Are You Not Entertained?

As a collective, we the gamer constantly complain about the apparent lack of innovation in game design. We are always looking for the next big thing to push the envelope. We want something to satisfy the cliche, to live up to the hyperbole. My concern is that collectively, we are both clueless and hypocritical. For all the cries for new, exciting and innovative, there are numbers to suggest that none of that matters. So what’s the point?

This week the Game Developers Conference was held in San Francisco, CA featuring all kinds of panels and discussions that remind me that I am no where near as intelligent as I thought I was, or could be. Here are a few examples:

  • Animating in a Complex World: Integrating AI and Animation
  • Make Me! Giving Players Better Avatar Creation Choices and Experiences Using Psychology
  • Improving Game Play with Sensor Technology in Mobile Devices
  • Parallelism in AI: Multithreading Strategies and Opportunities for Multi-core architectures
  • The Iterative Level Design Process of BioWare’s Mass Effect 2

Here’s a list of the full 2009 lineup.

Every game these days needs a hook, a gimmick or a unique back-of-the-box bullet point that can be used to differentiate itself from the competition . I’m all for individuality and being unique but sometimes the ends don’t balance out with the means used to get there. Innovation for innovation’s sake isn’t always the best course of action. Late some game developers have taken significant risk on new intellectual properties only to be rewarded with decent (not great) reviews and mediocre sales. Given These Troubled Times (drink!) the financial incentive to take the risk of introducing a brand new IP to market has taken a serious hit.

There seems to be a disconnect between what gamers say they want out loud or on forums and what gamers say they want with their wallets. Activision has announced their intention to release more than 30 SKUs of Guitar Hero in 2009. Granted, that number will be spread out over all of the consoles, but over 30…where is the innovation? The only change in each of those games is the sequence of buttons. The same plastic instruments are used to play a game under the same name brand. It’s a stale formula. I have to summon my inner Stephen A. Smith for this part: HOWEVA , Guitar Hero sells like gang busters. There’s no incentive to try something different when each “new” game sells just as much as its predecessor. Activision will not even consider changing their business model while the formula of annualized releases and brand exploitation continues to be financially successful.

And as far as what gamers say they want, take a look at Killzone 2. Some of the backlash that came out of the interwebs after the honeymoon period of stellar reviews was based on the fact that Killzone 2 didn’t really bring anything new to the table, that there wasn’t any innovation. In my opinion, Guerrilla Games simply refined select pieces of existing FPS games on the market. They refined those pieces really, really well, but besides a multi-player mode there isn’t really something that you can stamp as a Killzone signature characteristic that hasn’t been done before. I know you could say that for a lot of games out there, but that’s avoiding my point. while I don’t think that there was a particular design element of Killzone 2 that qualifies as new and innovative, I don’t know if that is the worst thing in the world. If Guerrilla Games had taken some massive risk that blew up in their faces, who knows how their game would be received both critically and commercially . They had to decide between a tried and tested formula and just make sure that it works or going completely out of the box and taking an even bigger risk than already existed. There wasn’t enough of a justification to introduce something brand spanking new, but that doesn’t mean that Killzone 2 isn’t a damn fine game.

So who do we look to for innovation? Itsa me! Mario!

While Sony and Microsoft are busy pushing visual fidelity and audio awesome, Nintendo is riding a tsunami of financial success with the Wii and DS (and DSi eventually). In the grand scheme of things, the basic gaming process is similar between the PlayStation 3 and the Xbox 360: Dual sticks, 4 shoulder-ish buttons, 4 face buttons, talk smack online anonymously. It’s a crude generalization, but for the most part you can expect the same experience. The Wii has changed all the rules. For design choices, for interface, for business. Everything.

It’s a strange time for gamers. There’s a clear demand for developers to push the envelope, but there isn’t a clear path for that metaphorical envelope to travel upon. Annualization of game franchises lacks any real creative drive but is ridiculously profitable and gamers are somewhat reluctant to embrace a game offering something new or different. I believe in new offerings like Mirror’s Edge or Little Big Planet, but let’s be honest here, they are no Mario Kart or Guitar Hero: Metallica. I’m not necessarily embarrassed to say that Nintendo represents the forefront of innovative game design, but it upsets me a little to think that waggle might be the future. The worst part is that I don’t know what it will take for innovation to both occur in the games industry and more importantly be embraced by more than niche target markets.

One thought on “Are You Not Entertained?

  1. Using FLOW and Flower as an example (Sorry, I’m a PS3 apologist), I think innovation is going to come from downloads before distributed releases from the big developers. We kind of addressed this in a previous article, but developers seem unmotivated to do anything beside work the existing formula and pump sequels. You hit on this with Killzone 2. It’s an amalgam of every major FPS with Halo as the mercury. As much as it saddens me to admit this, you are right that Nintendo (whether Wii or DS/DSi) has more fortitude than anyone else left in the arena.

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