Rapid Fire: The Dichotomy

Each year, the music world turns out to honor the industry’s leaders at the Grammy Awards show. Here, the “best” musicians, producers, and songwriters are given praise for contributing their talents to radio playlists during the previous year. But are these artists really the best, or are they just the most fortunate?

Think about all of the great artists who have been head and shoulders above the rest, but never got their award – or didn’t get it until they were no longer relevant. Aerosmith didn’t win a Grammy until 1991. Pink Floyd won their one and only Grammy in 1995. Queen, arguably one of the greatest groups of all time, never won a Grammy, and Alfred Hitchcock, probably the best director ever, never won an Oscar.

So what’s the point of all of this? We can see that those people who are the best get very little credit, while those recognized as the “best” are those people who sold the most units. Any artist that puts a maximum amount of effort into creativity instead of selling records (or movies, or what have you) will end up ignored by most people. So, by extension, any artist that focuses on being marketable and has a minimal amount of creativity ends up being glorified as at the top of the game, when the reality is that it’s a matter of circumstance.

Here’s where the gaming industry comes in. At this point in time, games are insanely expensive to make. Only those games that stand a chance of being a hit are being made. Of those games that are being made, zero percent are being made to push the envelope of gaming and show people things they’ve never seen before. The other one hundred percent of games released are designed solely to make money.

The industry’s dichotomy is as follows:

There is a severe lack of originality in the gaming world. This, in time, will cripple the industry because it treads water rather than moves forward.
However, people seem content to purchase sequels and rehashes. It is useless to try to change things up, as people are buying the status quo and a game that pushes boundaries might not sell well.

If you add the two together, it’s a lose-lose situation as far as the long-term goes.

The original Dichotomy, of course, comes from ancient mathematician/scientist Zeno, who was born around 490 BC. His argument was that any race is impossible to run. Why? If you wish to run an entire length, you must first run half that length. Before you get to a half, you must first get to a quarter. Before a quarter, an eighth. Eventually, the fractions become infinite, and in a logical sense, it is impossible to calculate a way for this hypothetical runner to run his race.

Of course, this theory is disproven by the fact that people run races all the time. But think about Zeno’s logic for a second, and apply it to the gaming world. More specifically, compare Zeno’s Dichotomy to a successful franchise of sports games. The first edition of the game comes out, and it’s a considerable hit. But then, the sequel comes out, and the same level of originality isn’t there. Instead, there are a few things added here and there. Then, Volume 3 is released with even less new stuff. Before you know it, the game’s the same from year to year, aside from maybe one or two new things. The game never goes from Point A to Point B; namely, it never reinvents itself or becomes a completely new game.

Now, let’s bring music back into the fold. When an artist has a big hit, how they follow it up is quite interesting. It’s easy to tell someone’s talent level by the first single from the album they record after they have a big hit. If the single sounds just like what made them a star to begin with, the public sours and eventually the artist is back to square one. However, if that artist takes the time to reinvent himself or herself and throw a significant amount of newness into the mix, then that star has quite a bit of staying power.

When The Beatles came out with “Revolver” in 1966, it was immediately hailed as one of the greatest albums of all time. Even today, people consider it the best ever. How did the Beatles follow it up? By putting out “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, which was as different from “Revolver” as one could imagine. Compare that to, say, the latest effort from Five For Fighting, and there you go.

The thing is, though, that game developers don’t want to change their winning formula. They’ll change bits and pieces, enough to get you to buy the sequel. But if they have some great secrets for the future of gaming – which I seriously doubt – they’re not tipping their hands.

Some of the blame for the current rut gaming finds itself in has to go to the game-buying public, who pays hand over fist for sequels that are barely different than their predecessors, but that’s not totally fair. Don’t game companies have a responsibility to put out the best possible product? Is it right that EA updates their NFL rosters, throws a move called “The Hit Stick” into the game, and charges $50 for that combination under the guise that it’s a totally different game?

Then again, you change too much and people are turned off. That’s when companies have to show restraint. That means not making new games every year and instead, making them when the time is right. Look at the Mario series – there might be only one new game per console cycle, but each one has been drastically different from the ones prior. And wouldn’t you know it, each one has been a hit. Nintendo has found a happy medium within this gaming dichotomy – they’re able to change the image of their cash cow while still make a killing off of each game.

While few franchises have the staying power of Mario, there’s a small chance that this type of thinking could be carried over to other series as well. Unfortunately, the industry has oversaturated the market with frequent sequels, so a three-year absence would mean curtains for most series. You can imagine how enthusiastic developers and publishers would be if such a scenario presented itself, which is precisely why it’ll never happen.

But while companies do everything possible to maximize their profits, they’re also making gamers forget the special things about gaming. The games on the market today are nowhere near the best they can be, and that’s a shame. Sometimes, you wonder if the industry will ever get it right.

Can you really imagine yourself being wowed by any game announced for 2005? If you can’t, you’re not alone. You also shouldn’t feel like you’re any less of a gamer for feeling that way. After all, gaming is supposed to be fun, and it should be a challenge for developers to create new ways to make gaming fun. Right now, they’re not doing their jobs. Neither are the bigwigs who put profits ahead of making a real statement in the industry. Again, more proof that in the most interactive of all forms of entertainment, those holding the controllers get the short end of the stick.