What sells a game?

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Lisa Asks That Fundamental Question Looking At E3’s Crop

As I wandered the E3 show rooms this year, one of the questions I wound up asking myself was: when do we reach a saturation point on ‘amazing’? Have we arrived at a moment when visually gorgeous games become so common that they no longer impress? Ultimately, I am forced to answer: No. But I suspect we’re pretty close.

Once upon a time, but not that long ago, when a game was visually stunning that was the first thing most gamers commented on, and it was possibly a game’s strongest selling point. After all, once upon a time, and really not that long ago, the PlayStation 2 was doing things never before seen in games on the graphics front, and gorgeously rendered cinematics on any gaming platform were moments for which you called in your friends or family, gamers or not, to come marvel at the pretty pictures.

These days, we expect our games to be stunning. We can still appreciate the advancements being made, but the paradigm has shifted enough that those games which don’t go for the most advanced graphics are often the ones that really stand out. Sometimes that’s an artistic choice, such as with games like Okami, Borderlands, Rayman, or The Walking Dead. Sometimes it’s only the skin that is heavily stylized, with the engine behind it going full steam. Superficial or profound, artistic or budget-dependent, perhaps the most interesting thing about it is that more often than not a game’s graphics excellence has little to no bearing on how fun the game ultimately is. Or how popular. One only has to look at Minecraft for an example of that.

This begs a question so fundamental that it possibly can’t be answered: what, exactly, makes a game fun? If the answer to this were universal or easily found, the gaming industry would surely be a very different place. But one thing I know is that as I was taking in the games on display at E3, I came to realize that “visually impressive” was not the quality that most piqued my interest. As is often the case, great graphics are a bonus in a good game, but not enough to carry a bad one. And in these days it goes with games as with movies: you can’t really judge a game by its (typically dramatic and gorgeous) trailer.

As for what sells a game, judging by the most common theme, developers these days seem to think that what most sells a game is multiplayer.

Sometimes it seems there’s hardly a single player game out there, franchise or not, that isn’t investing in some sort of multiplayer these days. Whether or not that is a good thing is debatable. After all, you’re not likely to subscribe to the multiplayer portion of a game if you weren’t already fond of the single player, so the truth remains that you’ve got to hook people on the single player first. Multiplayer options for games like Tomb Raider, Mass Effect, or Assassin’s Creed might keep franchise fans playing, but no one picks up any of those games just to get their hands on multiplayer.

Players for whom multiplayer is the ultimate aim of the game will usually have plenty of games to choose from that are dedicated to their vice, and E3 had no shortage of those either: Battlefield 4, Metal Gear Solid 5, and the dazzling newcomer Titanfall definitely shone.

A game like Activision’s Destiny seems to fall somewhere in between. It’s multiplayer and living world, but limited to quick matches, pre-made parties, or public events. It’s a bit unclear exactly how much interactivity will be involved outside central hubs, or how much a single player style story, as seems promised in the trailers, will actually feature. But there’s no doubt that the emphasis here is being placed on the multiplayer appeal.

Sadly, those gamers who wish that “multiplayer” would just go away forever and leave single-player masterpieces alone might feel like their options are somewhat limited these days, and perhaps not without reason. But those gamers that put “multiplayer” somewhere at the very bottom of their list might want to reconsider their feelings on the matter when it comes to Ubisoft’s new reveal game: The Division.

Set in the near future shortly after a pandemic causes a total breakdown of social infrastucture, in The Division you play a member of (surprise!) the Division, a mysterious organization of independent agents tasked with restoring order by whatever means necessary. Basically, you’re a gun-toting badass better equipped than the average Joe to survive. Just what you’re ultimately aiming for, however, is as yet unclear.

One of the most telling things I noticed about The Division in its demo was the three phrases they chose to showcase on the bottom of the screen: Open World / Online / RPG. Developers seemed to be taking great care to insure that the game did not get called an MMORPG in so many words (or letters), as if there were a stigma they are trying to avoid. I don’t have insight into their minds, but I can say that despite the presence of some key MMO traits, you could definitely be forgiven for watching The Division gameplay and not being quite sure what you were looking at. And in this case, that’s a good thing.

Many multiplayer favorites, particularly in the FPS mold, feature some pretty stunning graphics to maximize player immersion. For whatever reason, that can be a bit less of an emphasis in a third person shooter, which The Division is. And it’s practically unheard of in a game that is promising to be both online, multiplayer, and open world. But the level of visual realism The Division managed to achieve was impressive. If they can keep up that level of detail through the entirety of an open world, you’ll be looking at a whole new level of immersion. How large that world can realistically be is a different question, and not enough is known about the game yet to really say.

