We usually base our Game Buzz pieces on recent news stories, but our shiny new discussions feature has provided us with a source of gaming debate directly from the people who really matter: real gamers. This week, we'll be expanding on some of the issues brought up here - and we can't wait to see what our new forums have in store over the coming months!
Innovation is dead.
At least, that's what many people would have you believe. It's a no-brainer on the face of things, as First Person Shooters continue to glut up the marketplace, racing developers sink into the financial quagmire and larger publishers continue to milk their franchises for every last drop of potential profit. Sequels and spinoffs have started to dwarf original IPs in terms of sales and public interest, and even stalwarts of our industry are starting to cut corners and homogenize everywhere you look. Hype and publicity jades and demeans us at every turn, making us wonder whether anything new can ever come out of our medium.
But don't believe a word of it, dear reader. Innovation is very much alive - just as much as it ever was - but you're looking in the wrong place. To find it, you'll need to take the initiative, get up off your sofa and put a little effort in.
Yes, the triple-A market is no longer the source of new exciting ideas that it once was, but it's absolutely unrealistic (in fact, it's unfair) to expect it from them. The gaming landscape has changed over the last thirty years, even the last ten years, and what was once a fledgling hobby is now a billion dollar industry with massive overheads and genres that have fully evolved. Big companies like Activision and EA have to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds just to achieve the graphical competence we demand in this day and age, meaning that it's simply not viable for them to risk massive financial losses on left-field concepts that might not sell. They're accountable to shareholders, not gamers, and it's sadly the acceptable cost of doing business.
The need for AAA innovation has also died out. To torture a metaphor, cars and planes went through a huge number of bizarre and ridiculous evolutions as technology improved, but today they're all incremental variations on a model that works and that we're comfortable with. It's the same with games, and again, it's just the state of play. With so much at stake, we couldn't have it any other way.
The triple-A industry isn't entirely bereft of innovation, of course, and we pretty much have Ubisoft to thank for that. Guillemot and co are always willing to take a punt on new ideas, Indie titles and auteuristic insanity - and Assassin's Creed is an exceptional case in point. Can you imagine EA or Activision green-lighting a melee centric sandbox game set in medieval Jerusalem, all of which is inside the fever dreams of a 21st century bartender? They'd have been laughed out of the boardroom.
As a general rule, though, you won't find innovation in the AAA console market... but that doesn't mean that it's somehow dead or disappeared. The problem, dear reader, is that many of you are content to sit back and moan about the state of affairs without actually looking in the right place. To find the one source of revolutionary new gameplay ideas, to cut through the hype and immerse yourself in the next evolution of our medium, you'll need to get off the chart shelves and delve into the independent scene.
You've got to Go Indie.
The Indie Scene has gone from strength to strength over the last few years thanks to the increasing number of digital distribution services. Independent and boutique developers are freed from the restrictions enforced by stockholders and analysts, letting them explore the very boundaries of what gaming can offer ... and shatter them with gleeful, reckless abandon. Us journalists are doing an abjectly awful job at giving them the exposure they deserve (sorry), but far from being the silly, alternative and "quirky" (God, I hate it when people say that) diversion that many gamers and even some of my peers believe it to be, Indie development is nothing less than the most important source of innovation that our medium could hope for. And one that's on course to explode into the mainstream in the next couple of years.
Examples abound, but to illustrate my point, I only need to look at the last six months. Solar 2 lets you create and destroy the universe, forging star systems and black holes out of space junk. Inside A Star-Filled Sky lets you delve into fractal infinity. Terraria presents a wonderful hybrid between Castlevania and Minecraft. Fotonica provides us with free-running wireframe glory for less than the price of a bus ticket. And Frozen Synapse destroys and rebuilds the turn-based strategy genre into an accessible, tense experience that challenges every convention in the book. These games retail for a fraction of their AAA counterparts, yet deliver new and exciting ideas that literally resemble nothing you've ever played before. And I've barely scratched the surface.
You can find indie innovation on consoles too - and I know that many of you gorge yourselves on the varied offerings that XBLA, PSN and the Xbox Live Indie marketplace have to offer. Even Sony readily admits that the industry would stall without the innovation from these brave developers - and pledge to support them as much as possible.
So next time you find yourself despairing about "clones" and "hype," don't be a hypocrite. Get on Steam, get on Desura, get on IndieCity or the Xbox Live Indie channel. Go Indie. You'll never look back.