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Is There a Place Left for Innovation ? |

First of all, be warned, as this is a long post and its many inquiries might feel unanswered at end, but if you also feel like the industry is increasing the size of the cookie factory and you keep getting the same batch of bland chocolate chip cookies, you might like it. Without further ado, let’s begin:

What is the most innovative game you’ve seen lately? That’s a question I won’t try to answer at this point, I’ll let you guys think about it for a couple of minutes… OK, so what is the first thing that came up on your mind? Not so simple, isn’t it?

I’ve noticed (and probably most others have) that the most noteworthy titles these days are sequels, and that got me thinking, is that all we want to see? I own a very small collection of PS3 games (about 16) and astonishingly, 50% of those games are sequels to games featured in the same platform; if I consider sequels to a series, that number jumps to 70%. It’s incredible how many developers we’ve seen lately seem so scared of trying something different. If you just think about your “top 10” most expected titles this year, you’ll see what I’m talking about. Probably 90% of those games are sequels.

Just as alarming is the time frame those sequels are being released. A good example is the Assassins Creed franchise. The first game released November 2007, the second, greatly improved, November 2009, the third, which brought nothing new except multiplayer, came a year later, and yet, another sequel is coming this November. This is debatable, but there isn’t that much difference between the titles and the story (which started strong) just felt rushed on the 3rd title. Who’s to blame? Should we not buy rushed titles or should they not be released?

As a (industrial) designer I’ve come to accept the concept of a collective imagination, where people from the same society or group come to think alike and have similar ideas and references. I think games are very much similar. If we just go back a little and think about the time when inFamous came out, you’ll all remember a similar game called Prototype, both games shared many ideas, from story to gameplay (I haven’t played Prototype, so I’m speculating based on what I’ve seen and read about it). Many other games share mechanics just like those two, for example Bioshock and Mass Effect both feature the capacity to wield powers and guns at the same time (released September and May 2007 respectively).

In the same way games share concepts, mechanics that worked for a title will be seen in many games. Sneak attacks, silent take downs, and cover are most sure to play a part in any shooter (and many other genres as well) these days, but this wasn’t the case not that many years ago. Multiplayer and creation tools are also becoming more and more common, but most of the time, it might feel rushed and shallow. Mere numbers used to measure the “greatness” of a game.

It would be unwise not to mention Little Big Planet, a game where all kinds of crazy things can happen. This might be one of the most creative games of the last 5 years (that I’ve played at least), and it came as a fresh breeze to one of the oldest game genres of all times. However, that by itself isn’t as impressive as what became of it, with support from thousands of players worldwide creating content for it and therefore it came the be one of the most creativity inducing games I know. The funny thing here is, it’s not really the game that’s awesome, but what we players make from it.

In a recent post, people discussed the importance of small developers to the market and I would say huge. With online stores like the AppStore or XBLA and PSN “anyone” can release a game, and what really separates those is how different they feel and how unique they are. An easy way to look at it is just think about how many “artistic” titles we can find on those places, games like Journey, Flower or Sword & Sorcery (iOS) are most definitely a “work of art” and that’s an “easy” way to make a statement of each game’s uniqueness.

We’re going though stale waters and I really believe it’s time to stir things up. The small fishes can only do so much to move this giant boat. We should rely on the big developers to turn on their engines and venture into unknown waters. Instead, they seem to prefer keeping their big whales in captivity and extracting every single ounce of Ambergris from them (those who like Futurama should understand). I guess we should ask ourselves, is it worth the risk? I can tell you for sure it does, if it wasn’t for brave men who would cross the oceans looking for the unknown, we might not be here today (this ends my navigation metaphor).

So, my friends, I’ll ask again, what is the most innovative game you’ve seen lately? All I can tell you is I have no idea and I believe no one does, so I invite you to discuss this question (and this overly inquiring article) here and we might even come to a conclusion (though I very much doubt it).

I’ll leave you to the following thought: true innovation might be gone but imagination has always been (and will always be) the gamers most important resource when experiencing a game, so at least as long as we can hold on to it, we will always have something new and fresh to look for.

  • I think the problem is that developers are getting LAZY meaning there sticking to what works and running with it until the wheels fall off, case in point, the COD franchise. Its the same game year after year after year and its really sad because there are some very talented studios that make really good games but dnt get there credit. A real good example is the game for the DS, Scribblenauts. Its probably the most innovative and creative game ive seen in a long time but its look over by so many other games. Plus studios dnt want there product to fail and coming up with new a new ip that doesnt create enough buzz is going to fail. A good example for that is Vanquish. Its a great game that tries to do something new but falls short. Maybe one day well find that game that dazzles us in evry way possible but with the COD’s and the GTA’s i dnt see that happening for a long time.

  • I think that The small companies aren’t getting the support they should that is why wonderful ideas are disappearing. For example, the Warhawk franchise never got a lot of support since it’s spotlight was taken from it by COD, that is why the franchise took a long time to make a sequel. The gaming world is out of balanced just like the US economy, Big companies are getting their pay checks, while the small new companies aren’t getting supported.

