The current state of the video game industry is, to put it mildly, in danger of stagnating.
Like television networks and film studios, the major game developers seem extremely hesitant to take chances on ideas or properties that haven’t been proven to work. It’s a hard attitude to fight, especially considering the way the current industry market makes turning a profit extremely difficult even in the case of apparent hits.
For evidence, look no further than massive publisher Activision, which seemed to have a success on its hands with the Prototype franchise. The first game, released in 2009, warranted enough interest to merit the production of Prototype 2. The second installment managed to be the top-selling game in April, which certainly sounds like an achievement.
But despite what conventional wisdom might suggest, Prototype developer Radical Entertainment suffered massive layoffs after Activision determined that the sequel failed to find a “broad commercial audience.” It turns out that video game development, under current market practices, is such an expensive undertaking that the most popular game in a given month can still be considered a failure.
Considering the fate of Radical Entertainment wasn’t an isolated incident, it’s easy to understand why power players in the games industry are so concerned with appealing to the widest possible demographic. All games at the top tier of production — known as “AAA” releases — need blockbuster-level success to justify their investment. It’s the reason publisher Electronic Arts (third biggest behind Activision and Nintendo) is homogenizing their releases, with online co-op shoehorned into game series like Dead Space that were originally intended to be experienced alone. EA has also begun referring to its games as “services,” providing additional content over time that requires subscriptions or additional purchases. With games costing so much to make, consumers are no longer simply asked to buy them once.
While some American developers try to adapt their business practices and proliferate the same style of gameplay across all their titles, many Japanese developers are doing their best to imitate western games in an attempt to appeal to what they perceive as the all-powerful American market.
The latest and most unfortunate victim of this trend is unquestionably Resident Evil 6, the newest installment of Capcom’s beloved survival horror franchise. Declared a failure by most critics, it throws together every popular stereotype in modern gaming in an apparent attempt to capitalize on all of them, yet falls short across the board. The result is a disjointed mess — like the kid who dresses the same as the popular crowd and pretends to share their interests so that he can fit in, only to end up more of an outsider for his trouble.
This particular incident is a shame on two fronts. First of all, it wasn’t so long ago that the Resident Evil series led the pack, with 2005’s Resident Evil 4 hailed as the most well-constructed, revolutionary game of the year. It inspired countless trends in some of the most renowned games to hit stores for years to follow, but now Capcom has allowed the series to fall behind, playing catch-up to the descendants of its own imitators. Even worse, though, is that Capcom’s fearful need to appeal to the West was, in this instance more than any other, entirely unnecessary. The Resident Evil series is probably among the very properties that are recognized by enough of the gaming market to result in sizable profits regardless of whether or not it conformed to “Western sensibilities.” If the developers simply designed the game they wanted to make, the product undoubtedly would have been a hit critically and commercially. Instead, they made a game that more closely resembles the bloated, mindless actioners from the likes of Michael Bay than the subtler, more atmospheric installments from earlier in the series. Sure, there were always over-the-top elements and unintentional comedy, but they complemented genuinely frightening gameplay that skewed closer to the best of B-movie horror, not overstuffed blockbusters. That’s what it did best. But Resident Evil 6, in pursuing a non-stop thrill ride, fails to live up to the properties it imitates while alienating a great deal of the legion of Resident Evil fans who would have welcomed a return to form à la the fourth or fifth games in the series. As far as missteps brought on by creative bankruptcy in the games industry, it might be one of the worst offenders thus far.
And no doubt there is a legion of mistakes still to come. Video games as a medium are still in their infancy, with financial concerns dominating in the absence of creative know-how. But adaptation will come, slowly but surely, as developers learn to deal with evolving markets and the industry better-positions itself to negotiate between the worlds of the artistic and the commercial. The fans already know that video games are art — with an equal or perhaps greater capacity to affect us than other artist media. The only question is how long it will take to prove it.
Michael Chasin is a sophomore majoring in narrative studies. His column “Fandomination” runs Fridays.