The Myth of the Perfect Video Game
Jim Sterling posted an interesting video this morning exploring the ongoing obsession of major games studios with trying to find the perfect video game and how they’re on a hiding to nothing. He cites market research conducted by the food industry in which two rival companies tried to find the perfect pasta sauce. To cut a long story short it turns out there was no universally favoured product and a third of those polled actually wanted a type of pasta sauce that wasn’t even available. The conclusion of this analysis was that success was dependent on offering a broad range of products. To quote Mr. Sterling, “there is no perfect pasta sauce, just perfect pasta sauces”. Let it suffice to say this anecdotes parallels with the gaming industry are obvious. Games perpetuate features that work, which end up being adopted by other rival products. This leads to a lack of innovation and constrained creativity.
After watching this video, I immediately thought of the MMORPG genre and how it is an exemplar of this theory. Since World of Warcraft established its dominance of the market, all major Triple A titles have sought to replicates Blizzard’s success. Thus, there are numerous franchise based and non-franchise based theme park MMOs, running on hybrid B2P and F2P business models. Most are couched in generic fantasy trappings, all offering skills trees, crafting, reputation factions, as well as major or minor quests. MMOs can be entertaining but after you’ve played through three or four, the similarities soon become apparent, with the only major difference being the setting and theme of the overall game. At present, if you want innovation in MMOs you have to look to the independent gaming scene.
The search for a winning formula and how it often leads to generic products, is sadly common to most consumer industries. Boy Bands, Reality TV shows and junk food are just some of the examples of where this can lead. Producing “more of the same” ultimately stagnates the market and so the revenue stream is far from indefinite. The slasher boom of the eighties was lucrative but ultimately ran out of steam. So will the MCU and other major movies franchises. Therefore, why should gaming be any different. However, one thing Jim Sterling doesn’t explore in his video is what happens after the inevitable crash that comes from doggedly pursuing an unobtainable business goal, such as the “perfect video game”.
History shows that when the mainstream ceases to innovate and engage with its customers, creativity emerges from the fringe. It happened in the film industry during the late sixties and early seventies when independent films started to gain both critical and commercial success. The conventional music industry was similarly side lined by the emergence of punk and then later with hip hop. The rise of the internet has facilitated a wealth of content outside of commercial television. It caters to bespoke and niche markets. So, although mainstream gaming may well be heading for a commercial crash, what comes after may well be worth the wait and the current inadequacies of the market. In the meantime, if we as gamers wish to expedite these changes, we need to look to ourselves and what we buy. Exercising consumer choice sends a potent message.