Friday Roundtable: Is There Still Room for Innovation in Videogames?


Innovation. It’s a word that gets tossed around a lot in videogames these days. Everyone seems to want it, and yet trailblazing games aren’t always rewarded with the same sales figures that the big-budget sequels receive. The industry itself is also getting older, and with a relative slowdown in the advancement of gaming hardware technology, is there still a way, and a desire, for innovation?

This week Armand, Martin, Sebastian, and Joe discuss the role of innovation in the industry, and whether or not good ideas will stop flowing anytime soon.

***

Armand:

I see videogames as constantly evolving, changing sometimes in small steps, and other times in massive and crazy directions.

You could look at the larger studios who keep building upon what we’ve already seen. Take Bethesda, for instance. With each new RPG they put out, they’ve built upon the last one, adding more features, more immersion, and so on (with the exception of going from Morrowind to Oblivion). These may not seem like massive steps forward, but look at the top-of-the-line RPG from every gaming decade, and you’ll find wildly advanced and expanded elements to gameplay.

Desktop Dungeons, a fresh take on an established genre.

Then you look at some of the smaller and indie guys and see all sorts of crazy new things being tried. IGF’s Nuevo award, given out each year to games that do something particularly new will clearly illustrate just how much of the untapped potential of videogames have yet to be explored. Last year they had Bohm, which lets the player grow a tree in a meditative and exploratory way. The Cat and the Coup, which sees you playing as the cat of Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh, Iran’s first democratically elected Prime Minister. Your goal is to help the PM through significant life events by using your cat skills (scratching him, jumping on his lap, knocking things over). Desktop Dungeons, which takes the classic roguelike experience and repackages it in a very clever and fun RPG/Puzzle hybrid. A game I reviewed a few months ago, Dinner Date, doesn’t see you so much affecting the game’s outcome, as influencing the protagonist’s thought process in a very interesting exploration of the human mind. Minecraft hardly needs mention, and though it is based in part on games before it, the overall product is so unique as to have no comparison.

Another game called PlayPen lets players draw their own environments and paths in the game world through simple pixel art that other players then get to explore. Once you reach the end of the “drawn world”, you can add onto it, creating an ever-changing and growing user-built game world. You can even edit what other players have made before you. We had Scribblenauts a couple of years ago that let you bring anything you could think of into the game world to help solve puzzles. And a game I’m particularly excited about, Fez, is a pixel art game that has you switching between 2D and 3D to solve platforming puzzles.

Most of these games are either in development, or were released in the last year. If they don’t scream innovation, then I don’t know what will. With the ever-growing number of people and devs getting into game making, it’s only natural to find more and more variety in our games. We’ve only just begun to explore videogames’ full potential, and one needs to look beyond the Marios and God of Wars to find the truly innovative and creative stuff.

I think the real question isn’t whether games can still innovate, but rather does the public want innovation? Sure, we have the odd success like Minecraft, but by and large, most of the games I mentioned will never be played by most gamers. Instead, tired old concepts in games like Halo or whatever the next Zelda will be are going to sell like hotcakes (has anyone ever actually bought a hotcake?) while the truly original or artistic titles will remain on the fringe, slowly seeping into mainstream gameplay as the times change.

We can compare it to the music industry. There are still a lot of people creating experimental music out there, or adapting musical styles from different cultures into new variations of music, but the bulk of the Western world will continue consuming the same old pop, country, rock, and hip-hop that we’ve heard over and over, and that move forward only in tiny steps. Deerhoof (despite its popularity considering its style) will never outsell the White Stripes, because the White Stripes deliver “classic” rock we all love, whereas Deerhoof doesn’t always bother with melody or “danceability”.

Martin:

Nintendo's Wii was a risk that paid off well for the company.

Armand really hits the nail on the head – innovation is certainly possible and it does happen quite frequently (or at least it does at indie development level), but it all depends on the consumer.  Established intellectual properties that spawn no less than two sequels are so commonplace today and that’s because us gamers are a peculiar bunch.  We’ll go out and buy sequels to even the most average or standard games, thus guaranteeing the developer/publisher our hard-earned cash, whereas something innovative would most likely require the developer creating a new IP and taking a massive risk.  The proof is in the pudding: Call of Duty, despite what its most ardent fans will say, is a standard first-person shooter series that has brought very little new to videogames, and yet still earns a bucketload of money.  Why risk trying to make something new when you know that making a newer version of the same thing will pay off?

When considering whether or not innovation in the industry is technically possible, regardless of consumers and money, I would say that it most certainly is.  It’s one of those things that is difficult to predict, mainly because the innovation in question doesn’t pop into most people’s minds until a company actually tries to incorporate something new into its hardware or software.  For example, take the Wii and its motion control system.  Hardly anyone could have anticipated that was coming until Nintendo announced it, nor could they have predicted how phenomenally successful it would have been. Improvements and refinements are, of course, very easy to predict, because that is naturally what always happens.

