With the spectacle delivered by increasingly photo-realistic video games with budgets running into tens of millions of pounds on a par with that of the film industry, it seems only right that video games should be offered awards by the same organisation, the Baftas.
On the list of nominees for the British Academy Games Awards this year are many “AAA” titles such as Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, Alien: Isolation and Far Cry 4, each demonstrating extraordinarily realistic visual representation involving soundscapes and inspiring technical ambition. These are massive, detailed open worlds to explore, with expansive multi-player options.
Not so novel
Yet there is much that is familiar in these nominations. Franchises such as FIFA football, the Call of Duty first-person shooter and the Forza racer are commercial goldmines that are revisited annually to generate predictable profits. But this discourages risk-taking. Each new iteration of an established title is often little more than a re-skin, a buff-and-polish. This is as much to do with audience expectations of the game they’re getting as it is testament to the development costs required to exploit the technical power of the latest consoles.
Of course such valuable pieces of intellectual property require a safe pair of hands. Game developer studios can’t afford for an instalment to fail, and this commercial need encourages a very conservative approach. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing for the industry, as the profits from established titles can be reinvested in developing new ideas. For example Bungie, the studio behind the hugely successful Halo series, also created Destiny, which expands a typical first-person shooter into a multi-player online game with role-playing elements in an immersive, persistent game universe.
Yet despite the technical accomplishment of next-gen games such as Destiny and the mechwarrior-style Titanfall, many players look for novelty and a different type of challenge. Some games nominated for an award represent very traditional concepts of play. For example, incarnations of classics such as Nintendo’s ever-popular Mario Kart (now up to the eighth instalment), and a simplified version of the retro-themed Minecraft for games consoles illustrate the enduring appeal of old school game mechanics and characters over games that sell themselves on photo-realistic environments.
Still, as in the world of film, it often seems that once again we’ve been seduced by the polish of sequels and derivatives rather than risky new ideas.
So I’m pleased to see much smaller games from indie developers among the shortlist. The explosion of computing power in our pocket via mobile phones and tablets has prompted a new wave of creativity throughout the game industry. With far lower costs to develop games for mobile platforms, the opportunity is there for smaller studios and independent developers (often individuals) to enter the market with interesting, unusual, or downright idiosyncratic games. Big budget games may be technically impressive with their realistic physics engines and lighting, but it’s often the smaller studios with tiny budgets that deliver real innovation.
Some of the nominations this year challenge the orthodoxy in a beautiful way. Lumino City by Camberwell-based State of Play is a great example of a novel approach to graphic style. The painstaking effort to cut and construct a paper-based set provides a truly refreshing environment. It reminds us of the simple pleasures of classroom craft but enhanced in ways we could only dream of as children.
Nominated in four categories, Inkle’s adventure game 80 Days has been lauded for its elegant storytelling and rich interactive narrative. The game isn’t ashamed of its pedestrian pace, using it as a device to enhance the unravelling of the story.
Compelling gameplay doesn’t have to mean breakneck speed and bullet-dodging action; nor, as the regular use of self-deprecating humour in 80 Days demonstrates, do contemporary games need to take themselves so seriously.
The intricacies of the game’s plot – to travel round the world in 80 days, like Phileas Fogg – creates a world that can be explored repeatedly not just to improve on a score, but in order to continue discovering new elements missed on previous run-throughs.
The 25% industry tax breaks for games with a British “cultural value”, finally awarded last year after a seven year legal battle, should encourage more newcomers to the games industry. And as mobile platforms spread more widely, we will hopefully see fewer blockbuster sequels in the future and more small but perfectly formed sensations like Lumino City and 80 days.
Regardless of whether the games enjoy a large or small budget, the Games Baftas should serve to remind us of the enormous versatility, skills and innovation within Britain’s creative industries. Each year UK talent produces some of the world’s most successful video games, which contributes billions to the economy. The British video games industry is a homegrown success story dating back to the 1980s, but which is continually enriched by the range of excellent design and development courses at UK universities today – long may it contiune.