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The Rebirth of Innovation

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We’ve seen a lot of changes in the gaming industry these past few years. From the rise of free-to-play in the MMO space, to “freemium” mobile games, to the swings in favour of paid DLC and season passes, the changes have come thick and fast. One change you may not have noticed though: the big publishers have become much more risk-averse than they used to be.

Consider Mass Effect and Borderlands. Both were released a number of years ago, and represented quite significant risks on behalf of their respective publishers. Mass Effect was trying to fuse the RPG and shooter playstyles from an RPG standpoint, bringing fast-paced third-person combat to a new generation but with a tight emphasis on storytelling. Borderlands was the opposite: trying to fuse FPS and RPG playstyles from an FPS standpoint, incorporating skill trees, downplaying the story, but keeping its FPS credentials front-and-centre. Both games were taking a risk, and by making RPG / FPS hybrids there was always a danger that they weren’t enough like an FPS or enough like an RPG to make those types of hardcore gamers interested. Of course, both games went on to receive critical and commercial acclaim, and have been become true franchises in their own right, but at the time of their release that outcome was far from certain.

This is what dark and gritty looks like

The problem is that over the years the heavy hitters in the gaming industry (EA, Activision, Take Two, Ubisoft, et al) have seen the budgets for the games they fund really begin to skyrocket. As part of that process, when they are literally sinking tens of millions into some titles, they want to be sure that this money is going to be recouped in sales when the game actually launches. One of the best ways to accomplish this is to make sure that your game has a built-in audience by finding a franchise that sells well and then just making game after game in that series, ad nauseam, until the last game is a shell of its former self. In practical terms, what this means is that you’re going to keep seeing Call of Duty games (ten so far, including the Modern Warfare spinoffs, with the eleventh under active development); you’re going to keep seeing Assassin’s Creed games (also around ten so far, depending on whether you count certain Facebook and iOS-only games, with the eleventh under development); you’re going to keep seeing Grand Theft Auto games; you’re going to keep seeing Mario games, etc, etc.

Now that’s all well and good. I have no problem with a publishing continuing to make games in a certain series, if the games are of a high enough quality and they are not trying to manipulate their fans by promising the next chapter in a story but delivering a paper-thin experience designed solely to obtain your money. The issue is if that’s all you do, where are all the new game series going to come from?

Pow, right in the kisser

What I want to see are more games like Mirror’s Edge, released all the way back in 2008. DICE stated they wanted to do something different after developing the first few Battlefield games, and if nothing else Mirror’s Edge was certainly different. Whilst it wasn’t exactly a commercial success, EA are apparently working on a sequel which could well be officially unveiled at this year’s E3. That would be nice, as the original game has a moderate yet vocal fanbase, but it doesn’t address the larger issue that “smaller” games like this are the exception, rather then rule at the bigger publishers.

This is one of the reasons I was very interested to see Ubisoft’s recent Child of Light. Like Mirror’s Edge, it’s a smaller game with a smaller budget; a game that Ubisoft know isn’t going to make them hundreds (or probably not even tens) of millions of dollars, as the Assassin’s Creed games do, but they’re still willing to at least give it a shot and see what happens. This is the sort of thing that we as gamers need to support, by buying and playing these smaller “indie-style” games, because they’re trying something new and aren’t feeding you an experience that you’ve already had in a dozen other games.

Going one step further and cutting out the middleman, I feel confident in saying that most of the true innovation in gaming these days is being done at the indie level. The big publishers have backed themselves into a corner by ramping up budgets and distilling games down into what will give them the highest return, instead of concentrating on making good games and building an audience from there. Sometimes these objectives converge, most of the time they don’t. The indie scene though, with their shoestring budgets and more open philosophies, is burgeoning with innovation. Games like Braid, Two Brothers, Super Meat Boy, Don’t Starve, FTL, Bastion, Mark of the Ninja; all of these represent significant risk-taking, whether it’s on particular game elements, or the setting, or the definition of what a game is at all. This is hardly an exhaustive list either; I could go on and on and on pulling out more obscure titles that have shaken things up in their own way.

This is not what dark and gritty looks like

The big publishers have lost their direction. That seems strange to say, given that many of them are making money hand over fist and are sitting on cash reserves the size of Norway, but it’s still true. They have forgotten that this is where each of them started: by making smaller games that found a niche audience, and that audience increased slowly over time as word-of-mouth spread. Unfortunately, most big publishers these days don’t want Guacamelee or Fez or Hotline Miami, they want Assassin’s Creed 13 and Grand Theft Auto 27. This is why when something like Child of Light comes along (and by all accounts it’s quite a fun little title), it’s important that Ubisoft knows we like things like that and would like them to make more of that sort of thing. Put it another way: steak is nice and I like eating it, but if I ate steak all day every day it would fast lose its appeal.

The true indie scene though is booming, and that’s where we’re going to continue to see most of the gaming industry’s innovation emerging from, at least for the next few years. Until the big publishers lose their obsession with monster budgets and monster returns (or at the very least become less addicted to them), this is how things are going to remain. Gamers need to make sure that they’re part of the solution – and not part of the problem.

Simon Nash
I write about PC games and sometimes it even makes sense. I'm a refined Englishman, but live in Texas with my two young children whom I am training in the ways of the Force.

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