Friday, 23 December 2011

Handhelds: "AA Games"

An interesting(to me at least) blog post about the rise and fall of level design in video games got me thinking. Big games cost more, so they take fewer risks. It takes longer to make levels, so they can't be as complex or time-consuming to make or play, so we get prettier levels that aren't as fun. Dirt-cheap iPad games have only superficial, passing substance while on the bus or something. They don't have the budget or motivation to make something more than immediate satisfactory impulses.

Where did the fun go? When did we trade the artistic integrity and adventurous spirit of this medium for more brown pixels? Where is the middle ground? Where are the games that aren't AAA, big-budget bald space-marine shooters? Where are the games that aren't about matching coloured gems? Where are the products that can tell a story with unorthodox settings and staples, on a budget that isn't retarded, doesn't need to rely on the most expensive, time-consuming technology to look good, and can still be loads of fun? Where are the games big enough to be about something, but not so big that they have to circumsize the creative heart and soul?

The answer came to me while playing Mega Man Zero Collection on the Nintendo DS. The handhelds!

People(myself included) will always complain about the lack of solid, imaginative titles that don't cost more than a second mortgage. And yet even I keep forgetting that it's not just cover-based shooters and Farmville. We wonder where those great games went, that struck the perfect balance/compromise between ingenuity and grace. We just didn't know where to look.

Handhelds. It's so obvious, how come I didn't see it sooner? The bridge between the big, bulky HD consoles in our living rooms, and the invisible code that lets us match colours or whatever. They aren't cheap to make, or to buy, but they're not going to put as big a dent in your savings as a brand-new pre-ordered Xbox 360 or PS3 title with the four billion ass polygons, or any of that pointless volumetric light bullshit.

If consoles and PC games are AAA titles, and iOS app games are... er, "A" titles, then I propose we call the middle-ground: "AA Games". Anyone who has owned a Gameboy in their life I'm sure will appreciate the pun... Or kill me for it. Oddly enough there's no middle-ground there.

See, because there isn't as much of a childish dick-measuring contest between developers and publishers for the handhelds, there's less pressure to make something that will carry the respective company over the holiday sales rush. They can release a game in the summer, even! Remember when games didn't all get lumped into a December release window? Remember sprites?

And because there's not AS much pressure to get as "wide"(read: stupid) an audience as possible just to recuperate the costs, you can have all sorts of weird and interesting things happen in a handheld game. It's big enough to be about something, but not so big that it gets crushed under the weight of monstrous development cycles by 100+ strong teams working 18-hour days with no overtime. Handheld games are free enough to grow in weird directions, strong enough to have impressive production values, but small enough to keep things concise and focused.

The smaller scale makes sure they won't get swallowed up by grandeur or corner-cutting so often seen in games big and small.It's the last place in video games where restraint and innovation count just as much as the purdy pictures.

Even the big-name franchises get to have fun on a smaller format!

A while back there was a Penny Arcade comic that touched on this, but in a less optimistic light. At the end, "Gabe" offered "Tycho" a challenge.

"You buy one 3DS game, and I'll buy forty games on my Iphone. We'll see who has more 'fun'."

That was written before the 3DS started exploding in popularity, like every other recent Nintendo system. And honestly, even in hindsight I don't think either of them is wrong. I think they're both coming out of that one winners. Hell, we all are! We have our art films, our indie flicks AND our blockbusters now. The solution for an industry bankrupt of ideas has been under our noses this whole time.



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