Gaming is unique as a form of entertainment in how closely it is tied to digital technological evolution. Other media like movies and music certainly depend on digital tech as a key part of their development but, for gaming, these systems determine the entirety of the industry’s trajectory and scope. With each generation and leap, gaming uncovers new paths to travel, and new elements to exploit.
Running parallel to the hardware side of this technological equation is that of the software marketplace. As the potential of gaming systems grows, so too do the games and genres unfold. In this, a constant battle is being waged as companies vie to make the biggest, the best, and the most popular, taking into account both the past and contemporary factors.
On the surface, this might seem like an entirely positive development, but the realities of the industry are much more confounding. While some games have been utter success stories in their ongoing series, others have fallen flat, through either too much change or too little.
Using some key examples from gaming and other entertainment industries, we want to examine some of the most prominent illustrations of success and failure. In which cases has evolution worked or failed, and in which instances have to stay pure to the original vision allowed games to burn brightly or fade away?
Successful Evolution – Doom 2016 and Eternal
When the original Doom released back in 1993, it reshaped the entire PC gaming landscape. Followed by the aptly named Doom 2 in 1994, the games were so successful that for years the default term for what we now call FPS games was ‘Doom clone’. Doom 3, released in 2004, was also generally well-received but for many players, it drifted too far from the run-and-gun high-speed original Doom formula.
Doom 2016 went back to the series’ roots, which are so loved that the game has been ported into every platform imaginable, both professionally and by amateurs. True to these roots, Doom 2016 combined fast-paced gunplay with hyper-gory, over-the-top, even cartoonish levels of action.
Doom Eternal would follow the same route in 2020, 1 MB “Peco Medija” Content from ICS – Exported on the 13th August 2020, 08:18 AM further evolving and streamlining the experience to a new tier of excellence. Unlike Doom 3, 2016 and Eternal swung for the fences. In other words, Doom 3 reflected the FPS genre of the time, while Doom 2016 and Eternal redefine it.
Failed Evolution – Star Wars: Galaxies
Star Wars: Galaxies was a revelation in 2003, becoming the Star Wars MMORPG that many players had long dreamt of. Galaxies had immense worlds, flexibilities in its character roles, and even entire player-built cities. It was clunky, sure, but this was standard for early MMOs.
From dozens of individual choices on character creation came the application of nine different archetypes. Rather than the freedom to which they had grown accustomed, players were now shoehorned into simplified forms of progression and growth. This one patch near single-handedly killed the game, which is in itself an impressive feat, though the overall video game franchise is now stronger than ever.
So how was it a failure? Galaxies was an interesting case in that the evolution which brought about its downfall came from within. Following the Trial of Obi-Wan expansion in 2005, the developer, Sony Online Entertainment, released an overhaul to the player development process under the title New Game Enhancements (NGE). For Galaxies, this change was the video game version of television’s jumping the shark. In an ill- targetted attempt to adapt, the game betrayed its initial vision.
This was a similar path taken by the NBC comedy Community. An enormous hit in so small part thanks to showrunner Dan Harmon. One of the minds behind Rick and Morty, Harmon was fired following the third season. In the fourth season, the show approached what fans considered a loss of the show’s directive soul through, among other things, the dumbing down of its characters. Community went from Harmon’s specific touch to a much broader and disconnected type of standard sitcom wackiness, killing off existing fans in an attempt to reach a broader audience.
Successful Purity – Sonic Mania
Sonic games are synonymous with disappointment in gaming circles, in what is now commonly termed the ‘Sonic cycle’. After years of disappointments following failed 3D efforts like Sonic 2006 (46% on Metacritic) and Sonic Boom (32% on Metacritic), many saw hope as lost.
As it turns out, success was found by looking backwards. Sonic Mania, released in August of 2017, went back to Sonic’s 2D roots. Faithful to Sonic 2 and 3 on Mega Drive in a way that no other titles have been, Mania became an international hit, achieving a Metacritic score of 85. While many were shocked that a modern Sonic game could achieve such quality, it’s important to note that this level of purity to an age-old formula is hardly a new concept.
Outside of video games, similar developments have been observed for decades with industries like online casinos. As an example, we could use the collection of online slots from Betway. Dozens of these games like Cleopatra, Starburst, and Narcos operate by very similar rules to their decades-earlier predecessors, yet they’ve never had problems staying fresh. As with Sonic Mania, this is owed to what is essentially a timeless formula. It’s a difficult balance to find, but when done properly, titles like these can remain ageless.
Failed Purity – Duke Nukem Forever
The story of Duke Nukem Forever is a tale of stagnation and hubris, were failing to adapt to the times resulted in making a poorly developed game even worse. A joke among gamers for over a decade, Duke Nukem Forever was in development for 15 years, with followers convinced the name’s acronym more accurately represented how development ‘Did Not Finish’.
When DNF did finally arrive in 2011, the game was marred by technical problems and, perhaps more damaging, humour than no longer played. Duke was a product of the ’90s, at the height of hyper-machoism. In 2011, Duke’s lack of self-awareness was showing its age. Coupled with some terrible choices in how the game treats women, and most players agree that Duke probably should have been let out to pasture.
Finding the Balance
As nice as it would be for publishers and developers to find otherwise, the simple fact is that there is no easy line of when a game should change and when it should remain the same. Understanding how a game should form means taking note of technology and the sociocultural climate, measuring what can be done against what should be done.
The wrong decision can kill a game or a series, so there is a continual need for the industry to take these elements at play seriously. At least gamers have a saving grace in the modern age, in that spiritual successes from indie companies are now increasingly taking up the slack when AAA studios fail. Still, it might be nice one day to revisit our old haunt on Tatooine.
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