Chairman of the Bored

Stevie rallies the call for more Okami and less FIFA...

All three next-gen combatants have finally taken to the retail ring of doom (at least in North America), and each one has puffed its corporate chest and outlined its claim to exactly why it's the best choice for appeasing the needs of global gamers - while also repeatedly plunging the knife of cheap criticism between the ribs of its rivals.

Nintendo would have us believe its pure gaming Wii console is the future of gameplay, offering massively enhanced interaction and a completely new way to play through its motion-sensing Wiimote and Nunchuk controllers. As the most underpowered entrant, Nintendo also plays heavily on the financial value angle, the available launch numbers, and the emulation and backwards capacity of the Wii, not to mention its low-power consumption WiiConnect24 download service and the overall simplicity of the system.

Conversely, Sony's hard-line marketplace bravado is founded on well-oiled muscle and straightforward processing power, lauding the PlayStation 3 as an extension of the world's most popular gaming brand and as the most powerful next-gen option, while also pushing the motion-sensing innovation of its revamped Sixaxis controller. Sony is also keen to eclipse the high price point of the PlayStation 3 by implementing a completely free online multiplayer service, PSOne and PS2 backward compatibility, a hugely oomph-worthy Cell CPU, and cutting-edge onboard Blu-ray technology right out of the box.

Then there's Microsoft, which has been hanging around kicking arena dust and steadily selling Xbox 360s for the past twelve months while awaiting the eventual arrival of both Nintendo and Sony. A triple-core CPU, freestanding HD-DVD drive, middle price point, interchangeable 20GBs of memory, a blossoming Xbox Live Arcade and Video Marketplace, and respectable first year sales figures fast on the way to 10 million, all certainly show that Microsoft's first-to-retail advantage has helped carve a serious hardware contender.

But we've all heard the above details a million times before, we've heard the statistics, the pre-launch boasting, and the incessant backbiting for so long that it's hard not to become numb to the droning suits, their dazzling PR smiles, and their schoolboy mentality of kicking the chair legs out from beneath their peers. Yet, although the PlayStation 3 can seemingly levitate, fetch the paper, and process food as well as numbers; the Nintendo Wii can cross cultural and religious divides and bring warring nations to a state of gaming peace; and the Xbox 360 makes a thoroughly dependable doorstop, we, as consumers, are in danger of losing our vitally influential perspective as the next-gen battle rages and our usual consumer clarity is sullied by the resulting corporate gore.

And here's the thing: the current war of videogame progression shouldn't be fought on the basis of hardware, and it shouldn't be waged on the output of an internal processor, or the gimmick value of new-fangled control units. It should be contested on the strength of games and games alone. They're the ONLY element that truly matters, and they're the one area of our beloved pastime that are largely falling by the wayside as the console platforms themselves become the home's entertainment hub and offer consumers layered digital distraction through Blu-ray, HD-DVD, the PlayStation Store, the Virtual Console, and the Video Marketplace's digital distribution.

No one except the monumentally ignorant can fail to see that videogames are a huge business. Perhaps it's a bed of our own making in terms of gaming becoming such a significant strain of popular culture, but it seems eons ago that videogames looked as though they cost as much to develop as they did to buy. By comparison, today's industry has become a multi-billion dollar moneymaking machine, its games massive in both scope and budget, and its market-leading publishers devouring and integrating any independent developers brave enough to show aspiring ability. While the profit garnered from videogames continues to increase exponentially, the industry's belief in innovation investment appears to be all but gone, swallowed by high-risk elevated budgets and comfort zone releases that choose to rely on existing market demographics in favour of seeking new ground through originality. You remember originality don't you - the one truly invaluable facet of gaming that's all-too rapidly disappearing?

In a New York Times News Service article discussing the increased industry reliance on sequels to guarantee profit return, independent game developer American McGee claimed that: "The game industry is not interested in original ideas. We don't even waste our time pitching them." McGee, one of the original developers for the massively influential Doom and Quake games went on to say: "We've yet to go to a major publisher and have them say that they have slots for original titles."

Some liken this stifling of evolving imagination to that of Hollywood, which has struggled with its own sequel-heavy dependency for many years. But, unlike Hollywood, where low budget and independent films have experienced somewhat of a renaissance in recent times, videogames appear firmly shackled to the 'high-profile winner' mentality. To further this attitude, Jason Della Rocca, program director for the International Game Developers Association points out that: "The ecosystem of the game industry is broken. In the music industry you don't have to be Britney Spears to have a career. In Hollywood, big companies invest in smaller ones. But the game industry has not [yet] come to this realisation."

And, unfortunately, the sales figures for these (largely) dire high-profile releases only serve to showcase the inevitable arrival of yet more arduously bland gaming torture despite the technological leaps of the consoles that will host it. Established titles attract established audiences and that cuts down retail risk factor by a massive amount, something the bean counters look to secure a long time before even considering the possible inclusion of actual innovative gameplay in the final product.