  • Pedro

    I think you’ve mentioned important games to this debate Royalty. I agree Scribblenauts is one of the most innovative games I’ve seen lately and I also think it’s terribly over looked. At the same time the CoD franchise, which claims the title of biggest game of all times (or something like it, I don’t really listen to nonsense about it) proves that working with the same formula over and over again is a cheap way to make tons of money and at the same time might finally be coming to an end, as many gamers believe BF3 to be more promising and a lot better, not the same redone experience all over again.


    Good stuff Pedro. Small game developers referred to as (Garage developers) have taken a stand lately with some innovative and imaginative titles and I think big game companies are absorbing and taking notes. The newly released title Catherine is a fantastic example of what we should expect from future titles. However, to be part of this multibillion dollar business acquire more than imagination and innovation. Resources are needed to sustain a certain level of productivity. With that said, most of those small (garage developers) are joining big companies in order to keep their businesses running. That why you should expect more sequels to come …

  • Ace

    Quality over quantity. Great post btw.

  • Wii Sports is innovative as hell. Scribblenauts (and Super Scribblenauts, of course) are to be considered on the short list as well.

  • I don’t feel like I’ve played any mind blowingly innovative games recently. Although L.A. Noire comes to mind and I don’t find it -that- innovative. I’d describe it more as an original title.

    Not all companies rush their games out the door. Square Enix (which I’m still considering as my home team when it comes to games) very often waits years before releasing highly anticipated sequels to their franchises. The wait in between sequels makes me crazy and sometimes the game doesn’t live up to it’s expectations. How could it after waiting years?

    I’m going to go play my free copy of LBP. Sick of wondering wtf all the hype is about!

  • Pedro

    @CHEETO, Catherine certainly is a different game, I’m very excited to try it out as it’s being said to be a very challenging title as well as a great experience, and in the end innovative or not that’s what we’re all looking for in games, a good time.

    @Eden, I haven’t played Wii Sports, what’s innovative about it?

    @Markus, that’s exactly my point, although we do have original games, they’re not truly innovative. Partially that’s because innovation is really difficult to accomplish and takes a lot of resources, but I also wonder if there are people who are aiming for it, if nobody tries to achieve that goal, we certainly wont see it any time soon.

  • @CHEETO: Loved the Catherine demo but I’ll probably skip the CE since a pillow case, boxers and T-Shirt is not what can get me to part with extra $$$. The Artbook and soundtrack being free for pre-orders is always nice.

    @Pedro: It introduced motion controls to the general public, does a wonderful job at letting everyone know how the Wii works and can turn even Grandpa into a gamer. Oh, and it has the power to turn a 3rd place in the last gen “console wars” into a 1st place finish.

  • Pedro

    lol, CE Catherine is not so cool, I’d prefer a Catherine figurine 😀 who wants another guys undies? really?

    Anyway, I liked all your arguments Eden, I really agree with you, motion technology gaming really is a big innovation for the industry, but some might argue it’ll always be a niche. Personally I think it’s one of the places where innovation is more probable to appear, as it’s fairly new compared to all the other types of games.

  • @Pedro: Be sure to buy Red Steel 2 with your Wii purchase by the end of the year so you know how motion gaming can do wonders for FPS style games.

  • I really dnt see motion control as innovation. We get one cool game that does motion contol justice then we get about 100 crappy games that trying too copy that one game. I will say this though, and this is my own opinion. If M$ pushes the capability with Kinect it would be the greatest motion controller yet. Just picture true one to one full body motion. I think in about a yr or 2 M$ will release and true one to one kinect.

  • If they ever upgraded Kinect to a Full Body Fighter/Action/Adevnture game, I think they’d have something there. But as it is now it’s just a gimmicky toy. And speaking of innovation, the newest Innovation I can think of is Kinect and/or Wii. And you know what? THEY SUCK. I don’t need new ideas as long as I’m having a great time with the old ones. If I like Pizza, and somebody is offering the newest “WHEAT GERM PIZZA” It sucks. I’ll stick to normal pizza. Innovation isn’t always good. What about PS3 Fat? “New Innovation” was more hard drive space and smaller system. But the slim SUCKS compared to the fats. Hotter, no PS2 Compatiblity, less USB card reader slots, and not sexy gloss finish. What about NEW CGI back in the day? That stuff looked horrible! And yea they got it right after awhile, but I still love the look of a good ol Predator/Alien suit.

  • Pedro

    Motion control (be that the Wii, Move or Kinect) is still a fairly new technology so we should expect great breakthroughs here, just give it time. Just think about how many years it took so we could have games like * add whichever games you really liked and thought were great in the last couple of years here *, so I’d say it’s just a matter of time before some really cool things start to pop, but it necessarily requires investments and research, that’s the most important thing.

    And don’t compare Innovation to a random collection of things, that doesn’t make sense, that’s just bad design. There’s nothing innovative about changing pizza toppings, it’s like using skins and changing textures in a game, that’s just recycling.