Let’s Take a Backlog Year

When I was a kid there were no backlogs. Games were released very sparingly with maybe one to two new releases every two to three months at best. And many of those releases were skippable. Holiday season was the time when the good games dropped. I still remember waiting for Christmas to get The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (November 1998). This was a time when replaying games was not just common but the norm. There simply weren’t enough games to play. Not to mention that games were more expensive.

When I say more expensive what I really mean is that the prices didn’t drop. It’s fairly common to see a new release drop from $60 to $30 or less within a few months today. With the exception of Nintendo, it’s pretty much the norm. I bought Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order a month after it released for $16 in a holiday sale. Worth every penny and then some, by the way. We didn’t have those price drops when I was a kid. Games simply were the price they were. We also didn’t have weekly free games on Epic Game Store, monthly free games on PlayStation Plus, and so on. You bought or borrowed every game you played, the prices weren’t discounted much if at all, and there weren’t a ton of games to play. This meant that you were usually caught up on games you actually wanted to play, assuming you had the money or friends to borrow games from. It’s not like that anymore.

Epic Free GamesI often feel like we as gamers have become spoiled when it comes to the volume of games available to us these days. There are just so many great games to play releasing so often now. In 2020 we get Yakuza: Like a Dragon, Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot, Animal Crossing: New Horizons, Doom Eternal, Cyberpunk 2077, Nioh 2, Ghost of Tsushima, The Last of Us Part 2, Marvel’s Avengers, Watch Dogs: Legion, God & Monsters, and Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIV. That’s just 12 of the many AAA titles releasing this year. We can also be sure that most of them will either have additional content added or will take hundreds of hours to play at a minimum. Then there’s the many remakes/remasters coming as well such as Final Fantasy VII, The Wonderful 101, Resident Evil 3, and so on. We have well over one knock out game a month. There’s enough content to get every normal gamer through the year with games to spare.

ghost of tsushima
Cannot wait!

Not only are there plenty of new games to play this year but there are also all the games we still haven’t gotten to play. When I was a kid, we were waiting for the next release. “I have nothing to play” was a literal statement of fact. Not a metaphorical statement of preference based irony. I haven’t had nothing to play in a good 10 years. My backlog is so preposterous that I know I will never actually complete it. I have unplayed copies of Final Fantasy XV, World of Final Fantasy, The Surge, The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening Remake, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor & War, The Witcher 2 & 3, Shadow of the Tomb Raider, and countless other AAA titles sitting in my backlog with the intention of playing them. And that doesn’t even account for the fact that my Black Friday/Christmas sale purchases from 2019 just arrived at the end of February adding all of this to my already preposterous backlog. That is to say that I have well over one AAA game a month at my disposal for the next several years without ever buying another game. And remember that this doesn’t include the countless indies I have and would like to play, doesn’t include the various freebies from Epic Game Store and PlayStation Plus, when I don’t already own them (looking at your Shadows of the Colossus and Sonic Forces) and doesn’t account for all the retro ports I never beat as a kid and would like to play available on Nintendo Switch Online.

 

PS Plus March 2020My backlog is quite large, but it’s not abnormal. I don’t know any gamers that aren’t backlogged. Pretty much every person I know that considers them self a gamer has accepted the fact that they will always be backlogged. Backlogs are like the US national debt. We as people have simply accepted it as part of life and though we may complain about it constantly we have no intention or putting in any serious effort or life changes to reduce it by a noticeable amount. Being a gamer means you simply are backlogged as a natural state of being these days. I believe that this is the first time in gaming history that we’re in a position where the industry can take advantage of that fact.

Let me preface the rest of this post by acknowledging that what I’m about to write is never going to happen. I’m aware of that fact. I have no delusions about the fact that this idea, though good and productive for all parties involved, goes against the status quo and would never actually happen. But I think it’s important to put it out there anyway.

Rainbow-6-Siege
Rainbow Six Siege

As I said, games used to be in limited supply and expensive. The prices couldn’t drop in order for larger publishers to remain profitable because they had a limited number of products and no additional revenue streams. Now we’re in the completely opposite situation. Not only are there so many games to play, but those games continue to be relevant with additional content for multiple years in the case of some games. Rainbow Six Siege is four years old and just broke its concurrent player record on Steam. Games last way longer now and have tons of additional revenue streams with things like DLC, expansions, microtransactions, and e-sports revenue. What this actually means is that a company can put out a game and continue to support that game for a long time and remain profitable without releasing a new game for quite some time. What if that became normal practice?

