This article is making the blog rounds today. It’s interesting enough, and also a little comical (count how many people complain about innovation, and then count how many of them are “Currently know for” a sequel).
While mostly console-focused, the main theme is that innovation is lacking and that costs are too high to attempt a AAA product that’s not a “sure thing”. This is nothing new to the industry of course (and one could argue, especially on the PC, that things are better today than they were five years ago thanks to digital distribution), but nothing new has never stopped bloggers before, and it won’t stop me today.
IMO the innovation issue is pretty simple: if you want to try something new but not bank your entire company on it, don’t spend $100m on the gamble, spend $5m. Yes, a $5m title won’t have cutting-edge GCI, Hollywood voice acting, or an art team the size of a small country, but when have any of those ever REALLY factored into a game being great? (Hi SW:TOR). Gameplay is king, it always has been. Flashy games that have trash gameplay are still bad games (that unfortunately sometimes still sell because too many gamers are lemmings, but that’s another issue that, as things like Steam friends and blogs get more common, will decrease).
Look at the iPhone market: how many top gamers continue to sell because a big-name publisher continues to hype them, and how many are there because of superior gameplay? Angry Birds is raking it in because of its fundamental design, as did Field Runners, Pocket God, and the rest (slightly outdate list mind you, but still). (side note: Tap Tap is basically a Guitar Hero clone, but the gameplay does translate well to the iPhone)
Now gaming fans have to be honest with themselves here as well. If someone is going to take a risk, you can’t go into it expecting that not only is the gameplay truly something new, but it’s also polished like WoW after years of patching AND has the production value of a CoD rehash. A lot of gamers do, which is a problem, but the sooner people stop and just appreciate what the games are, the sooner we will see more of them.
A somewhat recent example is the first Witcher title. The devs went for something different in the PC RPG genre (a genre that is itself not exactly a breeding ground for mega-hit sales), brought a lot of good innovation, and were rewarded with success. Yet we still saw people complaining about reused NPC models, bugs (the 1.0 version had some serious issues), and how the voice acting was not perfect in spots. EA just recently released Dragon Age 2, how’s that working out for us?
In the MMO genre we see this all the time, and we might have the best example of all. If you were totally clueless about the whole genre, and just based your knowledge off reading random forums, you would come away thinking the absolute worst idea would be to release anything resembling WoW. Every single post claims to want innovation, for devs to try something new, and for ‘not another WoW-clone’. Now look at the sales charts, or what games remain popular. Look at the player expectations for small studios and their niche games. It’s crazy.
It’s even worse in the MMO genre because it’s so difficult to predict how anything new will actually work. Players do some very, very strange things, and the best system on paper might be a total disaster thanks to ‘creative gameplay’ by the players. And even when a title does release with some new ideas, what’s the reaction? Why is this not polished like WoW. Or even worse, why is the UI not exactly like WoW. Again, crazy.
But like I said earlier, I feel that today’s market is better than it has been before. Steam allows older titles to still be sold (encouraging devs to patch up mistakes), it does not have ‘shelf space’ issues like brick-and-mortar stores (letting the little guy be seen/sold), and it connects gamers to sites like meta-critic to at least help separate bad games (though in no way is meta-critic perfect).
As gamers get more educated about their hobby, and as everyone ‘matures’ as a gamer, I’d like to think the whole “buy Madden early” thing will stop.
Although I’ve been thinking that for years now…