It Was The Best Of Times

… it was the worst of times.

There has never been a worse time to be involved with the games industry. Whether you're a consumer or a developer, a punter or publisher, we are all infected by a creeping malcontent. The combination of a double-dip recession, ageing console technology and poorly financed corporate monoliths have left us with an industry that's too scared to try anything new; where the almighty COD buck has shaped the very creativity and structure of an art-form, leaving anything with a jot of personality or artistic ambition dead on arrival. If it even gets to arrive in the first place.

And yet there has never been a better time to be involved with the games industry. Everywhere you turn there are newer and even more exciting ways to play. The world's biggest games are entirely independent. The download space is offering artists the room and viability to create and sell without the financial restraints and pressures of publishers. The App Store is the most risk-free environment ever for game developers. This year alone has already seen masterpieces like Journey, Fez and Trials Evolution appearing and dominating through non-traditional channels.

Extremes, maybe, but I've heard both positions discussed passionately numerous times over the past few months. So here we actually stand, then, in the strangest of dichotomies. While the counter-arguments are obvious (COD's actually a fantastic product year-on year, and there are enough terrible indie games to drown Fez a thousand times over), we're certainly in odd and unsettled times. For every studio closure or teal-tinged military trailer eliciting echoed groans across comment sections and message boards the internet over, there's a Kickstarter-funded Wasteland sequel in the works or a space-spanning megagame being dreamed up by young creative like Mojang.

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Homefront ticked all the boxes, but that didn't stop Kaos from being closed.

So what the hell happens next?

Comparing the games industry to movie history is often clumsy, but there are clear similarities here to the cinema's own independent movement in the '20s, which saw the likes of Chaplin and Griffith rise up against the stifling studio system to form their own, United Artists, and maintain control of their work and integrity.

While there's nothing as specific as UA driving the divide between publisher-funded game development and the burgeoning indie space (although Valve isn't far off), the sentiment is the same. There's a large band of folks on both sides of the development fence that don't want to play by the old rules any more. When Notch tweets something like "Indies are saving gaming. EA is methodically destroying it," the world is listening and taking note.

Where does that actually leave gamers, though? The whole art-versus-commerce and art-as-commerce arguments are fascinating for some to mull over and worthy topics of debate among outspoken and fiercely intelligent developers, but what about the guys and girls holding the controllers, clicking the mice and spending the money?

What about those who crave big-budget quality and ideas-driven gameplay? Just one generation ago Ikaruga, Ico and Viewtiful Joe were as much a part of the gaming spectrum as Halo and GTA, a time when stories like the infamous Capcom Five didn't sound like the ideas of madmen but genuine business powerplays. The indie space is a fruitful garden of art and ambition, but sometimes the greatest ideas need the budgets to back them up.

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The last great risk? Assassin's Creed.

Of course, it's the classic Catch-22 that's caused the creativity to dry up. Risky game doesn't sell - don't make any more risky games - make generic game instead - audience demands more creativity. Luck out and you get Medal Of Honor sales, and those clamouring for Mirror's Edge 2 sound a lot quieter as the millions roll in. Get it wrong and you've got Homefront and another shut-down studio.

If the traditional publishing model has stopped working - and it clearly has - then where does the next wave of truly ambitious triple-A titles actually come from? Look at this year's schedule. The most interesting 'normal' games? Probably BioShock Infinite and Dishonored. One of which is an (admittedly very different) third entrant in an established franchise, and the other, while potentially glorious, has so many borrowed parts it should have bolts through its neck and a flat-top haircut.

The last big new IP to truly make waves was Assassin's Creed, a game that effectively saved Ubisoft at a time of its own financial uncertainty. It could so easily have gone the other way. It's no wonder the publishers are scared to take risks - it's not just shareholders and fat cats they need to appease; there are hundreds of jobs at stake every single time they release a game. It's just not a sustainable way to do business any more, and that's a situation where no one wins, least of all the gamers.

Some argue that free-to-play is the new playground for the triple A. While few would question the technical prowess of the likes of Firefall and CryEngine 3-powered Mechwarrior Online, there's an inherent artlessness to game design that builds its business model into the very way it's played. The best examples will avoid this and could well forge an exciting new future for gamers and businesses alike.

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I am a Robot, and I cost nothing.

By incorporating the money-making systems in ways that aren't remotely detrimental to the experience, the best free-to-play games will soar - in fact they already are. There'll be so many crafty, manipulative me-too offerings, though, that it's hard to see free-to-play being the new standard, especially when the vocal minority start to pick holes in the value of every new game's in-app purchases.

Perhaps, then, it's best to take a look at Hollywood again. After the 80's and 90's saw blockbuster cinema rapidly turning into vapid Happy Meal-backed, Rayban-sporting 'products' rather than pieces of art, it took television, HBO and The Sopranos to give discerning audiences that combination of sheen and artistry they were clearly demanding. Fast forward a decade or so and long-form serialised drama is the norm, to the point where all but the biggest movie stars have found themselves a TV platform to boost their credibility - unthinkable just a few years prior.

So what will our HBO be? It's too often said that gaming hasn't had its Citizen Kane moment yet, but have we had our Sopranos? Is it coming? Does it even need to? Well something's got to give. We're on the precipice of change, where the true 'next big thing' is just on the horizon, but no one knows, no one really knows, what that will actually be.

And I suppose that's the real beauty of videogames. As dark as the outlook can seem sometimes, or indeed as fresh and vibrant as the world of indies so often is, the form is evolving, shifting and mutating at such a rate that we can never be sure of where the next explosion will be. Only that there will be one.

I've heard the argument before that gaming is still finding its own voice, and only then will it truly mature. I hope it never does. It might be the best of times, it might be the worst of times, but for this medium, it's always the most fascinating of times. I can't wait to see what's next.

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