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First person shooters have become the industry's default, but have they killed creative storytelling and "fun" in games? Here's our take on how some games are finally bringing the fun back.

Will Harbin, Blogger

June 14, 2011

6 Min Read

A little about me:  I’m a gamer – I eat, sleep and breathe games.  When I was eight, my mom called Sierra Online’s customer support line and told them her son wanted to learn how to make video games. She got a call back from an engineer who directed me to learn C and read a few helpful game theory and basic algorithm books. In elementary school, I made text-based RPG games, and in college, I enjoyed making Quake mods. In lieu of a low-paying job at a large game developer, I opted for joining the Internet gold rush. Now, I’m the CEO of Kixeye (formerly Casual Collective), and doing what I love: Making and playing games all day.

I’m all for bashing social games that just rehash the same concepts and mechanics, boring users to death – or worse – existing only to separate them from their cash. But let’s face it, with the exception of stellar titles like Call of Duty, Half Life 2, and Grand Theft Auto, the videogame industry as a whole has suffered from a lack of real creativity for the past 15 years.  

Let’s take a little trip down memory lane. I would say the “Golden Era” of video games existed from the mid-80s to the mid-90s. From puzzles and strategy games (both real-time and turn-based), to side-scrolling-action games, to racing and fighting games, all kinds of people were playing all kinds of games, across a variety of systems. The game companies were also marketing to this wide audience. By the mid-90s we got the first widely-available 3D hardware accelerators, and the emergence of the first-person shooter (FPS). That’s when the game industry began to lose its creative soul.    

In comes the FPS, out goes creativity

Early first-person shooters – like Wolfenstein 3D, Doom and Goldeneye 007 – took the market by storm, and with good reason. They were fast-paced, they were the epitome of competition (a core element that makes playing games fun), and they harnessed graphics that made the new game systems and consoles worth their sticker prices. But as game developers began to sharpen their focus on graphics, the notion of creative game-play, problem solving and storytelling took a backseat to realism and simulation.

The big studios fueled the shift by spending more on games that looked great, and acquiring the developers that created them. Meanwhile, developers that focused on other types of games either adapted, or were thought of as “too risky” to acquire and support. Most fell by the wayside. Others had a worse fate: Gobbled up by larger studios and subsequently redirected or reallocated (*cough* *cough* … Sierra Online, Bullfrog, Westwood …).

Call it the Polygon Wars. All the attention went to making games with flourish and polish, and creative game development devolved into a race to see “who could draw more.” The puzzle, real-time strategy, and adventure games were tossed to the side, or relegated to divisions with minimal budgets. I’d argue that the emergence of the FPS spelled the death of quite a few good gaming genres, and the storytelling that went along with them.

Let’s not forget about the players

As for their devoted players? The industry assumed that because the focus shifted to glossy first-person shooters, those that weren’t interested in playing weren’t really “gamers.” They weren’t worth the effort to create games for, or to market to.

Bad assumption for console-makers, big publishers and the industry as a whole, because in the midst of all the FPS fanfare, we lost a grip on our broader audience. In the “Golden Age,” gamers were male and female; still skewed to youth, but not disproportionately. By the time the PlayStation 2 and Xbox launched, it was all first-person shooters, all the time. The industry as a whole narrowed its focus to males aged 16-30, and even more narrowly, to a specific kind of player: College-aged guys that wanted to blow stuff up.

The “fun” renaissance

In the midst of this shift by the big studios away from the “fun,” casual players, a few milestones happened. Nintendo launched the Wii (to many naysayers) in 2006, and we were all “shocked” by how rapidly people ate it up. In 2007, a little flash game called Desktop Tower Defense won MTV’s Video Game of the Year – beating out Halo 3, Portal and Bioshock – sparking a wave of excellent browser games that had one core feature: FUN.

And that’s what had been missing from video games for 15 years or so, the fun factor. The lack of fun had been keeping women, men and just all-around casual players – not casual gamers – away from the consoles for so long. This is why the Nintendo Wii has still outsold the 360 and the PS3 worldwide to this day.

This is where much of the interest in alternative gaming platforms – from mobile phones, to tablets, to Facebook – is coming from. Social games have surged in popularity because the market for non-FPS games was just being underserved. Zynga, for example, came along and attacked the casual player on Facebook. Personally, I was critical of their earlier titles that lacked depth and interactivity, and were clearly more about optimizing revenue-generating clicks than fun. But I’m ecstatic to see that their approach changed with the launch of CityVille; it’s definitely a step in the right direction. 

We’re aiming for a different slice of the same market at Kixeye. Our target is people that like good games – perhaps, even defining themselves as gamers – but their tastes are a little more diverse than a FPS. These are players who want a bit more strategy and more real-time interaction than what most of the current crop of Facebook games provide. No one has really invested resources in reaching them until recently.

Now, there are a number of companies that are focused on putting fun game-play above everything else.  You may not have read about them, because they aren’t raising hundreds of millions of dollars. (Nor have they announced an IPO, yet). But they’re definitely companies that we respect, like PopCap, SuperCell, Wargaming.net, Riot, Superbrothers, Outfit7 and Spacetime Studios. There’s no need to categorize them as “social” or “casual” vs. “hardcore,” because, like Kixeye, they’re all helping to revive the “Golden Age” of gaming.  Sort of like a renaissance. 

It’s not just about how realistic a game can be; nor is it about how simple. It’s that in-between area that’s ultimately all about fun, challenge and accessibility. It’s a big potential market, and we’ve only seen the end of the beginning.

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