The first offenders in that case are the "me too" people. Who are they? They are developers who try to cash in on the success of others. Surprisingly, it is not the small, struggling studios that are guilty of that crime against gamers. Usually, these companies try to work on a new, solid IP, in order to distance themselves from the pack. Original titles such as Little Big Planet, Shadow Of The Colossus, Indigo Prophecy and Manhunt (come on, it was very original) all originated from small companies that have nothing to do but concentrate on making a good game. The "me too" complex is a phenomenon that is affecting big companies.
For example, Medal Of Honor and Call Of Duty have been concurrencing each other for almost seven years now. They are the babies of respectively the two biggest video game publishers: Electronic Arts and Activision. They are both quality games (Medal of Honor has suffered a few hiccups, but most of it is interesting), but both are offering the same thing. World War 2 shooting action. So these two behemoths compete each other in hope to swallow the market completely without really caring about the gamer's needs. "We sell World War 2 games, so you buy World War 2 games." Here I'm not even counting the weird, malformed spawns it is giving birth too. The dying days of Midway, another former publishing giant have seen atrocious games like "Hour Of Victory" come to life, in a desperate attempt to cash in on the World War 2 shooter market. Let's rewind the clock two or three years ago... you got the three major publishers working on what? Three World War 2 shooters. So you, the gamer, will have to chose between World War 2 shooter, World War 2 shooter and World War 2 shooter. Exciting in perspective if you hate shooting games.
This is just one of many exemples. Another is sports games. Since 2KGames got into sports licensing, all I see in the used games section is a wall of undifferenciable sports games. There are racing games, space marine games... I can go on and on. The problem is being adressed though. Some companies are working on the issue. For exemple, "Lost Planet" the biggest (and fairly original) "Gears Of War" me-too is featuring a cameo of Marcus and his hetero life mate Dom. Suddenly a rip off becomes a distant cousin, both worlds are reconciled. It is refreshing to see Capcom and Epic not fighting like pitbulls for your dollars and trying to find common grounds to accomodate the gamers. This is also due to the fact that both designers dig each other's work and are motivated by something else than money. Call me far sighted if you want, but I think the only effect it will have on game sales of both franchise is a boost. Gears of War fans will pick up Lost Planet in order to check out the cameo of their favorites and Lost Planet fans, well, have a new game to toy with.
Which brings me to the other point of my argument. The other plague to originality in video games is that survivalist money-oriented attitude. Despite having been shaken up by the economic troubles in 2009, the industry is in a rather good shape. Gamers are a loyal bunch and we keep buying through tough times. We had some casualties though. Electronic Arts sacked 1500 people, closing down the always interesting Pandemic Studio in its demise. When a developper gets bigger, money becomes the prior preoccupation and that's when things can turn ugly. The franchise is another trap that can doom originality on a long term.
Nothing is as invigorating as a good new IP. I still remember the first time I played Silent Hill; I was sixteenish and blown away. I had never seen something like this before, a video game that genuinely wanted to scare the piss out of me. I was seduced. Fast forward the clock to 2009. A few months before Shattered Memories, the franchise is on life support after two abysmal titles (Origins & Homecoming) and a laughable movie. What almost killed Silent Hill? It fell victim to its popularity. Konami sold the franchise to people who didn't understand the game and made it another zombie dwelling game that is polluting the shelves.
To a certain extent, one of my favorite developer, Ubisoft Montreal is about to fall victim of this. Two of their main franchises, Assassin's Creed and Prince Of Persia are almost swappable. Both are historical adventures with overly athletic protagonists that have to accomplish platforming feats and fight hordes of bad guys. With such concentrations on these thematics they can only get that far. Having enjoyed the hell out of Assassin's Creed 2 (a lot more than I thought I would), I am having high expectations for the last title of the trilogy. I'm expecting less platforming action and more diverse action, based on the needs of the complex storyline they created.
What can save originality in video games? There can be many answers to this. I said it many times before, but part of the answer lies on Heavy Rain. What is perceived by the majority of people as a Quick Time Event based control is in fact contextualized to the situation. The game is so heavily (huh!) story driven that the controls change with the given situation. I don't expect the game to be perfect as it is mainly an experiment with narrativity, but it proves a point; originality and to a certain point challenge, lies is pattern making. Heavy Rain plays on these patterns and asks something new to its users in every damn scene. To a certain extent, it makes the experience richer and more immersive as in real life you're always asked to perform something new. I am well aware that gameplay makes or breaks your game, but I think the days of the space marine are almost over. Shooting-only games are bound to disappear as they will mesh with other genres or offer something way much more original than a "shoot a bad guy and save the chick" kind of story.
That brings me to another franchise that shown itself resourceful enough to beat time. Metal Gear Solid. Due to its entangling storyline and its emphasis on telling the tale, the decade old franchise is still sailing with high winds and doesn't seem to want to stop. Why? Because Hideo Kojima doesn't think gamers are morons and offers them all they can handle in terms of storyline. Solid Snake would only be one of these pseudo-militaries with a testosterone complex if it wasn't for Hideo Kojima's touch.
My point here is that video games are a form of art. When you make it disappear with swappable items from another piece of art or for franchised repetition, you are losing what made it great in the first place. The elements are all there... tough financial times, repetition in publishing, gamers growing older and seeking new, exciting stuff... Gaming creativity will soon undergo its first crisis. With titles like The Last Guardian and Metal Gear Solid Peace Walker, soon arriving on the market, the next months will be defining in the future of the medium we all love.