Innovation, Shminnovation

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Another of my lengthy (compared to other posts) articles looking at Video Games, the industry surrounding them and trends that have become noticeable within both. This time (with thanks to Matt_b for the idea), I’m looking at the constant attempts at innovation in video games and whether such attempts at standing apart from the crowd are perhaps even hindering the games they concern. It’s a bit shorter and less in-depth than the last couple of articles, due to Uni work and whatnot. I may revisit it at a later stage.

While from my last article on violence in games, you might get the impression that the video game industry is devoid of innovation. However, nothing could really be further from the truth. Innovation is something pretty much every major developer now srtives for in their video games. In fact, pretty much every video game attempts to tout it’s (normally completely mundane) features as a kind of innovation, by using phrases like “groundbreaking physics”, “unparalleled visuals” or buzz words like “dynamic” and “emergent” as a replacement for real innovation. However, I’m not writing to look at whether these claims of innovation are false or not. I’m looking at whether innovation is the necessity that the games industry makes it out to be, and possibly even fighting for the survival of the by-the-books shooter/racer/rpg.

Given that all major developers seem to be so desperate to appear like they’re innovating in their games, it’s not unusual for us to accept that this is a good thing without thinking too much about the consequences. After all, what bad could possibly come from trying to reinvent, rearrange or otherwise alter a system that has become stagnant through too much use? Surely the constant striving for innovation is the only way games can move forward as a medium, rather than remaining in the same place, just with shinier and shinier guns exploding more and more detailed heads.

There is a good number of examples to back up that side of the argument, both in practise and where some might argue they ought to be in practise, but there is obviously another side to this story. Grand Theft Auto 3, for example, revolutionalised the video game industry with it’s use of an open 3D world with nobody forcing the player from one mission to the next. Instead, they could just jump in a car and drive around. The game was a huge success, effectively creating a new genre along with it’s sequels that has spread into other genres, such as racing (Burnout Paradise) and skateboarding (the more recent Tony Hawks games and Skate). Not only that, it introduced a whole new audience to gaming, through it’s coverage in mainstream media. By creating something that simply hadn’t been done so successfully before, Rockstar Games changed the course of a huge portion of the games industry.

There is, of course, another side to this story. With such a successful model of game, there was inevitably a huge number of straight GTA clones that benefited nobody but the creators. The developers in question simply saw a popular franchise and bodily ripped it off hoping to catch some of the money raining down upon the original creators. These knock-offs were obviously of much lower quality than the originals, and not only did they not really capture what GTA had done with the open world idea, they also failed at the basic gameplay that had been in place for years.

This brings me to one of my first problems with the constant innovation within video games. Often, when a studio specifically sets out to innovate an aspect of the game, the rest of the features of the game get left by the wayside until the very end of development. This is untrue of visuals, for the main part – the video game industry is just too focused on aesthetics to let that go – but for the majority of other features this can be said to be true. Look at Mirror’s Edge, for example. While the movement system that DICE created in that game was undoubtedly a triumph, they forgot to work to the same extent on the basic gameplay you’d be needing in a lot of the game. I’m talking speficially about the combat in Mirror’s Edge, which was just far less polished than the rest of the game and often seemed like it had just been thrown in at an attempt to attach the game to the all-consuming First-Person Shooter genre. Without the combat, the game played like a dream. With it, it was as if you were constantly being woken from that dream by a bucket of ice cold water being poured over you.

The real reason behind examples like this is most likely the motive with which the developers approach a game they create. With games like Mirror’s Edge, it’s often the case that the developers just said “Hey, I don’t like movement in games, lets revamp it!” which, however admirable, is not a sensible way to go about creating a game. Where I believe innovation works a lot and more smoothly, and just better in general, is when it comes about as the solution to a problem already apparent within a game. Take, for example, Valve’s latest creation – the multiplayer zombie apocalypse shooter Left 4 Dead. The game features some pretty groundbreaking AI in the form of ‘The Director’ – a system Valve developed to make each game the player moves through feel different and unique. However, the emphasis for the game is never on this feature, instead it works in the background without the player really consciously thinking about it. The game is about shooting zombies, nothing more, nothing less. However, under the hood is a quietly understated piece of innovation developed to mean that Valve could create a game with plenty of play value without having to create a huge number of maps for it.

Another reason I don’t really get a great vibe from this apparent enthusiasm for innovation is that it never goes particuarly deep, particularly with games from the larger developers. Take Max Payne and it’s bullet-time ability. While including such a feature was a great idea, and it was executed well, you still have pretty much the same game if you take it away. In fact, the only games that seem to innovate from the ground up are the indie games and those from the lesser known developers. So far, this paragraph might make me look like a bit of a hypocrite, having just argued that games should subtly include their innovation, not base their game around it. However, I’m talking here about a completely new idea for an entire game, not simply “Hey, let’s make a First-Person Shooter with destructable walls!”.

So, an example of an Indie game innovating from the ground up? Let’s look at popular music surfing game Audiosurf. The premise behind the game is simple – it takes your music, and processes it into a kind of racetrack that reflects the tempo and rhythm of the song in question. It was a basic idea, but given that the user could put any song they wanted into the game and come up with a different track, it meant that it was hugely replayable. As a result, it was widely successful selling a substantial amount (thanks in no small part to Valve’s steam service picking it up).

You can see why the larger companies might not take such a large risk as creating a game about a completely new premise – it’s untested, and what is untested is distrusted. After all, the video games industry is an industry, and as such needs to ensure a profit. This isn’t even necessarily a bad thing in terms of the games they produce – practise, as they say, makes perfect. Games like Call of Duty 4, Fallout 3 and Fable II may not be particularly innovative, but they are extremely polished examples of what can be done when you keep refining an idea. Of course new ideas are needed to keep the industry ticking over, but you have to admit that while developers are too afraid to put forward big new ideas, they sure can keep polishing an established one.

It’s also not apparent that the average gamer even notices the stagnation in the video game market – sales for the entire industry are still increasing while the recession hinders almost every other industry, and games such as Killzone 2 are far more anticipated than, say Little Big Planet. It would be a desperate shame for a developer to create something brilliant and new, only to find that nobody is actually tired of simply shooting other people yet. If the demand isn’t there, there’s no point in supplying.

There’s also the problem that with innovation, you’re always the first to try the idea. If it doesn’t work quite how you (and the rest of the world) envisioned it to, you run the risk of being lambasted by the entire gaming world for ruining what could have been a great idea. At least with shooting people you know where you are.

That said, innovation is undoubtedly a vital aspect of the video game industry, due to the direct interaction between the player and the game. We are quite content to sit back and watch a standard action flick, done well, whereas we might start to feel restless if we’re presented with the same style of video game over and over again. Or maybe not. Halo 3 sold pretty well, after all.

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