The Innovation Game

Note; I wasn’t terribly happy with the previous version of this article, which I have since archived, so here’s a more coherent rant than the previous one. I do like innovation – but innovation is a strange and complex beast and it might be we’re sacrificing great things for the sake of ‘innovation’…

 

Let’s start by underlining what innovation means.

in·no·va·tion/ˌinəˈvāSHən/

Noun:
  1. The action or process of innovating.
  2. A new method, idea, product, etc: “technological innovations”.
Synonyms: novelty – newness

That’s a great place to start, especially because of the synonyms provided. Innovation and Novelty are not terribly far apart; there is a thin line between what is forward-thinking and what is a cheap gimmick and the games industry has been in particular very bad at distinguishing between the two. Sony with the Move and the recent Wonderbook, Nintendo and the Wii Remote and Microsoft with the Kinect. All of these things are cheap gimmicks – they aren’t interested in innovation at heart, but to masquerade as such and seed the idea of movement in a particular direction, even though we’re not moving. The very act of telling us we are will make lots of people believe in that movement. This is the Placebo Effect – providing the sensation and belief of something in the absence of any actual catalyst.

I also love new ideas, new games and new concepts in my games. For all my criticisms of the Kinect, I must admit I like some of what it does. Same with the Wii Remote. And Move (Wonderbook is a bit early for Sony but I am sure it will have some nice ideas!). You may find this strange but for all my desire, passion and adulation for innovation and new ideas and IP, I am still at heart a sucker for classics and gimmicks. I like a good gimmick. A clever gimmick. Something that entertains and amuses. Likewise, I am still very passionate about old classic gameplay – I love 2D Platformers and always will. I love Metroidvania, I love old-school RPGs as well. I would pay serious money for Terranigma and Secret of Evermore on the 3DS eShop. I am not ashamed of saying that. Square-Enix, do you not want my money?

You may find this an odd juxtaposition, but actually I genuinely believe I am not alone in this. For whilst I love and will pay money for new, innovative concepts there is still a perfectly viable market and place for the old stuff too, old genres and old ways of doing things. Candles haven’t gone away with the invention of the battery-powered torch, after all. Baths haven’t gone away with the invention of the power shower. There is a place for everything, and everything has its place.

That said, when it comes to innovation, and the desire to push new stuff, let us be clear. There is a danger in many cases that innovation, or at the very least the terminology, is being abused in a confused and chaotic rush towards already-known destinations. For innovation to actually be innovative, it has to stick and be new. Some things can go on for decades without change. And they can be terribly successful with it as well, because no-one is asking for them to change. But equally, change needs to happen at the right time for anything – it’s no good to push a new idea into a game when it’s selling millions of units quite on its own accord. Changing an already lucrative winning formula can be quite damaging – does anyone remember New Coke? Even if your market is dwindling, there’s a real danger in changing for the sake of it.

Perhaps in gaming terms my best argument on this comes from the Metroidvania world.

Castlevania had never really found its strengths in the world of 3D, for all of its intent the sales of the big 3D versions of the series had always been a bit… well… wet. Nor had they worked very well. On the other hand, sales of the 2D Metroidvania action-platformers had been quite buoyant, with the wonderful Symphony of the Night (and its multiple re-releases!) and the exquisite Aria of Sorrow. The 2D games had been trying new idea and concepts for years; Aria of Sorrow was praised for the imaginative and quite addictive Souls System, and we liked them for it. We liked trying new ideas, even Order of Ecclesia was a wonderful experience. Rougher on the edges but still pushing the envelope.

Lords of Shadow, and the upcoming 3DS platformer, are change for the sake of it. The sales of the series had been dwindling, but they hadn’t flatlined. Lords of Shadow and its desire to be a God of War rival create mixed and conflicted emotions amongst devotees of the series; for me, it’s simply change for the sake of it. And even then, it’s not changing into anything new – it’s changing to be someone else. It wants to be seen with a new person and is happy to shed its former image and fans in order to BE this other person. Now, this might not be so bad if the 3DS version was remaining in the genre it helped found – but even there, we’re seeing evidence of it not doing that. To all intents and purposes, Castlevania no longer wants to be in the Metroidvania genre. It has moved under pretense of doing new things – it isn’t. It’s simply trying to be something it isn’t, and fans and former lovers will not forgive easily a series that abandons them and their wallets in the desire to chase an entirely new market.

