Yesterday and Today: Your E-mailRight out of the gate, David Alpern (a terrific writer who doesn't write much anymore, unfortunately) had this to say:
So you're complaining about how games aren't innovative anymore and game companies are focused entirely on sequels, and your example of how good things USED to be is Ultima... FOUR? Gosh, wasn't that a sequel? To a sequel? To a sequel? That spawned 5 more sequels, started the MMORPG craze, and had 4 sideqels (Ultima Underworld 1 and 2 and Worlds of Ultima 1 and 2)?
The man has a point.
Backstory: Ultima IV was the first computer game I ever played, and it made my Apple IIC one of the best investments of my life. For me, it will always be the high point of the Ultima series, because it focused on ideas far beyond those usually found in computer games (even to this day).
I'll defend the Ultima sequels, to a degree, because they were released two years apart, at least (well, before the franchise fell off a cliff). But I think David is right in the sense that it might have been the Ultima series that started the sequel train, not the Madden series.
He later sent in a follow-up:
You're also forgetting that back when you and I were playing Ultima 4, most other people were playing Time Pilot and Commando - that era's version of shooters.
That's true as well, but I think the difference is that there were so many excellent RPGs back then, and that kind of depth just doesn't exist anymore.
Loren Halek sent this in:
You've kind of made an arguable slippery slope in your game design post. There is a publicly traded company that has put out games with a vibrant world as well as one with a vibrant universe, both by the same company. Although I haven't played it, everything I've heard is that the original Dragon's Age (an original IP at the point it came out) fits into the same category as you are putting Skyrim (the fifth game in a series). Same goes for Mass Effect, but in a universe sense instead of a world one. Now both of those had sequels as well, although from everything I read Mass Effect 2 (which I played) was far better than Dragon Age II.
I got several e-mails along these lines, and most prominently, they always mentioned the Mass Effect and Dragon Age franchises as equivalent to Oblivion. But while they do qualify as RPGs, I don't think they're equivalent. I spent 30+ hours in Oblivion before I even touched the plot. I couldn't have done that in Mass Effect--the opening area was a "pod", if you will, and while it was large and full of interesting stuff, I had to progress through the plot to get out of there.
The point is still taken--public companies can put out large, open-world type games--but the number has steeply declined in the last decade, and I do think it's attributable, to some degree, to the pressure put on publicly traded companies to deliver yearly updates to core franchises. Well, and to some degree, the companies themselves have caused that pressure, because almost no one wants to release anything but a new version of a proven franchise now.
DQ Film Advisor and Nicest Guy In The World Ben Ormand weighed in with this:
You missed one point in your post about the difference between complex and elaborate--that is, it's harder to emulate complex than elaborate.
I can spend X dollars and hire other talented artists to put a visual spin on the same rail based design and call it a different game (ooh, look! It's snowing on a volcano), but they can't exactly do that with something unique in design.
And lord knows that in the big budget gaming world that imitation is the sincerest version of risk averse content production.
Yes. There are more competent artists out there than competent open-world game designers (by a factor of a jillion), so it's much more scalable to make a game look great than be unique.
Lastly, Garth Pricer sent in a thoughtful analysis:
Complex open-world RPGs are still out there, even if they don’t come with the pack-in feelies like the old Gold Box/SSI and Infocom games did. You mentioned Skyrim, but there’s also Fallout (New Vegas, if you want a non-Bethesda studio) and Stalker (for a more shooter themed entry). Dragon Age is a little more structured, as is Mass Effect, and maybe they would have made for a better (if not as stark) comparison between RPGs then and now. It is clear that the graphical expectations for ‘AAA titles’ are expensive in terms of dev time and result in more streamlined experiences (or a buggier implementation of those non-core features). Bioware has struggled with the pressure of making sufficient profits to appease their publisher and it showed in the compressed development time they were allotted for Dragon Age 2. Big publishers apparently aren’t content to release a niche success any more. And maybe that’s the real tragedy. When you have guys like Greg Zeschuk believing that their RPG releases must compete with Modern Warfare, naturally they are setting themselves up for failure. Not only will they not be successful in somehow tricking twitch gamers into buying complex RPGs, but in streamlining their games to court that audience, they will also alienate a good chunk of their existing fanbase.
As always, thanks for the excellence you guys always display in sending timely and thoughtful e-mail.