Gaming needs franchises like Call of Duty: Black Ops in the same way that the movie industry needs films like Transformers.
As a gamer who cut his thumbs in the PC universe, I have a lot of respect for Warren Spector. The man's not only one of gaming's truly big thinkers, he's also responsible for three of my all-time-favorite games: System Shock, Deus Ex and Thief.
Recently, however, Spector unexpectedly morphed into a combination of Tucker Carlson and Bill O'Reilly: A talking head lobbing verbal grenades that ended up splashing shrapnel right back on his khaki slacks.
In an offhand interview, Spector blasted his colleagues in game development for acting like magpies, focusing on shiny new graphics and intense combat sequences at the expense of good storytelling and non-hostile artificial intelligence. That stuff bores him, apparently.
"I'm disappointed by the fact that we still focus solely on combat mechanics and rendering techniques, at the expense of other things we could be devoting energy and effort to," said Spector. "We could be focusing on non-combat AI and making conversation as compelling as fighting for a change. Wouldn't that be great? We could be focusing on making storytelling truly interactive."
That's what he said. What I heard is "Man, it chaps my ass that Call of Duty: Black Ops outsold Epic Mickey by a ratio of 10 to 1."
Epic Mickey is, of course, Spector's latest project, the Wii-based platformer that served up an interesting take on Mickey Mouse and Disney history, but was dragged down by grainy graphics and camera and control issues. It also featured a disturbing lack of what I'd call compelling conversation. Then again, Mickey was really never the gregarious type. We all know that's Donald's specialty.
One of the several ironies here is that if Epic Mickey had been designed for the Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3, as more than a few industry experts suggested it should have been, it probably would have a) sold significantly better and b) been able to maximize those consoles' superior graphics -- you know, the ones that Spector finds so boring and useless.
Even setting aside major games like Uncharted 2, and the Mass Effect and Dragon Age series -- all titles that focused far more on conversation and character development than they did on combat -- Spector's comments ring awfully hollow. Nobody's going to argue that Black Ops was the singular height of interactive storytelling -- although by the shooter series' standards, it was actually pretty good.
But gaming needs franchises like Call of Duty in the same way that the movie industry needs films like Transformers and Avatar. Are these games formulaic? Absolutely. Do they push the boundaries of what gaming's capable of achieving? I suppose, if you expand that definition to include breaking sales records. But they also fill an important market niche and, for a surprising number of people, they're a wow-factor gateway to a hopefully deeper gaming experience.
It's like anything else: Pull them in with the pretty images and fireworks, then deliver the good stuff. That's not boring in the slightest.