A Change Would Do You Good
Change is equal parts powerful and frightening, and in some kind of Newtonian equality of opposition so to is the resistance to change. Change is unknown, uncertain and unfamiliar, none of which are necessarily traits that translate well into the world of business. Publishers are very conscious that, despite the occasional half-hearted complaint, gamers pay to play in a comfort zone of familiarity. It is one of a few foundations on which the video game industry is built, this idea of iteration and repetition. It is why we are about to enjoy a fifth Burnout, why Halo 3 breaks records for the entire entertainment industry on the day it's released, and why we naturally look forward to Starcraft 2. These are games built on the idea of repeating past successes, building naturally off the familiar and firmly entrenched in the idea of meeting fan expectations. And there is a meaningful place for these games.
But, I worry that the mainstream gaming industry is so locked into the financial necessity of meeting fan expectation, that the freedom necessary for experimentation is being undermined. Developers and publishers exist in a high-pressure environment where there are already a dozen or more reasons to temper creativity by the necessities of doing business in the big-budget machine, so it seems troubling that fan expectations sometimes compound the problem.
I enjoy predictability in my pabulum as much as the next guy, and for as completely formulaic as a game like Halo 3 might be at times, it is satisfying like a Big Mac when you're hungry or a watered down American beer when you've just finished mowing the lawn. But like the certain gastric doom of subsiding entirely off mass produced food stuffs, these games are not really enough to sustain an industry of big budgets and long development cycles. That may sound a little ridiculous on the heels of Halo's record breaking sales, but, of course, it needs to be kept in mind that at some point Halo itself was a new and uncertain franchise, a force for its own change of a kind.
After all, if Bungie had stayed the original course, they'd have just released another Marathon game for the Mac.
Innovation in gaming comes from daring to do the sacrilegious, the blasphemous, the ridiculous, the laughable and the offensive. It is weathering the scorn of producing a handheld with two screens, breaking away from the publishing chain to release your own direct distribution and community service or even eschewing the cemented vision of fans for an entirely new direction. Innovation often fails, is too expensive, is critically successful but commercially forgotten or never even has the opportunity to reach the market, and it's really not the best way to try and do business, but it is also the lifeblood that fuels a market that strains toward stagnation. The failures, in their own way, are as important in the long run as the games that redefine genres, IPs and expectations.
And, it's often its own worst enemy.
We revolve around an industry built on marketing and hype, and that does not make for a consumer base that is particularly comfortable with change. It's so conveniently easy to be excited for a Starcraft II that on passing glance seems to be virtually identical to its predecessor. And, considering that we will be saddled with a year or more of anticipation, increasingly meaningless screenshots and poorly informed previews, the saccharine taste of familiarity is going to make it a lot easier for fans of the series to grow their anticipation. Had Blizzard showed the temerity to dramatically alter Starcraft II, and then put it into the public eye for a year of development, the discontent of fans unhappy with the changes would have become a living and growing thing. Every screenshot of this unfamiliar game would be an insult, and with some degree of justification.
It's not that fans of a series are in the wrong for concocting their own vision of succeeding games, but that the industry demands years of public development while the internet gives endless voice to critics and supporters alike. The problem is not in the expectations, which are inevitable in a consumer base. The problem is with a cycle that forces the incomplete into public scrutiny, particularly when the publishers or developers are swimming upstream against expectation. It forces the makers of games, and particularly sequels, to fall in step or face outrage.
The solution is not in naively asking fans to change their expectations or worse have faith. You might as well ask the sun not to rise in the morning. It is the nature of fandom to take possession and to challenge those who break from canon. The solution instead is to trim the lead time on the entire industry, cut the years between announcement and launch down to weeks.
Personally, I'm never more enthusiastic about a game when I find that the time between its announcement and its release can be measured in months or even weeks. Not only does it lay the groundwork for a release not infected with unrealistic expectations, but it tends to catch me when my enthusiasm can still be fresh rather than spoiled by a long and tedious wait. I don't seem to have the self-control and strength of will to avoid endless developer diaries, screenshots, previews and interviews, even though I know that as my anticipation for a given game is desensitized by each publication so to my expectations, fueled by promises and hype, become unrealistic.
In the end, developing in an environment outside the marketing machine is an obvious boon to the quality of games. Without the necessity of having to meet fan expectations even years before release, it is conceivable that the quality of games could universally increase, and I remain unconvinced that the year of marketing hype that we would no longer suffer actually generates meaningful sales numbers. In the end, such a process might work to the betterment of everyone involved.