The Problem With Peripheral Innovation

In an industry that currently seems borderline comatose, it should be terrifying that all hopes of innovation are being piled onto the VR bandwagon…


 

When we walked into Generation 8, we were promised new and exciting advancements in video games.

Powered by more memory, more graphical power and new controllers it seemed almost ludicrous that with all the resources available to the industry at large that we’d end up where we are now. That promised land that we had pictured turned out to be nothing but a big cardboard backdrop that has long since toppled over, revealing the scaffolding and support work spent trying to keep it up. And now that such things have been exposed, the industry has largely neglected to hoist the backdrop back up for the sake of carrying on the illusion – instead preferring to dive head-first into the “exciting” new “innovation” of Virtual Reality headsets.

The problem is that Virtual Reality headsets are NOT – and I repeat this, NOT the solution to what is a creative crisis at the heart of an industry that has long stopped innovating within its own products!

For a start, VR Headsets for me suffer the same cognitive dysfunction that lay at the heart of the Wii Remote. Sure, I see the point and I see where they’re going. At a time when first-person games are a reliable money-spinner for multiple developers and publishers, a peripheral headset tuned almost perfectly for the genre in question seems like a complete no-brainer. That is until the wheels come off, and boy in the last couple of years have those wheels ever been coming off! From Thief to Halo 5, there’s been no shortage of bland mediocrity in the first-person sphere and it’s likely that after a while with only that genre to sustain it, gamers will want other genres and titles to fill the gaping void that necessitates quality of content – forgetting to realise early on that VR, for all its virtues, isn’t exactly a system designed intrinsicly FOR other genres. The failing of the Wii Remote was simply that it couldn’t be all things for all games; like VR, the Wii Remote was a wonderful device for first-person shooters and the odd third-person over-the-shoulder shooter as well, but complex fighting games? Heavy JRPG titles? Complex 2D action games? Yeah, the Wii Remote failed on all three counts, and that VR fanatics are scrambling to cover their ears every time someone points out the inherent and obvious limitations of a VR headset that will cost between $400 and $600 when a huge screen at half the cost can realistically do EVERYTHING is all the more troubling!

But even if VR could be the future, the simple fact is that it cannot innovate video games alone!

For whatever you may think of VR – and you may disagree with my assessment, of course, because I’m not alone in thinking it nor am I the type who isn’t above having their mind changed (even if you can’t give me back the sight in my right eye) – the one thing VR isn’t is a catalyst for genre evolution. It’s a display device; for some an obviously exciting display device, but at the core it won’t change how many of these games PLAY. There’s no reason to change this, and indeed, most of the controllers I’ve seen for VR fit neatly into what we already know about these genres (borrowing somewhat from the Wii Remote and Nunchuck setup that Nintendo pushed on the Wii) and how they handle. VR may be innovative in its own way – but it’s not going to mechanically change how a first-person game PLAYS. So far, it’s more content to simply fit into what we already know.

And this is a problem.

The seeds were somewhat sown during the middle of Generation 7, when big-selling formats like Resident Evil 4 or Call of Duty signalled a goldrush. Everyone and their grandmother rushed into these dramatic, sweeping new shifts in the market and dogpiled for market share in these multi-million selling genres, shrinking the pots so dramatically that most of them didn’t even realise they were losing money until it was too late, largely because more people trying to share the same pie are ALWAYS going to get smaller slices! Such basic logic and common sense seemed to abandon the industry as it pushed to capitalise on the big names of the era and try and copy-paste their success; Resident Evil 4, Gears of War, Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed and so forth.

This is all the more egregious because in doing this, the industry all but destroyed the software middle-market. The mid-budget, experimental sphere where new concepts and ideas could be tested at a substantially lower cost and therefore at a significantly lower risk. Many look on the PlayStation 2 as one of the last golden eras of video games – not something I’d agree with but not something I’d argue against either. And it isn’t hard to see why; the middle-market was rampant during that era, as lower costs and a huge market share made even modest successes worthwhile. And we got some truly spectacular middle-market fare; Beyond Good and Evil was arguably middle market. Call of Duty began its life in the middle market, as did Battlefield. Survival horror was almost exclusively middle-market, with a few exceptions, and we lapped it all up!

In the rush to the “Triple-A” goldmine, they left behind a market which was tailored not just to innovate and experiment, but also to assist in generating revenue so those big triple-A projects could occasionally fail. It was a system designed to provide stable, sustainable finance whilst simultaneously allowing for the seeding and cultivation of new ideas, concepts and mechanics that could then be taken forward into the higher-end of the gaming spectrum – let alone to nurture new talent and new franchises that could march onward to conquer their respective genre or niche.

