July 13, 2011

Reasons to Support Indie RPGs Cont’d.

2K Marin, the developer working on the X-Com series reboot, has become the latest big studio to take a turn at trashing classic turn-based games:

“Every studio we had wanted to do it and each one had its own spin on it,” Hartmann says of the revival of the XCOM brand. “But the problem was that turn-based strategy games were no longer the hottest thing on planet Earth. But this is not just a commercial thing – strategy games are just not contemporary.” So, it became a first-person affair, even if 2K seems somewhat hesitant to label it a first-person shooter.

Hartmann says the team at 2K Marin are trying to “renew Xcom but in line with what this generation of gamers want.”

My first thought upon reading this was simply “Again?” This is twice now in the span of a month. It seems the mainstream studios just cannot help themselves: they just have to justify their wholesale abandonment of slow-paced cerebral gameplay. And it seems that they all have the same justification: that modern gamers are all Ritalin-popping adrenaline junkies with the collective attention span of a piece of dryer lint.

It’s particularly odd that 2K Marin chose this moment to say that strategy games are not what people want. First of all, this. Second of all, they are (ostensibly) developing a successor to one of the best-loved strategy games of all time. The existing X-Com fanbase likes slow-paced cerebral gameplay–all X-Com games to date have featured precisely that sort of gameplay. If the fans didn’t like it, they wouldn’t be X-Com fans to begin with.

As irritating as I find 2K Marin’s dunderheaded remarks, I really can’t get too upset about them. They just prove a point I made last February about indies developers’ growing role in the gaming ecosystem:

Most indie RPGs aren’t like the games you can buy from major publishers these days. Square-Enix is never going to release a new game like Telepath RPG: Servants of God. Square-Enix made Final Fantasy Tactics many years ago, and they haven’t made a proper sequel since. Neither will Bioware. Bioware hasn’t ever released a turn-based strategy RPG. And you can just forget Bethesda.

The big developers have their own signature style of games they like to make. They’ve got their active-time battle systems, quicktime events and CGI teams to make use of. If you want an older style of game, a style that the big publishers don’t produce anymore, your only real option is to seek out a game of that style elsewhere. Usually, this means shopping for an indie title.

And true enough, this is now the case with X-Com. If you want a new X-Com game that is actually an X-Com game, you have to go indie.

Looking back on the developments of the past year and a half, I think I might have actually undersold this point. Most developers don’t even seem to be going for active-time or hybrid battle systems anymore: it seems they’re just going for straight FPS systems or God of War-style button mashing. Kotaku even has a tag it’s now using to keep track of this trend: One Genre Future. It’s like the big studios are all huddled together, shivering, jockeying for a spot over a single small campfire in the midst of a global economic winter.

It’s a little sad. At the same time, though, this idiocy has done wonders for indies. By abandoning the rich diversity of game genres they once called home, the big studios have all but handed them to us.