 

cyberpunk-2077
You can wait . . . unless coronavirus destroys the world.

People often complain about games getting delayed, such as Cyberpunk 2077, but there’s not really a valid reason to complain about those delays. As I’ve said, everyone is backlogged. You don’t need to play Cyberpunk 2077 today. You’ve almost assuredly got something else to play that you haven’t already beaten. You can also lean into online multiplayer in many games if you have absolutely no backlog to speak of, which is ridiculous. There are also plenty of free and older discounted games to take advantage of during the wait for a new release. Delays also mean a game gets more of its bugs worked out before launch. It means less patches required day one. It means less crunch time for the developers. There are lots of good things that come out of delays with very few bad things, unless a project ultimately gets cancelled because of a delay, such as with Scalebound (never forget). So generally I don’t have a problem with delays. So why don’t companies leverage all the time they need to get a game right from launch like they used to? I’m tired of large day one patches, broken games that need to be fully updated, and hearing about developers getting worked to death to make an arbitrary deadline. It’s simply not necessary when people can fill the time. Especially when you’re a company like Ubisoft where people can fill the time with other games already published by Ubisoft. Personally I’m nearing the end of Watch Dogs 2 and still need to play Assassin’s Creed: Origins & Odyssey. So the fact that Watch Dogs: Legion got delayed doesn’t faze me in the slightest bit. If anything it helps me.

Watch Dogs 2 Screenshot 2020.02.16 - 13.42.33.77
Finished Watch Dogs 2 just after writing this.

When you look at this year’s AAA lineup you can see a large amount of corporate representation. Just about every large publisher is putting out something noteworthy this year. And most of these will be long form games with DLC, games as service content, and or plenty of base content. So why do any of them need to release another big game in 2021? What if instead every publisher agreed to make 2021 a development year? All studios will not publish any games and will instead allow all developers to work without a 2021 deadline so they maximize the performance of their games that would have released in 2021. Why isn’t that a thing? All larger players agreeing to periodically take a year off releasing and just ride their current revenue streams, allowing studios more time and gamers a year to focus on their backlogs. This is the first time in history that taking a year off publishing new titles won’t break the larger players. With so many additional revenue streams available now, they don’t need to release new games as often as they do and can still remain profitable.

2020 releasesImagine what you could get done if you had an entire year where you were guaranteed that you wouldn’t miss out on any new games. How would that make you feel? What would you do with that time? You’d finally put some real work into your backlog. You’d revisit games you wish you had time to revisit. It could be a super productive time for many gamers. And people could save money for the next year of games.

Now obviously everyone wouldn’t care for this. Indie studios that can barely keep their doors open couldn’t take a year off like this and shouldn’t. Streamers that focus on new games at release would be starved for content, which isn’t really a concern of mine but it is something that should be acknowledged. Also let’s not forget that the PS5 and XBOX Series X are scheduled to release at the very end of 2020 so them not releasing any games in 2021 specifically is a tall order. But that’s a specific situation that doesn’t happen every year. So focus on the concept rather than the specific dates.

XBOX Series XAgain, this won’t happen. Too many powerful people would complain too much about a year off with no additional revenue streams being added to the mix. And too many whiny gamers that don’t want to work on their backlog would take to the internet with change.org petitions and angry Reddit posts. Changing the status quo is hard. Changing the status quo when it will reduce profits, even if only temporarily, is nearly impossible. But I think it’s important to note that for the first time in history, such a thing could be comfortably implemented without a required lapse in total gameplay hours for consumers and without AAA game companies having to suffer real losses from not releasing for a year. The only scenario where a company really loses is if they were already gold and ready to launch because that would mean idle time for that studio where no work is actually getting done. But something as radical as an entire year devoted to backlog play would be coordinated in advance so studios shouldn’t end up in that situation in most cases.

Deserve a VacationI think the idea of granting a year of gaming furlough to both consumers and developers would be a good thing. I think there would be many positive benefits to it, including the fact that gamers would be that much more appreciative of new games after having to wait an additional year to play them. People wouldn’t be nearly as critical when they spent a year playing only older games.

What would you do with a backlog year? Would you be able to keep yourself occupied or would you have absolutely nothing to play? Would you appreciate the time to catch up with older stuff and save money or is it a non-issue for you?

