You're So Vain
Games and gamers are a pretty self-involved bunch. We make games that are impossible to play without a couple years practice, games with communities that are hostile to "outsiders", and games that talk, sometimes literally, about themselves. Are we still so insecure that we're afraid to explore other fields or audiences?
I touched on this problem in my last AltDevBlog post, Talkback Games. 'Gamers' as an audience are easy, we know the input language that game systems expect, and games feed back the language that players expect. Gamers know that an ammo stockpile means you're about to meet a boss, or that you need to quicksave often, etc... So yes, making games that reach outside this system is harder. Not only do you have to make simple or easily taught interfaces, but feedback has to be intuitive to non-gamers. However, I don't think that blaming the lack of accessible mainstream games on lazy devs is either accurate or fair.
Can we blame the audience? The game community is known for its outspokenness, and studios have to work under the watchful eye of a legion of fans. Try to make a more accessible PC game and be accused of pandering to consoles. Make a sequel that departs too much from the original(s) and no one buys your game. The fickleness of audiences, and studios too willing to pander to them produces an industry afraid of change. This is hardly a new statement, but people seem to accept it. The mainstream game industry is in serious danger of following the same route as comic books. Readers became so averse to new series that publishers stopped making them, instead making countless crossovers that sold well, but were of no interest to non-fans. Today, comics are most definitely a cult industry, with the top-sellers only popular due to film/tv adaptations. We can only avoid the same fate if gamers become willing to spend their money on different games. Smaller, different games can still sell well (obligatory Minecraft reference) so is the audience really so afraid to try new things?
Something else is holding developers back. The 'art' or 'Art' debate is tiring now, but many of the popular 'Art' games cited are those that dissect other games. Bioshock as comment on gamers' lack of narrative control, The Stanley Parable as rant against traditional narratives in games. The audience might find it interesting, but in the end, players don't care about theories of game design, they just want a good game. There is a danger of creating a culture that just wants to talk about itself, like some unintentional parody of post-modernism. Repeating a statement about game mechanics isn't noteworthy, you have to use it to help another statement. Shadow of the Colossus uses gamers' urge to continue to make a tragedy, the player realises the horror of what they are doing, but is unable to stop. I just watched The Artist, and although at first I thought it was exploiting the style of silent films as a gimmick, it plays with the format to enhance the story. It uses this knowledge of film techniques to make something new, interesting beyond a pastiche.
So where does all this come from, and why can't we stop? Perhaps we can blame the stereotype of the 'gamer nerd'. Games have been looked down on for most of their existence, maybe we've just given up trying to reach out to new players. We turned to the art world in an attempt to justify all this to ourselves. A museum is a terrible place to put games, yet we parade them there to get the approval of 'real' artists. But we don't need them, we have the attention of the wider world and it wants to play games, as Zynga has shown. We need to stop looking at the magic mirror and make games for everyone else.
Note: This is reposted on my blog, if you're into that sort of thing