Even though there are so many games out every year, it seems more and more like you can narrow them all down to several big franchises. Every big E3 announcement seems inevitably to be ‘WELL KNOWN GAME FRANCHISE 4’ and even though many people love these franchises (and some people REALLY love these franchises) it definitely seems to outweigh any originality or innovation in the industry. I mean, everyone was blown away by the brilliantly surprising demo for Ubisoft’s ‘Watch Dogs’ which not only showed off a gorgeous looking NEW game but the scope and concept of the game seemed entirely unique. So why don’t we have more games like that to get excited about?
Well, I’m going to tentatively suggest that there are two main groups to look at… The games industry and the fans. I know, controversial right? Sure, I’m essentially pointing my finger at everyone here but allow me to elaborate.
I’ll start with the games industry. There are many cases where we can see game formulas getting recycled over and over and over again. An obvious example is Call of Duty. Each new game is basically just a superficial shell wrapped around the same game. It’s like getting the same Christmas present every year but in different wrapping paper. You hope because of the different paper that maybe this time will be different but deep down you know it’s going to be the same present. But you know what? You also keep wanting it. Call of Duty games are largely the same experience because it’s an experience people still seem to want. Call of Duty has fast paced and addictive multiplayer and that’s all the fans want from it and so that’s all Activision cares about giving them.
But why do Activision even bother trying to hide that fact? If millions of people are flocking to their game for the multiplayer experience, why not cater JUST to that? Why try to sell us on every new game through a single player campaign full of supposed ‘intrigue’ and action? Perhaps if they dropped the charade, the extra attention they would spend focusing on their true goal would result in more innovation in that multiplayer experience? I mean, it’s one of the largest multiplayer games on the market with a huge audience and fan base, if you’ve got that level of success, can’t you afford to push that envelope a bit further? But Call of Duty is an easy target for me, I suppose. The reality is they’ve got a formula that’s working and people who love it for that. Fans might not necessarily want too much deviation and I can understand that. But still, it makes you wonder. Is Call of Duty a more pure business model for the industry, where people want something from a product and the Activision provides it? Or this a good example where lack of innovation has stunted gamers expectations?
Another example is Nintendo. Nintendo used to be the home of innovation. I still count the Nintendo 64 period as my favourite in gaming. Ocarina of Time, Mario 64, Banjo Kazooie, Goldeneye, Jet Force Gemini, Conker’s Bad Fur Day… It felt like Nintendo had so much to offer in the way of a creative and original gaming experience. There was a blend of great, family friendly games but then they also had more mature, adult experiences. Fast forward to now, with the Wii U, 3 generations of the consoles later, and where are we? Nintendo seems to be struggling with a heavy dose of insecurity over their image which I guess is why they keep making the SAME games. I mean, with the launch of the Wii and it’s motion controls, Wii Sports is still the only game that really utilised those controls in any interesting way. All the other big games of the console? Zelda, Smash Bros, Mario Kart… They all followed the same formula. Now sure, like the Call of Duty model, fans love these games, what’s wrong with that? Well unlike Call of Duty, fans aren’t getting these games once a year… More like once every 5 years. Why does it take so long for Nintendo to make every Zelda game when it’s pretty much the same game we’ve always played with a new story and graphical overhaul?
Now sure, this is a model they’ve always followed. They’ve always taken their time with their first party games. But I seem to remember back in the N64 days, in between the main Nintendo games, there were other games made by other developers that kept us satisfied. What happened to that? When did Nintendo become so insular and stop keeping up with the rest of the industry? They fell massively behind the rest of the industry with the Wii, creatively anyway, and now with the Wii U they have a chance to play catch up again but what are the immediate games on the horizon? An HD remake of an old Zelda game, another 2D side scrolling Yoshi game, a new Smash Bros and Mario Kart… At the moment it looks like they’re doing exactly the same thing all over again. So why aren’t Nintendo taking more risks? Is it the economic climate of the industry really so bad that Nintendo can’t invest in something new? Or are the fans such purists that there is a legitimate risk of Nintendo losing it’s core audience if they mess with the formula.
Which brings me to the second group I want to point the finger at… The fans.
As a long time Nintendo fan boy, I can’t count the number of times I’ve gotten into arguments with other Nintendo fans who seem complacent that they aren’t getting more from the Big N. Fans are very protective of their games when nostalgia is concerned. Is this something that’s having a detrimental effect on our games? Should a Smash Bros. game get a free pass just because it’s Smash Bros.? I feel like it’s the intensity of this hardcore fan base, who love their Zelda and their Mario games in a specific way, that leads Nintendo to thinking that changing their formula would be a bad thing. There’s very much an attitude that these properties are some kind of sacred cow that must be preserved and left untouched, resulting in a rather odorous bovine of stale game design.
A good recent example of the lofty power that fan boys can wield is the Ninja Theory reboot of the Devil May Cry series, DmC. From the very first teaser image, people were outraged by Dante’s new look. Ever since then the list of complaints has been a mile long. ‘His hairs the wrong colour, he looks like an emo, he looks like a douche, he looks like a douchey emo’. As you can see, there isn’t much variety to these complaints but they were consistent and that was the problem. The fans had set this game up to fail before anyone even knew anything about it. Now the game has come out and it’s actually very good. It’s received high praise from most critics (including in our own review (http://wolvieboy.wordpress.com/2013/01/20/dmc-devil-may-cry-review/) and is considered a great, fresh take on a series that needed an overhaul. But the game’s commercial success so far does not match the critical reception. It sold less in it’s first week than any of the other Devil May Cry games. Now sure, as a new take on a franchise, it’s not going to be a huge commercial success in the first week. Every new idea takes a while to grow in the minds of audience but I can’t help but feel like the image problem this game suffered prior to it’s release may be partly responsible. I mean, I haven’t seen a single bit of media involving this game that isn’t accompanied by a string of abusive and whiny comments from fans, many of whom don’t even seem to have played the game.
Is this what it’s come to? We have to wish the doom upon any new ideas? Why do fans feel the need to protect their franchises from any change at all? Now don’t get me wrong, I myself am a huge fan boy of many different things and I don’t advocate change for changes sake by any means, nor do I advocate change for branding reasons. But if a series is dwindling, if change has the chance to breathe fresh life into a property I love, I would much rather try a new take on a beloved franchise than witness it’s slow demise into obscurity. Surely the fans demonising DmC realise that even if it does fail, they’re still not likely to get a Devil May Cry 5. The version of the series they love is most likely gone forever. But if there are still 4 games for fans to play and love why let the new take anything away from the old?
The main reason I bring all of this up isn’t so much to criticise fans or even the industry but more to highlight a potential problem. I could name many series that I feel need a different approach. Resident Evil. Zelda. Dynasty Warriors. The Lego games. There are games out there that people love but is that love getting in the way of change? What can we, as fans, do to indicate that we want more from these series?
As a further disclaimer, this isn’t about me being critical, more about opening a dialogue. I’ve just expressed one viewpoint but where do you sit on the issue, do you think there’s a lack of innovation in the industry right now? What games do you feel need rejuvenation? Do you think change is important? Is there a series you DON’T want to see change? Let’s get a discussion going because you can’t have innovation without ideas and ideas have to start somewhere, why not with the fans who actually play the games?
Ben O’Brien hosts a weekly radio show on 2rrr 88.5fm called ‘Big Head Mode’. You can stream the show every friday, at 9pm on www.2rrr.org.au and you can follow the show on facebook for updates, news and gaming reviews at www.facebook.com/bigheadmode2rrr