As many people know, gaming journalism is an industry that’s going through a bit of crisis at the moment. With AdBlock doing a huge amount of damage to revenue (up to 50% of gamers use Ad Blockers when browsing websites), competition getting fiercer by the day and events like GamerGate doing serious damage to its future sustainability, there are very real worries the field might disappear within the next few years or so.
So what’s the future of this somewhat turbulent industry? What’s going to replace the Kotakus and Polygons and IGNs of the world in the few years? What will change going forward? Well, quite a few things, and that’s what this article is about.
Either way, let’s start with the obvious prediction:
Videos and Let’s Plays Will Replace Traditional Gaming Media
It’s already started (what with popular gaming channels racking up millions of subscribers on Youtube and live streams on Twitch becoming near global phenomenons), but it will only get more and more obvious as time goes on. Text articles are on the way out, video coverage is in.
So why is this happening? Well, ignoring the obvious (the move towards user generated content and its many positives, as discussed later in this article), it’s because videos are simply better for showing how games work than other mediums.
Need a good example of what we mean? Well, go to GameFAQs or some other walkthrough site, and download a text guide for a game you’re playing. Now, go on Youtube and find a Let’s Play of the same title.
Above: This is easier to follow than the GameFAQs equivalent.
Which one is easier to follow?
It’s probably the video. Because in the video, you can see for yourself just how the game works, how someone gets through the levels and how things like the enemy AI and special attacks and game mechanics work. In a text walkthrough, you just to have to try and read between the lines and figure out what to do based on a vague description.
And reviews are better for similar reasons. When a text review says the graphics are good, you just get a few screenshots as proof. And for anything else, you have to take their word for it, since things like music, game mechanics and game difficulty levels are not well illustrated in a text and screenshot review on a web page.
Video reviews let you judge everything for yourself. Oh sure, the video commentator says the graphics or music are good, but do you agree with him? He or she says the game’s engine works well and the levels are well designed, but you can be your own judge of that too. Need an example? Well, which of these reviews makes it more clear how bad the game is?
Above: Superman 64 Reviews by Gamespot and the Angry Video Game Nerd.
But now that the obvious is out of the way, how about non video content? What’s the future for written articles and news in the industry?
Well, it’s hard to say. But…
User Generated Content Is the Way Forward
Which again, is already pretty clear if you’ve a hardcore gamer. You’re probably getting more of your news from gaming forums, Reddit and social media anyway. But in the near future, it’s pretty much going to become the norm for everyone; all gaming news and articles will be written and posted by unpaid fans and amateurs rather than ‘professional’ journalists.
With Super Mario Maker quickly turning into one of the Wii U’s biggest games, and the popularity of level editors as a whole getting greater and greater, it was only inevitable that people would start asking for a Legend of Zelda version.
But while a lot of people have wondered about such a game, and came up with ‘questionable’ ideas about how a Zelda Maker might work, we’re somewhat sceptical of the idea. And so with attention paid to everything from the gameplay of the series to the different art styles, here’s why a Zelda Maker game just wouldn’t work.
The Art Styles are too different
When it comes to Mario, art styles are… fairly easy to translate across. After all, here’s the blueprint for pretty much every 2D Mario tileset ever made (lack of slopes not withstanding).
Using the SMW graphics to illustrate, you can see that the design has nine tiles; four corner tiles, four wall tiles and one general dirt tile in the middle to fill up blank space. You can then basically translate this to every single Mario game ever made, like as follows:
Above: Lacking NSMBU, since no one ripped its tile graphics yet.
As a result, building levels is pretty easy, as is working out what tiles to use to fill gaps and how to translate levels between art styles. It’s why you can press a single button in Mario Maker to turn your level from a SMB 1 stage to a New Super Mario Bros U one.
This would not work for Zelda. Why? Well, here’s a Zelda 1 tileset:
It’s very stripped down, but it’s already far more complex than a Mario one.
Here on the other hand, is a Link to the Past style tileset:
Holy crap that’s complicated to assemble. Your average Joe would struggle to figure out where to even start with this one…
And that’s nothing compared to the Minish Cap or the other GBA games, whose graphics are a royal pain in the backside to use even for experienced fan game or ROM hack developers like myself. That level based on Minish Cap in my SMW ROM hack literally took me around six hours to assemble, without even placing the enemies or blocks. Think you can do better? Well, here’s an example tileset:
So that’s the first art issue. The tiles are complex to assemble, let alone make usable in a simplified editor like Super Mario Maker. But there’s another problem.
