The delusion of innovation in videogames
When the first videos of PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale launched, some negative comparisons to it being a Smash Brothers clone immediately began. It got me thinking, why is it so bad that All-Stars is similar to Smash Brothers? It wasn't until the release of Resident Evil 6 that it confirmed to me that a terrible trend has formed in gaming, both inside and outside of western media and fandom. We, as a gaming community, ask for something but we don’t know what we are asking for. We ask for innovation but don’t actually know what innovation really means. We want our cake and the ability to be able to eat it too.
The word innovation is defined by the dictionary as “something new or different introduced.” There is nothing special about the word, and all the word means is ‘something new’. But why do gamers of this console generation eat up that word like it was the be-all and end-all of gaming? Numerous websites write reviews and commentaries using that word like it could make or break a game, that it’s worth is solely dependent on it. But at the same time they fall within an inherent hypocrisy generated by the word, for everything new is technically and strictly innovative. Yes, that is not the spirit of the meaning, but the spirit has become so corrupted through overuse this generation that it has made people delusional for a holy grail that cannot be accomplished. Let us rewind back to the early 1990s.
PlayStation All-Stars may be similar in some ways to Smash Bros, but so what?
Everyone will agree that the SNES/Genesis era of gaming was a golden age of competition and innovation for video games. New titles and products were being put on the market at an incredible rate, so much so that old-school magazines didn't have enough pages to preview and review them all. But that generation of games was also the most cloned generation out of any. Nintendo and Sega were held aloft by their stranglehold over exclusivity. Want to make a series for us? It can only be for us and not the other guy. Sports games aside, almost all of the great games from that era are platform specific, and companies would be forced to create new IPs. This is where the disconnect between spirit and strictness comes about.
Final Fight was a hit for the SNES but it was exclusive to that system. What does Sega do? It makes Streets of Rage. Looking at the two games play in split-screen, can you name what is ‘new’ or ‘different’ about the two series? The games are both side-scrolling beat em’ ups, have multiple characters, the same basic attack animations, and take place in random locations. Aside from the character models and music, what is ‘innovative’ about either game? They are both essentially the same game but are different enough to be considered unique. Even two multi-platform games like Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat are essentially the same game. The differences between them are cosmetic, but both are two of the greatest fighting franchises in the history of the medium.
Dining out on the same Dynasty Warriors formula for years
So what about All-Stars and Smash Brothers? Both look the same, have the same kind of combat system, same multitude of characters taken from multiple game series, and one is obviously inspired from the other. What is the problem? If Streets of Rage copying Final Fight, Mortal Kombat copying Street Fighter II, Silent Hill copying Resident Evil, and so on through previous generations was okay and praised, why has it suddenly become a bad thing in this generation? No one cared in those days because the demographic just wanted fun games, but more importantly the gaming media was different.
The power of the media in 1994, as a random example, compared to 2012 is on a different stratosphere. Game Players, Game Pro, EGM, and maybe a few other magazines were where people got their big news and information about games from. Now, with the rise of the internet and anyone being able to make a website, everyone and anyone can be a mouth piece for any topic, at any time. In the SNES and PS1 days, with such limited space in a monthly magazine, they had different priorities. Innovation was still a keyword but it was a small piece of a big puzzle, instead of the puzzle it has now become.
I mentioned Resident Evil 6 in the beginning because this is where the disconnect between delusion and reality with innovation becomes apparent in contrasting with All-Stars. Even before the game was released, and people only had a demo to play from, the complaints started to pile up. “Why can’t they make it like Resident Evil 1?”, “I hate how it became a third-person shooter”, and “Why does everything have to become a Call of Duty clone?” But the game used to be survival horror and innovated to be action horror, and now it has innovated again to be action with zombies. Isn't innovation supposed to be a good thing if parts of the western media and fandom are to be believed? If the Resident Evil 1 style was so good, then why didn’t Resident Evil 4 and 5 go with the same formula? The answer is critics and fans will accuse it of not being cutting edge enough and that Capcom is running out of new ideas. We complain when one game is a clone of what we love, with All-Stars, and then complain when another game does not continuously clone what it used to be, with Resident Evil.
Being innovative is not a wonder drug for making a great new IP, as there are lots of new IPs on the market every week. Some are good, some are bad, and beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The western media needs to come to grips with using the word properly. What does innovation mean? Is it the spirit of the word meaning something completely new and not seen before? If that is the case then praising sequels like Halo 2 and 3, which are clones of the first, while denigrating the Dynasty Warriors series for being a series of clones, is completely hypocritical. Is it the strict definition of the word meaning anything that is new? If that were the case then games that draw inspiration from others, like PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale, should not have to worry about being considered a clone and will instantly be praised for drawing inspiration from an already successful franchise.
The western media and fans need to stop with their infatuation with innovation and embrace a gem of the past called fun. That is what games are supposed to be, fun. They can be a movie masterpiece like Metal Gear, a horror screamfest like Dead Space, or the good, the bad, and the ugly, like Red Dead Redemption, but the most important factor should be: was the game fun? If the game was not fun then being innovative is pointless since no one will play it, and conversely if a game is fun then being innovative is still not important because gamers are enjoying themselves. A game should be viewed for what it is as it is played, not a notion of what it could or should be. That is why we make sequels and clones. Something successful can be tweaked to see if it creates the same magic.
Written by - Dane Smith, Japan editor for PlayStation Universe. When not out on the streets of Nagoya wondering why no one is looking for a Yakuza-style showdown, he can be found cracking open the newest RPG to hit the shelves. You can follow him on Twitter or read some of his past musings.