And today, we feel the absence of that middle-market all the more acutely; with so much money invested into these bigger games, fewer risks are being taken and this means that games are going multiple instalments with little to no mechanical or technical innovation at their core. Sure, they look prettier – but they don’t play any more differently than the instalments we had last generation, and in some cases they haven’t really changed since the era of the PlayStation 2! When gamers complain about games being “boring”, for me I sense they’re simply bored of the same old same old – what’s the use of investing £50 in a new instalment of a franchise that feels and plays exactly like the old one. But look! This one has a jetpack! This one has a new gun! This one allows you to smash down walls! Big freaking deal! These aren’t innovations – they’re superficial gloss designed to distract us from the reality that these games are going nowhere. And sadly, as some have demonstrated in the last eighteen months, there are many that are simply going backwards!

If video games themselves aren’t evolving, what hope is there for VR? Once the newness has worn off, once the excitement of a new purchase and wanting to use it has faded, you’re left with something that cost you a lot of money and you’re going to want good things to play on it, right? I’m having this crisis currently with my PlayStation 4; sure, I bought it at launch. And I likely would again in a heartbeat. But I’m the first person to admit that I haven’t bought anything new on the console for a long damn time now, and part of that is simply that I don’t see anything worth buying. The thrill of owning this “market leader” has worn off, and now I’m hungering for new experiences I find myself gravitating back to my PC and – gasp! – my Wii U!

We’ve had in the last decade far too many pretenders like the Wii Remote, the XBox Kinect and the DualShock 4 Touchpad all vying to significantly add to our gaming experience, and all largely failing to successfully change anything. They had their niche – but that’s all they amounted to.

If change is to happen, it’s going to need to come from the games themselves. Even with the NX on the horizon, I believe the era of peripheral innovation is over – the XBox 360 controller was superb, and the Wii U Gamepad is going to be integral for hybrid machines going forward, but I don’t see improvements on the formula any time soon aside the occasional redesign. This means that we can’t rely on technology to instigate change in our video games, because as WB Interactive proved last year, high-end PC hardware isn’t going to compensate for badly made, poorly optimised software like Mortal Kombat X or Batman: Arkham Knight. The change in future needs to be cultivated internally; it has to come from developers pushing new ideas, new concepts and new mechanics (and taking some pride in their work!) forward into the market, to breathe some diversity and life back into the gaming mainstream.

And many publishers will balk at that, because that is risk. And risk means less guaranteed money. Unless the industry wants to rebuild the middle market – which I’ve said before would be a prudent choice – this is going to be a bitter pill to swallow. Many of them dogpiled into that little town hoping to get a piece of that goldrush, only to find that with so many people mining those thar’ hills, finding your own rich seam was becoming less and less likely. So people just dug where others had struck it rich, hoping to get something for their efforts. And now we have the current gaming sphere; an incestuous system that cannibalises itself to an almost cartoonish degree, hoping in vain to replicate success – and in some instances, replicate their own successes!

Unless we can fix that, VR is dead in the water. Sure, it’ll be a nice new gadget for a while. But if all it does is play the same kinds of games in the same old ways – why bother investing up to $600 in it, when you can do that on a normal screen for a fraction of the cost? What is the point? Why should I, or anyone, care?

Those expecting VR to change anything are likely to be left bitterly disappointed. And I don’t blame VR – or the myriad devices dividing the already admittedly niche market – for any of this. Because the intent, however misguided, is noble. The hardware is at a point where we can do this, and do it well. At a time where we’re all starved and desperate to grab for the next obvious hand-hold, any new device is going to be an attractive proposition. It’s that desperation for the next seismic shift in how we play our video games which, for me, will spell the doom of VR in general. For all its self-evident virtues – and I’ll concede there are many – VR isn’t really the sort of technological innovation that will change how our games play. And I don’t think it was ever intended to. That expectation has come from an industry and a consumer base putting all their eggs into a basket that hasn’t even been utilised in anger yet!

Until the mainstream games market changes – and begins innovating on its own – we’re effectively beating a dead horse. And whatever your perceptions of VR, I’m the first person to concede that it’d be a shame if the undoing of VR tech was simply because the games themselves couldn’t be bothered to change. With all the effort and investment that has been pumped into VR technology in the last few years, it would be depressing if the same half-arsed approach we’ve been fed in our video games was just wheeled out for token VR games, copying already proven formulas and aping already established games and genres, until the market dries up and it can latch onto the “next big thing”, leaving behind little more than the dried, shrivelled-up husk of a thing that was once a beacon of hope and optimism.

Because, as I see it, why would anyone then bother to try anything new in the hardware front in future?

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