June 16, 2009 8:00 AM |
['Alt Space' is a regular GameSetWatch-exclusive column by critic and writer Phill Cameron, discussing the relationship between the personal computer and gaming. This time he's looking at whether the availability of download-only games is allowing a new form of cheaper, lower budget games to flourish.]
As with any format, PC gaming is evolving to accommodate new business and distribution models, and as is always the case with anything new, there are those who are taking advantage of the system to create something that was not viable before.
We're seeing a new rise in obscure music thanks to the ease with which downloadable songs can be obtained, and similarly, games are starting to come out that take advantage of the fact they need very little in terms of distribution cost. These aren't the AAA titles that grace the shelves of the local games retailer, but they're far from being part of the indie scene either. They're really something entirely different.
The concept of the B-Movie may have begun when low-FX budgets forced horror and sci-fi films to be released with less than cutting edge effects, and with less than stellar scripts, but now the term more applies to those films that don't even see a cinematic release, instead being sent straight to the retailers and rental outlets.
These are the so called 'Straight-To-DVD' releases. In a similar vein, games are starting to surface that forego the retailers all together, cutting out such costs to bring something that, while it may not be run by the most powerful engine around, comes in at a reduced price, and aims at a slightly more casual experience.
Killing Floor, released last month, was a cooperative zombie shooter that ignored all pretence of realism to instead create a rather tongue-in-cheek arena game that savoured the more gruesome moments it presented with gratuitous slow motion and gore.
It was hardly aimed at the savant, but at the same time it was a cheap distraction that you could enjoy with friends. Aimed at the $20 mark (with a 25% sale on Steam before release), it was set at a tempting price that offset the usual wallet grumbles new games illicit. It was a budget game from day one.
The reviews have been mixed. Some have found it to be something enjoyable with friends, but lacking in any singleplayer worth, while others have found it to be crass to an extreme, and all but cringe-worthy. It certainly looks dated; it's running on the Unreal Tournament 2004 engine, and it's the considerably polished end result from a mod of the same game, made by a studio who started off as a modding company. Obviously it's extensive publicising on Steam helped sales, along with it's reduced price before release. The question is, however, whether it would ever be able to warrant a retail box; even for a budget title, is it worth it?
Part of why the reviews were so divisive could arguably be down to the fact that the critics didn't really know what to do with it. Here was a game that presented itself as a full game, with a similarly extensive production level, yet the game's price placed it alongside games that have been out for months and were trying to get a few more sales before they slipped off the shelves all together.
It's important to note that these games aren't necessarily aiming to be 'B-Games'. That that is the role that they are slipping into is entirely down to the developing atmosphere, rather than any clear intention, as has been tried before, to mixed success.
There were automatic comparisons to Left 4 Dead, Valve's zombie tour de force, as both were cooperative zombie shooters with an emphasise on paying homage to classic zombie films. The problem was Valve's game was the obvious superior in content, production and story, meaning Killing Floor was always going to fall short.
The fact was, Left 4 Dead came out at $50, whereas Killing Floor was less than half the price. So, it would follow that if Killing Floor was even half the game Left 4 Dead is, then it would be worth the money you pay for it.
Such thinking is hardly productive, not least because prices fluctuate from week to week, and are only really dictated by the developer (if at all) in the immediate period after release. That new releases have stuck by a standard price for so long, with only a few minor deviations from the RRP, means anything that's noticeably cheaper on release has to be evaluated on different grounds.
Killing Floor wasn't competing with Left 4 Dead, at least not financially, so it would seem grossly unfair to compare the two when evaluating one or the other. The fact they are startlingly different games once you move beyond the obvious similarities just reinforces such thoughts.
Stalin Vs Martians, another download only game released recently, has been described by its own developers as 'actually a troll. And it really is.' Admittedly, that troll is sold at a reduced price that is almost worth it purely for the comical elements, but the nature of the game is almost inherently unfun. It's proving a point, definitely, but the joke sits firmly on the shoulders of the gamer. It's hardly high art, but then you only paid $20 for it, right?
The analogy of B-Movies will only go so far, of course, but it's an interesting way to look at the new influx of games that exist only because it's cheaper to distribute them. Art-house darling The Path would never find a place among the shelves of the major retailers, just as you wouldn't find arthouse cinema in the same places.
Similarly, there's a limited market for these cheaper games that makes the ability to avoid producing boxed copies that much more appealing. They're cheaper to make, and, ultimately, provide more casual entertainment.
Stalin Vs Martians is funny for a while, but as you see through the wafer-thin mechanics and hear 'My name is Boris. I like you.' for the fortieth time, it starts to grate in the same way you find yourself welding a door at a snail's pace in Killing Floor, because one of your team mates has triggered a slow motion kill.
Categories: Column: Alt Space