Gaming & Technology

Keeping the games interesting

In an industry plagued by a stereotype that it's all child's play, big business continues to rule.

The recent offer by video game publishing giant Electronic Arts to buy rival Take-Two Interactive is just the next step in an era of consolidation that will have disastrous effects on the quality of video games.

And that's a problem for everyone, from those who like a perplexing puzzle to the most convoluted role-playing games.

The video game industry, like any major business, has seen its share of flux during the past three decades. Atari and Sega went boom and bust, while Sony and Microsoft bought their way into the gaming game.

Throughout it all, the vast creativity that fuels the industry has endured, but the assault on it today is the strongest it has ever been as companies shrug off innovation in favor of endless sequels and highly profitable mediocrity.

When EA and companies like it win, gamers lose.

Not only does EA produce mediocre games, it does its best to make sure other companies can't challenge it.

EA annoyed sports gamers a few years back when it struck an exclusive publishing deal with the NFL. The result was a series of its flagship Madden games that offered few improvements but enormous profits.

And that's EA's business model. It licenses content it knows will be popular, such as Harry Potter and Batman, and produces a quick game designed not to break new ground but instead break a gamer's piggy bank.

It took three tries for the company to produce anything even remotely good on the Lord of the Rings license.

After it buys companies, EA has been known to push games out that creators thought weren't ready, leading employees to leave and gamers to be disappointed.

That all said, the company has tried to change its image.

New CEO John Riccitiello persuaded innovative developer BioWare, responsible for Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect, to join the fold.

Riccitiello has touted a new hands-off approach for developers, but the unsolicited bid for Take-Two, responsible for the über-popular Grand Theft Auto series, sure seems like the EA of old.

Dissatisfied that Take-Two shunned its private offer, EA told the world, in hopes that Take-Two investors would force it to accept the offer.

Take-Two's not a sympathetic victim, though. When EA snapped up the NFL, Take-Two responded by signing an exclusive deal with Major League Baseball.

But it's the company's more hands-off style, a style symbolized in how it works with the Grand Theft Autoseries developer Rockstar Games, that matters.

In between GTA games, the Rockstar developers decided to challenge themselves. They wanted to make a ping-pong game, but not just any ping-pong game, the greatest ping-pong game ever made. A ping-pong game, you say? Who would want to play a fancy version of Pong?

That's what EA would have asked, seconds before nixing such a plan. Get to work on that GTA sequel that will make us a tower of money, they would say.

But Take-Two allowed it, and the best table tennis game ever released — admittedly, there isn't stiff competition — was born.

It's that creativity, that willingness to break new ground like Rockstar did, that has endeared the video game industry to the masses.

It's the original ideas and not the endless sequels or updated Madden player rosters that advance gaming.

Consolidation is great in many industries, just not those that demand a high level of innovation. If you want to merge banks or box companies, go ahead. But when you try to fit some of the most creative minds in the world under one corporate mantra, you wind up killing the freedom that gave birth to the industry.

Five or 10 years from now, gamers will know what music lovers know now: consolidation kills. The music industry is dominated by a handful of players, most disdained by fans who lament that they're forced to listen to manufactured music on their radios. But it's a sign of the times and, unfortunately, it points to all of us losing.