It is all fair and well complaining about how modern games are all generic. How they are all the same, how they follow the most obvious trends, and how gaming culture has become homogenized into a brown smear of time-killing grind. Yet, our ever-burgeoning need for innovation is tempered and dampened by our refusal to leave our comfort zones. Our refusal to leave the World of Warcraft, FIFA, Call of Duty safe zones is why “Innovation” is a marketing word for, “More stuff added, hope you like it.”
Don’t Bother Hiding Your Good Ideas
There is a saying from Howard Aiken that goes something like, “Don’t worry about people stealing an idea. If it’s original, you will have to ram it down their throats.” Innovation costs money. Innovation is a risk. As games become more expensive to produce, innovation just isn’t worth the risk.
In Defense of The Comfort Zone
Besides the fact that innovation is expensive and can end a company, see the likes of Clover Studio’s “Okami” and most of the stuff that Bullfrog made, innovation is also hotly avoided by most gamers. People avoid innovative and new things. This is the way it has always been. The first people to see a camel were said to flee in terror. We all have a very mild form of instinctive Neophobia, and yet we still crave new things to help us rise above the normal and mundane.
In defense of the comfort zone, a little gaming platform called “Steam” is pretty much fully to blame for our fear of trying innovative new games. The indie market on Steam is jam-packed with games. For every “Angry Birds” there are 30 “Frustrated Birds” and “Annoyed Birds.” There are well over 40,000 indie games on Steam, and frankly, it is too much.
There is this optimistic belief that the best and most innovative games seem to find their way to the top on Steam, but that is just not the case. If you have specific tastes in a game, then there may be hundreds of games that suit you, but you can’t find them because for every “Papers Please” there is the “Paper Checker” and the flop game “Not Tonight” to deal with.
The comfort zone exists partially as a defense mechanism against all the poor quality, horrible-alpha, Kickstarter-fail/theft, bloatware and shovelware that exists in gaming today. If you were to purposely seek out new and innovative games, you would lose all hope and motivation to continue due to the sheer amount of garbage on offer.
We Don’t Know What We Want
Another classic reason why innovation is so difficult to find is that we have no idea what we want. There is strong evidence to suggest that when a woman is attracted to a man and even when she falls in love with a man, she re-frames what she finds attractive. Where her earlier self may have said she would never date a man with a beard, she is seen a year later holding hands with her bearded lover.
In terms of gaming, we do need at least a little exposure to innovative gameplay before we decide if we are in love with it. The fact is that we don’t know what we want until we have it. People who hate soccer games are somehow in love with Rocket League. Those who hate JRPGs are somehow in love with Persona 5. People who hate the Call of Duty brand of FPS somehow love the Left 4 Dead 2 game.
What’s worse is that we don’t know what we want, but we think we do. When you ask people what they want, they will tell you what they “Like.” And, in almost every case, what they “Like” is what they already have.
The Sims Innovated As Much As Dark Souls
We can now look back at the successes of our past and see which innovations worked. How “Doom” worked, how “Pac Man” worked, and how “The Sims” worked. Yet these innovations were not easy to adopt. Even in the early years of gaming when competition was scarce, these games still took an awfully long time to become popular and take the world by storm as they did.
Take a look at the world’s best game ever, according to Golden Joysticks, which is Dark Souls. For the longest time, people were not prepared to go back to the world of super-difficult and merciless gaming. The same people who were punished by games like Sonic for touching a spike on the ceiling, were very resistant to the sort of overly difficult gameplay that Dark Souls provides.
But wait, didn’t Dark Souls start the difficult-gaming trend that we still see today? Doesn’t Dark Souls prove that people adopt innovation like a kitten slurps milk? No, no it doesn’t, because before Dark Souls, there was a game only beloved by a dedicated few. That game was called “Demon Souls,” the same game that was re-released for the Playstation 5 era of gaming and saw massive commercial success. The original Demon Souls wasn’t even the first because before that was From Software’s King’s Field series, which again was loved by few but disregarded by most.
The Breakout Successes Often Create Trends
If only there were a way to filter out the shovelware and the quickly-produced cash-in titles. If only there were a way of truly demonstrating games that have been lovingly made. Were we to live in such a world, then perhaps the most innovative games would gain better exposure
The fact is that if you want to be innovative, you need to be so innovative that it is powerful enough to create copycats. You can’t just be “average” innovative if you want to be successful. You can’t just be “Return of the Obra Dinn” or “Fallout Shelter.” You need something that is going to make the YouTube influencers take notice.
Sometimes it is through games that are easy to react to online, like “Five Nights at Freddy,” and other times it is games that are secretly very deep and meaningful without appearing that way.
Two good examples of that are “Papers Please” and “Undertale.” In both games, there is actually a lot of gameplay, a lot of choice, and an amazingly deceptive amount of immersion. You start by checking a few papers or being led around by your mother’s hand, and by the end, you are feeling genuine anxiety in case you made the wrong decision.
You paid for the whole seat, but you are only using the edge. These are the sorts of innovative games that can grab social media influencer attention and see some real exposure. Otherwise, even the most brilliant and innovative games are going to stay undiscovered.
Innovation Doesn’t Have To Be Different
As a final point, try not to confuse innovation with something new. The fact that innovative things are seemingly new is because “Non-innovative” stuff is pretty common. Yet, take the likes of Street Fighter. At the time they were innovative, and as the previous section addressed, they also set trends. Yet, at their heart, they were arcade fighting games and were pretty similar to the other types of things in development at the time.
World of Warcraft, original and its subsequent iterations, were not groundbreaking. What they nailed was not the setting or even the characters. It was the polished leveling mechanics that first saw them rise to power. The fact that people still these days spend more on WoW TBC gold than they do on new games is a testament to how powerful WOW has become. Yet, its true innovation was how it handled leveling up, helping to evolve what we all now consider to be RPG mechanics.
Some people cite FTL (Faster Than Light) as a new and innovative thing, which it is, but if you scratch the surface, it is not the premise that is innovative. After all, if you were to re-skin the entire game with “Star Trek TNG” decorations, and you changed a few names of things, then you have a very true-to-TV-brand Star Trek game. Yet, it was the sheer depth of gameplay mechanics and the well-integrated rogue-lite elements that made FLT as popular as it became.This article is not meant to preach or lecture. This article even started out by defending the safe zone because there are so many poor quality games out there that trying to find innovation is like trying to find a brown Frisbee in a field of cow pats. Yet, before you dismiss the next big thing, such as the bewilderingly addictive “Vampire Survivors,” at least consider watching a few playthroughs on YouTube because if some of us don’t get our hands dirty looking for innovative new games, then we will forever be stuck chasing icons on a Ubisoft map.