Innovation in Games: Are We Scared to Break the Mould?

Only the Brave

The next few months are going to be big for gaming. We have some of the most anticipated releases for several years, from developers and publishers across the board, all fighting for some of the same markets, and the money that we consumers are going to be reluctant to part with in such a big go.

But with some major franchises continuing their dominance in the foreground of gaming, such as Call of Duty, Gears of War, Elder Scrolls and Uncharted, is there going to be room for some of the less well-known games to break through to gamers who already know exactly what they want?

Will Dead Island make it as a new entry into an already established genre?

It takes courage to enter the market with a new game, even if it falls into a genre or category that is already well-established. A lot of games that are being released these days already have their big-money counterparts; Saints Row may always be second best to Grand Theft Auto, the long-established Battlefield franchise will always have a gun firmly placed against Call of Duty‘s head, and even games that are to be released in the next few months risk being run into the ground by already-popular titles. Dead Island and Rage are two more examples of this.

The fact that these releases are standing in the shadows of other popular games and franchises should already tell us something – developers know what the consumers are comfortable with, and they make their games to build upon what they know will be successful. Publishers are the same – they are unlikely to back a game if it seems too outrageous or “out there” to make any money. And at the top of the pyramid come we, the consumers. We know exactly what we like, and with the prices we’re paying for games nowadays, we have to. It’s not just developers and publishers that are taking a risk when they have an idea or get a new game put in front of them. We, too, have to invest our time and money in these releases, and obviously for this reason, we’re going to be reluctant to buy something that we don’t think will make us happy. The industry works in the same way, no matter what level you’re at.

It takes guts from everybody to make a new game a success. But the fear of failure or a wasted effort is one of the things that keeps long-standing franchises afloat.

Do CoD Clones Rule Supreme?

In a recent article on CVG, Frontier Developments founder, David Braben, commented on his views that the gaming industry is becoming more and more risk-averse. He acknowledges that there certainly does seem to be a certain mould that developers, publishers and consumers are all so used to getting from their games, and he describes this as “very disappointing as a gamer”:

I think there’s a problem at the moment as big publishers are running scared. What really upsets me is that we have this Call Of Duty-shaped jelly mould, and it’s being used to create games that are all competing for a very narrow niche.

Braben’s main point here, which highlights one of the key issues with the lack of innovation in current gaming titles, is that big blockbuster games such as Call of Duty have changed what we as consumers want from our games. Call of Duty, whether you love it or you hate it, has certainly influenced what we search for when we look on the back of a game box.

Call of Duty: Black Ops

The ultimate entertainment package?

It’s no longer enough to have an immersive campaign made up of ten or so levels; no matter how brilliant a campaign is, it’s not all the consumer is looking for. One of the most important things that I know I search for when buying a game is its longevity. I’m sure we as gamers can all relate to that. We have to shell out £40 or $60 when we see a game that we like the look of, and it’s undoubtedly infuriating if that game does not provide us with our money’s worth of entertainment.

That’s not to say that a sterling campaign will not win the hearts of players – some of my favourite games have provided amazing experiences as I played through them by myself, and I will always want to return to them for a replay. Mass Effect and Uncharted are examples in modern gaming of the campaign taking precedence over anything else – how else would they have spawned sequels?

But in this current market, a campaign that provides ten or even twenty hours of gameplay isn’t enough. What a lot of gamers are looking for today is an excellent campaign backed up with engaging multiplayer. Most gamers will buy a game for the campaign, because in most instances, that is what’s advertised. But a lot of gamers will stick with a game long after the credits have rolled because they enjoy the multiplayer. No matter how interesting a campaign, it’s hard to replay the same thing time and time again unless you’ve given it a break for a while.

This is clearly why the Call of Duty franchise has been so successful. Black Ops advertises itself as the “ultimate entertainment package”, made up of “epic single-player, acclaimed multiplayer and four-player co-op zombies”. Modern Warfare 2 also displayed itself in the same way, describing its multiplayer as the “definitive multiplayer experience”. Now for a sad confession on my part: when I got Black Ops on release day, I didn’t touch the campaign. I instead dived right into the multiplayer, because I knew that that is why I bought the game. To this day, I have logged six days, nine hours and eleven minutes worth of online play. There are no doubt countless others who have put in even more time than that. This is an example of why the franchise is, unfortunately, what other games strive to be: it provides endless entertainment to millions of players, who keep buying the new product every year. It is the players that have created this mould, and it is the developers and publishers that use it.

Videogames and Films: Both Have Their Blockbusters

The truth is that there seems to be a mould to success no matter what sector of the entertainment industry you’re in.

Michael Bay in February 2008

Michael Bay may well be the Call of Duty of the film industry...

If you’ve ever seen any of Michael Bay’s films, which you probably have, because it’s impossible to miss them, you’ll know that he follows a very similar formula for each film. An awkward male protagonist meets a girl and falls in love with her, before both of them are thrust into some kind of mission to save the world which neither of them are fully prepared for. Explosions, helicopters and elaborate special effects ensue.

My point is that you can learn a lot from Michael Bay’s success in the film industry. In response to criticism that all of his films follow the above formula or mould, he said, “I make movies that audiences like, that I’d want to see. That’s all.”

Bay could probably rightly crown himself as the king of the summer blockbuster, and why? Because he knows exactly what his audience wants, and how to give it to them time and time again. Gaming franchises aren’t that different in this respect – both have already been through the beginning stages of their self-discovery, trying to learn what will make them successful, and both of them have come out on the other side with millions of fans and stacks of cash. Both Michael Bay and videogame franchises are the same in the sense that they have found out exactly what their audiences want through blood, sweat and tears.

So, whilst maybe other filmmakers look up to Michael Bay in the same way some game designers look up to well-established franchises, the mould that these aspiring blockbusters have seen work for their big-money counterparts will not necessarily work for them. Directors take things in their own direction, and that’s something that needs to happen in gaming too, as it always has, and no doubt will continue to.

Rome Wasn’t Built In A Day

Whilst, on the surface, successful games seem to be made up of the same key components, there has to be something deeper to them that keep players coming back time after time. There is no way that another game can simply copy the style of an already popular title just to make their own release a big seller. There are so many variables to creating a good game, and it will inevitably take time to find out what these are, and then even longer to tweak them to make the perfect game for consumers – story, art style, music, these are all things that don’t just happen. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither were the games that sell millions of copies. It’s not enough to look at a game and think you know what makes it work. You have to do everything for yourself as a developer or publisher, because whilst it may appear that the big hits have already done it for you, it’s unlikely that anybody will appreciate something that you’ve just ripped off of somebody else, and even more unlikely that it’ll be equally or more of a hit.

Just because there are some majorly successful games out there, it doesn’t mean that they have to be copied to accomplish the same effects on the industry. It’s understandable that everybody is anxious right now; there are a lot of popular franchises that are releasing new games this autumn, and the consumer will almost definitely put them before some of the small titles.

But publishers, developers and consumers all need to get a grip on the fact that gaming shouldn’t be about staying in your comfort zone forever. There will be times where risks have to be taken to pay off and be worthwhile. The upcoming releases that don’t fall into the franchise category should be opportunity enough. Try something new, live a little, and if it doesn’t do anything for you, feel free to return to your favourite game franchise. It may take some time for gamers to get out of this rut we find ourselves in, but when we do, it’ll be worth it, and we’ll look back at the current industry dominators and think, “Why were we so scared by this? Look at what we have now!”

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