Remixing Ideas to Make More of the Same
Trends are the lifeblood of modern day game design, developers always making inclusions and additions based on what could just be a singular aspect of a popular game. For example, the inclusion of wave based survival modes in most major games came about after the inclusion of Nazi Zombies in 2008’s Call of Duty: World at War. Even if it made no sense, a major game was guaranteed to have one. This idea of lifting trends from popular media wasn’t limited to fellow games. Staying on the example of zombies, the renewed public interest in zombies, led by AMC’s The Walking Dead, led a new wave of zombie based horror games, breathing new (un)life into a genre that had remained relatively stagnant since the initial release of Resident Evil 4.
This idea of imitation of other media and games is how genres are created and grow, entire series based on a remix of a core idea. Doom in 1993 created the modern day FPS, but later games like Half-Life and Halo: Combat Evolved took the ideas present in Doom and reworked them to create something new. Genres are even named after the games they’re modeled after, one only has to look at the existence of “metroidvanias” and “souls-likes” as an example.
However, with all of this remixing and innovation, there always seemed to be an unspoken goal of making something new (although, whether this is simply an effect of hindsight is yet unknown). Now however, many seem to think that most triple-A games (those made by a major developer and publisher) are too similar. It seems like most games all are required to have open worlds with dozens of hours of gameplay, photorealistic graphics, the same minute to minute gameplay, and the same pseudo-rpg mechanics. Whether the actual lack of innovation is present is opinion, but a large enough group of people believe it to be an issue, enough to warrant discussion.
There are a few potential reasons for this general sentiment about the game industry. Some believe it to be the result of an increasingly casual playerbase, one that plays games in addition to other mediums of entertainment, not as their primary one, or as a hobby. Others believe it to be an aversion to risk by companies, the logic being that using previous trends and gameplay mechanics is a guaranteed sell, rather than taking potentially devastating financial risks on innovation.
To address the first point, it is true that games are no longer something that appeals only to the young and the dedicated. Anyone and everyone can be a gamer. Some of the biggest pop culture events of the year are dedicated to gaming, conventions like E3 and major eSports tournaments only serving to draw more and more people into the hobby. With the idea of more casual, less dedicated players, game companies now focus on more broad appeal games, ones that can be picked up and played at any time without detriment to the player’s experience. You only have to look at the rise of the “live service” model in multiplayer games as an example. It’s the idea that a constant flow of updates, supported a steady stream of microtransactions and $10 passes to monthly content, can keep a game alive much longer then bundles of paid story DLC and single player content.
Looking at it, while it seems that the rise of casual players could very well be a cause of a lack of true innovation in games, that assumption ignores many variables, biggest of which is that this perceived lack of innovation may just be an issue for the triple-A gaming industry. Of course skimming major game releases, ones aimed at the broadest market possible, would seem to show that all games are lacking true innovation. In order to get out of that mindset, one has to actively search out games to play. There’s forty years worth of games out in the world, and, limiting yourself to what’s recent or what’s popular simply gives an incorrect and incomplete world view.
However, while casual players are not the issue, the mindset that major publishers hold towards games now is. I’ll admit myself, innovation in AAA games is rare these days. Companies are more focused on refinement and the amount of content, not on innovation. It’s less of a financial risk and more accessible to a wide range of players to use familiar systems and gameplay mechanics, allowing for other aspects of the game to take focus (one only has to look at the story heavy open world adventure games put out by Sony in recent years). Every major open world game contains collectables, towers to unlock new areas, and skill trees with experience points. Almost every new FPS is a simple repaint of the formula perfected almost twenty years ago by the original entries into the Call of Duty series. Now, this isn’t an inherently bad thing. As mentioned earlier, entire genres are built on imitation and refinement. It’s expected. But the issue is this imitation was justified by actual changes, changes to the minute to minute gameplay, to setting and plot, to core gameplay themes and ideas. These gave people a reason to try them out, see how their favorite formulas were changed and innovated upon. Imitation was only the blueprint, not the foundation. Now though, imitation forms the skeleton and frame of a game, the changes in plot and setting only a change of paint, what little changes in gameplay that are there only dressing to hide the copy and pasted nature of the games.
This isn’t an issue that can just be solved by playing new games, like the first one can. This is a real issue, not the perception of one. It’s been well documented that games have been gutted and rebuilt or even cancelled due to not meeting certain expectations listed by focus testers and publishers. Innovation cannot exist in an environment where there are fears of financial loss for those involved with the game’s production. Companies are caught between a rock and a hard place. They either keep the core principles of a game faithful to the original idea, which pleases a small audience of core fans, but isolates the wider audience, or they force changes to a game to reach a more broad market, isolating both core audiences while never gaining the crucial interest of the wider audience. In their rush to appeal to casual audiences, companies have lost any interest in making quality games and innovating upon what’s come before. That’s not the fault of the audience. That’s the fault of an increasingly scared and financially desperate industry.
Games are a complicated medium, due to their nature as interactive media. Opinion is at the core of the enjoyment of a game. What could feel like a transcendent experience to one could feel like absolute garbage to another. While some issues can be solved on the consumer end, the fundamental issues on the side of the industry have to change, in order to ensure that games can continue to grow and improve.