It’s finally happened. We’ve advanced far enough as a gaming culture that we’ve started looking backward. When one thinks of video games today, the first titles to come to mind are the big-name blockbusters that sell in the millions and represent our medium in public discourse. I speak of Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto, Halo, and their ilk. There are exceptions, such as the Mario franchise, which persists in popularity more because of pedigree (and of course quality) than due to it resonating in any manner with the zeitgeist of modern gaming in the Western world.
Thinking back, though, to when gaming was in its infancy, we saw a wide variety of experiences, often pioneering entirely new gameplay styles or drawing upon our imaginations just as much as they attempted to directly convey and entertain. These were the days of adventure games and classic computer RPGs, of flight sims and space dogfights.
As gaming grew, though, and technology advanced, so did expectations of quality. They increased to the point where it became prohibitively expensive to create something daring or different, and there’s a period from around when the PlayStation 2 launched to just about now when certain genres were all but dead. What good was it for a company to pay to develop, market, and distribute a game that would barely recoup its costs, if at all?
The first step in changing this: digital distribution. Though tentative at first, Steam has grown into the nexus of online gaming publication. It is joined by a dozen other websites and services, such as GoG.com and Green Man Gaming. Even big-name retailers, such as Amazon and GameStop, have integrated digital game downloads into their websites. With digital distribution, publication no longer relies on a tremendous financial investment in shipping materials and physical media, and the middle-man doesn’t have to give up shelf space to accommodate you.
This has given rise to the booming independent scene, which, along with tools that have made game development easier than ever before, has been bombarded with titles that range from quirky and inane to deeply affecting. It hasn’t just happened on PC, either. Consoles and handhelds now have digital shops that carry both full-fledged and bite-sized experiences, many of them falling farther to either side on the scale of experimental/traditional than mainstream series.
And, of course, we have the occasional genre revival. Gemini Rue, Machinarium, and the episodic Sam & Max adventures were first released online, whether through independent websites, download clients, or subscription services like GameTap. These were the first traditional adventure games in years.
And now we have one, or an evolution of one, as our game of the year. The Walking Dead took Cheat Code Central’s top honors because it works as both a game and an affecting piece of fiction, drawing on classic genre tropes and morphing them with modern technology and storytelling techniques.
The second element of the revival, though, and the one that has given birth to so much more, has been crowd-sourcing. Kickstarter and its ilk allow for developers to gauge interest in a project before they invest what limited resources they already have into it, ensuring that they have a built-in audience from day one. Attach a recognizable name to a compelling concept that people actually want to see happen and the results can be astonishing. The Double Fine Adventure demolished its original funding goal, as did a more recent Broken Sword sequel, Kickstarted by the series’ creator.
It isn’t just adventure games, either. Isometric RPGs are back, both with Brian Fargo’s Wasteland 2 and Obsidian’s Project Eternity. These two games pitched concepts that harkened back to two of the greatest classics of PC RPGs: Fallout and Baldur’s Gate (respectively). Wasteland 2 is already well into development, having just recently hit its first playable build.
Beyond even that, in a note that hits near and dear to my own heart, Chris Roberts of Wing Commander fame is back, bringing with him Star Citizen. This crowd-funded monstrosity plans to offer the sort of ship-to-ship space-combat for which Wing Commander was known, alongside Privateer-esque trading mechanics in a persistent online universe.
All of these are incredible as standalone examples, but the real meat is in the trend. Genres once thought dead and abandoned—no longer feasible due to development, marketing, and distribution costs—have come back as niche products, supported by the individuals who want to play them and the developers who love making them.
This sort of revival by committee wouldn’t have been possible in a pre-broadband world, but we’re now at the point where downloading a game in the gigabytes is commonplace, where the idea of “property” isn’t so focused on what one physically possesses and more on what one has the rights to download. While that last is still contentious, in a state of flux as developers with a traditional mindset attempt to wrap their heads around how the current marketplace model changes the game, those who “get it” seem to be moving forward.
They’re no longer basing their decisions exclusively on what a publisher’s marketing department is telling them will sell, but engaging directly with the fans in a way that enables them to deliver niche experiences that still have broad enough appeal to be profitable. We’ll see how this holds up going forward, but right now the outlook is very, very sunny.
Date: January 22, 2013
*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central.*