Whether or not you were around in the '80s to witness the sheer diversity of video game concepts on offer, it's clear that the landscape has altered somewhat since the heady days of Reagan, Gorbachev and Thatcher.
Emerging from the primeval ooze euphemistically referred to as "The Arcade" and slithering with deserved confidence towards a permanent location in the television cabinet of many households, these 8-bit grandparents of gaming mythology heralded a new dawn.
Games were deceptively simple, yet covered vast swathes of subject matter. Gorillas throwing barrels at plumbers. Frogs crossing roads. The ability to simulate brawls in urban streets, or merely creating an entire city from scratch. For better or worse, virtually any concept that was possible to imagine eventually made it into a game of some description. And yet, as we examine the latter part of the last decade, it seems like that spirit of experimentation has all but been extinguished.
Whilst the integration of gaming into society hasn't been without controversy, it's fair to say that the process has irrevocably ingrained games in popular culture. Gaming is here to stay - and it's big business, with the videogame industry repeatedly outperforming the cinema box office in recent years.
Game publishers sit at the forefront of the wave. It's their task to ensure the profitability of any title in their portfolio, and therefore need only concern themselves with creativity as it relates to the bottom line. They're duty bound to only take to market titles that will perform well enough to satisfy shareholders and fuel funding for additional projects. Nothing fulfils these fundamental requirements more successfully than ongoing extensions of familiar franchises; hence the sea of sequels we find ourselves floating in.
The reason for this is simple enough - established franchises are a known entity for publishers and consumers alike. Publishers can reliably predict sales figures, and development costs are typically lower because most of the game has already been designed with the previous iteration. They don't tend to blow their budgets, and release dates are easier to pin down. Advertising is straightforward because you don't have to explain the concept, and if the title is popular enough you can probably just about jack the price up and discover people will buy it anyway.
Call of Duty is low-hanging fruit for this argument. The series has progressed from a war-based first-person shooter to a war-based first-person shooter with achievements, an accomplishment that only took the better part of a decade. And yet the latest release, Black Ops, is the fastest-selling console title ever made, even though Metacritic would suggest it's far from the best.
A cursory glance at 2011 titles shows that around two thirds are sequels to existing intellectual property. It must baffle other industries as to why such mediocrity in innovation continues to be rewarded at the highest level.
Examining sales figures alongside quality recently has raised pertinent concerns as to whether or not some major franchises continue to survive due to their widespread brand recognition rather than any semblance of excellence in the design department.
As alluded to previously, it's all a matter of risk. Tied into this risk is the constantly escalating cost of game development, and the understandable desire by publishers to avoid bankruptcy - a very real outcome as the average retail price of a game hasn't increased significantly in the past decade, and the profit margins prohibit speculative gambling on new intellectual property for all but the largest publishers in the business.
In June 2009, Ubisoft stated that major titles for PS3/X360 cost USD $20-$30 million to make and that games for the next-generation may exceed USD $60 million. By contrast, it took between USD $5 to $10 million to develop a PS2 game and only USD $800,000 to USD $1.7 million for the original PlayStation.
As print media takes a pounding from the Internet, so too will conventional publishers suffer from the rise of digital distribution. The concept of producing a mundane title likely to see average sales figures has all but disappeared, leaving a void between the blockbuster hits and those produced on a budget designed to target the rapidly increasing subscribers on Facebook, Xbox Live, PlayStation Network, Steam and the App Store.
With apologies to H.G. Wells, design and development now appears to have split into two distinct groups; one at the subterranean self-publishing level, and another at surface level enjoying the notoriety and profits accrued from bleeding established intellectual property until we're all thoroughly sick of it.
Much like the transition from the early arcade to the living room, we appear to be on the verge of a paradigm shift in the way games are designed, produced, marketed and eventually distributed. In exploring the admirable content produced by independent developers, it's easy to see why gaming became as popular as it did in its infancy.
Invariably though, the massive titles will continue to be produced, as there will always be a sector of the market that are satisfied with the rinse/repeat cycle synonymous with blockbuster game sequels, even if they consist of "gay space marines"; easily the most sardonically accurate - if ill-considered - quote of 2010 regarding stagnant game development.
But for true creativity, the risk takers and the innovators, look to the smaller, self-publishing outfits who operate without the corporate pressure, or the overwhelming responsibility to turn a profit at all costs. Those that recognise and utilise the Internet for the powerful publishing vector it is.