Metroid too has found this; Metroid has been dabbling in totally different genres too. Metroid Prime was truly innovative, it took a classic 2D formula and it pulled it into the 3D FPS world. It should not have worked but it did, and we loved it. We loved Metroid Prime 2, for all its faults, because it continued the trend. Metroid Prime 3, however, decided to compete against and be a bit like Halo. And then it tried a sort of RPG-come-adventure-platformer idea. The rest of us were left confused and wondering why it had gone off the deep end when it was so beloved and we all wanted it?

Both Metroid and Castlevania are still struggling in their new markets and there’s a good reason WHY they are; because the things that they want to be already exist. They cannot innovate in these spheres until they actually catch up, and very few things ever will catch up enough to have a market defined in their honour. They will always be chasing the things they want to be, and therefore cannot innovate.

Innovation and new ideas don’t come from the inherent desire to be something else, but equally they don’t come from changing for the sake of it either.

Resident Evil 6 a case in point; back before Resident Evil 4, the series was dwindling and both critics and fans were getting impatient. It wasn’t that the Resident Evil games weren’t good – they still were, the fabulous Resident Evil Zero a perfect case of perfecting a genre to a sharpened point. But there was unfortunately no-where left to go with the format. In ten years, Capcom had pushed the traditional Survival Horror concept as far as it could be taken, and all that was left was spectacle. For a genre-leading series, this is a huge problem and it is exactly where innovation is necessary; changing because it is the right time and place to change. The old style was sent out on an incredible high with Resident Evil Zero. It still remains one of the prettiest games ever made. Also, one of the most visually stimulating with an incredible set-piece atop a runaway train, with a full sense of speed and danger intact. The sensation was brilliant. The game was brilliant, but it was time to move on.

And move on we did to the fantastic Resident Evil 4; a game which to all intents and purposes redefined the genre. Witty, wry and with an attention to detail, the game was an understandable smash hit across the world. It should have been the blueprint to follow, the foundation for the next step in the genre but instead Capcom have gone too far; Resident Evil 5 tried to make a serious point and be a serious game, and it didn’t pull it off because people were coming in off the back of the humour and organised chaos of Resident Evil 4. Equally, Capcom tried to force in co-op multiplayer; now, if you got a good person then this was fantastic but you can’t rely on human beings all the time, so for all other cases the co-op partner was run on AI. And it was abysmal. Resident Evil 6 has been worse; it’s trying everything, running around the genre-buffet and sampling from each and every table and whilst it does get some bits right, for the most part it just has a proper tummyache. There is nothing innovative in being everything – because it isn’t everything, it’s just a little bit of everything. Little swatches of other genres. It’s ideal is to be something more, but it doesn’t work. Innovation, new ideas and combinations – they have to work. Otherwise they cannot be innovation, only novelties, only gimmicks.

Which brings me onto the game which prompted this whole post; New Super Mario Bros. U.

Now, I was criticised for expecting innovation from everyone except Nintendo and I would like to say this is categorically NOT true. I expect Nintendo to innovate and push new ground as much as I expect everyone else to do so as well. Except the game in question – NSMB:U – is not where I expect innovation to happen, it’s a game where I actually DON’T want innovation.

The reason for this is quite basic; I like old 2D Mario games. I love the familiarity of them and I love the imagination of them. I want it to be a good game, of course I do – and all reviews point to it actually being quite brilliant. But I don’t want or need it to move the 2D mould onwards. I don’t need it to demonstrate the power of the Wii-U; there are other games on launch and in the near future that will be ideal for that purpose. No, the reason I don’t expect NSMB:U to innovate is because I thrive on the nostalgia of this variation of Mario. There is no need to change; because very few people want it to change.

Not to say that Mario as a series should not innovate and Mario is rather unique in that he has two very different sides; this classic, nostalgic edge and the sharp, new ideas edge. For the Mario series has and indeed does push new ideas and concepts; Paper Mario, Mario 64, Mario Galaxy, Superstars – Mario does dabble and push the ideas and boundaries and we love him for it. No doubt the next big-budget Super Mario game for the Wii-U will be wheeling out new concepts and ideas with its new control system; but that is where we want the innovation, and if it doesn’t then we have a very real right to be disappointed and annoyed. Getting angry at a 2D Mario game designed and indeed marketed on the basis of it being a 2D Mario game is… well… a little silly. We know why we like this variation and it is because it is old and familiar and cozy, not in spite of it.

