I just read the March issue of Game Developer and was quite outraged by an article about a DICE conference speech by a guy called Marc Ecko (a billionaire designer of "cool" clothing), where he was saying that he thought game developers were producing games without a clue about thier audiences desires.
I certainly don't feel 100% in line with Marc's thinking, especially as I totally dislike the kind of "pop" culture he promotes as what he thinks our target audience should be. But he definitely has a point (even though I've railroaded it somewhat to my own way of thinking).
The thing is, he was basically saying that as developers, we cater to either our hardcore players, or to some fuzzy "mainstream" stereo type. We do this by creating games that almost universally are over-produced with too much content, most games players being quite happy to see less than 50% of a games content.
Essentially, we have a very substantive view of development, this being bourne out by the focus of publishers towards bigger games with bigger budgets and bigger prices, as evident in the call for increased game prices by Sony VP Jack Tretton in the same issue.
What I *do* tend to agree with is the assertion that we seem to be lacking the notion of style in our games. This notion of style is something that inherently affects people's view of our work. If something is considered "cool" it is because it is percieved to have a certian style. As soon as one group picks up on the style and adopts it, we then start creating a "culture".
The thing I agree with is that we are overly valueing substance over style. Where we should be creating innovative products which are stylistically radical in order to create new cultures and counter-cultures, we are all essentially singing the same songs from the corporate song-sheet. We are all looking to emulate the success of the bigger guys without thinking that perhaps its more likely that we gain success from driving our own niche.
The problem is that it takes a hefty niche group, who are very vocal about thier favoured entity before anything gains acceptance as "mainstream". Think of things like hip-hop, rave and all of these sub-cultures that were taken from the grass-roots of one place and essentially initiated into the corporate world over time. Now its not uncommon for the likes of Sony to have hip-hop acts on thier roster of artists, imagine in the early days of hip-hop acts even dreaming of that sort of mainstream acceptability?
I also think that whilst we are lacking innovations in style, we are also lacking any sort of consistancy of style. The whole point of a stylistic movement is that several innovators drive forward a particular idea, using each others work as sounding boards in order to iterate thier own learning. Eventually finding thier own voice within that particular broad-brush of genre.
Perhaps this *has* occurred, within the FPS genre, where the main "players" have essentially worked around a bunch of fairly well delimited themes, each offering something slighty different, but essentially staying within the genre.
Maybe what I'm advocating is that we don't really need to go for "bigger", but that we need to find our styles, our new genre's that take development in a new direction, but this has to be supported by a groundswell of companies promoting that genre in order for it to achieve the critical mass that eventually leads to "mainstream".
So that begs the question, what IS the next genre? the next stylistic trend which is born of some reasonably low-level development, but that eventually ends up as a mainstream? Perhaps mobile 3D? Perhaps something even more experimental.
As for Marc, to paraphrase someone "would you trust a middle aged man who wore his cap backwards?".