Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Changing the formula

Many a game franchise these days seem to be going through the occasional metamorphasis into something different. A break away from the series playing style, context or timeline. Some are much more dramatic than others, whilst some simply switch the location in which a character visitis. On the more extreme end, it can revive a dying beast, or be the final nail in the coffin for something that should be euthanised. For better or for worst, they have been happening for a while, but the idea of change seems to be spreading fast.

The first extreme change that I can personally remember was the constant shifting of the command and conquer universe. The series has now spanned three different time periods. We have seen an alternate cold war timeline in which Albert Einstein builds a time machine, and history goes mad, a war fought between the good guys and terrorists over control of the fictional mineral Tiberium, and a poorly timed venture into the territory of America vs. China vs. extremist middle eastern terrorist group. It has all been a barrel of laughs so far, but the first major change for the series appeared in 2002 when it went through a traumatic genre change.

Command and Conquer: Renegade took the original game's setting, and placed the player into the eyes of a Global Defence Initiative commando named Nick Havoc. It was a first person shooter, that the critics were not too happy with. Personally, I thought the single player was alright, but the multiplayer aspect of the game was phenomenal. It introduced real time strategy elements into a soldiers perspective on the ground. You could buy vehicles to use, or upgrade your character to a better class by using the money generated by an AI controlled tiberium harvester. It was such an extreme change for the series which could be the reason why many hardcore C&C fans did not like it. I thought it was a fun game, but the whole 'one man army' Rambo approach was not what Command and Conquer was like at all.

A one man army that most people know and love has also been through at least one dramatic change. Metal Gear Solid shocked fans in 2004 when it took the 'back to basics' route, and made a prequel for the series. Gone were the super high tec gadgets, gone were the bumbling baddies, and gone was the incredibly useful radar that showed the enemies field of vision. It was metal gear, but stripped down to its basics in order to promote the survival aspect. Snake no longer felt anywhere near as invincible as he seemed to be in the previous games. Using your wits and the brand new camoflage system (which prompted more clothing changes than a Spice Girls stage show), you had to out manouvere and get around your enemies. Mindlessly killing them was no longer the easy route. If you were spooted, you were screwed. Being the evil little guy that I am, I would tranqualise an entire area of enemies, and then go back later to headshot the unconscious bodies, just to make sure that they would not wake up and give chase. This came back to haunt me later in the game though, when a certain event throws every enemy you have killed in the game at you in the form of slow moving ghost zombies, cornering you in a corridor.

The change was received sceptically at first. The metal Gear Solid we all knew and loved featured bi-pedal nuclear robots in the near future, not an animal snacking, cold war, hiding in a ditch simulation. The new setting worked though, and gave a lot of background knowledge and a different angle to the other games. The controls were the same, but the way you played snake in MGS3 and MGS2 was vastly different. This difference made what could have easily been an easy copy and paste job, into a gaming masterpiece. In Snake's next outing he seems to be back in the future, but an incredibly old and decrepid dying man. I remain very sceptical of this new looking Metal Gear game, but it is still likely to surprise me yet.

A final drastic change to a game series that is coming up soon is the brand new Splinter Cell game, Conviction. This looks to be a MASSIVE over haul of what we are useful. Sam Fisher is no longer a bondage geared secret agent, but is now a grizilled hobo. The game is due to feature wide open urban spaces, sprawling with civillian life. A huge leap from enemy infested missile silos then! He has no supplied weapons or gadgets, but relies on what he finds (apparently Ubisoft Montreal took eight months to make almost every item in game usable). Does this mean that we will have the worlds first terrorist busting womble? Stealth is also affected drastically, borrowing the crowed hiding option a la Assassins Creed Style. Sam also now appears to be a lot more hands on, getting into fisty cuff sessions with a lot of people, as can be seen in the trailer here.

Change is always welcome with a careful glance, and should be treated like a volatile liquid by the devlopers. If you annoy the loyal fan base that you have raised with previous games, unleashing a radical new idea that is not very well recieved could mean the death of a series. People don't always like the idea of change. They know what they like, and quite often expect more of it.


Anonymous said...

An interesting article, well done.

So your point about C&C is all the more appropriate with news of C&C Tiberium on the way. In fairness the timing is just about right - EA know a lot more about changing up a franchise now and C&C's fanbase are in good mood following C&C3. Let's hope it lives up to its ambitions.

So the changes you mentioned were big overhauls! I've just watched the Metroid retrospective at Gametrailers (worth a watch). If you look how that series moved from 2D to 3D, it's a risky and big change. But it was one that was necessitated - does that make it different to the genre or gameplay changes you describe which were out of choice? Other Nintendo franchises spring to mind - Mario, Zelda etc.

I think Final Fantasy games generally have the right balance between change and keeping the fans happy. If you look at 7 to 8, or 10 to 12, the games are different in a lot of ways but they don't feel alien. Of course, Final Fantasy 7 was the biggest change of all, and a huge risk. Lucky for Square, they got it right.

Anyway, keep up the good work.

Sinan aka shoinan from GCG forums

Anthony said...

I think the main reason why the Zelda, Mario, and Metroid series saw big change was possibly not as risky as suggested. The metroid change did not come about for ages (Nintenda seemed to leave metroid behind on the N64, revivng it on the gamecube). This update came with better technology, and so I reckon that the change came as they saw the tried and tested first person shooter formula, and decided that it was perfect for metroid.

Mario and Zelda maybe considered riskier, Mario especially. After all, Mario 64 was one of the first pioneers for 3D platform games. Zelda was a bit more of a risk, but that certainly played off. This jump from 2D to 3D in all these games can 'technically' be seen as a genre change, in the traditional sense. I would describe Mario and Metroid as side scrolling (hardly what you would call the current versions of these games.

In my eyes, it is a genre evolution, going back to the original idea, and plying more work to it.

Thanks for the feedback anyway. Its good to provoke each others thoughts!

Anthony aka IDesert FoxI

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