that franchise, and many more working on similar sci-fi shooters. You can build your career on blasting aliens, and if the game you’re working on tanks and the studio goes bust, there will be other ways to explore your desire to terminate extraterrestrials. Perhaps you’ll grow tired of saving Earth by your 10th year in the industry, but by that point you may have got enough experience under your belt to set up your own studio, or use the clout of your 90+ Metacritic CV to switch things up and try something new. Heck, maybe you have a couple of kids and it inspires you to take a year off and spend the bonus you got from Halo 12 to make a virtual pet game about alien dogs.
But if your dream is to start out making alien virtual pet games, or dense narrative adventures, or detective dramas, you’ve got considerably fewer options. Even if you’re a fantastic developer, you’re going to struggle to plan out your career, find mentors or get to the point where you can release a title you’re proud of without people telling you its not a real game. You may find a company that makes apps for children or Facebook games, or a tiny independent studio, but you’re probably not going to get the same kind of kudos as someone who worked on a huge AAA tentpole. Then, perhaps the bubble bursts and the tiny independent studio goes under. Eventually, after months or years skipping between similar companies, you hear about an industry veteran who is making an alien virtual pet game for the PlayStation 6 and apply for the job – but then they won’t hire you because you don’t have enough AAA experience and they can’t take on “juniors”.
Sure, the industry is a tough place for everyone – it’s constantly changing. But if you already fit in, you’re going to have more ways to chase your passion through the hazards. I’ve seen women throw in the towel after a couple of years in the industry because they just don’t see a path forward that appeals to them. Others stay but find their creative fulfilment elsewhere. Studios wonder why they don’t get a more diverse range of applicants but the lack of project variety cannot be overlooked as a barrier to entry. If you’re a creative person and don’t feel passionate about the sorts of experiences a medium is producing, it’s tough to find the strength and inspiration to carry on.
The light at the end of the tunnel, of course, is that right now the industry is in a pretty good place for people setting up their own thing. A new generation of successful indie developers is currently moving into the mid-sized AA space that so many more experimental companies occupied throughout the 1990s – and they’re hiring.
These endeavours take a huge amount of dedication and persistence, as well as a range of business and promotional skills (it’s a densely crowded marketplace out there). That’s not for everyone – but if the people strong enough to do it can build a path forwards – or even encourage the mainstream industry to start re-discovering lost genres, mechanics and concepts – it’s not only a worthwhile endeavour, it’s a true hope for the future.
This article was written by a games industry insider with years of experience in a variety of studios. They wish to remain anonymous.