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With Fewer Obstacles to Release and Escalating Audience Demand, is PC Gaming Becoming the Realm of the B-Game?

By on March 7, 2011
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This is a guest post by freelance narrative designer, Tom Jubert. Check out his industry blog, Plot is Gameplay’s Bitch, at http://blog.tomjubert.com/

Sometimes I like to wander around Steam looking for some under-marketed, under-reviewed, under-£5 indie gem. Sometimes I find fascinating stuff like Dinner Date or Winter Voices; sometimes it’s utter tat; but it’s always interesting (and rare) to come to a game with zero preconceptions, and that’s not half because a boxed game is usually too expensive to buy without reasonable evidence that you’re going to like it.

On my travels recently I’ve come accross an increasing number of what I’m going to term B-Games. In cinema, the B-Movie was the cheap filler that was produced – often as accompanyment to a more polished feature – to feed the unforseen demand that had appeared overnight. They usually focussed on tick box stuff that could easily be sold: horror, gore, sex, exploitation; and audiences were so hungry for content that they devoured it without complaint.

The idea of a cheap, poorly crafted game is nothing new, but it seems the environment is ripe for a whole new wave. The audience for games today is larger than it has ever been. The games themselves, though, are more expensive to produce and provide ever shorter playtimes. This, I’d argue, is exhasperated by the fact tastes are more niche than they ever have been. There are a greater variety of genres to focus on – many of which are hard to come by these days – and gamers are older and more set in their ways than the fledgling industry could have allowed 20 years ago. Digital distribution, therefore, provides just the low cost delivery platform required in order to produce and distribute a cheap genre game that will – for simply being in that genre – satisfy a profitable portion of the audience.

Look at the games that are able to find their way onto Steam. Dungeons not only makes no qualms about its Bullfrog inspirations, it uses them in its marketing (and though there is gameplay differentiation here, visually speaking ‘inspired by’ is less fair than ‘ clone of’). Hacker Evolution‘s content and minimalist presentation is straight Uplink in a way that’s so uncanny any claim of shared inspiration can be safely replaced in favour of canny targeting. Kaptain Brawe is an achievement for looking more like a LucasArts adventure than anything ever made in SCUMM – it’s practically postmodern simulacra. Monday Night Combat is hard not to like, but it’s plain bizarre to release a $15 budget version of a game that’s already only $15.

Analysis? Well, I suppose in the same way that all the talented indie devs who spend their days turning out retro clones is a drive that completely passes me by, the idea here of relegating game design is a touch uncomfortable. B-Movies were cheap, and bad, and mostly better forgotten – sure; but they also pushed boundaries and proved their longevity (through ironic rewatching, historical interest and modern homage) in ways I find it hard to believe games are likely to ape.

Perhaps, though, what this is all indicative of is just how slowly games are developing. At that rate we should hit our Post-Classical era some time around two centuries from now. Wake me up when we get there.

About Tom Jubert

Tom Jubert is a freelance games writer / narrative designer, best known for his work on the Penumbra series, for which he was nominated for a Writers' Guild Award. His upcoming releases include Lost Horizon and Driver: San Francisco. He was previously the Managing Editor at GameShadow.com, and has also spent time in production.
  • Pingback: PC Games as B-Movies « A Great Becoming…()

  • Michael

    Interesting analysis, although I disagree with your singling out of indies. Your point falls apart completely when we look at some AAA titles, and how they’re so worryingly similar I would likely not be able to tell them apart through screenshots: Medal of Honour, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, Modern Warfare 2, Black Ops, Homefront…
    If we widen our criteria to those that you used up there (there are big differences between tf2 and mnc), the list grows longer still.
    That’s just one genre, mind. The same thing is true of the venerable ‘god-of-war-like’ genre, with a fair amount of games being nothing more than a re-themed (and even then…) God of War.

    what I take away from that is that big budget titles are no less derivative than indies, and when we consider the experimentation present in the indie-scene it’s hard not to conclude that the opposite to your point is true.

  • What I find most interesting is that I wrote about the analogy of the “death of the B-movie-style game” last year (http://www.gamesbrief.com/2010/10/the-future-of-the-games-industry-its-in-three-parts/), and here you are saying that it is resurgent,

    I was arguing that there is no place for AA and A quality games in boxed products any more. The working capital required and low margins make it an uninteresting business.

    You are saying “true, but the digital distribution market makes it possible to put up shovelware and make it sufficiently cheaply that you can make a profit with low volumes”

    I don’t think this will last for very long.

    The heart of the B-movie business models was the scarcity issue. People had few alternatives for entertainment. They went to the cinema and watched *whatever was on*. Perhaps a double bill of a known blockbuster and a B-movie.

    In retail game stores, the same used to be true. By a blockbuster and an “also-ran”.

    In the web of Internet choice, the reverse is true. Nobody watches something because it is “on”; they have to seek it out.

    B-movies (shlocky, lowest common denominator stuff) didn’t survive the end of scarcity represented by the television. B-games (ditto) won’t survive the end of scarcity represented by digital distribution.
    What will survive, in itself, is niche content. Stuff that only appeals to thousands, or tens of thousands of people. That stuff would not have been economic in the past, and now it is.
    B-games are dead! Long live B-games!