Put simply, the tiles don’t run on the same sort of grid. Remember, all Mario tilesets use a simple 9 x 9 block formula. As a result, you can translate the art styles easily, like in Mario Maker.
Zelda games, don’t do this for their graphics. You simply cannot easily translate between Zelda 1, A Link to the Past, Minish Cap and Link Between Worlds, since the graphics run on entirely different grid setups and the amount and placement required is so different between styles. As a result, without a ridiculous amount of complex programming (read, generating tiles from thin air based on what avoids cut off), the graphics just wouldn’t work.
So what’s the alternative here? Come up with four new art styles that all sort of match the official ones but not really yet somehow tile better? That’s going to be way, way too much work for a glorified level editor on a disc. Make it Zelda 2 style? Well, it’s been suggested, but then you get the equally awkward issue that only one Zelda game is mostly in side scrolling 2D, and the art styles for the few 2D sections that do exist in later games are difficult as hell to translate from/to.
It doesn’t work. A Zelda Maker would have to come up with a whole new art style, then offer nothing else.
But graphics aren’t the only issue…
How do you structure a Zelda level anyway?
Because when it comes to Mario, this is an easy, solved problem. Levels are simple blocks of gameplay that don’t require anything from other levels to complete, have no real necessary connection to the ‘storyline’ and only loosely tie together in any thematic way.
As a result, they’re perfect for a level editor. People can make them, people can share them, and they can all be tackled independently of one another through modes like the 100 Mario Challenge.
Zelda does not have this ‘luxury’. Zelda does not have ‘levels’.
It has dungeons, but they’re dependent on things the player has done elsewhere in the game. For example, to tackle the Shadow Temple in Ocarina of Time, you need the Hookshot from Dampe’s grave, the Lens of Truth from the Bottom of the Well, Din’s Fire from seven years ago, the Ocarina of Time from seven years ago, the Nocturne of Shadow that Sheik teaches you in Kakariko Village… the list just goes on and on.
How do you work around this in a level editor?
You can’t require people to beat certain dungeons to play other dungeons, not unless you want to come up with some sort of insanely complicated grouping/tagging system where each fan made dungeon is chosen to introduce an item required by the next one.
So right off the bat, you’ll lose much of what makes a Zelda game a Zelda game, your ‘Zelda Maker’ will become more akin to ‘Four Swords Maker’. But this then brings us to another issue.
Namely, what IS the level you’re supposedly making? What counts as a ‘level’ or ‘main’ gameplay in a Zelda game? Because while the dungeons are cool, some might say it’s actually the big open world you explore that’s the main ‘game’ or ‘structure’ so to speak. But how do you translate that to a level editor?
You can’t just give people a big empty world to explore with nothing in it. So you need NPCs, dungeons, towns, items, enemies, bosses… you name it. But then you’ve gone from a ‘level editor’ to a game maker, with the inherent jump in complexity required from such. Some fans might want to make a forty hour adventure experience with Link, but many people just won’t have the time or inclination to either make or play such a game.
Besides, think Mario Maker is bad enough on ‘Expert’ difficulty? Yeah, good luck beating a forty hour adventure game made by a sociopath with no idea what they’re doing. You may as well go and play Kaizo Mario World at that point.
So perhaps the basic gameplay of the Zelda series isn’t great for a Mario Maker esque experience. But there’s also one last issue the idea has…
Amiibo/Costume Forms aren’t practical
Because the concept just doesn’t translate well to the Zelda game format. It works in Super Mario Bros, because the only sprites a Mario character needs (in a platformer) are running, jumping, flagpole and swimming sprites.
That’s not the case in a Zelda game. In Zelda 1 alone, you need sprites for Link (or whoever) going in every possible direction and using his items. In later games? The amount of necessary sprites starts getting into the hundreds. Look at this:
That is all the poses Link has in A Link to the Past, taken from a sprite sheet by daemoth on the Spriter’s Resource.
That’s not gonna be possible to duplicate for around a hundred Amiibo type characters. Heck, even basing them off the Zelda 1 sprites would require a lot of frames:
Which itself fails to take into consideration that Zelda items change throughout the series. Changing Mario to those costume forms was easy, they’re basically Super Mario with no extra powers. Making sprites for Link forms that can use the sword, Hookshot, bow and arrows, bombs, roc’s feather, etc? Now that’s going to be difficult.
