For $9.99, I picked up a copy of Hasbro Family Game Night 4: The Game Show on Black Friday. Something fun and light to play with the girlfriend, you know. After having a good experience with the original FGN a few years ago, I was curious to see how far they’d come. And Kinect stuff, too? Should be good. The games themselves are okay, if a lot more “video game-y” than past Game Nights. But when compared to the earlier entries in the series, it’s obvious just how little EA tried (or cared) this time around.
Then I got to thinking: this isn’t a problem limited to Hasbro and EA. But it is a perfect small-scale example of many of the problems with games today.
The first FGN had Yahtzee!, Battleship, Boggle, Connect 4, Sorry!, and Sorry! Sliders (Scrabble was later added to the Xbox 360 and PS3 downloadable versions). This fourth in the series, however, has but 5 games – none of them “classics,” but many re-hashes with just a slight twist on the tried-and-true formula that’s worked before. Connect 4 Basketball, for example, is just Connect 4 where you aim your shots, adding a degree of randomness and skill to the classic match-4 gameplay. And Yahtzee! Bowling is just a simplified Yahtzee! with less scoring options, and instead of a shaker cup, you bowl a ball at numbered pins.
That’s fine. That’s the good part – the games themselves are still solid, if uninspired. But the presentation? The extra options? Online play, even leaderboards? Sorely lacking on all counts.
EA added a new “Game Show” mode this time around, seemingly trying to convince us that you’re not just playing all five games in a row. And you can use your Xbox avatar (the first Game Night only let you use your gamer picture), and Kinect (although the Kinect functionality is… less than ideal). But here’s the thing, EA: just letting us do things that the average Xbox LIVE Indie Game can do will not impress us.
Let’s run down the list of options that used to come standard in Hasbro Family Game Night:
- Online play. The ONLY reason I downloaded Yahtzee! for $10 was because I had the option of playing it against people that live in different areas. If I wanted to play board games locally, I would pull one out of the closet.
- Leaderboards. Sure, maybe some of these games wouldn’t do well with leaderboards. Scrabble Flash has a maximum score of 29 and the five-letter variation will top out at… maybe 10 points. But they could have included a mode specifically to compete with others online, and it’d be as simple as extending the five-letter version to a longer time, say… 100 seconds. How many five-letter words can you spell in 100 seconds? Compare your scores with the world. Or Connect 4 Basketball – shortest game (to the millisecond)? Longest game? Longest row – can you Connect 7? And this is just off the top of my head.
- Expandability. Why not, instead of releasing these five games as a new, separate retail release, EA didn’t just let us download the individual games we want for $5 a piece and let us play them in the original free Xbox 360 Hasbro Family Game Night hub? They already proved it was possible with Jenga, Pictureka, and Connect 4×4. But, much like Microsoft’s Game Room, the “download a free hub and demos with the option to add only the games you like” was abandoned fairly shortly after being introduced – even FGNs 2 and 3 didn’t stick to the template. The “Game Show” mode alone doesn’t give this game a $39.99 retail value, but that’s what EA first tried to sell it for. A Kinect/Avatar update to the existing Game Night infrastructure would have been far preferable to consumers who maybe didn’t need or want five almost-recognizable board games. Maybe selling the games for $5-10 each as DLC would have made EA more money in the long run.
- Tutorials. There aren’t any. Good luck figuring out how to bowl without pulling up the in-game instruction manual. I just want a little pop-up in the corner telling me what buttons I need to push or how I should wave my arms to get the game to do stuff. Pick-up-and-play this is not. And in a family game meant to appeal even to non-gamers? Inexcusable.
Could EA have tried harder on The Game Show? Sure they could have. Would they have sold any more copies than if they just mailed it in? Honestly… probably not. And there’s the problem. As long as the AAA publishers don’t see the point in giving 100% – even on the casual, family-friendly releases where UI is king – then we will continue getting sub-par kids/family games, especially on games with a “4″ in the title. This ain’t their first rodeo.
But that’s not all, and EA isn’t the only perpetrator. This “annual release” malarkey has been plaguing the industry for years, diluting games that could really do with a bit more time in the oven but are pushed out to get those Christmas shoppers. The small changes in the latest Madden. The yearly Call of Duty. Assassin’s Creeds that will never make the important quantum leap that was ACII over the original – a leap only possible because of two years’ development time instead of one.
The game industry has become this unstoppable, impersonal machine, churning out new releases as quickly as we stop talking about them. Which, if you’ve been paying attention, is about two weeks. And here I am talking about a six-month-old casual game that I got for ten bucks. Some gamer I am.