From the Trenches: Whither Innovation?

The clock can still be heard striking seven as William Ambrose De Geeke bursts from his bedroom and charges downstairs, seven-year-old eyes aglow with the gift-laden promise of another Christmas morning. A frantic blur of tangled feet and garish yellow Poke-sleepwear, he charges past his still groggy parents and into the warm glow of the De Geeke living room.

Ignoring his mother’s belated proffering of a hearty breakfast, Billy heads directly for the gigantic gaudy pile of presents nestled beneath the well-worn family tree. Eyes wide and fingers twitching, Billy dives into the pile like a thing possessed, his frenzied searching sending gifts of all shapes and sizes hurtling around the room like so many plastic balls on senior bingo night.

“Not this one… nah, that’s not it… this one’s too small… wait a second… YES!”

Billy throws an enormous package to the floor, attacking it with the focused destructive intensity of a starving cannibal army. Torn strips of red and green wrapping rise from the package in a festive fountain, each ornate strip a barrier between Billy and the object of his frenzied desire. Finally, the toy is pulled free of its festive shackles and thrust triumphantly into the air.

“YES!”

Mr. De Geeke enters the room, gazing on in bemusement as his son runs hyperactive circles around the room, favorite new toy held proudly aloft.

“Hey, isn’t this the same thing that we got you last year?”

“No way dad, it’s totally different. The eyes glow blue now, not red, and the gun shoots Digi-pellets, not those dumb old Poke-ones.”

Shaking his head, Mr. De Geeke returns to the kitchen, muttering something about 75 lousy dollars.

Any gamer who has returned home from the software store, brand-new game clutched tight in his or her sweaty little hands, is likely to have been in a situation remarkably similar to that of Billy’s paterfamilias. Far too often, that aforementioned hot new game turns out to be little more than a retread of a remake of a classic idea, a few shiny new baubles grafted onto its unavoidably stale surface.

Videogame innovation is rapidly descending to an all-time low, with each successful title spawning countless imitators, sequels and spin-offs in less time than it takes to microwave a copy of Vampire Hunter D. In a situation remarkably similar to the videogame glut of ’83-’84, store shelves are being flooded with generic crap at an alarming rate, drowning the few inventive titles in a deluge of complete and utter mediocrity.

While this “remake, remodel” school of design is nothing new, never has it been more inexcusable than in today’s age of 128-bit wonder machines. Developers now have access to technology capable of pushing more polygons, performing more complex calculation and generally kicking more ass than ever before. Yet, for the most part these incredibly powerful tools are being used in the most unimaginative way possible, producing more of the same crap in a new, high-poly package.

It’s almost as if most developers are afraid of innovation, scared that producing something new will drive away their game-hungry public. Why is this? What are the factors that keep these developers from producing something new and different each and every time? Well, after extended discussion with some of our more respected forum elders, I believe that we at Trenches may be able to answer that most pointed of questions.

The first, and perhaps largest, problem is that innovative games tend to not sell nearly as well as their more mainstream competitors. Sad as it is to say, unless a “non-standard” game can be linked to a well-known design entity, such as Miyamoto or Kojima, it’s unlikely to shift all that many units. The inarguably brilliant Silent Hill is a perfect example of this conundrum — while Konami’s unique horror title sold respectably, many far less innovative titles, most notably Resident Evil: Nemesis, eclipsed it financially.

There are multiple reasons for this: PR hacks that don’t know how to hype something they don’t understand [Ed Note: See ad campaign for Fear Effect 2, “It has boobies!”], publishers who would rather bet their budgets on a known quantity and, biggest of all, the fact that videogames are an expensive investment for the end user. Simply put, most gamers felt far safer going with a known brand than risking their hard-earned dollars on something new and different. Consequently, just as we will continue to see derivative crap like Save the Last Dance or Gone in 60 Seconds rocket to the top of the box office, tried and true videogame concepts will continue to outsell their more innovative competition on a daily basis.

This, in turn, brings us to our next problem — the ever-increasing cost of game development. As technology advances, the required resources for videogame production increase exponentially while sales remain roughly unchanged. Faced with drastically reduced profit margins, developers are left with two equally unpleasant options: innovate and risk going bust, or churn out mainstream pap until the next big thing comes along.

Of course, it would be somewhat myopic of me to blame the dearth of originality in the videogame market entirely on either gun-shy consumers or the Hugo Boss suited executives they support. Shockingly enough, those long-suffering game developers must also bear their fair share of responsibility for this sad state of affairs. For, alongside those hordes of dev-hacks perfectly willing to produce knockoffs at the lowest possible price, there sits a group of developers undermining the cause of innovation through the sheer fact of their own incompetence.

These are the second stringers who, while on their perennial quest for radical new paradigms,” have managed to confuse being different with, well, being good. For every Art Dink or Sega, successful innovators whose games remain fun no matter how different they are, there are a hundred “wacky” developers who couldn’t manage to produce a good game if Shigeru Miyamoto himself descended from the heavens and bestowed it upon them.

Consequently, innovation-seeking gamers get sick of blowing 50 bucks on the latest “innovative” failure and instead decide to invest their hard-earned money in the latest dependably semi-competent Tomb Raider sequel. By flooding the market with these half-baked ideas made silicon, such developers are doing far more harm than good to the innovation cause.

In the end, however, the future of gaming innovation rests firmly on our Dual Shock hardened shoulders. So, next time you find yourself with 50 spare dollars and the urge to game, do a little research before heading out to your local Software Etc. Read a magazine, talk to your friends, go online and try to find out what enjoyable alternatives there are to the latest Resident Evil sequel. After all, if enough of us start buying original titles, innovation itself might become the “next big thing.”

Now, head on over to the Forums and tell us what you think…