Yesterday and TodayGaming in 1985:
Gaming in 2011:
So what the hell happened?
First, the single-player campaigns of most games aren't even games anymore--they're movies. Wonder why the single-player campaign of your favorite FPS only lasts six hours? It's because it's incredibly difficult to make a six-hour movie, let alone something longer.
Really, it's probably more accurate to say that instead of movies, games are like the old mine cart amusement park ride. You get on the cart, it goes forward on rails, and surprising things pop out at you along the way. Welcome to the world of the corridor shooter. It's not a game. It's a ride, or a guided tour.
Why would anyone want to make a game like that?
Well, like I said, making a six hour movie is hard--but, and this is important, it's easier than making a real game.
Think about Ultima IV and the amount of content contained in the game. Sure, there was a storyline that needed completion, but the sheer number of things you could do as a player were absolutely amazing.
That story, and that level of interaction, required a complex game design and an incredible amount of detail.
Today? Modern Warfare 55 is not complex. It's just a corridor, and you run through that corridor shooting at shit and blowing things up. Complicated world design? No. Elaborate set pieces? Yes.
Games used to be complex. Now they're elaborate. It's a huge difference. And I think in a design sense, it's much easier to make an elaborate game than a complex one. It certainly doesn't require as much skill.
Also, and this is very, very important, the big publishing companies are now almost entirely sequel-driven. It would be impossible to churn out a complex game in a franchise every year. An elaborate one? Hell, yes.
I think there's another factor that's been understated, and it's the role of analysts. Most gaming analysts aren't gamers, and if you're trying to get them to buy into a complex, dynamic world, it's going to be extremely difficult. They don't want nuance. It's hard to market complex.
It's easy to market boom.
So companies like Bethesda (bless them), are swimming against the rancid tide when they put out a game like Skyrim. Good grief, when you think about it, how many publicly traded companies have put out a game with a truly complex, vibrant world in the last three years?
Slim pickings out there.
If Bethesda was part of a publicly traded company, I don't think the Elder Scrolls series would even still exist.
Fortunately, the barriers to access for indie developers is almost zero these days. They don't have to churn out a game every year, they don't have to please their stockholders, and they don't have to sell two million copies to cover their gigantic advertising budget.