Need more proof? Well, the above Zelda 1 sprite sheet has 22 frames for Link. Add the needed ones for other items, that rises to 30 or 40 frames. Per character (times 100), and you need 3000 to 4000 brand new graphics just to replicate what everyone expects from the Amiibo/costume/mystery mushroom functionality.
Go to more advanced styles (which may easily have 200 or 300 hundred frames per character), and you need around 20,000 to 30,000 new sprites.
That’s a lot of work for a simple feature, isn’t it? And a good example of how a non-platformer doesn’t really lend itself to the Mario Maker formula.
And the other resources…
Yeah, think the necessary sprites and tilesets are overkill?
Just wait til you try and get your head around how many enemy graphics are needed, or how much new music will need to be composed.
The enemy graphics for example, would need much more work, since very few Zelda enemies appear in every single game in the franchise. Mario has Goombas, Koopas, Cheep Cheeps, Bowser, etc in most instalments. Zelda’s own main games sometimes lack common enemies like Octoroks or Stalfos.
So that’s a ton of new sprites and models, since enemies will need to be standardised across generations.
But then, we get to the music. Mario fortunately had this thing called ‘themes’ and ‘levels’, where each level theme had its own song in each instalment. So water levels could use the water songs from each Mario game.
Zelda… doesn’t do this. At least not all the time. Zelda 1 for example, had about three songs:
That’s not going to be enough music for that game style, is it? So off that bat, Nintendo would need to compose an eight bit forest theme, an eight bit water theme, an eight bit cave theme, an eight bit boss theme, an eight bit ice theme, an eight bit desert theme… ad nauseum.
This would likely need to also happen with the other games too, since it’s kind of inconsistent which area themes get their own songs in each title. So Nintendo would need to come up with say, ten level themes, then compose original songs for most of the style variations.
So that’s why a Zelda Maker probably wouldn’t work. It’d be a potentially popular idea, and it seems logical enough on the surface, but the amount of resources and work required would just make the idea too impractical, especially if the budget is meant to be lower than that for a ‘real’ Zelda title like the upcoming Wii U one.
But what do you think? Do you have any ideas for how a Zelda Maker game could solve these issues?
Well, if this isn’t evidence that the next console is around the corner, then pretty much nothing is! According to the Wall Street Journal, the company is sending the kits to various third party game developers so they can have games ‘ready’ before the launch of a new system.
Adding to this, analyst David Gibson (from Macquarie Capital Securities) is noted as saying that the NX launching in 2016 is a no brainer. You know, based on the ‘softness’ of the 3DS and Wii U, and perhaps unambitious nature of their future games.
Above: Given that this is the type of game the Wii U is getting this Christmas, he may be on to something.
It’s also believed the NX could be two different systems that can be ‘used together or seperately’. No real evidence is given for this (other the comments being from a supposedly ‘trusted source’), but it definitely adds a bit more fuel to the rumours fire.
So that’s the Nintendo NX situation for you. Seems like it’s being released in 2016 in an early attempt to get Nintendo back in the game and make up for the disappointing sales of the Wii U. What do you think about this news, and the possibility of the console coming so soon?
Over the last few weeks, there has been… a bit of tension between voice actors and the video game companies that hire them. Basically, the actors (under the union SAG-AFTRA) want more transparency (knowing what game they’ll be working on), residual pay for when a game is successful (so a bonus for every 2 million copies sold), stunt coordinators at sessions for motion and performance capture and ‘stunt pay’ for vocally stressful roles. Meanwhile, the companies themselves are less keen, with the likes of EA, Activision, Disney and Warner Bros (among others) not being able to come to an agreement on that stuff.
So there has been talk of these actors going on strike. Apparently they’re opening the votes until October 4th, and have gotten quite a bit of support for it on Twitter:
But while in principle I do agree with the SAG-AFTRA and their demands for both transparency and better pay, I have to wonder how much power these guys actually have here.
For one thing, how relevant is voice acting to many games? I mean, it’s certainly important for your big triple A Hollywood blockbuster style games and script heavy ones like Metal Gear Solid, but for various others? To be honest, probably not that important. What does a platformer need for voices? A couple of grunts when the character jumps off the ground or dies? The most voice acting a Mario game has ever got has been the intro letter in Super Mario 64:
Even story driven stuff like RPGs doesn’t usually need a lot of voice acting, depending on the direction. On the one hand you have stuff like Final Fantasy and Xenoblade, on the other hand… how much voice acting exists in Pokemon?