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Not Like This . . . E3 2020 is Officially Cancelled

Last week E3 2020 was officially cancelled due to concerns about COVID-19 aka coronavirus. If you have been reading my blog regularly for the past several years, then you know that I have been very negative about E3. I have called for a massive change to the structure of the event, I have maligned the ESA for their focus on using the event as a way to uplift media personalities, both professional and private, and I’ve said countless times that the event needs to be more focused on the public and providing them access. It is not inaccurate to say that I would happily have supported the show closing down for good. I even wrote a blog post in February pretty much saying that I believed E3 was on its way out within the next five years. But this is not how I wanted it.

While I did want to see E3 change or die, I wanted it to be a choice made in good faith. I did not want it to be at metaphorical gun point. I did not want the world to literally be collapsing under the weight of a pandemic that has led to the indefinite cancellation of the rest of the NBA season, several other events being cancelled or delayed indefinitely, and the delay of both movies and TV shows. Sure I’ve been very negative about E3 for years, but not so much that I wanted things to get to a point where people started dying in order to get it cancelled. It’s fairly depressing to have predicted and even called for E3 to be cancelled and to then have seen it cancelled in this way. It’s kind of like being able to see the future but not the causes of it and ultimately using that partial information to make things worse. Like being in an episode of That’s so Raven but much more depressing. Well maybe not much more depressing . . .

E3 Coronavirus NoteIt is sad to see not just E3 but many gaming events cancelled because of coronavirus. Taipei Game Show, which I attend every year in person, was also cancelled, or “delayed” to be completely accurate. I am encouraged that some larger brands have already stated that they will still be able to present their E3 announcements on time via digital means. This is what I’ve wanted to be implemented for years. Again, I didn’t want it to be a forced decision in order to literally save lives, but yes the E3 announcement cycle needs to be replaced with digital presentations and should have been years ago. Every so often Nintendo has the right idea before everyone else.

I hope the industry as a whole takes this opportunity to completely revamp the way gaming announcements are distributed. We and they should not be limited to big news at a couple of key events in limited locations in specific languages at pre-determined times every year. Developers and publishers have the ability to create and distribute digital presentations at any time to everyone in the world concurrently in whatever language and style they want. The freedom of directly controlling and distributing information without having it filtered by media personalities and specific event dates should be taken advantage of by all developers and for whatever reason really hasn’t been to a wide degree. There’s no reason a developer that’s ready to announce a project in February should have to wait for June when a bunch of other projects by will also be announced by their competitors. It would be much more beneficial to that studio, and in my opinion effective, to be able to announce the information they want to when they’re ready directly to consumers via social media.

nintendo direct 9-4I love the Nintendo Direct and PlayStation State of Play presentations. I wish PlayStation had a bit more consistency about when they released them, but I believe the models work and more importantly work well. Every publisher can and should do something similar. And they shouldn’t try to release them all at the same time. Imagine a world where every month you get to watch a new presentation with announcements about different projects you may or may not have known about so you have enough time to properly analyze and consider each one, giving it a fair amount of consideration before rendering a verdict. Imagine being able to watch a company’s presentation without having to consider stupid questions like “Who won E3?” because each company presents their games as an independent entity at their own time trying to deliver products they’re passionate about rather than compete for media hype. Imagine a world where presenters can talk about the games they’re presenting without constantly being interrupted by entitled YouTubers trying to get free special editions of unreleased games and garner hits to their channels. This is the world of game announcements I want to live in.

Who-won-E3I want to live in a world where the popular media outlets are the ones that create the best content by the strength of their writing and presentation. Not their access to information. I want to live in a world where all media, big or small, famous or just starting out, get information at the same time and can create their content the way they want to without having to worry about getting beaten out in the news cycle by someone who was given early access and handed an automatic win. We are in an age where consumers and developers no longer have to be held hostage by media entities and event organizers for exorbitant fees, favoritism, and inconvenient optics, both physical and digital. It’s now possible for any developer to present the content they want to present directly to the gamers with no middle man. I hope more of them take advantage of this opportunity moving forward.

Coronavirus MapMake no mistake, I am not happy about the spread of this virus. I am not happy that the world is getting turned upside down because of it. I am not happy to learn that most of the world’s governments are run by ill prepared career politicians that never really had the best interests of the public in mind or the ability/desire to protect them. None of these things make me happy. I am not happy that gaming events, among other things, are being canceled. All of these things make me sad. But let us not ignore that these cancellations are an opportunity to completely overhaul the way games are announced, hyped up, and even released. Hopefully it won’t be wasted.

