Clone Wars: The Death of Innovation in Game Development

Chris Kemp discusses the lack of originality in today’s games…

Recently, despite having tons of titles to play, I’ve been getting a little bored with gaming. I’ve found myself just focusing on one or two games in particular, usually an online multiplayer component that still entertains me. Single player campaigns have been started with less and less enthusiasm, and I find myself declining into disinterest shortly after most of them have begun.

This strange phenomenon is something I’ve been pondering for a while, and I was starting to wonder if I’d just lost interest in gaming that didn’t have an explicitly competitive streak to it, as there is with online multiplayer. I have however come to realize what the appeal is for me in multiplayer that is lacking in campaigns – diversity.

The unpredictability of people, the very human nature of their actions, means that a multiplayer experience will essentially be different every time. Over the last couple of years, however, we have seen very little diversity in our games, most noticeably in the single player experience.

These thoughts were sparked by a recent comment by Peter Molyneux, in which he states that modern blockbusters are “essentially the same”. Now whenever Molyneux starts talking you better have a bucket of salt handy, as his ego is larger than most planets and he’s certainly proven himself to be on a first-name basis with hyperbole. I’ll have to set aside the irony of him currently working on a fourth Fable game (of which the previous three weren’t really that distinct), because what he says actually rings true for me this time.

The worst affected by this stagnation is the FPS genre. I will happily acknowledge that it can be difficult to inject innovation into an FPS – at the end of the day; you’re still just shooting people. When Crysis 2 was released, I immediately bought it expecting something fun and different. Like almost everyone else it seems, I quickly lost interest in the multiplayer, and am yet to finish the campaign.

The last traditional FPS to truly feel original was the first Modern Warfare, which is still the most played Call of Duty game in South Africa. The key to that game’s freshness was its immersive nature through the use of clever and engaging in-game sequences and various other devices. I’ll never forget my panicked sprint through the bowels of that cargo tanker in the first mission, while I foolishly cocked my head sideways with the camera as the ship rolled, the whole sequence climaxing in the Rambo-esque leap for the helicopter.

Do you remember how awesome this mission was?

Valve provided similar innovation in the original Half-life, which included events happening around you in your environment. As you made your way through Black Mesa, you would look through windows and see scientists being attacked by headcrabs or security guards falling to their death. This added a layer of immersion previously unseen in the genre.

All this is old hat now. Every FPS game since has made use of at least one, or both of these ideas, and the whole genre has become incredibly stale. It has been a long time since the gaming world has seen a Half-life or a Modern Warfare (the originals, of course). I want that feeling back. I want it bad.

This isn’t to say people aren’t putting effort into their games. Some games have clearly had a lot of love and hard work put into them, and it reflects in the gameplay. The problem is that all of them just feel the same; nothing is truly original or innovative anymore. Every so often we’re treated to a game like Mirror’s Edge or Borderlands which tried to do something a little different, and every time we are I find myself engrossed. The problem is these games just aren’t coming around often enough.

Everything has become extremely formulaic, and even though the settings, the weapons and the enemies are different, every time I load up an FPS I feel a bit like I’m playing a modded version of a game I already own.

Mirror’s Edge – An innovative, fun, interesting, failure.

So what’s the problem?

As the saying goes, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. I feel many game developers are simply trying to make the best games they can, using the formulas and techniques that have proven to be so successful in the past. And you just can’t argue with results. Games are selling better today than they ever have, and games like the Call of Duty series fly off the shelves, besides having very little in the way of anything new.

As long as people are happy with what is being given to them, there’s no need for developers to try and be innovative. Innovation is risky, innovation can cost you a lot of money. Today, more than ever, the video game industry is a business, and more and more the main focus is on profit margins.

A game like Mirror’s Edge sends out a strong signal to developers – maybe people don’t really want things that are all that different. Despite its innovation, despite a very good critical reception, Mirror’s Edge was a commercial failure. And at the end of the day it’s all about the bottom line.

To be more succinct about this, perhaps the biggest problem with a lack of innovation in today’s games, is that it isn’t a problem at all.

Do you find today’s games lacking innovation? Or do you think the industry is diverse and exciting? Let us know in the forums, or comment below!

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