Either way, video games are not like film or television. Acting is important in some cases, but is honestly completely irrelevant in many others.
So perhaps on that note, any strike might actually get us more platformers and less first person shooters and ‘movie’ style games. Maybe it’s not such a bad thing after all…
But even for those games that do need voice acting, there’s one other issue that people seem to forget…
Most companies do not use ‘professional’ voice actors.
Okay, some larger ones have huge budgets and hire Hollywood type talent to voice their characters. Like say, the Arkham series. But a lot of other games have a couple of other options, ones that don’t really involve the SAG-AFTRA in any way whatsoever. Namely…
1. Using their localisation/development staff as voice actors
It’s certainly the standard practice in Nintendo and Rare after all. Ever wonder why the WarioWare voice actors don’t seem to show up outside of Nintendo games, like most voice actors? Because they’re not professional actors, they’re members of Nintendo’s in house staff. Same deal is true of the Star Fox series, with recently fired localisation member Chris Pranger having lent his voice to the first boss in the upcoming Star Fox Zero game.
Above: It can work quite well.
And sometimes, even the game’s producers and directors are involved in this. Like how Masahiro Sakurai voices King Dedede in the Kirby and Super Smash Bros series. Or how for a Rare example, the voice of Conker the Squirrel is provided by Chris Seavour, the project lead and game designer for the entire Conker series (he also voiced many of the other characters in the games).
Now admittedly, this doesn’t always work. Sometimes, we have companies who cut costs so badly that they literally hire anyone they can to voice the cast, ending up with something like Chaos Wars.
Yes, the publishing company’s CEO got his kids to voice the main characters (presumably because of the shoestring budget the game was localised on), ending up with some of the most hilarious voice acting this site of Mega Man 8.
But it still provides at least one route a company could go if they don’t care to provide what the SAG-AFTRA demands. And given that it could sometimes lead to worse quality voice acting… do we really want to give the companies an incentive to do this?
And even if they want something a bit more professional than the WarioWare method of voice acting, there’s still an alternative there, because…
2. They can use non-union actors and actresses
Which unfortunately for anyone in the voice acting world, is much easier in video games than it is in Hollywood. Many video game voice actors don’t belong to any unions, and it’s not particularly hard to find an equivalent if the actor in question is part of one.
Or to quote a Simpsons joke:
Mr. Burns: Get me Steven Spielberg!
Smithers: He’s unavailable.
Mr. Burns: Then get me his non-union Mexican equivalent!
*cut to Señor Spielbergo*
Above: Joke from A Star is Burns
But there’s also another source of labour out there…
They can use the fanbase
Seriously. It sounds a bit silly given that you’re asking people on the internet to do stuff for free (or out of their own pocket). But look at recent history. Games are being funded on sites like Kickstarter, by the fans and buyers. News is being written and distributed for free by bloggers and people on social networking sites.
People are queuing up round the block to go for talent shows and to submit their works to sleazy self-publishing houses.
Now imagine if voice acting also gets out sourced to the fanbase. There are certainly enough great voice actors out there willing to provide their talents for free (just see the efforts provided for various game based cartoons, machinimas, fan games, etc).
It would be all too easy to skip the ‘professionals’ and the pesky ‘wage’ thing and just get people from sites like Youtube to voice the cast.
But even without that, there’s the question of whether voice acting will even be relevant in the future. Why? Well, in one word:
Computer generated speech is only getting better with time, and given that video games are already a near 100% computer generated medium, replacing the human voices with artificial ones doesn’t seem like a hugely futuristic thing.
And even before that’s possible, something like Vocaloid could work well too. Take a few voice actors, record a bunch of samples, then robotically string them together when you want the character to say something. It’s not perfect yet, but give a few years or so, and it seems possible that many characters (especially ones of few words like Mario) could be entirely voiced by archived samples and speech generation.
So while we do sympathise with these people and see their attempts to get pay and working conditions as admirable, we also wonder how much of a future the whole profession even has, or whether any union conditions will just be avoided by out sourcing and finding people with less of a need to make money.
And all bets are off when automation and AI comes in.
But what do you think? Do you agree with our thoughts on voice actors, strikes and unions, and the future of the profession as a whole? Or do you think they could completely succeed with their goals?