Video games and Innovation: A Lamentation

Innovation, Innovation, Innovation.

It’s the buzzword of this gaming generation, but are things really changing for the better?

This year marks the 37th anniversary of commercial video games, and gaming has undeniably evolved faster than any other artistic medium. But is this down to intellectual or just technological innovations?

For example, the Wii remote is an excellent technical innovation, but removed from its control method, Wii Sports in an uninspired game. Just picture Wii Sports on the GameCube…

Of course, gaming is an interactive medium, so the input method is key to the experience. Unfortunately, few developers have used the Wii’s unique player/software interaction to create an experience that would not be conceivable on another platform. Whilst Mario, Zelda and Metroid are fantastic games, they could have worked with few compromises on the GameCube. Thus while Nintendo continue to innovate in the hardware stakes, their software is lacking the fresh originality of previous generations.

Being a much more open-ended, variable and interactive medium than cinema, means that gaming has the potential to offer a much greater range of experiences to the player and so can allow us to view the world in many new ways.

Sadly, most gaming experiences are still shackled by cinematic tradition, instead of embracing those things that are unique to gaming.

Cut-scenes and textual exposition still seem to be the preferred ways for game creators to tell a story, instead of trying to integrate storytelling and gameplay (which can be a vastly more powerful narrative tool.)

Less than 15 years ago, developers were still regularly creating new genres and revolutionising the existing gameplay experiences, which isn’t something we often see nowadays. Looking at the gaming line-ups of the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3, we mostly see ‘next-gen’ versions of the same old games that we’ve played before.

Has gaming then reached a plateau of sorts? Will all future games simply be refinements rather than revolutions?

Much of the problem lies with publishers, as apparently only three-in-ten games are making a profit, this has forced publishers to be more conservative and to stick to tried-and-tested formulae. Sadly, it’s been the case that original concepts tend to lack commercial success, and whilst gaming is more of a business than an art-form, then money is king.

The hope for innovation may lie with the smaller enterprise, the indie studios more concerned with realising a creative vision than ensuring profit margins. Here we look towards Xbox Live Arcade, Wiiware, XNA and Playstation Network as bastions of un-stifled talent.

Unrestricted by the hardware limitations of yesteryear, the sky is potentially the limit for these determined visionaries. Sure texture-mapping, dynamic lighting, Hi-Def visuals, anti-aliasing and stupendous polygon counts are nice, but lack of these elements needn’t be a barrier to creating an excellent game.

These opinions may seem a tad pessimistic, but of course there are always exceptions to any rule. Boom Blox shows how a game can be built around motion-control. Braid shows how a mature and thought-provoking narrative can be integrated with the game-world, and forthcoming titles like Mirror’s Edge continue to create new sub-genres.