Developers chasing trends in games has been going on for as long as video games have. When the Nintendo Entertainment System came out, everyone needed to be Mario. After Sonic, everyone needed an animal mascot character. Even the video game crash of 1983 can be linked to companies chasing trends, as everyone and their mother wanted to have their own console with identical games . The most notable trend at the time of this article is the booming popularity of the “Battle Royale” genre, and how every AAA publisher seems to feel the need to shove a version of Fortnite into their hallmark FPS.
Trend following rarely works out how its publishers intend for it to though. Rather than adding an element to something that will capture your audience (or expand it) you just get a watered-down version of the trendsetter, and an empty feeling of either wanting the original or questioning why this element was added in the first place. After playing through God of War and experiencing its loot and crafting on the PS4 this past week I was left with the latter.
God of War released to a deluge of perfect reviews, and plenty of websites and critics are already sizing it up to be their game of the year. It’s a story-heavy game, a first for the series, but also has some exceptionally fun gameplay. Combat is smooth, and rewards creativity. Adventure-style puzzles have you making use of the game’s physics and your characters unique properties to hunt down rewards. And there’s a variety of odd treasures and challenges you can fill out along your adventure. These things can keep you busy for a while, especially since a handful of these hidden relics are sometimes hard to find, but the biggest challenge in the game is acquiring and upgrading all of your equipment.
Upgrades and armor are nothing new to hack n’ slash action games like God of War, but the PS4 title shifts away from your typical action fair in favor of something closer to a grindy RPG. To upgrade equipment you need money and sometimes a load of materials. You can also buy armor at shops, and Kratos has more clothing options than your average fashionable teenager. It would be one thing if each piece gave unique bonuses, but often it’s just stat improvements with minimal benefits to how your attacks work. The equipment and armor system feels tacked on. The numbers don’t do much outside of deciding on whether you’ll live through 3 hits or 4 hits, and determining what weapon you want to give a meager damage boost to.
Overall, this system has very little impact on the game outside of those going for a 100% completion rate. You’ll find most of the best equipment through exploring, and never have to touch the shop for anything outside of upgrades. Tracking down the things you will need in order to upgrade and purchase some equipment can be a hassle though, and the need to grind for materials can bring the game’s pace to a screeching halt. The loot and crafting systems feels like an after thought. It begs the question: What would happen if these mechanics had a bigger impact on the game?
A good example of a trend taking a larger chunk of a game is Deadly Premonition. The game started in development much closer to an adventure game, and focuses on its story, characters, and world interaction. A constant complaint about the game is its combat, which was added in the game’s final hours at the request of the game’s publisher. There was a fear of the game not doing well in the West without guns, since all the best-selling games on the other side of the Pacific were typically shooters. Instead the aspect of the game meant to sell it became its weakest point. The direction and focus of the game was changed for the purpose of chasing an assumed trend, and the game almost failed for it.
Homogenization of trends has been in gaming for a very long time. Focus groups tell publishers what a game needs to “succeed,” the publishers “suggest” to the developer, and the developer has to work that aspect in. Keeping investors happy often takes precedence over delivering a unique experience, unless that experience is also the draw.
The easiest way to convince your stockholders something will do well without any sales numbers is to say “It’s going to be like that other successful thing.” Sometimes these decisions barely affect the final product, becoming an otherwise small blemish on an amazing experience. But it’s also common to see these decisions strip away from an otherwise fine title. There are games that never left development hell because of this thought process, foreign titles left untranslated because “they just wouldn’t appeal,” and, of course, otherwise fine products get altered to fit a narrative for sales.