A Dearth of Innovation

As a gamer, its very difficult right now to not know that Activision just released their newest Call of Duty game. Ads and voices for this game are everywhere. But should any gamer really be so excited for its release, or any upcoming shooter release? Sure, we might say, it has weapons all based on real guns in the real world. It has a plot about a weapon of mass destruction that could do terrible damage to America. It has bullet time action scenes!


Isn't it time that we got excited about something, I don't know, new? Yes, Black Ops has real world weaponry. Am I supposed to be impressed? Should any of us? About a month back the irony in this Penny Arcade strip really hit me. When did each and every FPS game become such a boiled down truth? It doesn't matter whether your playing the newest Halo or the oldest one, the newest Call of Duty or the oldest one, the entire game boils down to the mantra of "headshot headshot headshot".

The I saw this picture online and my brain started moving in other directions. You know what? That picture is almost completely true, and for the most part it is completely true. By and by a lot of FPS games have become dumbed down versions of their older counterparts. When did this happen? I started looking over games that I own and games that have been successful and realized that this isn't just a problem with shooters. It's all over the industry.

Take Starcraft II for instance. I've been putting a decent amount of time into it as of late, and I won't deny that it is a great game with a high amount of spit and polish over it (review forthcoming). But even as much as I enjoy it, I'm trying to figure out what its added to the RTS formula that's actually new. The single player has a few changes that are substantial, but these are omitted from multiplayer, and I quite honestly feel that you could simply mod Starcraft I into Starcraft II without much of a difference other then shiny graphics and a few new noob friendly changes that are all tossed out of the official games. In fact, several other innovative ideas implemented by other successful RTS games in the last few years have been ignored, such as armor facing.

When did this happen? Now that I've noticed this it really is a bit jarring. The majority of the new games coming out or that are out suddenly look a bit less appetizing as underneath all of that glitz and glamor, they're nothing more then the same game with a new coat of paint. What happened to the innovation that used to permeate the industry? Looking at it, I think we can pinpoint several problem areas:

1) We're Easy to Entertain: Notice something about the level layout for the modern FPS design in that link above? Keycards are replaced with cutscenes, locked doors are replaced with cutscenes, everything has been replaced with a cutscene. Or a scripted event. At some point, game developers realized that as an audience, we are sometimes very easy to please. Does anyone remember the air-boat helicopter chase cutscene in Half-Life 2? The three minute one? No? What about the four minute heavily scripted boss battle that followed? No again? That's right, because there wasn't one. Instead, the game let the player play through (what a novel concept) a half-hour long chase sequence that ended in a shootout between the players newly armed airboat and the helicopter. Compare this to the highly praised but short and scripted chase scenes of Call of Duty, where you can only shoot what the game wants you to shoot, when it wants you to shoot it, in the name of a cool scene. "But it was such a cool scene!" many say. When did five minutes of coolness overcome an hour of solid play? We're easily entertained people.

2) Game Design Has Been Simplified: We should have seen this coming. Once gaming budgets went into the millions of dollars it only made sense for developers to cut costs where they could. Unfortunately, many of them have cut those costs right out of the games themselves. It takes time to make a multi-tiered level and take players through it. And time is money. So those alternate routes? Gone. Those bonuses? Gone. That reduced price? Don't count on it!

3) Games Have Been "Balanced": Remember playing Perfect Dark, and how whoever got the superdragon first would just lay down smack? Or how whoever held one point on a level could just rock from that little room? Me too. Granted it wasn't exactly fun to be on the other end of the beat-stick, but for every level where someone could do that there were plenty of levels where they couldn't. And getting a superior weapon was a strategy. If you got it, you rocked, until everyone teamed you and took it away. But a bit of that is missing in todays games. Everything has met the cry of "Balance". Ever since online gaming became big in the 90s (yes consoles, computers had it long before you did) game developers have been more and more interested in making sure that everything is balanced and fair. In theory its not a bad idea, but in practical usage, it leads to some problems. Look at any modern RTS map. Its an asymmetrical mirror of itself. Developers can't be bothered to playtest maps that have even slightly different start zones and so boom, they make mirror images because that's fair. Sure, it's fair but it's also dull. Or in FPS games, where the spawning weapons must be equal to each and every single weapon in the game, leading to a generally uniform feel between most of the weapons.

4) Gamers Have Gotten Good: We headshot right off the bat now with unerring accuracy, only needing a few minutes to adjust to new controls. We start our races, our wars, our fragfest matches all looking for the boost, the nearest expansion, or the sniper rifle. We've played these games before, and we've gotten darn good at it. As long as nothing changes, we're only going to keep running for the shotgun/sniper rifle at the start of a match.

This may not worry you, but I am seeing this as a real problem. Games aren't changing the way they used to. Far too quickly we have settled into a rut of creative process, where what works once will work two, three, four, five, six, a hundred times. There's an old saying out there: Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. As gamers, we should be feeling ashamed of ourselves. We're perpetuating a cycle of symetry, that is, we're fueling the same games over and over again. Once in a while, we see something new and innovative, such as the cover system in Gears of War (which lead to hilarious multiplayer matches as a whole slew of gamers had to absorb the idea of cover=live, bullets=die) but more often then not we're simply shelling out new money for old ideas. We need innovation, and we need it soon. As we move forward, more and more gamers are going to notice that the new game they bought really isn't new, and they may just move away from anything thats a new coat of paint over and old idea. If we're nothing but old ideas, where does that leave us?

1 comment:

Time Enforcer Anubis said...

On the subject of headshots, I find the headshot mechanic in general to be a positive thing. Making the head weaker than the rest of the body adds a level of complexity. Shoot center mass and you get a higher hit chance, but you do less damage than a headshot. Shoot for the head, and the chance you'll miss is higher, but a hit will yield much more damage.

If you can make the headshot, there's no reason to shoot center mass. Simple as that.

As for map design, games like Doom are fundamentally different from games like Halo and Call of Duty. We're talking very fast-paced, very run-and-gun style FPS versus more tactical, take-cover-and-heal-up FPS.

Tactical-style FPS like CoD and Halo are just more conducive to more linear levels. The problem might be the fact that we haven't had a real big pure run-and-gun style FPS in a while.

We're Easy To Entertain
The previous was not, however, to condone the practice of taking control away from the player for extended portions of the game and using scripted events to (again) largely take control away from the player. While I do believe cutscenes are important to have, they shouldn't interrupt gameplay to the point where it's non-trivial.

Game Design Has Been Simplified
I've largely stopped expecting absolutely groundbreaking content from games like Call of Duty. It's a cash-in series by this point. The games are always solid at the very least, but expecting innovation from a series that they're basically keeping around because it prints money is a set-up for disappointment.

Games Have Been "Balanced"
I do remember when one player could sit in one room of the map and dominate. I don't play that game anymore because it's not fun, whether I'm winning or losing.

Balance is about more than just giving disadvantaged players a fairer chance. For players like me, who enjoy a challenge, it's driving to know that I'm actually at risk of losing, rather than know I can just travel to one corner of the map and dominate from there.

The point of balance is to start everyone off on the same or similar footing and facilitate a fair game, letting skill determine the winner.

Gamers Have Gotten Good
This is a good thing. More better gamers make for fiercer competition. Also, many good players do use weapons other than shotguns and sniper rifles. If the shotgun and the sniper rifle are the only good weapons in the game, that's a game design problem.

Revolution simply comes along less often than evolution, especially in extremely popular genres with massive casual fanbases.

I see this blowing over eventually, caused mostly by fans simply getting tired of it.