Page 28, press hold, and reveal. Digitiser's founder speaks out
Something old, something new
Edge #139, August 2004
What's the big idea? No, I'm not being flippant; its just something I tend to ask myself when weighing up my purchasing options. Go on, fatty - go through your games collection and take out every game. Now count how many you can distil into a simple, concise — and unique — high-concept idea ('it has zombies in it' doesn't count). You know, an idea you haven't seen in any other game. You can't do it, can you? You can't do it because your games library is stuffed with football games, games with zombies in and identikit roleplaying games featuring young manga men with spiky hair and big swords.
How did that happen, eh? Wasn't there a time when every game was different to the last in more than just the title (Christ, even the very names are much of a muchness these days... y'know...Medal Of Honor or Men Of Valor or Call Of Duty? Morrowind or Neverwinter or Neverwind? Admittedly, the latter is the name of my preferred brand of suppository, but you wouldn't know it).
There are precious few videogames in this shiny and bleeping modern age which could be pegged as 'high concept'. Yet there was indeed a time, not so long ago, when every game revolved around a single, neat idea. Pac-Man was pretty much one idea. Space Invaders was one idea. Gauntlet, Dig Dug, Donkey Kong, Pong, Tempest, Marble Madness, Tetris... all games pivoting around a single, unique notion. Now don't be thinking this is some sort of godawful nostalgia tug-a-thon; some of those games were awful. Plus, there are a few titles around today which can boast the same qualities of uniqueness.
Super Monkey Ball is the obvious contender, and Sony's current knack for accessory-based games - SingStar and EyeToy - also bodes well. But after that? The quest for The Big Idea has been replaced by an all-encompassing, blipvert feeding frenzy wherein game creators demand we be pumped with new idea after new idea before they've been given a chance to breathe. Never mind the quality; feel the width of our genres, love.
Compare any of the above with, say, the Grand Theft Auto franchise, Jak III, or Final Fantasy XIVIIIX and it's like comparing a fork with a complex system of pulleys, gears and tiny motors, which delivers every mouthful of food in a new and needlessly complicated fashion. The name of this device? Cutlery Of Dignity. Is something really better just because it does things the long way round and you have to read the instruction manual first? Bloody Elite has a lot to answer for.
The simple route is the most direct - sometimes not as picturesque — but it lessens the chance that you're going to get lost, be buggered by a tramp or, in the case of our lovely games industry, limit your audience.
It's a terrible old cliché, but the phrase 'pick up and play' has never been more important. As new blood comes to gaming - as we're always being told it is — then it's going to come from outside the usual gamer geek pool. More importantly still, the average age of gamers is going up all the time — and that's because we're not dropping the hobby as we get older. I dunno about you, but once I'd have gladly spent a week reading the manual for an Amiga flight sim — and that was just the section on how to load it up. Now I need to sandwich that in between filing sodding VAT receipts, doing 'work', beating my children and dancing naked for the perverse gratification of my mortgage advisor.
That aside, why is it that the generation above yours is still more at home with Pac-Man or Space Invaders than Onimusha 2 or Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes? Could it be because the gameplay - the wondrously manual-obsolescing gameplay - isn't a big, baffling chore? That it's easy to 'get'? The sorry fact is the average person in the game shop won't enjoy being confronted by everything-but-the-kitchen-sink gameplay.
I'm just saying there needs to be more choice now, and amid those choices it would be lovely to see a return to a purer form of gaming. A form where the developer came up with an idea — just ONE idea — and then set about exploiting it in as many ways as possible over the course of a full-length game. And when I say ONE idea I don't mean 'football' or 'driving', or 'shooting things'. Games have to get simpler. Or, rather, there have to be more simple games. And I'm not sure jabbing a stylus at the screen of a handheld console is the way to go.
Football games sell well because don't need to think to understand them; they do what it says on the tin. Licensed games sell well because, again, there's a familiarity. A game with an attached licence is a comfort blanket for the casual gamer, shorthand that says they're automatically going to understand at least some elements in the game. But again, what about original ideas? There was never another game like Pac-Man (well, all right, there was 3D Haunted Hedges on the Spectrum... and Ms Pac-Man et al), but the saddest thing of all is that this move from the high-concept to the no-concept sees the gaming landscape turning into one huge, amorphous grey mass. Nowadays, most games are Frankenstein's monsters, stitched together from parts dug up from the local bone yard, with nary a fresh and original body part.
Max Payne gave birth to the notion of bullet time (in game terms, at least). Billy Hatcher had the egg rolling — albeit nowhere near as revolutionary as the promise of the premise. All too often games are distinctive for the look of their characters alone. Look at Tak And The Power Of Ju-Ju. Beyond the character, is it any different from Ty The Tasmanian Tiger? Or I-Ninja, or Spyro, or whatever else?
Developers: stick to your guns. If you have a really, really neat idea for a game, don't feel you have to back it up with - oooh - a driving section, or hang-gliding, or a bit of stealth, or a bit that's slightly like part of Tomb Raider 2. Let it breathe. Let the idea develop into a full game. You don't buy a dog and then think 'People aren't going to find it interesting enough; I think I'll tape some wings to its back, make it wear a funny pumpkin man mask and hang carrots from its scrotum'.
Well, all right, maybe some of us do that.
Mr Biffo is a semi-retired videogame journalist. His views do not necessarily coincide with Edge's
Do you know of any important moments from the annals of Digi history that have been omitted? If so, then mail me (firstname.lastname@example.org) right now, man. Credit will be duly given for anything that gets put up.