If you in any way doubt that console videogames are devolving in creativity while videogame consoles are evolving in hype and performance, then you need only look to the most recent full-price game chart released by the ELSPA. Week 47's top-twenty chart contains no less than sixteen (16!) franchise titles. Of those sixteen titles, five are annual sporting extensions, three are based on toys and/or TV shows, and twelve are held by the world's top-five games publishers. The only remotely original games on the chart are Nintendogs (Nintendo), Gears of War (Microsoft), and Canis Canem Edit (Take 2), all pressed cloyingly by long-running series such as FIFA, Pro Evolution, Call of Duty, PGA Tour, Grand Theft Auto, Super Mario Bros., The Sims, and Need for Speed.

Seriously, is no one else out there getting bored beyond belief with the endless procession of high-budget-low-risk rehashed dross that we're being forced to accept? Are Canis Canem Edit and Gears of War really the best we can look forward to when in search of gaming originality?

And let's not forget that Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft have all prattled on with pride about 'extensive' and 'diverse' launch line-ups prior to the arrival of their hardware offerings. Taking into account the recent launches of the PS3 and Wii, and the supposed superior power of Sony's console, let's look at exactly how the Japanese electronics giant has spread that self-confessed hardware advantage across its launch titles following this standout quote from SCEA president Kaz Hirai: "Our line-up of PS3 games that will be available through the holidays is unprecedented in terms of volume, variety and innovation, surpassing any previous competitive launch catalogue and even our own original offerings for other PlayStation platforms." 20 launch titles containing one (1) release, in Resistance: Fall of Man, that's not a strategic edition to an already established franchise or a system port from a previously released game (though Resistance certainly is a first-person shooter, and the world doesn't have enough of those, right?).

And the Nintendo Wii's launch line-up doesn't fare much better. Yes, the Wiimote and Nunchuk bring a different form of gameplay to the table, but regardless of "changing how you play" they don't change what you're playing. And, on current evidence, the Wii could well suffer the same fate as the GameCube through decidedly kiddie software that blocks the interest of the more mature demographic. 21 North American Wii launch titles sees only Excite Truck, Red Steel, and the bundled Wii Sports showcasing borderline originality, whereas the remaining games are franchise or consumer product-reliant, and include the likes of Super Monkey Ball, The Legend of Zelda, Dragon Ball Z, Cars, and Rayman Raving Rabbids.

Nintendo's initial hot burst of sales success with the Wii, which has seen 600,000 units sold in the first eight days since launch, may well begin to run cold if ensuing titles don't lean more pointedly towards gamers of a more advanced age. To illustrate this, and other facts, the US-based 2006 ESA (Entertainment Software Association) Computer and Videogame survey states that the average age of gamers today is 33 and that 69% of American heads of households actively play videogames. With the swift overshadowing of the GameCube by the superior Xbox and PlayStation 2, Nintendo's Wii may well be the company's last chance to shift its software focus away from teeny tiny knee-high players. And while the Wii is meant to attract gamers of all ages, its evolving games portfolio really needs to reflect the highest demographic margins - in terms of applicable age, not banal series repetition. The survey also points out that 49% of all US gamers play the 'E for Everyone' classification, whereas 32% play 'T for Teen', and a further 15% play 'M for Mature'. If Nintendo should dare to strike a healthy software balance across those classifications then the Wii may yet be the console that upsets the dominance of Sony and Microsoft.

The ESA's survey also points out that adult gamers have been playing videogames for approximately twelve years, which compounds the earlier notion of growing bored with the industry's continual reliance on the same series and genre formulas. As a 33-year-old who's been playing videogames for longer than twelve years, this writer certainly wants to see more genuine innovation from the games available in today's market. Sadly, that hope may never become a reality unless we curb our worrying buying habits, especially as the survey's Best-Selling Videogame Super Genres category illustrates little more than rife consumer apathy with Action, Sports, and Shooters making up around 60% of last year's total sales. Speaking of buying habits, the top-twenty best-selling videogames listing contains only one game (God of War) that isn't a direct sequel or doesn't build or expand on a known franchise or commercial product.

Frankly, it's not good enough. Regardless of how far forward hardware technology reaches, it's the software that should decide greatness, yet it seems that a videogame market worth more than $7 billion per year is no longer the place for risk taking and boundary pushing, but rather just a guaranteed slice of the cross-platform franchise pie. Incremental expansions like PGA Tour and Pro Evolution continue to prosper year after year, and utter garbage like the WWE Smackdown! VS. Raw series remains a money-spinning blight on existence. But beautifully crafted and genuinely innovative games such as Okami, LocoRoco, and Guitar Hero (though all critically applauded) are largely ignored by the buying public - Okami's creators now being out of business. Ultimately, we only have ourselves to blame for the lack of creative growth currently throttling our videogame choices, we only have ourselves to blame for the resultant absorption of small inventive studios by the formulaically dull publishing behemoths, we only have ourselves to blame for the relentless onslaught of profit-margin safety through rehashed content, and we only have ourselves to blame if we continue to support its damaging proliferation by buying it.

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