Innovation in the world of computer games is certainly not a straight line. Many of the most popular games ever made were not necessarily innovative but instead refining features that were previously successful. To a large extent this is the nature of development in pretty much any medium, and something that allows for the foundations of previous fan base to transition to the next big game. Problems occur (they always occur) when this simple understanding becomes the excuse to release the same game again and again without offering too much in terms of changes.
A tension that most franchises have is being able to maintain a fan-base, whilst at the same time keeping their games fresh and interesting. Many fan-bases ask for the impossible; a new iteration in the franchise that is all that the last game was, but bigger and better, with new ideas and new characters. Effectively what is asked for is the same game as before, but new. It’s fair in some sense then to give a portion of the blame to gamers expecting the same over and over. The fairly recent Devil May Cry reboot received mass criticism from fans due to the changes to Dante’s appearance. Similarly Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare took some flak for it’s changes to the combat with the additions of double jumps and lasers (something I find hard to complain with generally). Though this may be the case, it seems to be a poor showing on the part of major developers to take the easy route and make games that only seem to be slight revisions on the last iteration.
Some games get away with it, sports games and most fighting games have the excuse of needing to keep their games pretty much the same as time goes on. The main reason for that being when players come back to play either of these, they can jump right in to a game with little adjustment to any new features added. Whilst playing Street Fighter IV for example, it takes very little adjustment from the moves list that I learned way back when I played Street Fighter II Turbo, and the addition of new moves to learn as well certainly gives the game further longevity.
Many established brands survive on their ability to provide the same experience refined again and again to be sold again and again, year after year. FIFA games for example have certainly taken a lot of heat for their recent addition of micro-transactions whilst only really offering a mild graphical upgrade and a roster update. The major fan-base is happy to purchase these games, as shown by their popularity and their moniker as a staple game for many people’s gaming collection. The point is, it would be strange for developers and publishers to make more of an effort if their fans are this easy to cater for.
A new game will come out from time to time that seemingly makes an effort to take multiple steps back from previous games in the franchise. EA’s Sim City released in 2013 is a great example of this trend; Sim City 4 (released in 2003) had a much larger amount of content, and space in order to build cities. Sim City (2013) however was much simplified, had smaller plots of land to build on, and of course the whole always-online issue that raged after it’s initial launch. The game was the first in the series to really disregard player demand at launch. Sim City felt like a decent game, but one that had been stripped to the bone, with most of it’s interesting features held to ransom behind pay-walls. It stood as a grave reminder that games have the potential to simply forget their past successes and make something that seems hollow in comparison.
Another example, again from EA, is the recent release of The Sims 4. The game has been criticised by many for having much reduced content from the original, a graphical style near identical to the last one and rocking a hefty price tag of £50 even at the time of this article. The great danger with simply relying on market presence and hiding behind name brand, is that it is not enough to make a game sell. Shockingly, and I say that as it seems to be less well know in the business of the AAA gaming industry, having a good game itself to fall back on is a pretty good start.
Many of the biggest games around became as popular as they are by simply plugging a gap in the market, or being the best in their field. Halo made first person shooting on the consoles popular again, after the void that Goldeneye and Perfect Dark on the N64 left. Call of Duty 4 made modern shooters less tactical like that of Operation Flashpoint or Arma, and brought it into a more arcade-y, accessible realm. Mario Kart is consistently released for each new Nintendo console, each time with new abilities and game play features to give good reason for the fans to come back.
As previously discussed, AAA developers and publishers have less and less incentive to innovate their games and franchises, due to consumers often being happy to buy the same game with a few tweaks here and there. Innovation is often left to smaller developers who have the incentive of simply being noticed by gamers. In some regards they are forced to sell something new and interesting to compete, unlike their AAA counterparts. The trend indicated by Sim City and The Sims 4 also shows a tendency for the bigger publishers to attempt to see how far they can go in terms of selling a game lacking content. These games are sold as full major releases generating a backlash from the gaming community. The anger generated is then dispelled by offering free DLC or free games, at a cost far smaller than extending development time. The only innovation really achieved here is in marketing a game and DLC delivery mechanisms, rather then the games content in general.
Innovation is something that is happening all the time in the wider gaming industry. But it seems to be focused in the indie market, or with smaller publishers as a means to stand out. AAA developers however seem content to cling on to previous success and brand awareness in order to market and sell their games. This confidence has led to a disquieting trend to release half a game, supplemented with DLC to be released later, cutting development time and maximising profit. This of course comes at the price of consumer trust and the quality of the game to suffer. This trend however cannot last forever, with the rise of games media and personalities speaking out about such practice hastening it’s demise. It is only a matter of time before the goodwill in companies is lost and those smaller companies earning trust take their place. Something that I would only welcome, to be honest.