I thought I’d add my voice to the rest of the gaming community praising Portal 2, which I finished last week. A great story, which made me laugh out loud at least a dozen times, which is rare in any medium, let alone a game. It’s not without its flaws, but all are minor and do not detract noticeably from the overall experience. It most definitely passed my usual acid test for quality: that I wanted to play it even when I didn’t have any free time, to the point where I was skipping sleep to play it some more.
I loved the original, even though I wouldn’t have bought it were it not tacked onto Half-Life 2: Episode 2. It always struck me as a wonderfully weighted title – just the right length, elegant in its simplicity, and with a level of polish that larger titles just don’t achieve. More than anything though, it was a title that left me wanting more, not because it was too short, but because it was so good. Much like a wonderful novel or film where I get immersed in the universe and characters, the end comes with both a warm glow of satisfaction at the conclusion, and an aching for more. More of the characters, more from the rich universe. It’s a rare creation that brings that level of quality to the observer, and both Portal incarnations have that quality in spades.
I’ve been ranting somewhat about the poor judgement of top-end games development recently. Quality of Life and financial issues are just one facet of a deeper problem: that we’ve been trapped into an arms race of scope. To justify a ‘full-price’ cost, developers feel they have to match or out-do each other. Worlds grow larger and larger, not even bound by memory constraints, since every large game streams their environments off disc. Stories grow more and more epic, and require game-play lengths to match. More characters are wedged in, even though there’s not enough time to get to know them in any great detail. Their voices are provided by more and more famous actors. Cut-scenes get flashier and longer.
The problem is that the underlying mentality to it all is ‘go big, or go home.’ Budgets spiral upwards, or if they don’t, then quality spirals downwards. Both hurt a title’s chances of success. But more quality doesn’t justify a higher price tag to match the increased costs. The players have shown in a wide variety of ways that they’re not prepared to pay any more for games than the already high cost. Second-hand sales and rental mean that the RRP quickly gets turned into the ‘real’ price – far lower. Popular titles drop slower than unpopular ones, so market forces still apply. But as an industry we still delude ourselves that we ‘deserve’ the RRP times the number of units sold.
That’s not the real madness though. The real madness is that despite all our profitability numbers showing the decline, developers and publishers keep on down the same path. They know how much more it costs to increase the scope of the games we make, but they do it anyway. Why? Because they know if they don’t invest enough in titles they flop, because they are competing with other titles on quality. But they don’t know how to turn investment money into quality. Quality is hard. It’s intangible, and you don’t always know it until you see it. So they put the money on things they can understand. More levels, more characters, bigger worlds. They set themselves a benchmark of their competitors, plus some. Because if X was a success, and we have more of everything than X, then we’re as good as X, right?
So when a title like Portal comes along, I regain a bit of hope for our industry. By showing that you can make a massively successful title, not by making it bigger, or more complicated, but by making it good, it’s a bit of ammunition for the decision makers. They can point to Portal and say “it doesn’t need to be big, as long as it’s fun”, or “let’s find a mechanic that works well, and just stick with that”. And maybe we can halt this crazy race to massacre our industry’s profit margins.