Part One: The Vampires of Culture
From a design perspective, 'convergence' is a dirty word. Convergence is a business concept that aims to bring about an overlap in otherwise diverse audiences by leveraging IP across games, film, toys, books and comics, television or other forms of entertainment.
In the game industry, the traditional approach to convergence finds second tier publishers floating themselves on licensing deals for third rate movies that yield fourth rate games that still outsell some of the best titles of the year because uninspired marketing twits would rather trick Wal-Mart shopping soccer moms into buying something crappy than attempt to nurture a growing need for a new entertainment medium that enriches us, moves us, and challenges the way we experience the world.
I find this approach cynical and exploitative. But contrary to rumours of my anti-capitalist tendencies, I am actually in favour of responsible trans-media leveraging of IP, and not simply because it is profitable. As the cultural chasms between generations widen and deepen, and as the mountains of inequity separating the richest and poorest steepen, I believe that well crafted trans-media properties have a unique capacity to foster convergence; weaving together the shared experiences of differing peoples to form the very fabric of our culture.
But the reality of trans-media convergence is that we have, up to now, been mostly incapable of even making good cross-platform ports of our best gaming experiences. Modern Warfare rocks on the current home consoles - not so much on iPhone and Wii. With this being the case, is it any surprise that trying to port those experiences across to other media fails so miserably?
Every time anyone has tried to create a rich trans-media IP to appeal to diverse audiences they have failed in at least one major domain. Star Wars, Harry Potter and Clancy come to mind as our best successes. Star Wars novels never appealed to a broader audience than existing Star Wars fans, Harry Potter contributed little of value to the game space, and Clancy never brought anything to the table that was appealing to kids or families (though that's probably a wise omission). That said, the Star Wars novels and the Potter games were financial successes - and that's the point I am trying to make. Because the expected margins are great, and no investment in quality is required - creativity is sucked out of the system by business and marketing executives before these trans-media properties even have a chance to be good.
So what is to be done? As long as 'convergence' remains a rallying cry on Wall Street, and investors freely offer up their vaults as financial safe-haven to the vampires of culture, I fear we'll never see the dawn. But I for one am tired of playing the cowering Carpathian peasant; they have the Internet in Transylvania now too, you know. And XBox and wi-fi and iPad. I think it's high time we get a mob together, and armed with Wii-motes and iPhones and PSPs in place of torches and pitchforks we'll drag those bloodsuckers out into the streets and stake them to the ground. And if our mob is made up of people who care about games as a medium of human expression, then what shall be the sharpened stick on whose point we stake our bloody claim?
I say we use the word convergence itself, hacking it like a turret in Bioshock to turn it to our own purpose. If we stop talking about convergence in the cold business terms that have drained the life from so many games (and developers, and gamers) and start talking about it in design terms, we not only have a dangerous new weapon of our own, but we have appropriated one of the more dangerous weapons that has been fielded against us.
This new convergence will be the topic of this series of columns. In the coming months I am going to talk about how new and changing paradigms of design, play, interaction, technology and economics are reshaping the games we play, the people who play them and the industry that makes them. This new convergence is not a trans-media convergence, but rather an intra-media convergence. It is a bottom-up convergence given life by the plethora of smartphones and tablets we carry into battle and enabled by ubiquitous wi-fi, connected consoles, cellular data networks and a new overhanging Cloud that miraculously does not block the sun.
This is the convergence I believe we should be talking about and working toward. It is a convergence that starts by getting our own house in order, and by bringing diverging audiences of players together. For too long casual gamers, hardcore gamers, bite-sized gamers and mobile gamers have been playing in separate worlds. Until we can bring them together and unite them around a common experience - custom to each platform, but ultimately connected - is there any reason to imagine we can fill a movie theatre with people who don't give a shit about games to begin with?