How Video Games are Killing Video Games
Let’s get down to it: Platformers used to be a huge deal. They are not anymore. And that breaks my heart.
Some sales figures say otherwise, and there have been some major releases in the last five (and previous to those) years that were platfomers. I’m not saying they’re dead. But things ain’t what they used to be, you know?
The presence of platformers in the contemporary video game market has lessened dramatically since video games came to home consoles and were purchased on a wide scale.
And it’s hard not to imagine that when most people (and I mean those people who don’t play games) talk about video games, they’re probably going to lean on discussions and images of old-school platformers and their characters, like Pitfall! for the Atari 2600 or Super Mario Bros. After all, how often have we had to hear or explain that, “…it’s like Mario” to someone who wouldn’t understand the nuances between games within the genre? With platformers having left such an indelible impression on developers, players, and the general public, it’s tough for this writer to see such a lack of them in the mainstream anymore.
But it’s not like they don’t exist. New Super Mario Bros. for DS and Wii were very successful titles, and were classic, 2D side-scrolling platformers. There are others, to be sure, but they weren’t as successful. Take 2011′s Rayman Origins, which was met with near universal critical acclaim, but only sold approximately 50,000 copies in its first month. Compare that to New Super Mario Bros. Wii selling 1.39 million copies in its first two weeks in the US. Granted, Mario titles have a longer, proven history and ubiquity over Rayman, but if you’ve ever played Ubisoft‘s Rayman Origins, you might wonder why that game isn’t in every American’s household, being played at every second of every day. I’ll tell you why: No one cares about platformers.
Okay, some do. A lot, really. You can find loads on Xbox Arcade or Playstation Network (remember Braid?). But think about how many people play video games now. Thanks to the wild popularity of Call of Duty, Halo, and even the Grand Theft Auto series, a new audience has been attracted to video games that turned the predominantly platform-demanding video game audience into the minority.
These new folks did not always play video games. I want to avoid elitism as much as I can because I don’t condone it, but it’s a simple fact: Some games have come out that appealed to players who weren’t into sorting through the muck at Blockbuster or Kay Bee Toys (yeah, before the K-B) to get to the good stuff in the past. And, there are generations coming into video games that experience the current state of gaming, with all of its trends, as their first real experience, and what they get today is what they expect from other releases. That’s not a bad thing. I welcome them all. But that history with games of yore is the difference I’m pointing out. That difference drives demand for particular games in different directions. With each console release, game companies have seen growing numbers of players, which has been great news since the release of the NES in 1985. No one wants to come close to experiencing anything like what happened when video games were first showing up in households.
It wasn’t really that long ago when the North American Video Game Crash struck. From 1983-85, the video game industry nearly collapsed, and in its grand finale Atari was sold, and millions of copies of Atari’s Pac-Man port, the now famously crappy E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial video game, and unsold Atari consoles were buried in a landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico. Some doubt the validity of those details (though Alamogordo newspapers confirm them), but its persistence in the annals of video game culture haunts the industry as would a ghost in a Shakespeare play.
Having learned from the past, major video game studios are doing just fine cranking out beautifully rendered non-platformer titles that give game buyers more of what they want (these days that’s a First-Person Shooter experience), and that make gameplay simpler for audiences in the process. And when you think of the near collapse of video game consoles in 1983, the games industry has plenty of reason to avoid large-scale experimentation when they are riding so high on the hog. As a result, video games have developed more explicit instructions during initial gameplay, and, some have argued, dumbed down expectations in video games.
There has been some push-back in these recent trends. As early as 2003, players and voices of the industry alike were raising eyebrows at overly simplistic gameplay, abundant instruction time, and generally non-progressive titles in next-gen console titles. Designer and creative director for Adept Games Daniel Boutros wrote in 2003: “Nowadays, we as developers have fallen into a habit of spoon-feeding the player with tutorials and far fewer things to do or play within the initial stages of the game.” Compellingly, Boutros was comparing new titles then to more well-known platformers through time, like Mario, Crash Bandicoot, and Sonic the Hedgehog among others. These games, as Boutros’ research indicates and personal experience vouches for, offer little to no in-game instructions, but their initial levels are packed with challenges are rewards to drive players forward and educate themselves on controls and abilities. From his observations, Boutros gathers that the decline in platfomers is “not an issue of genre, but an issue of effective design principles of past being forgotten.” Boutros reveals in his study that some of the highest selling, classic video games, like Super Mario Bros. 3, have no tutorial component, which affects gameplay: “[P]art of the joy of a game is discovering your abilities, your limits and being able to master them within an engaging environment, yet the current mass-design philosophy replaces these joyful moments of playful discovery into a ‘Simon says’-style of grammar-school-obedience and restriction.” Essentially, in 2003, developers were leaving less up to players to figure out on their own.
In 2006, Boutros expanded his remarks to fit changes over 3 years: “Since I wrote this report, [...] I’ve also learnt that the problem wasn’t that games were necessarily becoming easier, it was merely a by-product of decision makers not understanding their audience and having an unrealistic creative attitude toward courting a perceived ‘mass market gamer’ game.” When approached for a statement on the state of games in 2012, Boutros tweeted, “Genre still needs a jolt. Not as much as fighters.” He then said to, “Ask me again in October.” Daniel Boutros, I am so asking you again in October. And we’re putting that up on Ellenwood Games so hard. Until then, I’ll add this: There is absolutely no reason a platformer could not take the world by storm again and be a mass-market game.
So video games are big business. No surprise. And games are getting simpler in order to sell more. Sure they are. Is there even a problem to begin with? Will platformers really solve that problem? It must be just me, because 2011′s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 culled the largest shipment numbers for Activision and the games industry ever. And those were just for pre-orders. So people must not mind the change in development approach too much.
Also, there is something sweet about video games drawing more people in. The community grows and acceptance of video gaming grows with it. But, as simple as they are, platformers suffer because of the shift towards more inviting, even simpler video games. Still, I love platformers. Why? Because they are what got gaming where it is today. It was a platformer that bailed video games out of an even bigger hole in the New Mexico desert when Super Mario Bros and the NES took households by their throats. And every console until the Playstation had a platformer as its flagship title, the one that really sold the console. Sonic sold Sega Genesis, not the other way around. Times change, and I accept that. But platformers are too fun, too imaginative in how they break conventions and expectations of games that essentially just ask you to jump from place to place.
I’m grateful platformers still exist and can be still be awesome (ahem…Rayman Origins again). And I recognize the matter of taste in all of this; I’m not a big FPS guy, others may not be big into platformers. But in a world of adventure and FPS games, there could more room for platformers beyond Xbox Arcade or Playstation Network releases. The ratio of Limbos to Little Big Planets is too uneven. Platformers are worth developing into full-on, sell-it-on-disc games, and if developers were willing to gamble more on innovative, complex platformers, gaming could see a new era, and we wouldn’t be fostering a generation of snipers in multiplayer situations. Because seriously, meet me on the battlefield, don’t hide and snipe at me. Jeez.
There is hope for platformers, though. Remember how Rayman Origins didn’t sell very well in its first month? It eventually became profitable for Ubisoft and a sequel, Rayman Legends, is in the works. And Mario will never die.