Is Gameplay Really King?

Girl With Gun

As the saying goes, sex sells. There is little debating that, research and countless marketing campaigns have proven this to be true time and time again. In a variety of mediums, the inclusion of violence of a graphic nature has shown to attract a portion of the market that wouldn’t necessarily of taken notice otherwise. Generally the more gruesome and spine chilling the display, the more buzz and hype for the product. Some movies and games that were at best mediocre have gone on to sell blockbuster amounts arguably on their promotion of one or both of these controversial areas more than on the actual quality of the remaining content. It would seem on the surface that it is a no lose situation, with even those who complain about a titles graphic nature doing no more than offering free advertising as publishers and producers smile contently while continually pushing the limit as their coffers grow.

You often hear gamer’s saying that it is the gameplay that matters. Many a title has been released with shiny graphics and often a big name association and have met with resounding thuds, as they were bug ridden messes that controlled horribly or just simply were no fun to actually play. Some games seem to actually forget that they are in fact just that – games, meant to provide enjoyment and deliver an experience for the gamer. No one wants to find out that they just purchased a glorified tech demo that should of been kept to board room presentations and not line store shelves. Gamer’s that consider themselves “old school” often point out that it didn’t take movie quality cinematics or over the top violence or nudity to produce some of the most popular and critically acclaimed titles in gaming history.

The fact that as media evolves it is becoming more graphic is not an issue of itself from where most stand. However, especially in the gaming field, the question of whether this is being substituted for quality and that perhaps critical development time is being invested more into blood spray versus gameplay is valid. I can clearly remember the outrage some groups manifested over the fatalities in the Mortal Kombat series when it debuted. Not only did this not stop the title from releasing or selling, instead it served to drive its hype. This soon translated into massive sales, but only because the game was a fairly solid fighter top to bottom that was enhanced by the optional gore. If it had been a game like Time Killers that was gore first and somehow along the way forgot that gameplay actually mattered, the series would not still be in production today.

The change in marketing approach is evident in the direction that a traditional gameplay stalwart such as Bioware seemed to be leaning when they unveiled their promotion of the RPG Dragon Age: Origins. Take the series of video that were released for Dragon Age that highlights some of the most violent outtakes in the game. It is a compilation that is certainly put together to solidify the games target of a mature audience, though the anticipation this type of footage builds among the gaming crowd who fall below the 17+ rating of the game cannot be denied. What does this mean when a developer, especially one as famous for delivering solid content as Bioware takes the shock and awe approach? For a game that was touted as the spiritual successor to Baldur’s Gate 2, you would expect them to focus on a continuation of that titles superb party interaction, quest layout, gameplay balance and overall epic feel more than a graphic showcase of liquid red coating the walls. Did that mean the game was going to be lacking in other areas? No, not necessarily, and the title was robust offering on its own merits, (on PC anyway) but it does show the vast difference in what companies feel is the selling point of a title as you look at this promo trailer versus one of the Baldur’s Gates from the earlier part of the decade. When you drop the blood spray and romance, are there are any gleaming qualities that etch themselves in your memories from a gaming experience such as Dragon Age? Will anything shine through in the years to come and be held in regard with the likes of a masterpiece such as Planescape Torment? That remains to be seen.

Another theme that seems to surface repeatedly is the “games as art” debate. Though certain games definitely approach the budget of many theatrical productions, they rarely are given the same level of respect that a movie with equivalent investments of talent and creative directing receive. Violence and sex both make regular appearances in many movies, the difference is that the good ones manage to integrate it where it doesn’t overshadow the other plot points and become a part of the whole. Games already are being assembled with soundtracks that rival any epic film and voice acting no longer is done by the accountant and janitor (in most cases). It is only a matter of time before the gaming industry delivers titles that are not just equal to the best movies, but as a truly interactive experience, exceed them.

As the majority of game developers are designing titles for a worldwide audience, the cultural differences and what is accepted varies greatly. You can have your front cover lined with zombies eating human brains while someone unloads a 12 gauge into their rotting intestines and almost no one in the United States would bat an eye. However, if you have a bit of extra cleavage or a provocative enough pose on your product and people claim you are ruining children’s lives and ending marriages. Games for Australia end up having content that is deemed violent altered or removed in some cases to avoid an adult rating or even a ban. Europe is generally tolerant of extra skin, but regionally certain games may not go over well – such as titles that portray World War II conflicts being modified for release in Germany. Most everyone can appreciate some realism and a gritty feel being included in titles that historically have been popular with an older segment of the gaming population. We can hold out hope that developers in future endeavors remember that this should be the icing on the cake and only put on after the layers of game design that really matter are complete.

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