Stay safe, stay inside as much as possible, and use this time to work on your backlogs.

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Black Like Me (Playing Watch Dogs 2 and Other Games Online)

Diversity in games is an important issue but I’ll never say that a company should be expected to actively choose diversity in game development at the intentional loss of profits. There are clearly moments where implementing diversity is a low/no risk decision and clearly moments where implementing diversity for the sake of politics will tank sales. It’s unfair and unrealistic to expect a company to tank sales for political reasons and there’s pretty much no legitimate reason to think otherwise when you acknowledge that development studios are for profit businesses. At the same time, I do think developers should make a point of actively trying to implement more diversity into games when the risk is relatively low and/or justifiable within the plot of the game.

There are clearly games where diversity doesn’t make sense in the traditional sense of the word and there are clearly games where a lack of diversity doesn’t make sense. I think both instances need to be acknowledged more often than they are by the general gaming community and industry as a whole. I also think we currently have really lopsided views on diversity and representation by volume versus percentage of users and the general makeup of the population, but that’s a discussion for another day. What I actually want to talk about in this post is an experience I had recently while playing Watch Dogs 2.

Watch Dogs 2 Screenshot 2020.02.16 - 13.42.33.77As an African American, I’ve been playing games with a white avatar for a long time. In recent years this has changed somewhat with so many titles allowing for character creation, but I actually don’t prefer games with character creation generally. I like a well written, character driven narrative and that’s always harder to do when there isn’t an established protagonist. And sadly that protagonist is almost always a middle aged white male. I say sadly only because I’m not a middle aged white male which means I rarely get to play as a person that looks like me. So Watch Dogs 2 appealed to me a lot when I learned that the main character was Marcus, an African American in his mid to late 20’s. At the same time though, I was turned off because the game focuses on San Francisco based hipsters. I don’t have a problem with San Francisco. In fact, I’ve been there many times. But I really don’t like hipsters. So I actually didn’t play the game until now, three years after it released. I have to admit that Marcus is the most realistic and identifiable Black protagonist for me I’ve ever seen in a video game. That’s not as much a compliment to Ubisoft as it is an insult to the rest of the gaming industry. If the best example of a Black protagonist is openly identified as a member of a group of people I openly dislike, hipsters, then the fact that I identify with the character so much shows a huge lack of other options.

Watch Dogs 2 Screenshot 2020.02.16 - 14.16.52.26Playing as Marcus has been a treat. I’ve really enjoyed the characterization of him a lot. Especially the banter between him and the other characters in Dedsec. Their discussions about nerdy things like Star Wars and Alien are well written, hilarious, and exactly the kinds of things I would discuss with people in the way I would discuss them. And I honestly can’t think of any other examples of Black protagonists I identify with to this degree from other video games. I’d even go as far as saying that I often dislike the Black protagonists in many games because they’re so badly written. My go to example of this is always James Heller in Prototype 2.  He was a terrible depiction of a Black person but is often cited as an example of Black representation in games.

My problem with James Heller isn’t even that he’s not believable, because he is. The problem is more that he’s a very specific type of character that shouldn’t be the poster child of Black representation in games. He’s a Marine that hates computers, likes using violence to solve problems, and is solely focused on revenge. Is he real? Very much so. Is he a good example of the general demeanor and character of the Black people who actually play video games? Not at all. Is he a good role model for Black people? Not really. Is he a good depiction of Black people to people who aren’t Black? Not even a little, save for the fact that he was a decorated Marine. Does he break any stereotypes? No. He’s a textbook example of a bunch of white people creating a Black character based on 80’s movies and personal anecdotes. I hated the character but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with not liking every protagonist from every game. But when there are only a handful of Black protagonists hating even one becomes a real problem. If there were hundreds or thousands of them to choose from like with white protagonists then it wouldn’t matter at all, assuming of course that many of them are actually written by Black people. My point is that Marcus is really well done in Watch Dogs 2 for the Black players that actually played Watch Dogs 2. But that’s not even the part of the game that I was most affected by.

