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The Sequel Effect, Part I, Conglomerates and Popular Culture
Posted on Wednesday, May 14 2008 @ 15:42:49 PST

In the forums recently was a topic that argued how games are possibly taking a backseat in creativity, as sequels are constantly pumped out that become major productions for the respected developers. For me, this is a critical topic for the gaming industry to truely tackle on it's own, mainly due to the fact that the industry itself is suffering growing pains that the entertainment, theatre, and music industry have gone through. (or in some cases, still going through.) It seems like a three pointed problem, first is the effect of corporations and businesses and the relation it has with popular culture. The second is the age old debate on if games are art or not, and there are some interesting arguments and results both for and against that topic. Lastly, it falls on the changing face of technology itself, as the visual apperances of the games become more and more realistic.

But to start this off, it would be simple to go in depth as much as possible for all three points. So perhaps the most detremental, and at the same time the most helpful, is the influx of numerous pop culture refrences to games, and the use of corporations and big business becoming involved in the making of these games. First and foremost, business being involved in games has always been a symbiotic aspect as to what games are made. For better or for worse, there is probably nothing wrong with the control that the conglomerates have on developers, designers, writers and testers. In fact, without the financial support of corporations such as Nintendo, Sony, Microsoft or someone even like Capcom and Activision, most games might never see the light of day.

But recently there is a major trend going on in the industry, constant buyouts. The biggest buyout so far is Activision and Blizzard merging, liquidating Vivendi Studios, and forming the super corporation Activision Blizzard. While this news made most of us giddy that Warcraft and Tony Hawk are under one roof, with it comes a lot of problems that are starting to present themselves. First, from an economic standpoint, games are becoming costly to create, some more ambitious projects probably over the billion mark at times. Another interesting statistic is that typically only 5% of the games made per year are profitable.

Since development teams are also growing, formerally smaller teams are being subsidized, joining larger, more seasoned teams and therefore cost more money for power, maintence of equipment, and pay.  Teams of five-ten developers now range to an average of 50-100. It is also still likely that developers would lose their jobs in the end, in particular if a game is left out of that 5% margin. Plus, games are cancelled on a constant basis, over half of the ideas made for games are usually scrapped in pre-production stages, and another 10% are shut down near the end of completion.

These factors have been around all the time, but as the cost of making games goes up, so does the financial woes of the corporations themselves. Nintendo, for example, was extremely profitable in the 1980 to mid 1990's, and still generates profit from any game bearing a loveable mascot they call their own. What is also true, however, is that a lot of their revenue comes from sequel productions per system. In other words, Nintendo keeps itself in a surplus by generating sequels, or the next game in their series, and since so many of their flagship series have sequels too them, they rarely, if at all, change the formula they created.

Now it is interesting to note Nintendo, because many people see Nintendo getting away with this treatment, but the fact is everyone is. Any game made today, that is a resounding success, is usually based off some sequel from a previous success. Case en point, the Halo series and Call of Duty. Good games they may be, but they are also sequels with arguably little original content to them. Large corporate sponsers know this, because they wish to turn a profit, reaching that 5% that is in reality hard to achieve. Games that reviewers and gamers herald as innovative, original and awesome, such as Psychonauts, Shadow of the Collosus, No More Heroes, and even, arguably, Bioshock, all sell less than a sequel to Madden from the previous year.

Sequels are seen as the safe route, not changing a thing because it has worked before. A lot of corporate money and business practices focus on this in other industries as well, with mixed results. There is nothing shady about this aspect of the business though, I will leave that for Gerstmamn-gate, but it is just a fact of life for big, powerhouse businesses that are emerging from the growing gaming empires.

And with this, comes recognition as a true media of entertainment. Now a days it is not uncommon to see a really high budget commercial for games, or someone making fun of games, either in parody or for points. Hell, the problems with video games, be it the effects of violence or the possibly of pornography in games, has been hot topics in the news. Gamers themselves are now mainstream, with competitions of "world class gamers" congregating at the next tournament that would spring up for prize money.

With all of this attention, a lot of games are left out in the cold. Halo 3 had an uncrompromisable amount of commercials, TV spots, movie trailers, and radio ads promoting the hype the game had up until it's release, while games like Bioshock, a superior game in almost all categories, had one, maybe two 30 second spots on TV. Although the money gained for advertisements is usually by corporate sponsers, the entire point is that many games that are not considered mainstream get no attention what so ever. A perfect example would be the game Ico, from Sony Computer Entertainment.

Ico is a true example of this, because it had no advertising to go with the game, and when released in 2001, the same year  as Final Fantasy X and Metal Gear Solid 2, Sons Of Liberty, it recieved critical acclaim but sold roughly 700,000 copies worldwide. It is interesting to point out that Ico was better recieved then Final Fantasy X, yet FF X sold over 6 million copies world wide, showing numerous things about the establishment of franchises in the gaming industry.

The hype behind Final Fantasy X was enormous, yet the result was somewhat anti-climatic to some, and this is arguably the same for Halo, GTA, Guitar Hero, even Super Mario now a days. The hype created for the games kills the game more than graphical and controller problems, offering a safer, sometimes lackluster preformence than the originality that the game may have shown in it's first outing. Let's face it, games that break into the pop culture and entertainment industry are usually great games that sell over a million copies, games that become part of the vernacular of the entire industry. The original games had something in them that made them better, and often times, the first sequel improved on those aspects, but after 3-4 games in a series, the magic begins to become stagnent.

In the end, Corporate expectations, mixed with the inclusion of popular culture, create an aura of "play it safe for the masses." It is very hard for anything, be it an independent movie, an obscure game, or an underground band, to break into the mainstream, but when it begins to stifle creativity is when the industry begins to crumble, unless something drastic is done. Games are like any other industry in this regard, with the same problems and hopefully new conclusions to remedy some of these problems.

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