Innovative Tendencies

Innovative Tendencies
By: Kart Castaneda

The latest buzzword in the industry today seems to be "innovation." Every press release, every keynote address, and every preview seems to include it least once in its content. The race to be "new" and "fresh" has been iterated over and over again, and for a while, I was completely in favor of it. The fact of the matter is that innovation is only effective when it's thought out clearly, and when it isn't, the term becomes rather weightless.

In an American Scholar essay, the author made the point that with an added emphasis on creativity, where everyone and everything was supposed to be "original" and "different," the word eventually lost its potency, and fell to frivolous use. In the games industry, the same process is happening to "innovation." To put it simply, too much is being put into our games.

Realistic A.I. Fully interactive worlds. Cross-genre development. These are snippets you see in PR-Speak almost constantly, and while they're usually bloated, it's not all that uncommon for a team to overload its title with "original mechanics" in the hopes of attaining that long-sought goal of being "innovative." A prime example is the soon-to-be released Lost Magic on the Nintendo DS. With all due respect to its developer, Taito, they completely missed the mark. They had exactly what they needed to offer a fresh experience with the game's real-time RPG portion, where you draw spells on the touch screen to attack and heal. It's fun, it's intuitive, and best of all, it's "new." But in the quest for bragging rights, they added in RTS gameplay, where you've also got to look after troops and keep up with their health bars and attack strength while still looking after your own behind.

Now keep in mind, it's still a good game, and I feel satisfied for having played it, but what could've been a killer application has been drowned in its own ego in the search for brilliance that it already had. As corny as it sounds, it's true what they say: most of the time, you don't need something extra; you've had the magic inside you the whole time. It just needs to be brought out by refining the technique. So what if you're just a touch-screen RPG? You can be the best damn touch-screen RPG ever.

Unfortunately, this isn't an isolated incident. Take Viewtiful Joe: Red Hot Rumble, for example. Underneath the junk of mission-based gameplay and collecting coins, there's a great, simple fighting game that I would've loved to play. These are only a couple of incidents; I'm sure you can name a few games that you've played that could've been great if they hadn't been so cluttered with garbage in its crusade for innovative tendencies.

Have you wondered why short, simple titles have enjoyed such buoyed fanfare in the last five years; why games like Katamari Damacy, Brain Age, and Animal Crossing are so well-liked by the press? The short, simple answer is because, while innovative, that's not their prime focus. What they zone in on is the pursuit of fun.

And it doesn't end with niche' games, either. Look at God of War, one of the most heavily-supported games of 2005. Its all-out action approach to the genre carries the exact kind of appeal we're looking for as gamers. Can you imagine playing as Kratos and, in addition to slashing up monsters, commanding a fleet of Gorgons that you've captured in your spell book? That would suck.

Many years ago, there was a young designer named Toshio Iwai, who thought the best way to go about developing games was thinking of a great concept, something that could be wrapped up in a single phrase, and then just going for it. His phrase, it turned out, was "eating," and his game became none other than Pac-Man. The technique was later adopted by resident Nintendo genius Shigeru Miyamoto, who used "jump" for Mario and "explore" for Zelda. Even Rockstar utilizes this approach; what could sum up GTA better than "break the law?"

And that brings us to the present. In this upcoming generation of consoles, a lot of emphasis is going to be put on complicated gameplay and mechanics epic in scope. And while this works out well with tactical gameplay, most genres are only going to be brought down by convoluted structures and empty promises of new experiences. All in the search for "innovation."

Of course, this isn’t always the case; after all, if everyone shied away from introducing new themes, we’d still be playing archaic NES games. Well-directed, necessary introductions are what we should be aspiring for. Innovation for the sake of innovation only results in pretentious Oscar Wilde-ean rubbish.

Here's the part where I sound like a hypocrite for supporting Nintendo's Revolution. It's true, the controller will likely give birth to a lot of half-baked ideas, but when it comes to the Big N's games, I'm not worried. Why? It has a little something to do with NCL President Satoru Iwata's speech at GDC last week when he said,

"At Nintendo, we do not run from risk. We run to it. We are taking the risk to move beyond current boundaries. It should be our goal, each of us, to reach the new players as well as the current players. Our goal is to show them surprise. Our reward is to convince them that above all video games are meant to be just one thing - fun... Fun for everyone."

What I've bolded has been the point of the entire piece. While innovation is great and entirely necessary sometimes, we can't forget what draws us to games in the first place, fun, and by injecting unnecessary features, you're only detracting from that appeal. But in the case of Nintendo, this won't happen with the Revolution's controller. You need only look at their current line-up on the DS to see that they design a game to be fun before it's "fresh." If that's not enough, take a gander at what their head studio is called. Entertainment Analysis and Development.

Luckily, Nintendo is only one of many development houses who "get it," and when a plethora of hacks are pouring a myriad of genres in a pot and stirring it on the chance that they might get it right, these guys are going to be ahead of the curve. We can only hope that the industry as a whole accepts this in due time.


Ken said...

I've got one more to add to your roster of supposed innovation. Fable. That game was talked up as the most incredible open ended adventure ever made. Or something to that effect. It was not.

While I agree with you that fun should always take priority in developing games. Fun is a moving target and without innovation, you quickly hit the expiration date of the currently accepted view of "fun".

Everyone in the industry is using the word innovation because it's desperately sought after as a differentiation point. The fact of the matter is that sequels, genre-mixes and outright clones are what we see coming out all day long. You can't tout that a game is a better version of your competitor or predecessor. The only thing you can do is say you innovated somehow, you're new and different... somehow. We can just hope that if everyone says it, maybe at least someone is doing it for real.

Karl Castaneda said...

Heh, I had forgotten about Fable, Ken. I dunno, though; there are a lot of Molyneux fans out there who'd bite my head off for saying something like that. :P

As for your second point, I'm not so sure about "fun" being something that's constantly changing that developers have to adapt to. While there are certainly popular trends that change every few years, something timeless is just as fun today as it was years ago. Super Mario Bros. 3, Pokemon, Ape Escape (I don't care what anyone says; that game was amazing), etc.

Really, innovation is a buzzword, and I don't take it as seriously as I used to. What'll ultimately set a game apart from the crowd for me is what the game does, whether it's old-school or completely out-of-the-blue. I just think that developers have a bad habit these days of trying to fit in as much as possible without perfecting what they've got there in the first place.

At the end of the day, actions speak louder than words. If you want a game to prove itself to be better than a competitors, don't release a press release. Release a video that shows me.

HuBBs said...

Innovation is not a buzzword but an abused word. The past couple of years everyone with a game or idea that has a different concept or something different is called innovative. The Movies, Fable, Nintendo DS, Revolution, Xbox Live!, Rez, Shenmue, etc have abused the word. And while only the DS has lived up to it all the others have done nothing but use the word with no proof or a little proof of innovation. Most have just lived up to being nothing more than a good idea that works (xbox live).

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