AAA Gaming Is As Creatively Stagnant As Hollywood

Old habits die hard.

It’s been a few weeks since E3 2016. The gaming industry’s biggest trade show and media circus might be losing relevance - a number of prominent publishers simply didn’t show this year - but it’s still considered the place where the titans of gaming show off their upcoming products. This year, we got a look at what Microsoft, Sony, and the rest have in their back pockets, and thus also got a potted illustration of high-budget video game culture. Now the smoke has cleared, what can we say about that culture?

The number one trend of E3 2016 was a lack of vision, illustrated through risk-averse franchising decisions and unclear paths into the future. Microsoft made big headlines announcing the Xbox One Scorpio (and Sony made smaller ones with its PS4 Neo), but the wishy-washy followup by executives and spokespeople suggests the company doesn’t know what it’s doing. Is it just a 4K upgrade, or can developers design games to use the extra power in some other way? Can we really believe Microsoft’s claim that all games released for the Scorpio will be compatible with the original Xbox One, with no loss of features?

Furthermore, is pushing extra pixels - pixels most players will never see - really the best use for extra processing power? Microsoft and Sony are succumbing to a graphical arms race that will only truly benefit people with 4K televisions, and even then only in terms of pixel density. Actual game complexity - deeper simulations, smarter AI, better physics - won’t be able to advance if updated hardware merely firehoses greater quantities of pixels onto a screen. This “same, but more” philosophy is like platform holders incrementally improving gas mileage when they should be building an electric car. Perhaps Nintendo will innovate with its unannounced NX console, like it did with the Wii. Perhaps, unlike the Wii U, people will actually buy it.

Even the biggest risks in AAA publishing nowadays are minor in nature. Ubisoft’s Steep broke with the studio’s recent shooter kick, but merely applied the open-world, leaderboard-driven systems of The Crew and The Division to the extreme sports genre. EA introduced a fully-fledged story mode to its neverending FIFA series, but as cool as it is to have a sports game emulate a sports movie for once, the bulk of the game will still follow standard sports genre procedure. EA’s Originals programme, a Fox Searchlight-esque initiative aimed at giving selected indie developers a leg up with funding and publishing support, only happened due to the success of Unravel. And the rebooted God of War, which changes the series' camera system and setting and adds a father-son element, couldn't stay away from its familiar monster-slaying for long. 

Even virtual reality, the Technology of the Future, teetered on a knife-edge between innovation and stagnation. The best thing about VR is the way its basic language differs from traditional video games. It forces developers to innovate in an industry where even safe decisions are massively expensive. Much virtual reality software thus far - especially on the HTC Vive, far and away the best VR hardware - has provided experiences that could only exist in VR. But Sony’s big PlayStation VR showcase featured exclusively known quantities - Batman, Star Wars, Resident Evil - that in many cases feel shoehorned into a virtual reality setting. Resident Evil is particularly worrisome, as player movement is still controlled with the controller's left stick - a surefire instigator of motion sickness in VR. Without designing specifically and exclusively for VR (as some games have been), it’s hard for developers to deliver a quality experience. I fear the allure of “your favourite franchise, but in VR!” will be too much for publishers to resist.

Elsewhere, the game lineups were straight-up boring. The usual array of reboots, remakes, spinoffs, and sequels swelled like an angry sea, with Bethesda’s conference notable for being 100% made up of such content. Some games that could otherwise have been “new” took on existing names in order to manufacture familiarity. One such game, Bethesda’s Prey, was also a hilarious example of titling a sequel the same as the original. God of War can at least claim it’s an overdue reboot; in Prey’s case, there are now two games in the franchise: Prey and Prey. Most depressingly unoriginal of all: Days Gone, one of Sony’s biggest and lengthiest reveals, occupied the curious position of being a first-party Sony action game that felt uncannily like a rip-off of another first-party Sony action game (The Last of Us).

In a sad reversal of last year, fewer female protagonists got a chance to shine, save for those in games already announced or which feature both male and female options. While it’s heartening to see more and more games (even including the new South Park RPG) adding gender options to their characters, nearly every new fixed protagonist was male. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild stuck to its confusingly male-only player character, despite in all other ways becoming a more open-ended (and terrific-looking) RPG. Some male protagonists were super-male, with God of War’s Kratos now teaching the next generation to be gruff and ultraviolent. 

One tiny sliver of full-on originality was Hideo Kojima’s delightfully bizarre trailer for Death Stranding, which wowed everyone with bold imagery and bolder statement of intent. But is that just because we haven’t been shown its cover shooting mechanic yet?

E3's most jarring cultural issues were largely due to circumstances beyond its control. The Orlando shooting had just taken place, putting the whole expo in a rare moral quandary. How would an industry historically linked to shooting things respond to the most horrific gun-related tragedy in the nation’s history? Each major publisher made a different attempt at sincerity: from Ubisoft and Sony paying clumsy lip service to the victims, to Microsoft opening with a moment of silence, to EA doing absolutely nothing. Only Bethesda, whose speakers wore rainbow pins but didn't mention the shooting, got away with a modicum of self-respect: they managed to show solidarity without running the risk of delivering the wrong message in a hastily-written speech.

However, no publishers pulled back on their games' gun violence. Video games have always leant on gunplay for their thrills, but at this year’s E3, each round of ammunition hurt harder than the last. Rumours of debatable veracity claim Sony cancelled a Red Dead Redemption 2 reveal because it showed a character shooting up a saloon, but the Days Gone gameplay that closed the Sony show was no less cringe-inducing, showing scores of figures being mown down with a machine gun. Other games, like the otherwise vibrant and exciting Watch Dogs 2, launched into cover-shooting with the sickening inevitability of a Call of Duty sequel announcement. Gunplay in games probably doesn't cause violence, but it is in increasingly poor taste, now that every conceivable real-world location has suffered a mass shooting. It's getting harder for me, anyway, to get into games that force you to gun down a bunch of nameless humans.

Even if you're able to look past the violence: we've been shooting people in games for decades. It's getting a touch boring.

Video game budgets aren’t getting smaller. At the upper end, they’re growing at a rate that rivals or exceeds Hollywood’s budget blowouts. Culturally speaking, we’re seeing the games industry more closely resemble the movie industry. A handful of similar AAA-budget titles sit at the top, occupying narrow bands of genre, while thousands of indies - more diverse, though not without their own cliches - battle each other for visibility, with a select few getting distribution deals with major publishers. Call of Duty and Assassin's Creed are like Transformers and the Marvel Cinematic Universe: they're sure bets, based on established formulas and years of consumer loyalty, and even when new ideas spring up, they're kept securely inside a familiar context.

Yes, individual games grow and change from time to time. It's great to see the rise of Telltale's dialogue-driven gameplay, for example, and AAA games like Mafia IIIDeus Ex: Human Revolution, and Mass Effect: Andromeda appear to be exploring interesting thematic territory. But the overall trend is towards monotony. Even those interesting games are third or fourth titles in a series. Nowadays, much like in Hollywood, innovation in AAA gaming has to come from within established structures, if it comes at all. That's just a fact of economics, but it's not a happy one. Hopefully new IPs like Horizon Zero Dawn and Vampyr manage to carve out a unique character for themselves. And hopefully Death Stranding is as odd as its trailer suggests. We're all counting on you, Kojima.

How do you feel about major publishers' output nowadays? Are you bored? Have you gone indie-only? Or do AAA games still excite you? Does it even matter that games are samey, as long as they're fun to play? Let's cut through the marketing BS and really talk about this stuff.