Are Games Movies… or Cars?

Like everybody else, it seems, I’ve been playing some Battlefield 2 recently (which, I must say, is a very strange name for a third game in a series – I guess Battlefield:Iraq wouldn’t fly?) At any rate, it’s an excellent game, a big step up from BF:Vietnam.

What I find most interesting about the game is that it is so obviously not a brand new product. The graphics and subject matter are both compelling enough that it’s going to hook plenty of new players, but most of the innovations (the squad system, saved ranks/medals, tank/anti-tank/special forces balance, the simple but effective fatigue model, etc.) are clearly built upon years and years and years spent developing exactly the same game over and over again. Simply put, Battlefield 2 is so much fun because the people at DICE really knows what they are doing.

Which, as a game designer, begs the question: could I possibly make a game that could compete with Battlefield 2? Could they make a game to compete with Civ 4? I am constantly being reminded by the fans about all the details they expect from a Civilization game. Hitting F1-12 should open AND close the Advisor screens. There must be SEPARATE options for quick attacks and/or defends. Sometimes they’d like to watch all rival moves and sometimes only enemy moves. Yes, double-click may select all units in a tile, but what if one just want to select all the workers? I don’t envy the next guy who has to remember all of this.

It’s not the ’80s anymore, when EA seemed to reinvent gaming each Christmas. (Dude.) Nowadays, a game like San Andreas is described as innovative, even though it’s the FIFTH game in a series. However, it’s possible that, in 2005, “innovation” is really beside the point.

The old, hoary games-as-movies analogy always breaks down because – in gaming – the sequel is often better than the original. I’d like to present a better analogy: games-as-cars. In the auto industry, the “genres” are pretty well established (sedans, trucks, cycles, minivans, etc). Much of the significant progress is technical (gas mileage, horse-power), and design improvements are usually of the tweak variety – a volume knob for your steering wheel! Every once in a while, a new hybrid emerges (SUVs), but it’s usually some variation on earlier ideas.

OK, so every analogy has holes, but I think this one is most relevant in terms of developers. Car companies are usually known for one type of car – I’m not going to be buying a Porsche truck anytime soon. Each car class has thousands and thousands of details that prevent creating new models out of whole cloth. Computer games have reached that point of complexity – it is becoming prohibitively difficult to just dip a toe into a new genre or style. Is it that hard to guess what’s coming next from Bioware? from Rainbow? from Rockstar? from Insomniac? from Ensemble?

er, nevermind. Well, let’s check back in three years and see how THAT turns out.

4 thoughts on “Are Games Movies… or Cars?

  1. I think the largest hole in that argument is that cars are incapable of “saying” anything. (Well other than maybe the usual jokes about wallet/penis size.)

    I understand where you’re coming from with the analogy, mind you. Just that it leaves out large parts that I would consider important. I’d still more relate games to movies. With Spielberg, you know what style of direction you’re getting, and the content to a point. It’s not going to be a ‘raunchy teen comedy’. With Quentin Tarantino you know you’re getting something with a quick and smooth style, content arguably optional. And with Will Wright, I know to expect a simulation/control game presented in a rather straightforward manner. (I know it won’t be a horror/suspense game.)

    So in general, with movies content may vary, but style evolves slowly. And with games content may vary, but gameplay/style evolves slowly. Of course there are always exceptions. Peter Jackson got huge. Blizzard is now known for its MMO.

    And seriously, are you saying that Hollywood isn’t constantly reinventing their own wheel? How many more times are we going to get the ‘ultimate action movie’ or ‘genre changing horror film’? They reiterate themselves with different content. Games don’t try to pretend to be completely different, we just add a number to the end and say it’s better.

    Oh, and welcome to the blog-world. Just saw your post on Jamie’s blog and though I’d mosey on over. Looking forward to your game and more posts.

  2. sometimes when I am playing a video game I think of them as almost interactive movies. Mainly because there are times when 20 minutes goes by and I do nothing but hit the A button the read the next line from the character.

  3. “Is it that hard to guess what?s coming next from (…) Ensemble? er, nevermind. Well, let?s check back in three years and see how THAT turns out.”

    Just over three years later, that comment became sadly prescient.

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