By in Arthur Tolmie - Editorial, General

WHERE HAVE ALL THE COWBOYS GONE?

When I first started gaming, it was in the heady days of the Commodore 64 and the Amiga 500. These were the days of the bedroom coders and small independent companies making the games they wanted.

Games that were crazy and without constraints of what a game should look like. I remember games such as Cannon Fodder, Alien Breed and Chuckie Egg, made by small companies like Team 17, Psygnosis and Microprose. It was a time of revolutionary coders Like David Braben (Elite) and Nolan Bushell (Tempest) who later went on to form Atari. It was also the time when some of today’s stars began their careers; Peter Molyneux started his days making games like Populus, going on to form Bullfrog and turning out games such as Dungeon Keeper, Syndicate and Theme Park.

This was a time when games were released almost weekly and even given away on the front of magazines. This was a time before the big companies, when there was no limit to the crazy ideas of the creator. However, times have changed, with videogames now the highest grossing media industry in the world companies have realise just how much profit can be made from a successful franchise.

This led to the smaller companies being bought up and absorbed by the larger companies in their drive to obtain the most talented teams and individuals. More worryingly, it has led companies to constantly play it safe, ‘farming’ existing franchises to gain the most profit. A quick glance at the big games across all platforms tells the story. The biggest sellers on Xbox and PlayStation 3 – CoD: Black Ops, Fifa 11, GTA 4, Need for Speed, Final Fantasy 13, the list goes on. None of these games are stand alone titles.

The Call of Duty franchise has, prior to the launch of MW3, made Activision $10bn in profit in the last 10 years.

Now I am not saying that if you have a great game or story this shouldn’t be pursued as a franchise, but it would seem that there is now a distinct lack of originality in games. Companies no longer wish to take a risk on an unknown title or concept and those small companies that are out there don’t have the media clout to promote those titles and they sink without a trace (Beyond Good and Evil) further enforcing larger companies’ strategy of ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’.

That’s not to say that every now and again great original titles don’t arrive to mix things up. Just recently, Borderlands – with its mix of FPS and RPG – was a massive success, enjoying both critical and public acclaim. And, understandably (and to the delight of many fans), it has now been announced that it will receive a sequel, much like other modern classics, such as Dead Space and Bioshock.

So what of the bedroom coders, the cowboys who started it all? Is there a chance with the modding community and XNA (indie games on Xbox Live) that they can create games now that will rival the big companies? My honest opinion is no. Any coders who show talent and who produce titles that are well received are snapped up by the big boys – EA’s acquisition of PopCap Games shows this. We can only hope all of their originality is not diluted and they continue to make the amazing addictive titles they have in the past.
So where do we go from here? I think that with more and more coding platforms and modding tools being released, along with their respective games such as Forge from Bungie and Far Cry’s level editor, we will begin to see a resurgence of originality with home grown maps and game types. In time I believe we will see entire games being made out of the contents of an original product with its component parts like AI, levels and script being rearranged and edited like LEGO to make something new.

This however is years away, and I worry that as companies grind out more of the same the consumer will grow tired and move onto other interests. Rhythm action games have been a prime example of this where, after initially selling millions of units, the genre is in massive decline because the consumer has become tired of being milked for their cash, time after time with no real change to the overall product.

If this was to happen to the industry as a whole it would be a disaster. Especially as I feel we are still in the infancy of what can be achieved. With the increasing advance of technology – and with more and more creative tools being handed back to the very same people who created this monster – in time maybe they can save it. In the meantime, I will be awaiting the arrival of Halo 4 and Bioshock Infinite and maybe, for those reasons, I am as much to blame as the games companies themselves.

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