What is known is the following: you’ll be looking at both PVE and PVP action, but not in the way you would normally expect in a MMO. This is a shooter, after all, so you’re already playing a different sort of game. Players can pull up holographic maps of the city, which will alert them to ‘hot spots’ of activity. Converge on the area and you might find NPCs engaged in some sort of activity you want to thwart, or you might find another party of players in search of the same goal.

The Division is not the only new game trying to promote the idea of an ever changing, always living, open world. Activision’s Destiny is laying claim to this idea as well. But where Destiny still keeps to some more traditional fare (FPS, impressive armor, and super guns), The Division seems to be trying to blaze some new territory for a multiplayer game, with some under-stated realism in terms of gear, and gritty, un-fantastical world to play in. It’s that attempt to do something a bit new, more than the almost to-be-expected grandeur of gorgeous graphics, that really sets it apart. Were I invested with the power to award a Best In Show, The Division would definitely have gotten one of my ribbons.

But those still grumbling about the ubiquitous “multiplayer,” fear not, single player games were not entirely forgotten!

Those wanting some single player FPS action can turn to Bethesda’s Wolfenstein: New Order. Though there wasn’t much to be seen in the demo to set this apart from any other FPS game in terms of what makes a shooter a shooter, I suspect the pleasure in playing Wolfenstein will come not from the game mechanics, but from the setting. The developers described the game as their “love letter” to the Wolfenstein franchise. If the idea of blasting away Nazis in mechs brings you joy, then you have sufficient motivation to play this game, and you’ll likely be well rewarded. But if you’ve got money for only one FPS game and you’re looking for something new, exciting, and possibly a little ground-breaking, then this may not be your first choice.

Those wanting some horror can turn to Bethesda’s The Evil Within, from the maker of the Resident Evil series. Speaking as one who has no love of horror games I can’t honestly say how this would compare against other games of the genre. But speaking only as a discerning audience member, I can say that the game seems to feature some excellent mood-enhancing cinematics, lighting, and sound design. Oh yes, and it’s also pretty horrific. Plus!

Those wanting to get their stealth on can turn to the new Thief from Eidos. Emphasis in the Thief demo seemed to be on showcasing how the new Focus ability works. Go into Focus mode and you can spot points of interest in the area that might clue you in on alternate routes or goodies; this seemed to function almost exactly like Tomb Raider’s survival instincts mode, dimming the environment and highlighting key items. A much cooler application of Focus also allows you to perceive certain important indicators, such as sound, in new ways: hide on one side of a low stone wall and “see” the footsteps of a patrolling guard through the wall even as you hear them, as faint ripples to mark each step, like pebbles falling into a pond. This new installment in the Thief series was presented not as a prequel or a sequel, but as something of a reboot; an alternate origin story, if you will. Just how die-hard fans will receive that remains to be seen.

Those wanting a platforming fix might want to direct their attention to a forthcoming little gem on XBLA and PSN: Contrast, from Focus Home Interactive. Marketed as a puzzle/platformer, you play as the imaginary friend of a little girl in a Vaudevillian 1920s night-time city. Your key ability is the core of the game: the ability to shift into a shadow form. When there, all shadows become solid. To solve your platforming dilemmas you will need to manipulate light sources to create shadows that you can then run on, jump to, and dash through to reach your destination. The game’s wonderfully crafted ambience is enhanced by its deliciously jazzy and completely original soundtrack, featuring the talents of jazz singer Laura Ellis. In the demo, a developer described the game as Portal meets the movie Pan’s Labyrinth. If that sounds at all intriguing to you, you won’t be disappointed with Contrast.

Those wanting a traditional RPG fix might find themselves a bit more hard up for candidates this year, as no games seem immediately forthcoming. Despite the Dragon Age: Inquistion trailer playing over the EA booth, well known RPG developer Bioware had no presence at this year’s E3. However, tucked away in their office suite, City Interactive provided a first look at their in-development RPG title Lords of the Fallen, which was compared by both audience and developers to Dark Souls in terms of the challenge level the game is supposedly trying to achieve. Since it seems that all it takes to define a game as an RPG is the ability to level up your character’s abilities and choose year gear, Lords of the Fallen qualifies. But if, like me, you balk at the idea that all an RPG should be about is abilities and gear, you probably won’t be too thrilled with Lords of the Fallen, which in my hard-core RPG-lover’s estimation looked more like an action fantasy game (albeit a very fun one) than an RPG.

