Saturday, February 4, 2012

Not Responsible for Missing (Intellectual) Property

My gaming diet consists mostly of sequels and remakes of titles that I discovered back when elementary school seemed tough and my biggest fear was that my baseball cap would fly off my head as I whizzed around the neighborhood on a secondhand Huffy. Over the last decade or so, I’ve felt a void left by a lack of new and noteworthy intellectual properties.

It’s a void that grows larger as my old obsessions get less substantial with every new iteration, slowly fading from my favor. On Tuesday, Final Fantasy XIII-2 hit the shelves here in America, but I was more excited that morning when I got Final Fantasy II (US) working on an SNES emulator for PlayStation 2.

Serah, the main character of Final Fantasy XIII-2.

Ten out of 29: That’s the number of PS3 games I have that are entirely new intellectual properties. Gaming is getting stale and there’s nothing but a bunch of cookie cutter clones to replace those fallen titans of the past.

It hardly seems possible that Street Fighter II was ever new and that the likes of Chun-Li, Blanka and Guile haven’t existed since the beginning of gaming itself. But there was a time when Capcom’s cash cow was vibrant and fresh; I think they called it “1991.” The House that Megaman built took a chance on a genre that had, up to that point, been mostly gaming trash. The company’s gambit paid off and SFII paved the way for big boys like Mortal Kombat, King of Fighters and even 3D brawlers like Tekken and Soul Calibur.

Thankfully, the only polar bear you'll see in SFII is from Russia.

But consider this: If Street Fighter II had been as much fun as a polar bear with dysentery, players still had a diverse sable of games to give them their next challenge. The Adventures of Willy Beamish, Chip n’ Dale Rescue Rangers, Fatal Fury, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, The Immortal, Princess Salad in the Tomato Kingdom, the original Sonic the Hedgehog, Toejam & Earl, Street of Rage and even Final Fantasy II (US)  – they all came out the same year as SFII and they were all unique games.

By contrast, when I walk into Best Buy or GameStop today, I have a choice of a yet another first person shooter, a Grand Theft Auto wannabe or some arm-flailing shovelware for the Wii. Of course I’m going to buy a sequel to something I loved as a kid because there’s not much else to play. New IPs are becoming harder and harder to come by.

In the days when Nintendo’s grey toaster ruled the gaming world and during the 16-bit console wars era that followed, companies were willing to chance failure in the seemingly endless quest for the Next Big Thing. There were hundreds of platformers trying to steal Mario’s success to be sure, but there was also new, innovative stuff like Snake, Rattle and Roll, Ecco the Dolphin and Panic! But with the multimillion dollar budgets games have in the current era, failure isn’t exactly something companies can just shrug off anymore. Indie games on PSN and Xbox Live sometimes bring back a bit of that ground-breaking magic, but they lack the “wow” factor of professional, disc-based releases. Unless you’re playing something like Braid, these games are little more than a pleasant distraction.

At work last Tuesday, my friend Chris wandered over to my desk and we were talking about how video games have changed. I pointed out how it’s expensive to take a chance on a new intellectual property nowadays.

“But if you can change only a few things and make a new game, it makes sense from a business standpoint. So why not?” he asked.

That sentiment echoes the business practices of the Atari era – the same practices that contributed to the gaming crash of 1983. I fear that if gaming companies keep going down this path, we’re going to wind up with another gaming blackout.

It’s already begun in my world, were I’ve been daydreaming not of the PlayStation Vita or Final Fantasy XIII-2, but of finding the time to play though my favorite Super Nintendo classics while games like Infamous 2, Mortal Kombat 9 and the Wii version of Punch-Out!! sit unopened and unplayed on my shelf.