[Here is one extra post for 2011. Regular updates are not returning.]
Much has been said about the legitimisation of video games as a medium. From countless debates about whether games are art, to just trying to get an uninterested parent/roommate/significant other to see how the latest thing from E3 is so totally amazing and will change everything forever. But one aspect seems missing in gaming culture – the attention paid to the people who make the games themselves.
With movies we care when we hear about the latest from Steven Spielberg or Christopher Nolan, or with TV shows from Joss Whedon or JJ Abrams. But we don’t care when we just hear Warner Bros. are making a new movie or NBC are making a new show. So why does video game culture focus so much on Sony or Square-Enix instead of the actual people, like the creative leads designing their latest games?
Sure, there’s the occasional figurehead like Shigeru Miyamoto or Peter Molyneux but they tend to gain attention more for PR celebrity than design substance. Not to mention the amount of attention paid to Assassin’s Creed producer Jade Raymond.
Anyway, here’s a convenient list of examples demonstrating why, if you take video games seriously, you should care about the people who actually makes them.
#4. L.A. Noire
“Well done Rockstar!”, “Should Rockstar stop with all the useless collect-a-thons?”, “Has Rockstars track record of great games finally end with LA Noire“: examples of actual topics from an LA Noire forum on a popular gaming message board. Except, hang on, Rockstar Games weren’t responsible for the content at all. The game was made by Team Bondi.
Now admittedly, most of you were probably familiar with this basic difference between game developers like Team Bondi (or Rockstar North: the in house developers that made Grand Theft Auto) – the people that create the games, and game publishers like Rockstar Games – the bigger companies that pay for the games to be made and marketed.
It’s probably even more well known since the accusations of mismanagement at Team Bondi. The studio are actually shutting down likely due to the fallout from this, as companies distanced themselves from them.
Who could have imagined this cockney man would turn out to be evil?
But the game is explicitly not made by the people behind Grand Theft Auto despite what many have implied. You know, from where it says it was written and directed by Brendan McNamara of The Getaway fame.
Not written by, say, Dan Houser who wrote Grand Theft Auto III, Vice City, San Andreas, Grand Theft Auto IV (including the fictional radio content) and was credited as a co-writer on Red Dead Redemption.
Despite all this pedigree and influence from the men behind the series, I’ve seen a room full of game journalists not even recognise the names of Dan or his brother and fellow important Grand Theft Auto producer Sam Houser. That is definitely a bad sign.
#3. Shadows of the Damned
So, the wacky developer responsible for No More Heroes is teaming up with the influential director responsible for Resident Evil, God Hand and Resident Evil 4 to make their second game since Killer7? And the music is by the composer from Silent Hill?
Cue an inevitable lack of marketing and disappointing sales.
You might call the sales…Flaccid. Get it? Because the game is about…Never mind.
Sure, the visuals weren’t the most original – dark castle environments, demons and the Unreal engine? The title sounds comically generic. The unending stream of dick jokes might have put off some. But the combination of Shinji Mikami, Suda 51 and Akira Yamaoka clearly does not have the star power it should.
#2. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare
Regardless of what you think of Activision (the video game publisher most eager to paint themselves as the new evil empire of gaming with their insistence on annual “exploitation” of series and everything else Bobby Kotick says), you have to admit that Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 were a pretty big deal.
They were released to critical acclaim and massive commercial success. Combining explosive action, massive set pieces, near perfect frame rate, addictive online play and a lot of clever improvements between them. All this, despite how much people will argue about certain facets of the competitive multiplayer.
OMG NOOB TUBE! (and other things the internet is sick of hearing about)
Both games were developed by Infinity Ward, who created the original Call of Duty. While Call of Duty: World at War and Call of Duty: Black Ops, games to fill Activision’s annual-isation quota, were developed by Treyarch. Despite using the same engine and basic core gameplay, Treyarch’s takes on the Call of Duty series were met with less acclaim and generally lower review scores.
Unfortunately, the much hyped Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 is not being developed by the same people behind the previous Modern Warfare games. Head honchos at Infinity Ward: Vince Zampella and Jason West got into some trouble with Activision (which neither side has publicly discussed, possibly due to the ensuing and ongoing legal battle) and the pair were essentially fired.
A large number of staff (including all of the design leads) of Infinity Ward have since left too. Many of them have joined Zampella and West with their new company: Respawn Entertainment.