James HellerI don’t really like multiplayer games and I rarely play the multiplayer portion of single player games but I do occasionally. Watch Dogs 2 is interesting in the fact that multiplayer and single player modes are in a shared space and they bleed into each other seamlessly. So often I end up playing multiplayer unintentionally. Once I was even kidnapped by another player and forced to do co-op with him/her. During my first multiplayer session in the game I realized something important. This is the first and only game I’ve ever played where the default avatar for multiplayer is a Black guy. I don’t know what the race of the person I first played coop with was. But I know that his avatar was a Black guy because it was the default. You actually can change the avatar but only through the settings menu (not the in game options) and it’s not clearly stated that you can while playing the game. I didn’t even realize you could until I later saw another player with a different avatar and looked up how to do it. Assuming most people had this same experience I did about not realizing you could change the avatar, that means that the majority of players, at least to start, played online multiplayer as a Black guy by default. For me it was very jarring once I realized it. And this was before I knew you could change the avatar, which honestly made it even more shocking.

Online Coop WD2I had/have never played a game before where everyone could play online together and had to be a Black guy. Even saying that out loud sounds really odd because it’s such an abnormal occurrence in video games. Even more so today when character creation is such a huge part of online gaming. But as a Black guy it was really cool. White people have gotten that experience for decades and I never once thought about it before because minorities from my generation, and before, just had to grow up accepting white avatars in most games. And once character creation became a thing it was kind of assumed that all the Black avatars in a game were actually Black people or the occasional pretender, which honestly aren’t that common in either instance. It was a super surreal moment to be playing a game where all the players “had” to be Black. That should happen more often in games. And not just with Black men. Women, Latinos, Asians, and so on should also be represented in games like that. There should be more games where minorities and women get to experience the default and only choice looking like them. There should be more games where white guys are forced to experience online play with an avatar that looks nothing like them and not have a say in it. Not because it’s cruel and unfair. But because it teaches empathy and normalization.

white protags bigThere is a longstanding argument that games starring characters that aren’t white males don’t sell as well because they don’t appeal to the largest audience, which is assumed to be straight white males. Now I believe that the largest audience argument has been shifting considerably in the last several years, but I do agree that white males are still a large demographic that shouldn’t be ignored from a business standpoint. But I don’t agree that they are incapable of playing a game where the avatar doesn’t look like them. A more accurate statement is that they aren’t used to playing as avatars that don’t look like them because they haven’t been made to. Character creation didn’t fix this issue. It swept it under the rug. It allowed people of color to start to have avatars that look like them without ever making white male players have to normalize playing as something other than a white male. Both of those things need to happen and happen often in order to fully normalize the idea of white males being comfortable playing as an avatar that doesn’t look like them. In reality it’s not even their fault. You can’t blame someone for being uncomfortable with something they’ve never been taught or made to do. The only solution is to create scenarios where they don’t have a choice. Meaning more games like Watch Dogs 2 need to be made. And let’s be very honest: Watch Dogs Legion, which I’m really excited for, isn’t going to be one of those games. Because you can play as anyone you want. This is another example of sweeping the issue under the rug.

So the question is not how do you normalize the idea of white males playing games, both online and offline, with avatars that don’t look like them. That’s an easy one. You simply take the choice away, as has been done to everyone else for most of gaming history. The actual question is how do you get white males to buy games where they can’t play as white males? That’s an easy one to answer but it’s seemingly much harder to implement. The answer is of course to make great games that don’t star white male characters.

old kratosImagine if Kratos was Black. Kratos OG was voiced by Terrence C. Carson and new Kratos is voiced by Christopher Judge. What do these two actors have in common? They’re both Black. One of the most famous video game characters of all time is a white guy voiced by two Black actors. If you don’t think that’s weird then you’re probably a white guy. Historically speaking, Kratos could have been Black. He was a Spartan. Mediterraneans were a mixed race people because of their many trade partners that traveled to the region by sea. Their social system allowed for slaves to earn their freedom and rise in the ranks of society and military based on performance. While yes it would have been very unlikely for a Black guy to become a Spartan general in ancient Greece, it was absolutely possible. And if that Black guy was the son of Zeus, it probably wouldn’t have been so unbelievable to begin with. Zeus seduces or rapes a slave. That slave’s son becomes a gladiator. That gladiator wins his freedom and then joins the military. That solider proves his worth in battle and rises through the ranks. A historically accurate Black Kratos wouldn’t even be the most difficult part of his story to believe. That was clearly a missed opportunity for Black representation in gaming.

