Something’s been irking me over the last couple of years, well, ever since downloadable games became a ‘thing’. Don’t get me wrong, I love the idea of smaller experiences, expansions and other paraphernalia coming down the tubes from the internet. Some of my favourite games this generation don’t, and are unlikely to ever have a physical release. The issue isn’t with smaller games themselves – and at this point the transition to a digital download model looks almost inevitable – nor is it with Triple A titles.
Let me explain. I think that big, bold Triple A titles should still have their grand midnight launches, and millions spent on advertising, whilst the smaller, possibly more creative and niche titles should find a nice warm corner of Steam, or AppStore, or any other distribution channel and entertain their smaller loyal fan base in interesting new ways. But, and this is a but of colossal proportion, they should not be treated as comparable products, at least for the purpose of reviews.
Any review, especially one with a score, or rating, or any other statistically measurable quantity, can not be mapped against the entirety of gaming history. In the same way that I’d challenge the reasoning and sanity of anyone, who’d try to directly compare the original Capcom vs SNK for Dreamcast to Angry Birds for iOS because they share the same Metacritic score, I’d be equally bewildered by the comparison of Skyrim to Bastion due to both featuring melee combat.
Admittedly, those comparisons where more than a little waggish, lets take the recently released Alan Wake’s American Nightmare and the original Alan Wake, a more rational comparison. The original did something which hadn’t been seen before, created a world where anything was possible, though was short enough for many to finish in a weekend (which is massively off-putting if it’s one of two or three games you could afford that year). Now take American Nightmare, in essence the same game, modified combat, additional mode, all built in a fraction of the time, with a fraction of the budget, meaning that the title can be sold for a quarter of the price of the original, and you’ve got a game where price fits the content.
That’s in essence what differentiates the downloadable games space, it’s an iPod compared to a surround sound system, same concept, just minified and more personal, and it should be reviewed as such; instead of comparing work from a team of four people, made on a shoestring budget, to a game published by one of the big five. That’s why downloadable games, or any game, regardless of scale, or budget, needs to be reviewed as a unique product, whilst equally accessing it against advancements that the industry has made before (both generally and genre specific). Granted all reviews can share the same scoring system, even the same vernacular, but everything has to be taken with a little bit of perspective, not just a simple case of compare and contrast.
It’s not that I expect less from a downloadable title, take Limbo, you can run through it in a couple of hours, but every second is memorable, compared to any one of several dozen full retail titles that became absorbed into the black-hole that is my steam library, which are much longer, though totally unmemorable. If anything there’s an expectation for smaller downloadable titles to do more conceptually and thematically with less, in the same way that shooters were scathed in the 90’s for being less than 20 hours – but tended to be composed largely of filler – gamers and the press have come to the conclusion that a game’s value, is not directly correlational to length of campaign, but fidelity of experience.
Increased freedom in creating that experience, and allowing developers to build the game they want rather than from a design specification sent from up-on-high is causing career Triple A developers to broaden their reach and reevaluate building massive, high-risk games in favour of smaller indie or downloadable projects. Take the fine folks that worked at Bizarre Creations (pre-shutdown by Activision Blizzard), who have now splintered off since the studio’s closure into three new developers, all focusing on smaller titles. Such developers with a pedigree for making massive million dollar games which span consoles and genre, are moving to a downloadable model, and there’s no reason to presume they won’t carry forth that same level of quality, in a more compact form.
So… the next time you read an article about how the gaming industry is being diluted by downloads, or some irate fanboy of console X or system Y pettily arguing that their favourite game ‘deserves’ a score higher than another by the divine right of platform, just point them here, and simply say, its all about perspective.