Re: Gamasutra’s reprint of “The game business has succumbed to High Concept Disease.”


Yesterday Gamasutra posted an article by J.C. Herz that was published back in 1998. In the headline, they are claiming that this is

A 15-year-old critique of the game industry that’s still relevant today

I disagree wholeheartedly.

That is to say, I don’t object to the article itself. It certainly had a good point in 1998. But today things have changed a lot and we have new developments and facettes in the industry that just weren’t there back then. You could argue that it’s still “relevant”, as Gamasutra put it, but only for people with a very narrow view on today’s gaming industry.

Frankly, I’m quite annoyed by this whole “the games industry doesn’t produce anything new and we don’t have great gameplay and everything is just fancy graphics” attitude. Because it simply isn’t true. The argument backing my opinion are the games I played during the last 2 years:

  • Bastion
  • SpaceChem
  • Braid
  • Trine 1+2
  • Puzzle Agent 1+2
  • Magicka
  • Scribblenauts
  • S.P.A.Z.
  • Terraria

Is there really “nothing original in the game play, (…) no independent spirit or innovative design”?

Indie- and small scale games never had better opportunities to self-publish their games and reach a big market. We have Steam (despite it’s issues), GoG, the different Bundles, Indiegogo, Desura etc. on PC alone and of course there’s the AppStore and Google Play for the mobile approach. For God’s sake, even Amazon (US) has introduced a special Indie channel today. YouTube is bursting with Let’s Players and a lot of them take on Indie Games. I want to emphasize this point because a lot of indie productions fit the article’s description of the olden times: You couldn’t afford great graphics and had to focus on great gameplay. It doesn’t matter that previously it was mostly due to technical whereas now it’s more about financial restrictions.

The argument that some games use graphic fidelity to conceal game play weaknessess can, of course, still be made. Especially AAA titles of major publishers are often criticised as being flat sequels with no changes except having more of those shiny graphics. To be fair, those productions cost a lot of money and the publishers are trying to minimize risks by not putting in innovative (i.e. uncertain) features. But this argument is coming from an outdated point of view. As opposed to the nostalgic games that the article mentions, we now actually make the distinction between graphical fidelity and art style. Trine is a 2D Sidescroller, but it is considered one of the most beautiful games of all times. 8bit or 16bit retro styles are celebrated, Klei creates very unique artstyles in every game (e.g. Shank or Don’t Starve), Borderlands used a very cell shaded look to set itself apart from the rest. This has become a lot more important than simply talking about graphics. Even Bioshock Infinite as a AAA game is not cherished for its technical achievements but for the great, colourful scenery.

Furthermore and contrary to the games of the 80s and 90s, we now actually have storydriven games. The Walking Dead? To the Moon? Bioshock Infinite? Those games really spoke to me on an emotional level. Even though Baldur’s Gate 2 is my favourite game of all times, it’s not because of the emotional story it told. I can’t remember games like that from back in the 1980s or 1990s.

Nostalgia is not bad per se. There certainly is great value in looking at the game play of older titles. But when it starts clouding your view to the point where you don’t see the achievements of the current games industry, it hits the point of “too much” (which is the fundamental definition of unhealthy). On the contrary, looking at some Kickstarter projects, one could even argue that a lot of those projects make more of the old stuff instead of actually innovating, which is exactly the opposite of what that article claims.

I personally find the whole pointing towards the olden days quite annoying, especially because it is done for the wrong reasons. When referring to how games were made ten to twenty years ago, people talk about graphics and better game play, which simply is not true. Actually I’d rather ask why noone points towards “back then” when it comes to things like always-online DRM solutions or actually owning the game you purchased instead of buying licenses.

The gaming scene today is more varied than ever before with strong indie developers and good distribution platforms and I wish people would stop looking backwards. At least don’t do it with those huge nostalgia goggles. It will only lead to you not seeing what’s actually going on today.