Why did I choose Kratos as an example? Because God of War is a series of great games that people actually want to play. The fact is that everyone who plays/played God of War did so because the gameplay looked awesome. I remember when the original game was first announced and marketed. The selling points were badass gameplay and fighting Greek gods. That’s it. It wasn’t the story that sold the games. It wasn’t Kratos being a cool character. It was amazing gameplay, ancient Greece setting, and good graphics for the time. Very few people would have chosen not to buy God of War just because Kratos was Black. And those that did would have ultimately bought the game once all their friends told them how awesome the gameplay was. That’s the kind of game that should have a diverse protagonist. A game that will sell based on the gameplay and graphics regardless of how the story is.

remember me
This game was trash!

I can name so many trash games starring people of color, women, and/or LGBT characters, both indie and AAA. I’m not saying all games starring people or color, women, or LGBT characters suck. But a lot of them do. I’ve written about several. This hurts the normalization process. When shitty games star minorities, white people connect shitty games with minority protagonists. That in turn makes them avoid buying games starring non-white males in the future. The worst thing a developer that actually cares about promoting diversity can do is make a shitty game with a diverse lead. In fact, they should do the opposite and make their shitty games with white male leads to reinforce that connection within the gaming community. Diverse leads need good games to make them shine. A game no one wants to play or no one enjoys playing does nothing for the normalization process. I’d say it hurts it. AAA projects with actually good ideas and gameplay that people simply can’t resist playing need to be the ones to push diversity for it to become normal. And it’s not really a risk to their business if the games are actually good. Because real gamers can’t resist good games. Look at the Yakuza series. No one says they won’t play it because it stars Asian people. Because the gameplay and writing is good. If it sucked, people, especially white males, would simply ignore it. And they’d be right in doing so, because no one should be forced to purchase and play shitty games.

Watch Dogs LegionI think Watch Dogs 2 used the perfect strategy to promote diversity for white male players. You make a game that has a really appealing selling point (Watch Dogs and hacking) and have it star a white guy. Then you release the game and actually deliver. No the first Watch Dogs wasn’t a perfect game but it was quite good and people did want to play another one. Then you make a sequel starring a different protagonist that isn’t a white guy. At that point you’ve already hooked the white male players into the franchise. So even if they aren’t happy about the change in protagonist and addition of diversity, they’re still gonna play the game. That’s how you normalize diversity. Getting people to play games with diverse protagonists because they can’t resist playing the game. Virtue signaling and political grandstanding won’t accomplish anything. Calling white males sexist for not supporting female protagonist led games doesn’t accomplish anything. Tomb Raider did more for normalizing female protagonists in games than Anita Sarkeesian ever did. Because guys like playing Tomb Raider. They don’t care that Lara Croft is a woman. The games are good. That’s all it takes to get white guys to be OK with games starring people who aren’t white guys. Make great games starring people who aren’t white guys.

No one didn’t play Bayonetta because the protagonist is a woman. No one didn’t play Onimusha because the protagonist is a Japanese man. No one didn’t play Ratchet & Clank because the protagonist is a Lombax. Gamers play good games. That means the best thing companies like EA, Activision, Ubisoft, PlayStation, and Microsoft can do to support diversity is make the next Star Wars, COD, Assassin’s Creed, Spider-Man, and Halo star people who aren’t white males. Because anyone who actually plays those franchises isn’t going to buy them because they star a white guy. They’re going to buy them because they like the gameplay. The only exception could be Spider-Man because there’s a divide within the Spider-Man fandom about Miles Morales. But he’s already canon within the game franchise so making him the protagonist for the next game wouldn’t be a huge leap.

Episode - Screenshot 2019-02-05 21-37-17The phrase “get woke, go broke” is fairly common and it’s kind of true. But it’s not because of diversity being added to entertainment products. It’s because of diversity being used to justify bad entertainment products. People don’t pay money to watch bad movies. Turning the story around and saying the movie did poorly because it stars women is dishonest. People don’t pay money to play bad games. Saying it’s because the protagonist was Black is in bad faith. People pay money for good movies and good games. If AAA studios make actually good games and have them star diverse protagonists they will sell. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, Horizon: Zero Dawn, and my original example of Watch Dogs 2 are all examples of successful games that have diverse leads and all of them are getting a sequel. That’s not because they have diverse leads. It’s because they were games people liked playing. Promoting diversity is easy. Making good games is hard. Make good games with diverse leads and the diversity issue will be solved automatically. It really is that simple.

