Before I went to film school, I watched the Academy Awards. I believed they were a sincere arbiter of what the “best” movies were in a given year. I did not understand how those decisions were made, but trusted that the people making them had expertise which I lacked, and so I did not question their decisions. I learned in school that a small minority of the members of the Academy were people who actually knew anything about the art of filmmaking, i.e. directors, actors, cinematographers, or screenwriters. The rest of them were producers, agents, distributors, and other “suits” who really only knew about one thing: money.
Hollywood has patted itself on the back with award shows like the Oscars for decades, and no one wanted to see that the emperor had no clothes. Whatever clothes he’s wearing now are being seen on Blu Rays or DVDs sent through the mail instead of through film projected onto movie theater screens, and fewer consumers are willing to purchase those Blu Rays or DVDs every year. There’s a reason why ticket prices are skyrocketing, and why we’re being flooded with a series of remakes. Hollywood is creatively drained. They’ve beaten the tropes to death. The audience has figured out that there’s nothing under the hood, and aren’t willing to pay what Hollywood is asking.
I’m finding distressing similarities in the seeming mentality between those who hand out the Oscars, and those who handed out the E3 Game Critics Awards; considering the similarities between the two industries, the present state of film may say a lot about the future of video games.
iD Software’s Rage won two major E3 Game Critics Awards. The story behind this game is that an asteroid is going to hit the Earth. Eden Pods are hidden under the surface of the planet, each containing 12 people. When the dust settles from the impact, these Eden project survivors will emerge from their pods and rebuild civilization. When a lone survivor emerges from his pod, he discovers a world that looks like something out of Mad Max: grungy gang members, former humans turned into mutants by the effects of the asteroid impact, and a strange, central “Authority” which is still in possession of advanced technology.
When I emerge from the Vault – apologies, my Eden pod – I expect to find a world that bears too many similarities to Fallout 3 to ignore. The scent of Borderlands was all over the Rage demonstration I saw at E3, with suspiciously familiar vehicle driving, loading screens, and Western-style, guitar-plunking music.
It cannot be denied that the iD Tech 5 engine is gorgeous, but gorgeous graphics cannot balance out un-inventive gameplay. Nothing I saw in the Rage demo showed me anything other than the same old iD shooter formula, brought up to date with modern conventions like ducking behind cover to regenerate health rather than finding health packs.
We will be given engineering schematics that allow us to build interesting devices like lock-cutters, sentry bots, and defibs that bring us back from death…but does any of that sound new to you? Rage will have an economy and loot to be sold, but it’s all just like Borderlands, Fallout 3, and how many other RPG’s that came before them?
I prefer my game reviews to tell me how a game feels, not what a game is. I can’t tell you how Rage feels because I didn’t get to play it, but I can tell you how it felt to watch the game presentation at E3: “Cool tech, boring story, recycled design mechanics.” We have to take it on faith in the judges who actually were allowed to play the game that Rage deserves the critical acclaim, but we also know that all of those judges are insiders with necessary, understandable, ulterior motives in just about everything they do as members of the enthusiast press.
If Rage is about the graphics, they were gorgeous, but they’re only graphics. They mean nothing compared to story and gameplay. We can cross story off the list of award justifications, and if the nominations for Rage are about the gameplay, no one but the judges knows anything about it, and they’re not talking specifics about innovation and change. They’re not talking much at all, really.
The other big show winner this year was the 3Ds. No one can deny that their acclaim was warranted and deserved, because once again Nintendo innovated. That’s the sort of thing the gaming media ought to be lauding, because E3 is supposed to be about the future of gaming. Rage doesn’t seem to represent the future, but rather a derivative refinement of the past.
I can’t help but wonder whether the legacy of John Carmack and iD Software is what’s speaking here, whether the father of the first person shooter is receiving an industry nod to back up the company’s first new IP in a decade out of respect. It wouldn’t be much of a surprise considering that back in 1997 Academy members surely voted for Titanic due to their connections to the two studios that produced and distributed it, and out of respect for the tremendous financial accomplishment of the film.
The video game industry evolves much quicker than the film industry. 64% of gamers prefer physical copies of games to digital copies, but physical pressing and distribution of discs, game cases, and manuals costs money. We’re already seeing companies move towards digital manuals rather than physical ones. With services like OnLive and GameFly in play, and the cost of AAA title production increasing every year, if the audience some day catches on to how those AAA titles aren’t innovating, will they stop coughing up $60 to own them if they can pay less to rent those titles, or purchase digital copies?
Michael Pachter is currently preaching “permanent decline,” but I worked in the stock market in-between college degrees, and I know how analysts’ assessments can radically change from month to month. Market research firm DFC, on the other hand, is predicting massive growth in the industry by 2013. I personally feel that the sorts of problems plaguing the film industry might not hit video gaming for another decade or so. Still, one thing the analysts all seem to agree upon is that online business models, not physical consoles and media, are the way of the future, and in this we see yet another similarity between video games and film: the original method of distribution is in jeopardy.
A new study by the Electronic Entertainment Design and Research and the Southern Methodist University illustrates that gamers are swayed by review scores. File this under “No shit, Sherlock,” but it goes to show that the opinion of the video game press does matter. There’s no reason why the gaming press couldn’t work together to set new standards and begin holding developers to a more strict method of appraisal, and lay the onus on publishers to increase the value of their products if they want to earn good Metacritic ratings. Those ratings are going up according to their mid-year report, but do we really believe that means we’re getting better games? Metacritic also reports that sales are going down. This is not the relationship one would expect if game quality was on the rise.
If the Academy was populated solely with critics who held no allegiance to any studio and were allowed to do their jobs, and actually held Hollywood to a high standard, the film industry wouldn’t be in its current state of affairs. If cinematography that took advantage of the big screen the way movies should was the established standard of excellence, for example, people would actually go to the movies more. High standards would result in fewer films being greenlit, but consumers would have a greater desire to actually own copies of those films. Instead, movies mostly suck, and people don’t go to the theater, they rent on Netflix, and the film industry makes less money every year.
The video game industry should take a cold, hard look at the fate of Hollywood and decide whether they still want to be growing as a business in another ten years, or whether the status quo and a decline is really good enough for them. In the meantime, perhaps I should give up any pretensions of becoming a serious journalist who takes a critical look at video games for a living and instead apply for a job at Enterainment Weekly.
I would like to propose some rules changes for the Game Critics Awards:
1) There will be no award considerations prior to a game being shown at E3.
2) No game which is not playable by the general attendees on the show floor may be considered for an award nomination.
3) No game demo given privately to judges may be different in any way from the demos presented on the show floor.
Would it really have been so difficult for Bethesda to set up some playable demo stations at their E3 booth and allow all the journalists in attendance to try the game, so we could at least understand how the judges voted for it, and have some independent analysis?
Perhaps with these rules in place I could understand how the hell Rage was one of the darlings of E3, because right now I simply don’t get it. There’s no one around to hold the critics to account for their decisions except each other, and they’re all effectively on the inside, not on the outside along with the rest of us gamers.
Their potential lack of perspective and need to bend to the dictums of their profession, rather than serving the interests of the hobby they ostensibly love so much, could have negative ramifications for us all. It happened in Hollywood, and it could happen in video games just as easily…but much more quickly.