The games industry is a very creative one, and it has a lot more space for trying something different from other areas of entertainment, such as film.  Given how much the gaming landscape has changed over the past 20 years alone, I certainly think the next 20 years are going to feature lots of big and little innovative changes.

Sebastian:

I think it depends on where innovation is occurring. The console side is very different from the games side:

On the console front, I think we’re closing in on the end of the innovation pipeline. With the exception of the PS9, I can’t see that we’re going to innovate that much every 5 to 10 years to really need another console set. Whatever Project Café is, it will definitely be innovative, but I think since we’ve reached the point of HD gaming, asking consoles to truly be innovative like they were before will be extremely tough.

Has there ever been a game like Portal? Besides Portal 2, that is.

On the gaming side however, it’s a completely different story. We’re just now starting to have gaming talent come directly from professional schools specifically designed to teach people how to make games, and that, combined with the desire of the students to be innovative and the desire of the industry (I think) to find the “next big thing”, can only make gaming more innovative from here.

You know what I think part of the problem is with people saying that we’re not being innovative, really? We’ve started to develop such a huge back catalog of games – truly excellent games – that it boxes us in, creatively. With the exception of Portal and a couple of other games, each game, whether or not it is innovative because it has enough elements of a particular style, draws parallels to a previous game, and then is determined to not be that innovative. Call it the “like Grand Theft Auto, but” syndrome. Remember trying to describe Portal to people? It was difficult as hell:

“It’s a puzzle game, but..like…umm..IT’S AWESOME OKAY JUST PLAY IT YOU’LL SEE.”

It was legitimately difficult, because it was so innovative that we could not describe it. But other games are truly innovative, even with minor upgrades. If I said to you, no matter how long ago, “this game is a co-op shooter with zombies.” You would say that it had been done before, but then Left 4 Dead came out and really brought home different types of zombies and teamwork innovations, and we loved it. Even after Left 4 Dead and Dead Rising, look how many people were excited for the Dead Island trailer. Small innovations can still be enough to make games outstanding.

Even for the people who say “it’s just another gray and brown shooter”, I disagree that simply because a game is like that automatically makes it not innovative. I am one of the few people who liked Medal of Honor, and found it to be a welcome change from the Call of Duty franchise. Was it really innovative? No, but they wanted to focus a lot more on the soldiers and I think they did a good enough job at accomplishing that task. Was it great? No, not really, but it did provide small enough innovations for me to notice and appreciate, especially after playing the Modern Warfare games.

I think every game should be innovative, at the very least in some small way. The bullet points on the back of the game box should be something that’s distinguishable enough from the other games surrounding it, but I also think that, as an industry, we have a lot of truly innovative games out there. But where people begin to see stagnation is also where people start to think outside the box, and that’s where our next truly great games will be coming from.

Joe:

You all raise great points and completely echo my sentiments. I think that in order for innovation to continue, creativity needs to be rewarded and there are a lot of very talented indie devs who are doing quite well, putting out games that would never be approved in a corporate boardroom – and having them sell well.

One game I’ve been keeping my eye on for a while that I’m excited for is Spy Party, which is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Two people play on separate screens… one is a sniper, the other a spy in a room full of people. The spy has several objectives they must accomplish while blending in. The sniper has one objective: kill the spy. He gets one shot that can’t miss, but he has to be SURE he’s got the spy in his sights. It sounds so much fun… the spy has to blend in and essentially try to play like an NPC. The developer has even said in playtests that spy players will hit buttons with no function in order to throw off the sniper they’re playing against, since they would play sitting across from each other.

Spy Party is a game that defies genre classification.

Part of why I’m so excited for Project Café is because – if the rumors of the controller are true – there are so many possibilities for new gameplay ideas. With the right minds at work, who knows what kind of amazing things could be in store for us?

I think that in the videogame industry – just like with art, music, and film – there’s always ways to innovate and find new ways for artists to express themselves and provide entirely fresh experiences to their audience. Gaming is a business, and with large publishers gobbling up developers left and right, things may become stagnant on the mainstream front, but there will always be the indie and upstart devs who want, more than anything else, to make an unforgettable game.

The BnB writers have shared their thoughts, and now it’s your turn. Are there still new gameplay methods yet to be discovered? Will corporate think tanks kill great ideas? Let us know in the comments below!


Comments
2 Responses to “Friday Roundtable: Is There Still Room for Innovation in Videogames?”
  1. hose says:

    The games industry is built around innovation true, but there is a reason ppl buy the same games, because they are fun. I myself have enjoyed playing similar games, I can’t imagine the new devil may cry will deviate far from the current formula and nor should it. Every single instalment has been fun to play and the new one should be just as enjoyable. Innovative
    games are brilliant to discover, I was blown away by portal, but doesn’t the real joy come from something that has been truly refined…like portal 2?

    • Martin Watts says:

      Excellent point you make at the end there, Hose! I felt exactly the same way when it came to Super Mario Galaxy 1 & 2. The second game was such a refinement over the first one.

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