Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Nostalgia Buck: Is Gaming going the way of Hollywood?

Child of Eden has all of the colours, all of the sounds, all of the time.

Last week, not one, not two, but three separate hotly-anticipated sequels to three relatively antiquated titles saw release: the testosterone-laden shooter Duke Nukem Forever (Duke Nukem 3D, 1996), the synaesthesia-influenced Child of Eden (Rez, 2001), and gothic fairytale-retold Alice: Madness Returns (American McGee’s Alice, 2000). All three of these originals share a common trait of having been considered singular at their time of release and yet have made for a combined wait of thirty-six years to finally escape into the market. But was it worth the wait? And is this a sign of a wider, darker trend in games development?

It is interesting that people still incessantly demand these reboots of popular old franchises, and yet never fail to behave surprised or put-out when these reboots fail to meet expectations. Nostalgia is a notoriously fickle emotion. What surprises me most about the whole situation is that this same attitude – rebooting popular old franchises for a new market – is almost universally despised from Hollywood. I am still waiting to hear anyone enthuse over the announcement of the new RoboCop or Total Recall movies.

An Industry Based on Sequels

In the film industry, this behaviour of rebooting is seen as the milking of a cash cow; of seeking a cheap method to reel in old fans who, often with nothing more than their morbid curiosity, come to see just how badly their beloved gem has been ruined, alongside a new demographic who aren’t familiar with the original, and who arguably aren’t as emotionally invested in it as that first group. In any case, it is not perceived as a popular method of film-making, so why are people so keen to see it in the games industry? Why do we complain that we’re moving onto Call of Duty 8, Tomb Raider 10, or Ghost Recon 11 (see here), and then rather than demand an evolution in game development, with new intellectual property, we seem to call out for a spin of the wheel: ‘Release a sequel to this other game I liked – It’s older and far less reliable an investment!’ It really doesn’t seem to make a heck of a lot of sense when you read it like that.

When we look at this situation, it’s important to realise why developers have such a hard time choosing which projects to pursue, and it’s why publishers like EA will often fund multiple projects, only ever intending to release one or two of them. This is easy when, like EA, you have plenty of liquid capital to hedge those bets, but when you’re in a less financially-fluent position, such as that of Sega, deciding on which projects to fund is obviously a much more serious undertaking. Such is the case with a game like Shenmue.

Mike Hayes of Sega is cautious about
rebooting just any franchise
Patrick Klepek, newly of Giant Bomb, recently penned ‘The $50 Million Dollar Shenmue Question', pertaining to Sega’s ongoing struggle to innovate whilst keeping fans happy. Sega has definitely had a rough ride with recycled releases, particularly their never-ending chain of lacklustre Sonic titles, each one failing to latch onto what made Sonic great in years since passed. It’s interesting to me that Nintendo seem to rarely put a foot wrong in their cycle of Mario games, yet Sega just can’t grasp it consistently. Their European and American divisions head, Mike Hayes, has this to say on the topic of re-releasing old favourites:

“The good news is Sega does have a lot of IP. It may well be that we unlock some of those that we haven’t actually seen for a long time, and bring them back on the new platforms that we have."

Hayes speaks of the difficulties in funding big-budget reboots that run the risk of failing to recoup their losses. Sega are a company that could easily run the risk of becoming the next Atari, or Infogrames, and it would be a shame to lose a flagship developer over a disappointing AAA title-attempt.

Of course, as with all things, there is extremism on both sides. 3D Realms, the original developers of the aforementioned Duke Nukem Forever, had their failings to bring the title to release chronicled in December 2009, in a great piece by Clive Thompson from Wired. Even at that stage, it was still unclear as to whether or not the game would ever see the light of day. DNF had suffered from having too much money thrown at it, preventing company heads George Broussard and Scott Miller from ever being able to cap an end-point to the project:

Broussard and Miller had spent some $20 million of their own cash on Duke Nukem Forever — and their current development team would likely burn through another several million dollars a year. Miller and Broussard were forced to break their cardinal rule: They went to Take-Two with hat in hand, asking for $6 million to help finish the game.

Constant reiteration and efforts to recapture the innovation of the Duke’s first outing was to their detriment in the end, leaving them with nothing but a lawsuit from publisher Take Two for undelivered promises. That is, until Randy Pitchford’s Gearbox Studios swooped in and rushed the game to release in little under a year.

But despite over- and underspending, the stories from Sega and 3D Realms have a significant lesson: releasing sequels comes with no guarantees. You can have all the money in the world, and success is never a dead cert. The trouble is, there will always be a market for the next first-person shooter, but when the market is as over-saturated as it is right now, perhaps it’s high time we started thinking of some new approaches, rather than going in circles. My favourite films are rarely the second or third iterations. It’s always the first that leaves a lasting impression. I say let’s keep it that way.

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