Monday, 7 March 2011

With Fewer Obstacles to Release and Escalating Audience Demand, is PC Gaming Becoming the Realm of the B-Game?

Sometimes I like to wander around Steam looking for some under-marketed, under-reviewed, under-£5 indie gem. Sometimes I find fascinating stuff like Dinner Date or Winter Voices; sometimes it's utter tat; but it's always interesting (and rare) to come to a game with zero preconceptions, and that's not half because a boxed game is usually too expensive to buy without reasonable evidence that you're going to like it.

On my travels recently I've come accross an increasing number of what I'm going to term B-Games. In cinema, the B-Movie was the cheap filler that was produced - often as accompanyment to a more polished feature - to feed the unforseen demand that had appeared overnight. They usually focussed on tick box stuff that could easily be sold: horror, gore, sex, exploitation; and audiences were so hungry for content that they devoured it without complaint.

The idea of a cheap, poorly crafted game is nothing new, but it seems the environment is ripe for a whole new wave. The audience for games today is larger than it has ever been. The games themselves, though, are more expensive to produce and provide ever shorter playtimes. This, I'd argue, is exhasperated by the fact tastes are more niche than they ever have been. There are a greater variety of genres to focus on - many of which are hard to come by these days - and gamers are older and more set in their ways than the fledgling industry could have allowed 20 years ago. Digital distribution, therefore, provides just the low cost delivery platform required in order to produce and distribute a cheap genre game that will - for simply being in that genre - satisfy a profitable portion of the audience.

Look at the games that are able to find their way onto Steam. Dungeons not only makes no qualms about its Bullfrog inspirations, it uses them in its marketing (and though there is gameplay differentiation here, visually speaking 'inspired by' is less fair than ' clone of'). Hacker Evolution's content and minimalist presentation is straight Uplink in a way that's so uncanny any claim of shared inspiration can be safely replaced in favour of canny targeting. Kaptain Brawe is an achievement for looking more like a LucasArts adventure than anything ever made in SCUMM - it's practically postmodern simulacra. Monday Night Combat is hard not to like, but it's plain bizarre to release a $15 budget version of a game that's already only $15.

Analysis? Well, I suppose in the same way that all the talented indie devs who spend their days turning out retro clones is a drive that completely passes me by, the idea here of relegating game design is a touch uncomfortable. B-Movies were cheap, and bad, and mostly better forgotten - sure; but they also pushed boundaries and proved their longevity (through ironic rewatching, historical interest and modern homage) in ways I find it hard to believe games are likely to ape.

It could be argued, though, that what this is all truly indicative of is just how slowly games are developing. At that rate we should hit our Post-Classical era some time around two centuries from now.

Wake me up when we get there.


  1. /End cynical voice

    In fairness, some of these games review well in a way that would have been entirely unfamiliar to B-movies of the period, and there are loads of reasons for why we wouldn't have had an identical movement in games, not of which being that we have a far better critical appraisal system in place such that weak product can't sell as easily as it did in the 1930s.

  2. It's a shame that some less-than-AAA devs act as if less budget = AAA clone released at a lower price. If someone really wants to play Diablo III, they'll either save up or pirate it. The reason people go for games like Torchlight or Din's Curse is that they offer something new/better on top of something familiar.

    I find it interesting that you used the phrase "new wave" after describing b-movies, since the advent of b-movies is what helped Japanese New Wave films get into theaters in the first place. I don't think the b-movie comparison really holds, though, since budget clones (the term I'd prefer) of big names tend to copy the functional qualities of what they're aping, which is a factor films can't really have without walking a highly risky legal tightrope. Not to mention the fact that plenty of popular games fail to innovate meaningfully, practically feeling like clones themselves. In fact, what I'd consider a b-game is something like the output of TIGSource's B-Games Competition*, a game that does something cheeky with its wonkiness.

    The creative output that offers something new and interesting (like the film Fighting Elegy or Dinner Date) will be remembered and/or have an impact over a long period of time, but the fluff of the era will fade. It must be odd, choosing to fade.

  3. And here is where I meant to put the link to the B-Games Competition page.


    Hurray links!

  4. I love the B-Games competition. I remember one of my first ever professional articles as a games journalist was based on a game called cottage of doom that came out of it.

    In fact, that game bears more than a couple of similarities to a small project I just signed up to...