You'd be forgiven, looking at this holiday season's blockbuster line-up, that the video games industry is suffering from the worst kind of content-churn.
The bestselling games this Christmas are so entrenched in sequelisation as to border on ridiculousness. We have the Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, the 14th Elder Scrolls release since 1994; we have Battlefield 3, the 19th Battlefield product published since 2002; and, most obviously, we have Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, the Vaz-baiting, industry-crushing super-game built on seven previous releases in the Call of Duty franchise since 2003.
Skyrim is a role-playing game in which you hit wolves and dragons with fireballs and axes. Call of Duty and Battlefield are separate takes on contemporary war: you shoot the bad guys with guns.
Orcs and bullets. How depressingly video-gamey. Ed Vaizey, Britain's creative industries minister, pointed out last week that the games trade has "grown to rival any entertainment business" on a sales level, but why isn't this success being matched by daring expansion into creative realms unknown? Just how many times can video games get away with hitting a goblin in the face with a magic stick?
The short answer is that big budget fantasy and shooting games will continue to be made for as long as people pay for them, which will no doubt keep the likes of Mr Vaizey in hand-rubbing for many years to come. Fortunately, though, the insatiable need to cash in on the public's apparently endless desire to shoot Russian, German or Middle-Eastern gentlemen in the face doesn't begin to describe the lapping edges of the games trade's creativity pool.
Two things have happened in recent years to enable an explosion in ingenuity in the games business. Just because you might not see it on the shelves of your local games store doesn't mean it isn't there. For a start, the internet got faster. This means that games don't specifically have to be delivered on discs any more, opening up retail channels that skirt the traditional high street shop and removing the need for lofty prices and long games. You can now buy any number of tiny, cheap games through Xbox Live, PlayStation Network or PC- and Mac-facing services like Steam.
We've re-entered the realm of the bedroom coder, and the results, in the main, have been fabulous. Indie development has never been so vital, with studios like Jim Rossignol's Big Robot and Dejobaan Games creating games like AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! - A Reckless Disregard for Gravity and Fallen City with tiny teams. These projects would never be released on disc.
On top of that, we've seen a spread in the platforms available for games, with mobile phones and the PC becoming near-limitless formats for play. Thanks to iOS and Android, the speed at which mobile gaming has accelerated has taken the "traditional" games industry's breath away. The days of games being limited to consoles and disc-based PC releases are long gone. It's now estimated that the leaders of mobile gaming in the US are not Sony and Nintendo with PSP and DS, but Apple and Google with iOS and Android. Over 250 million iOS devices and 190 million pieces of hardware running Android have now been activated: they all play games. Serious questions are being asked as to whether Nintendo and Sony can even exist in the handheld space in the coming years with the upcoming Vita and struggling 3DS, a situation unthinkable even two years ago.
While Sony and Nintendo traditionally rely on selling physical media for handheld systems, iOS and Android are home to the 99p download, short bursts of fun for pennies delivered to millions of people. The result has been devastating. The prime success story of the mobile gaming revolution is Rovio's Angry Birds, with its mind-numbing 500 million downloads. The App Store concept has allowed thousands of pocket-sized games to flood the market, and the resulting creativity has been bewildering.
Similarly, PC games are now so varied it's impossible to seriously catalogue genres. Computer games used to be first-person shooting and strategy, but the bite-sized approach afforded by internet delivery and the PC's open nature has recently seen some gigantic hits emerge from even single coders. Minecraft, a freeform world in which you can build whatever you like, has sold over 4 million units since 2009. Developer Markus Persson made the initial release by himself.
This diversification of both platforms and delivery methods means you're no longer limited to £40, Hollywood-style games. The next time you get bored of playing soldiers or wizards, try checking out Android Market or booting up Steam: you may well be delighted by what you find.
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