Isn’t this where we came in… ?
by Ken Goldstein
Game Daily, January 2004
Happy New Year! Holiday 2003 is now handed off to accounting, winners and would-be winners for the key selling season are now largely known, and one thing becomes certain: the uncertainty of a platform shift looms menacingly ahead. Details will begin to unfold, and together we lean forward to the next frontier… but if history tells the tale, not before one last great harvest.
Thus our beloved game industry is presented with a significant opportunity over the next few years. The entertainment community is taking note that games are a meaningful business opportunity, no longer a niche play. Mainstream press and consumer audiences are taking note as well. Since the turn of the Millennium we have seen a huge up-tick in consumer and business press devoted to games, not to mention dedicated cable TV channels now focusing on our universe. My sense is that once again the challenge for our industry is one of creativity – how will we manage through the dip that so often precedes full acceptance of next generation platform evolution?
My fear is that because we have done such a good job squeezing performance out of our current platforms, we may squander these precious years – a time when we have a ripe audience for the innovation of our field, our art form, and when we could be meaningfully broadening our core audience, surging into the mainstream and building our future.
More specifically, my fear is that because we’ve maxed out technology on current platforms – games are as realistic as they are going to be in the near term and you can’t throw more polygons at a game to leapfrog the competition until new machines arrive – we will wait around for technology to push us forward rather than showcase and advance the field while we have the world’s attention. Current trends seem to support that. More and more games seem to be relying on pure outrageousness to drive hype, and not surprisingly, exploiting those all too familiar lowest common denominators. The wow factor of current platforms is behind us, so why not get headlines the easy way: shock and awe.
I’m taking “My Turn” to challenge us as an industry to resist the pull of this platform shift to lull us into creative laziness. I am in no way puritanical, there is nothing I would not do to defend our First Amendment rights, and I am not saying there aren’t businesses to be built on more exploitative titles. What I am saying is that there are very good businesses, as well as interesting, creative and innovative games based on strong characters and storytelling, to be created if we make this a priority. Examples already exist: Mario, The Sims, Oddworld, Animal Crossing, the Backyard Sports series. But there are not enough. Look at the past holiday release list and you won’t find a great deal of diversity – and for where our overall market stands, you might conclude we left money on the table as a result of a too narrow focus. You see it coming every year at E3, just walk around and you aren’t surprised with tone we set for success.
I know what many of you are thinking. You’re Disney, your brand compels you to pursue E rated, non-violent games. While that is indeed true, I continue to believe our industry as a whole will benefit if we begin to offer a broader array of games to consumers, and a much deeper selection of non-violent games. I’m also not necessarily speaking of E rated or children’s games. The true market leaders of our industry, those who find repeat creative and financial success year after year, fully embrace the notion that it is smart business to make interesting games – even war games – without piling on gratuitous sex or violence.
If there is at last an underlying art and science to what we do that is a partner of commerce, then perhaps there is nobility in not letting our talent be exploited. There is revenue, and plenty of it, to be found beyond the obvious. The market will always decide what titles make it and while I am certain the young adult male audience always will support mature rated games, I wonder who is not playing games, or not playing very often, because the options we have presented are limited. Simply put, we are not going to increase female gamer counts with the current top ten. Roughly speaking, that is one in two human beings we continue to chose not to serve. And yet, I have seen our own Toontown Online take the MMORPG genre into this realm, where boys and girls, gamers and non-gamers, parents and children all play in the same virtual space. If there is a more hard core genre than MMORPG, I await the opportunity to play there as well. Creative challenges are met by inspired individuals because they are driven by a muse, not seduced by easy money. And by the way, in a platform shift, there is no easy money. It will take every brain cycle we have to get our businesses to the other side.
Let’s not ride out the platform shift waiting for technology to push us creatively. Let’s take the higher ground, take some risks, and do something interesting with our collective talents – and while we’re at it, let’s broaden the game market so that when we have more polygons connected through broadband networks, we have many, many more players who are waiting for us to deliver against our artistic potential.