There is a reason why 2D Mario games still sell in this world of depth and breadth; much the same reason as why people buy Call of Duty every year, or go nuts over Zelda, or Halo. Because people know these games, they have an attachment to them. A deep, emotional connection. Not all of us get this with all of our games, let’s be honest. I don’t understand the Gears of War saga and I doubt I ever will understand what people see in it, but to its fans – those who made it successful – nothing else will do. They got it, they want it and they will buy it. In huge volumes. 2D Mario is something lots of us know, are familiar with and have grown up around. It’s selling itself on nostalgia, not on being somehow new or daring. Rayman Legends appears to want to fit that bill, and unfortunately you will have to wait until next year to see how UbiSoft play around with the genre. Rayman is a good place to test the waters. Mario… well, Mario has too much to lose.

Also, the Wii-U really could use some good, old-fashioned gaming. Without Rayman on launch, there are lots of ports trying to figure out how the new controller can be of an advantage to their game and then you have Zombi-U that looks to be perfectly encapsulating the idea of innovation with the Wii-U. Zombi-U is daring to take risks and try new ideas, and give old ideas a new twist. It is innovating – and innovating in a huge, unavoidable way. Will it work? Well, we shall see. All signs right now are quite positive. But for the daring new Zombi-U experience, some people will equally want safe. Ports are there to attract audiences from other games to the console, after all. Enhanced editions with new controls and content and concepts all vying for their attention, to reel them to the new machine. Some people will only buy the Wii-U for their enhanced ported game. Does this mean they’re damaging innovation?

There is such a thing as “Innovation Fatigue”. This is a real sensation and phenomenon whereby with the world changing so fast, we stop noticing all the good things, eventually treating innovation as a normal part of everyday life. This comes in two distinct flavours; The first is that we expect innovation in everything, whereby we are disappointed in anything that isn’t innovative or pushing the boundaries. In essence, the sensation becomes one of expectation, entitlement and disappointment. We can never truly be satisfied or happy because we are demanding something that perhaps isn’t always possible. The other end is that we actually stop noticing it at all, where innovation is no longer an important aspect in our lives, in what we do and play and read and see. We stop seeing it, because everything is changing so fast that we end up just considering it as normal, rather than the fantastic thing that it really is. The magic is lost on us.

These are terrible places to be in a creative industry, but it is a reminder that for all the desire for new, innovative things that we can have too much of a good thing; change is important, but change for the sake of it doesn’t work either. The world moves and games and series move in a way that eventually leads to their demise or retirement – Silent Hill a case in point there – and some will get a second wind, as is the way of the world. Some careers can have a second coming, even a third coming. It can continue to do new things if that is what it is known for. But if it keeps changing for the sake of it, like Madonna and Lady Gaga, we just get bored of that. We end up missing Indie Madonna, or Gaga’s meat dress. The whole schtick to constantly reinvent eventually means we don’t care if you actually do something outrageous or silly or brilliant. Because it’s not especially surprising. We don’t get that sensation of wonderment that is so essential to the idea of innovation. If all you do is change, why should we care who you are tomorrow? That’s what you do. Even if it is groundbreaking, the pleasant surprise of that is removed by the fact you likely hit on it by accident, and won’t stay there long.

We need new games and new ideas. But we shouldn’t be insisting that they happen at the expense of perfectly good, perfectly serviceable old ideas either. The danger is with such a drive for new ideas, that we are in danger of discarding a lot of quality and a lot of great things trying to attain, mimic and peacock this idea of innovation. That we end up dismissing great things, burying great games and throwing aside perfectly good genres in the rush to be seen in this middle ground where everyone wants to do something new – and usually, with someone else’s idea.

That’s not innovation. Don’t accept any imitators. Demand the real deal. And don’t dismiss good games just because they aren’t innovative or pushing the limitations of a genre. You can still have a lot of fun with a faithful old friend, and there’s no shame in that. You can have both. You can enjoy both. There is no law stating you must be in one camp or another. We do need both sides. Both extremes.

And you can’t have one without the other anyway. They co-exist perfectly well. We shouldn’t be demanding they divorce so we can take sides…

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