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As always, thanks for reading. Please take the time to follow my blog, leave a comment, and check out some of my other channels if you enjoyed what you read.

Sonic the Hedgehog Movie Works But Why?

I recently saw Sonic the Hedgehog. I’m not really sure what I expected from it. As a long time Sonic fan stretching all the way back to the Sega Genesis, I’ve encountered many iterations of Sonic and because of this I had both low and high expectations for the movie. Real Sonic fans will understand what I mean by that. It’s a love hate relationship with that franchise. I have to say though the movie actually worked really well.

I don’t want to write a full review of the movie. To summarize, it’s cute and fun. The story is child friendly and whimsical while also providing an, admittedly cliché, emotional plot about friendship. The sound effects were surprisingly good. Especially the robot and tech related stuff. Robotnik’s gloves are probably the best example of this. Jim Carrey gives a phenomenal performance and Dr. Robotnik is developed in ways as a character that I hadn’t seen previously. The same is true for Sonic.

Dr RobotnikVideo game movies, by and large, usually aren’t great. But it’s also not super accurate to say they always stink to high heaven. The rhetoric used goes that way but it’s a fairly hyperbolic claim when you actually look at the entirety of video game movies. I can think of many examples of bad movies based on video games. Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li (2009), Assassin’s Creed (2016), and Prince of Persia (2010) come to mind. And Prince of Persia tried so hard to be good while respecting the source material. But a number of video game movies have also been passable over the years. Rampage (2018), though by no means a great movie, wasn’t terrible. The Tomb Raider franchise has always been respected as serviceable video game movies. The older stuff tended to be way more campy, but it was also very fun to watch, which honestly should be part of the video game movie experience, just as video games should be fun to play. Like Mortal Kombat (1995) was fairly solid for a movie based on a fighting game and a fun viewing experience. Street Fighter (1994), for all its over the top muscles, preposterous overacting, and silly plot, is extremely entertaining. And the late, great Raul Julia gives one of the most amazing performances in the history of acting.

The weird thing about video game movies is that there doesn’t appear to be any specific formula that works consistently. There are movies based on adult focused games that have serious plots and work genuinely hard to make a good movie that sucked terribly. There are campy movies that make absolutely no sense that are super entertaining. The opposite is also true in both cases. Hitman (2007) should have worked but it was incredibly boring. People give shit to Super Mario Bros. (1993) all day and yet it’s great to watch for the pure spectacle of it and is objectively better than many other video game movies. The most curious thing is that plot wise, Sonic the Hedgehog really isn’t any more true to its source material than Super Mario Bros. and yet most people will probably remember it as being the better video game movie. So again I say there is no formula.

street-fighter-desktop-wallpaperIn my opinion, the best video movies have tended to be the ones based on games with the least amount of actual in game storytelling. There are exceptions, but I actually think the exceptions sort of prove the rule. The main problem with Assassin’s Creed is that it pretty much ignores the entire established story of the game franchise. And yet the same can be said about Super Mario Bros. and Sonic the Hedgehog but those movies don’t suck. That’s an interesting conundrum when it comes to trying to pick the best games to make movies out of. People always say they should make a God of War movie, but honestly I don’t think that would work at this point. A TV show maybe, like The Witcher series, but a movie just seems too difficult to execute well. And it’s because of the great storytelling in the games that I think a movie just wouldn’t work. It’s simply too much to fit in one movie. Whereas Super Mario Bros. was much easier to execute and had much lower expectations precisely because of its lack of plot.

Think about how you would summarize the plot of the original Super Mario Bros. (1985) or really any Super Mario Bros. game from that particular game series. For reasons never explained, an Italian plumber, and his brother if you’re playing with two players, travel through a world of mushroom people that has been possibly invaded by an army of evil turtles at the behest of their giant turtle overlord in order to rescue a princess who has been taken hostage. That’s the plot of Super Mario Bros. at face value. You don’t know where the plumbers come from or why they’re in the Mushroom Kingdom. You assume they’re regular Earthling plumbers mostly because they’re Italian and thus would have to hail from a world where Italy exists. But we’re never told where they actually come from. We don’t know why Bowser has invaded the Mushroom Kingdom and kidnapped Princess Peach. We just know he has and since she’s a pretty blonde and he’s a giant fire breathing turtle, the plumbers decide to go up against him and save her. That’s literally all we can objectively say we know about the plot of Super Mario Bros. at face value when actually playing the game(s).

