Tuesday, September 24, 2013

How Much Does Pedigree Matter?



We often talk about a game as being from the makers of one game or another. It's often used a lot in advertising to promote a game based on the success of it's predecessors. However, recently I've noticed it being used to put down games. Instead of promoting a game based on the success of it's predecessors I've seen detractors rip a game based on the previous work of it's developers.

This isn't about meaningful commentary in a context, this is in response to writers who dig up the long dead portfolios in order to say mean things about a game.

Which leads us to the question: how important is a game's pedigree?
For many, the pedigree of a video game is defined the people who make the game. Often times this mainly comes down to creative director. While this might be somewhat reductive of the role of the many many other people at a developer it's a strong perception. In a broader sense the pedigree might be defined by the developer as a whole. This is a weaker comparisons as personnel changes can severely change the face and nature of a dev. I think those definitions are still a bit incomplete. I'd like to throw engine into the mix because it's such a huge part of a game and it can be licensed. I think more could definitely go into it. I think it's necessarily incomplete, however, a good way of distilling some of the notions.

Now, I'd like to bring up a few games and discuss their pedigree.

Killzone 2

Guerrilla Games has a relatively small portfolio compared to a lot of other developers. Personally I feel that Killzone 2 is a fairly straightforward shooter that's still very enjoyable to play despite a lot of adherence to genre conventions. GameRankings has it 90% and Metacritic (a problem for another day) has it at 91/100. Definitely nothing to scoff at. Now what about the rest of Guerrilla Games's portfolio?

Before Killzone 2 they made two other entries into the franchise, Killzone: Liberation which pulled in a 79% at GameRankings and a 77/100 on Metacritic. Not bad, and definitely one of my favorite PSP games. The Original Killzone didn't do quite as well bringing in a 74% at GameRankings and a 70/100 at Metacritic. So we can see that up to the production of Killzone there was a steady progression upwards. However, before the Killzone series, Guerrilla Games released a little known title called Shellshock: Nam '67, not a good game by most standards. Numbers wise it got no better than a 59% at GameRankings and no better than a 58/100 on Metacritic. Not the best scores.

I don't think it would be fair to compare any of the Killzone games to that standard. It would certainly make them look great by comparison but a developer has the right to grow and certainly the right to improve. How much did the pedigree of Killzone 2 matter? Not too much, consider that the series has continuously improved. If anything, Shellshock seems to be an aberration.

Grand Theft Auto

I know relatively few people who played any GTA game prior to GTA III. In fact, in the minds of most people the series begins there. So what about those prior games?

They pretty much looked, and played like, Retro City Rampage. That might not be entirely fair to either game but it's something that I'm hoping my readers did play. Before the days of the modern gamepad the first two GTAs were hard to control, hard to look at, and just hard. Not in the way that Super Meat Boy is hard, just really difficult.

For me, at least, the first two entries weren't even particularly fun. They didn't have the same sharp commentary and wit that the series as now and it was just sort of boring.

But then something magical happened with the change from 2D top down to 3D. The game suddenly got amazing, I still have amazing memories of that game and I specifically look for cars I remember driving in GTA III during my current playthrough of GTA V. So what does pedigree matter?

If you consider the themes of the series to be commit crimes then yes, it mattered a lot. If you consider themes of the games to be their sharp commentary, their over the top methods of self expression, or anything other than simply committing crimes it has meant relatively little. Historically, we can do without the first two games and in a sort of historical memory way we already have.

Bioshock

This is the one were pedigree matters, kind of. It all boils down to who worked on the games and in this case I'm going to highlight the great Ken Levine.

Ken Levine is one of the best storytellers around. He's someone I truly admire and think his command of the medium is absolutely fantastic. Just look at his body of work over the years: System Shock 2, Thief: The Dark Project, Freedom Force, and, of course, the original Bioshock and Bioshock: Infinite. Though he think he's done his best work with narrative shooters I would not discount his amazing efforts with Thief and Freedom Force. How does Ken Levine matter to us today?

Well first he's still working, which is always a plus when you're talking about influential people. Second, when Ken Levine is working on a project there is a certain attention to detail, theme, and wholeness that a lot of other people simple don't have. I'll say it again, I think execution is one of the most important aspects of most things and with Ken Levine excellent execution feels like second nature.

Someone out there has to be thinking "but all of Ken Levine's projects have been really different, how could you compare them?" and my answer to that is look at the transition between Bioshock and Infinite. They're two very different games but one of their striking similiarities (aside from gameplay) is the totality of their universes. Bioshock 2 doesn't do this. It's similar mechanical play in a similar functional space but it feels derivative. The only reason it's even a Bioshock game is that it takes place in Rapture. Levine demonstrated that Bioshock means more than Rapture, it's even more than the mechanics, its about theme and message.

Puppeteer

Unlike Ken Levine, Gavin Moore might be name a lot fewer of you know. He's been working on a lot of games I haven't thought were particularly special and then he came out of left field and came out with a game I thought was really special, Puppeteer.

You would not write "from the maker of Siren and The Getaway" on the case of Puppeteer, however, writing that did make me check if those things were written on the case (they are not). But that statement wouldn't be untrue. Moore's credits do include those things.

Puppeteer is, however, nothing like those games. There's not a whole lot of room for comparison between the two except that they all heavily involved Gavin Moore. How much did pedigree matter for Puppeteer? Well sort of a lot and also nothing.

Moore has said in interviews that making realistic and horror games which were really violent made him want to seek a new direction so in that way, yes pedigree mattered a lot. But so little transitions between the two games that it's really easy to say that as a step in a new direction his past work is not influential here. Another bit to muddy the waters on the topic, Moore has been living in Japan for some time and East Asian mythological elements are very well represented in Puppeteer, something true of Siren and not true of The Getaway.

The Verdict

There really is not going to be any sort of final judgement on how much a game's past influences it's future. I think that the past past is inescapable to a certain extent but it's always a person's perogative to strike out an do something that defies everything they've previously done. Killzone and Puppeteer are good examples of that. Before the Arkham series Rocksteady had previously made a game called Urban Chaos: Riot Response and I've never spoken to anyone who actually played that game. It looks sort of like a first person version of Max Payne. People have some good things to say about it but the move between the two games is wild and for the better.

Pedigree matters...sort of. I think each game should be looked at on its own merit before being placed in a lineage. There's value in placing it in the lineage but also danger. I don't like seeing reviews that say a game is bad and then compare it to the other bad games a developer has made. Like anyone, a developer should have the right to be better or worse, to change things, but it's not always and entirely fair to judge them based on everything he did. Notice I didn't mention Tribes or SWAT 4 when talking about Ken Levine, he's made games that weren't groundbreaking or amazing but a game should be considered on its own terms before being considered on the terms of other games.

For me, the gameplay has always been the most important thing about a game. You can excuse a lot of things about a game if it plays really well, even more if its fun. Putting a game into a lineage is important for a lot of things. Using it to say a game is bad is not one of them.

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