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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.