On the other hand, those RPG gamers who like the idea of creating a customized character (including gender and appearance), of having companions to talk to and interact with, and of a world that is shaped by the decisions you make, may want to keep their eyes out for another forthcoming title from Focus Home Interactive and Spider: Bound By Flame. Developer emphasis here was on the “story-driven” nature of the game. While the game is set in an original world, it isn’t exactly an “original” world. We seem to be looking at some pretty standard fantasy world-building here, but blinding originality is not necessarily required for a good story. If the game can deliver on the promise of deep interactions with your five character companions, the real consequence of your actions playing out over all three chapters of the game, and the promised natural evolution of PC dialogue based on your chosen dialogue options (think Dragon Age 2 mechanic, but a bit pared down), then Bound By Flame might make for a solid RPG.

Focus Home Interactive will also be releasing another game in their Sherlock Holmes series of adventure/investigation games, which promises to be a step up from their already enjoyable releases in the series, including last year’s Testament of Sherlock Holmes. In all, Focus seems to be doing what one would hope of a growing publisher: putting out games that keep getting better. They may be a bit off the beaten path in terms of mainstream gamer awareness, but they are worth keeping an eye on.

Finally, those single-player game lovers looking for something they know-not-what, so long as it’s fun and intriguing, will want to keep an eye out for the only game I left E3 promising myself I absolutely would buy: Square Enix and Airtight Games’s Murdered: Soul Suspect. With a game tagline of “The hardest murder to solve is your own,” you shouldn’t be surprised to learn that the game starts off your with murder. In an effort to avoid being the shortest game in creation, you are then permitted to rise as a ghost and proceed with the premise of the game, which is to wander around Salem as a ghost in an effort to investigate and solve your own murder.

As a ghost, in Murdered: Soul Suspect you can possess people to see through their eyes, prod them into thinking along certain paths, or read their silent and most secret thoughts in your effort to gather your clues. And since you’re a ghost in Salem, you can expect to be interacting with the long and creepy history of the city in the form of ghosts from ages past. Also ghosts from ages present, who may need you to solve their own murder mysteries in the course of solving your own. But if possessing people, walking through walls, picking up on emotional auras left behind in locations in order to view past events, and addressing historic spectral mysteries isn’t enough for you, you can rest assured that there are also demons in this soul realm out to destroy you. You can, of course, destroy them right back (kill them first seems not entirely apt, given the game’s premise) by managing to walk through enough walls to sneak up on them, possess them, and explode them from the inside out in grand Matrix style.

Murdered: Soul Suspect is being branded an action-adventure/puzzle game. Due to its unique premise, it’s appropriately creepy graphics style and color palette, and the variety of tactics you can apply to both gather clues and stealth/ambush your way around dangerous enemies, it has the potential to appeal to a wide variety of gamers. If you’re dedicated any time to browsing E3 gameplay trailers or demos, I recommend you take the time to check out Murdered: Soul Suspect.

So, ultimately, what sells a game?

The truth is, of course, that there are as many types of games as their are types of gamers. Some of us might bemoan the comparative lack of our favorite genre, but even at an E3 mostly dominated by shooters and multiplayer, there were some gems to be found. If shooters and multiplayer are your loves, then this year’s E3 was a cornucopia of goodness.

And if, despite the real possibility of graphics excellence saturation, you feel that graphics excellence should indeed be a chief measure by which game quality should be judged, rest assured that you will not be disappointed by this year’s crop. A publisher’s prize for graphics excellence for E3 2013 would have to go to Ubisoft, with the really spectacular visuals of Watch Dogs and Assassin’s Creed IV. Right up there with those was Crytek’s Ryse: Son of Rome, which may appeal more narrowly to only those interested in action-adventure games of the slashing swords variety, but which is undeniably gorgeous.

In fact it was Ryse that got me thinking on whether or not we had reached a point of too much visual awesome to really appreciate what we were looking at anymore. While standing in line for a demo, I overheard someone quite vociferously proclaim that they didn’t give a *bleep* about that piece of *bleep* Ryse. Now, we gamers are known to be a pretty opinionated bunch, so we should always expect some measure of *bleeping* about even the most beloved of games. And despite enjoying my hands-on demo with Ryse, I left E3 still undecided on whether or not it would be a game I would actually want to buy, but there was no denying it was visually gorgeous. If that alone isn’t enough to make a game good, and let’s face it, we all know it’s not, then what is the magic recipe?

Hopefully, as long as developers and publishers also keep asking themselves that question, we can continue to get good games, whether they’re block-busters or diamonds in the rough.

It was in the same line where I heard the aspersions cast at Ryse that I also ran into Brandon Scott, voice actor from The Last of Us, at E3 to help promote the game’s release, and who confessed to being a little overwhelmed, or at least exhausted, by all the E3 spectacle. The Last of Us seems to have managed to eclipse much of the E3 afterglow all on its own, which begs perhaps the most relevant question of all: Is there anyone left out there who has torn themselves away from The Last of Us long enough to even read this article?

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