Super-Mario-Bros-MovieWhen you think about it, the “plot” to Super Mario Bros. games is pretty much non-existent. But in a way that makes producing a movie easier. There are pretty much no plot expectations other than have Italian plumbers save a princess from an evil reptile. And ideally that reptile has a giant shell and breathes fire. That gives the writers the freedom to come up with whatever they want without being hindered by fan expectations. So instead of looking at the movie as not being about Super Mario Bros. consider the pitch for the movie to producers in 1991/2.

In our world people evolved from apes, or so the science says. But there is a second world where people evolved from reptiles. That world is in political turmoil as a fast talking usurper  with a god complex has stolen the throne from the rightful monarch of one of the kingdoms in that world. Two run of the mill Italian plumbers/brothers are accidentally pulled from our world into this world of reptile evolution and forced into a mission to save the princess of the rightful royal family. That sounds insane. For the early 90’s, a pitch like that would definitely get someone’s attention. You might not be sold but you’d have major questions about what happens. It’s original, it’s creative, and it’s really never been done before. Now tack on the fact that it’s based on one of the most successful games of the time. That movie gets made. You could never be that creative with something like a Bioshock movie. Because Bioshock is steeped in plot. And not adhering to that plot would surely anger and disappoint viewers. But that plot is also made to work for the pacing and interaction of a video game. As a movie, it would probably not fair too well even while people would say it sounds like a great idea for a movie on paper. I think it’s that freedom from a preexisting highly developed plot that made Sonic work as a movie.

sonic 1 hdWhat is the plot of Sonic the Hedgehog (1991)? I honestly don’t know. In fact, I couldn’t tell you the plot of any Sonic the Hedgehog game until Sonic Adventure (1998) which is technically 13 games into the franchise. I haven’t played all the games though so maybe some of the older ones have more developed plots than the original game. But if I was going to summarize the first game I’d say something like this. A blue hedgehog with super speed terrorizes an evil robotics engineer by destroying his machines and freeing his animal test subjects, in a world that’s not really ever established to be Earth or somewhere else. Even that simple plot description might be a bit too exaggerated from what you can actually gleam from the game(s). This meant that pretty much all a movie absolutely had to have was a fast running blue hedgehog destroying robots in a fight against a robotics engineer named Dr. Robotnik. As with Super Mario Bros., that’s pretty open ended. And that’s exactly why I think the movie worked.

Sonic the Hedgehog movie was pretty much an original plot that goes out of its way to make references to the games. It has Sonic travel to Earth from another dimension because his powers are sought after by greedy, evil people wherever he goes. He’s forced to hide in order to stay safe. He accidentally reveals his powers and that causes Dr. Robotnik to come after him so he can harness that power to improve his robots. While running to survive and hide, Sonic makes some friends and ultimately has to fight Dr. Robotnik in order to save them. That’s the entire plot of the movie. It has almost nothing to do with the games. And pretty much no one seems to have any issue with that. Because again, the games don’t have great plot development to begin with. And since the beginning of the franchise, the existence of humans in Sonic’s world have been canon. Dr. Robotnik is human after all. So placing Sonic on Earth isn’t even ridiculous. The only thing the game did that seemed to completely alter game canon is turn the rings into magical warp gates. Funny enough though, I don’t actually know what the rings are for in the games after more than 20 years of playing them. I just know Sonic collects them and I’ve never thought to question it further before watching the movie.

SONIC THE HEDGEHOGIn my opinion, Sonic the Hedgehog works as a movie for all the reasons that most people would never consider making it into a movie. It has no real story to go off. It’s pretty much an invitation for a writer to tell whatever story they want. Meaning that the success of the movie lies solely on the writer and filmmaker(s) rather than the game(s). By that logic though, it means that movies like Uncharted are very well likely to fail. Monster Hunter World, being a game that has a plot but isn’t really plot contingent could go either way. But again, we do have examples of story driven game franchises working as movies. So there’s really no exact science. All I really know is that I was excited for Assassin’s Creed back in 2016 and it was garbage; and I had little faith in Sonic the Hedgehog, especially after that original model debacle, but was pleasantly surprised. There will be a second Sonic the Hedgehog movie. There will not be another Assassin’s Creed movie. At least not set in the same universe as that 2016 film anyway.

What did you think of Sonic the Hedgehog? Did you think it was a good video game movie or a bad one? What about it worked for you and why?

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