Left: MW2. Right: MW3. (Click for big.) Oh, and the ‘new’ red dot sight is even taken straight from Call of Duty 4.
This does not bode well for Modern Warfare 3 which is currently being developed by the remnants of Infinity Ward as well as Sledgehammer Games and Raven Software. Three developers working on one game sounds a lot like a deadline rush for the holidays.
So it’s not too surprising the footage of the game shows they’re reusing textures, character models, animations and barely tweaking weapon models from the previous game. Whereas the old Infinity Ward overhauled almost everything, including some of the same weapons, in the two years between Modern Warfare and Modern Warfare 2.
It doesn’t get more original than fiction featuring New York City in peril.
Most of the public backlash against Modern Warfare 3 is just from people that are sick of the same old yearly gameplay or whatever multiplayer imbalance bothers them. But very few people, be they fans, detractors or something else, pay attention to the people who built this series into what it is and now have to watch it be milked dry.
It will still almost certainly sell a bajillion copies.
#1. Final Fantasy
A video game developer named Hironobu Sakaguchi basically created Final Fantasy way back in 1987, and it arguably saved Square from bankruptcy. On the subject of the game, he claimed he didn’t have what it takes to make action games, but was better at telling a story.
Sakaguchi went on to spend over a decade writing, directing and/or producing every Final Fantasy in the main series. Also: Chrono Trigger. Then he made the tragic mistake of thinking that Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within was a movie worth making. This risky move caused Square to lose a tremendous amount of money.
The second most important moustache in gaming. (Sorry, Luigi.)
After writing Final Fantasy IX, he got an executive producer credit on a few more big Square games including Final Fantasy X, but eventually left the company.
Soon afterwards, Square merged with Enix and certain writers and artists in the company like Tetsuya Nomura became creative leads on the games. This roughly correlates with the time generic, brooding, metrosexual characters with far too many belts and zippers became less of a trend and more of a constant in Japanese RPGs.
While a lot of the new style gained an audience in the young gamers of Japan, and teenage anime fans in the USA, a lot of older fans were not happy with the latest slew of games from Square-Enix.
He even looks like what’s wrong with JRPGs.
This is also the time Final Fantasy stopped being a series that reinvented itself with every iteration. It started with Final Fantasy X-2 and lead to absurd numbers of re-releases, the use of established characters in the Kingdom Hearts series, revisiting the popular Final Fantasy VII with a number of poorly rated spinoffs, a Final Fantasy fighting game series and most recently a Final Fantasy rhythm game.
Storylines garnered less critical acclaim. The same applied to the battle systems, turn-based or otherwise. As graphics became more advanced, the games lost variance – mini-games and sidequests were replaced by longer dungeons.
The much hyped and very controversial Final Fantasy XIII exemplified a lot of this, with many criticising it for making the JRPG formula even more linear and basic than it already was. There were also concerns raised about an over-abundance of artists in place of design put into the game, with a staff member saying they had enough cut areas to fill another entire game.
Oh, hey, on that note – they’re making a Final Fantasy XIII-2? It seems to have had a much smaller development cycle than the original, doesn’t it?
Well, at least they haven’t just thrown Quick Time Events into the gameplay to…Oh dear.
Let’s not even go into what happened with Final Fantasy XIV.
Fans often blame the merger with Enix. But a corporate merger didn’t necessarily influence the design. It was Square’s old employees that were put in charge and are responsible for the changes in direction and writing, after all.
For comparison’s sake, Cloud Strife of Final Fantasy VII with Sakaguchi was a sarcastic jackass with a heart of gold, prone to psychotic breakdowns, who dressed up like a lady to infiltrate a pimp’s mansion, and had classic lines like “You look like a bear wearing a marshmallow” and “Let’s mosey.” Cloud Strife without Sakaguchi (in the spinoff media) is a brooding anime bishonen who speaks in awkward silences.
The modern Cloud (right) looks, well…I didn’t think I would be using the word ‘flaccid’ a second time in this list.
As for Hironobu Sakaguchi, the former storyteller-in-chief of Final Fantasy in its heyday? He created his own company Mistwalker and often teams up with fellow moustache enthusiast Nobuo Uematsu, the (currently freelance) composer behind the most famous music of the Final Fantasy series.
Mistwalker made a game called Lost Odyssey, which received praise for its story and in which one of the characters was a grizzled, elderly, ship-owning engineer named…”Sed“.
Because that wasn’t obvious enough for everyone, his next game was called The Last Story.
Get it now?