Saturday, March 15, 2014

Circle of Life

"Out with the old. In with the new," is a saying that definitely needs to be applied to some of the game development studios out there.  While it always sucks to see people lose their jobs, I'd like to think that those with talent will move onto something better.  In truth, the concept of huge teams working on triple AAA titles has become a bit antiquated of late.  That's not to say we shouldn't have any big budget games, it's just that time and again smaller studios have demonstrated far more flexibility, creativity and artistic merit than the industry giants that live off old IPs without bringing anything innovate or beneficial to the industry as a whole.  To demonstrate my point allow me to highlight two companies (one Japanese and one Western) that have outlived their usefulness.  Then after that, I'd like to show off two up-and-coming studios which have done a lot for the industry.

Electronic Arts has been voted worst company in America twice, and while I have no doubt there are good people struggling to produce quality products (despite the short sided greed of their corporate overlords) EA has become a kind of body-snatching parasite over the years.  Absorb a respected studio, dispose of anyone who isn't a yes-man, then milk whatever well liked franchises that studio made in an attempt to make some quick cash.  Origin, Bullfrog, Maxis, Westwood, and Pandemic are some high profile victims, but the most egregious example has to be Bioware.  Simply put, Bioware made a lot of the best RPGs in the business until EA acquired them at which point the quality took a sudden downturn.  I could go on about yearly sports franchises, abusive DRM and a variety of online shenanigans (like season passes), but I think the toxicity of the company has been well documented by others.  On a side note, before you think to bring up Titanfall let me say this; Respawn Entertainment deserves the credit and it's only a matter of time before EA ruins future installments.

Square-Enix was great back when it was just Square, this developer produced some of the best games in Japan.  After the merger with Enix though there was a large outflux of talent leaving the company with a lot of artist and coders, but very little in the way of imagination.  Look no further than the pathetic excuse for storytelling in the last couple Final Fantasy titles.  It doesn't help that Square-Enix is waging war against every Youtuber who's a genuine fan of their IPs.  My guess is the people running this company were old before the internet even existed, and as such are pretty much clueless when it comes to gaming in the 21st century.  I'm actually finding it difficult to name one truly good game put out by Square-Enix during the last console generation.  Not that there wasn't a lot of hot garbage turned out thanks to creative bankruptcy at the top and a lot of hard work by the people in the trenches.  Anyway...enough about parasites.  Lets talk about a pair of studios worthy of gamer attention.

Capybara Games has worked their way up from very humble beginnings to produce some of the best pixel art to date.  Their single most famous title is probably Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP (nope, no typos here), which has some interesting concepts when it comes to setting and gameplay.  For me though, Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes really stands out as one of the best puzzle games I've played since Dr. Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine on the Sega Genesis.  I even went so far as to write a review of Clash of Heroes, something I've never done before or since, just because I thought the game really deserved more attention than it was getting.  The future looks bright for Capybara Games too with titles like Super Time Force and Below in the works.  I just hope they don't feel the need to cling to Xbox exclusivity given the amount of floundering Microsoft has been doing in the game industry lately.

From Software hardly needs my praise given the amount of buzz Dark Souls 2 has been getting recently.  That said, I'd like to stress that this company has turned out to be the most influential Japanese video game studio since Capcom's golden era with the survival horror genre.  From Software has not only re-invented the notion of challenging gameplay, but has also demonstrated that Japanese game studios can still be quite successful in American and European markets without having to kowtow to Western sensibilities.  Now if only Koei, Level-5 and Konami would get with the program and stop wallowing in bland, nostalgia driven experiences.

You'd think that given all the bad media surrounding companies like EA and Square-Enix they would have run out of dedicated fans a long time ago.  In part it has to do with maintaining monopolies.  Regardless, it's a real shame to see so many hardcore fans doggedly follow them out of a misguided sense of brand loyalty when there are small, oftentimes struggling studios far more deserving of hard-earned gamer dollars.  I guess the best suggestion I can make is don't be afraid to try stuff outside of your preferred genre(s).  There's a lot of new and exciting experiences to be had when it comes to video games provided you're willing to explore outside a long established comfort zone.

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