Monday, October 02, 2006

Another bit (and yes, there is still more to come):

Is a "wait and see" approach the solution?

It may be easy to assume that it is only a matter of time before the game industry branches out and caters for niches within a mass gaming market; that the maturation of the medium will lead to a maturation of content. But anyone with a passing knowledge of the game industry knows that the market, left to its own devices, has not and is not creating the conditions for this to happen. In fact, the reverse is true. The concentration, centralisation and homogenisation of game development have been increasing year by year, for more than twenty years. This is no mystery, given the objective factors - economic, technological - that have shaped the evolution of video games. Part of the explanation is that as technology evolves, games are becoming more difficult and expensive to make, risk increases(even for making mass market titles) and the rate of profit falls. Many games that only a few years ago that made a profit would simply not break even anymore with the same level of sales.

It really is that bad, and this seemingly cynical analysis is one shared widely within the game industry, from Nintendo heavyweights ("Innovation is dying" (Morris, 2005)) and Sony executives (“technology is curtailing creativity rather than assisting it” (Koster)) to indie games activist Greg Costikyan (“Of course, things have only gotten worse” (Costikyan) )and any gamer who's played games for more than five years and posts on internet forums.

Yet ironically, these same technological advances also mean that the means to achieving an increasing diversity of forms of expression, where gameplay and thought-provoking content may be the aim rather than revved up production values, is becoming theoretically more viable . The corporate game industry is in no state to allow these games to be made, however. Financers are now (understandably) so risk averse and the distribution channels so narrow (Wal-Mart or bust) that cheaper, creatively innovative games have little chance of getting made, marketed or distributed through conventional channels.

There are movements of game developers within the game industry, including in Australia, fighting to create an environment for smaller, innovative projects to flourish independently of the creatively stifling power of the centralised and conservative corporate industry. But these voices lack any kind of institutional backing. Having to see state game funding being allocated on the basis of greed (propping up the local commercial industry to produce more of the same trash culture for export) rather than need (supporting creation of culture for the good of the community and offering game developers the opportunity to extend themselves creatively) only adds insult to injury.

This homogenising tendency in games is not just a problem for Australia. Even the British, with their longstanding tradition of producing top selling, uniquely British games, have noted that to even slip a British accent into a game is now considered risky in the international (read “American”) market (Clapham, 2006). Outsiders are often surprised to learn that the distinctly American “Grand Theft Auto” series was originated by a studio in Scotland. A similar problem has struck the once proud, now crippled, French game industry. Aspects of their game development tradition, even their visual style, are sometimes considered too quirkily “French”, and therefore problematic in international terms. This was fine when mainstream French developers could make a living making games for their compatriots, but being a hit in the French market alone is no longer sufficient for a game to break even. The Japanese game industry is the obvious exception: Japan dominates Chinese and Korean gaming, and it has a large domestic gaming market that buys predominantly locally made games.

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