When you take a step back and look at the video game industry these days, there are very much two camps of people. No, not casual, and hardcore, you'll be pleased to hear, but those gamers who are passive about the state of the industry, and those who, are more perceptive of it and demand more. It would be easy to dismiss the passive camp, especially when those in the perceptive camp (myself naturally included) get on our high horses. But passive gamers have their place, and influence what games we see in our industry, so they cannot be ignored. And what that means in real terms for game developers is that they have a choice when it comes to their next game; safety or surprise.
Do they go bold, with new ideas and risk their fanbase, or do they play it safe and give the people what they know they want? You're probably already screaming at your computer screens the former, as by reading this, you're probably in the perceptive camp, yearning for a surprise. But is it really that simple? Or can we learn thing from a more safe approach?
If you give people 30 seconds to name some successful iterative gaming franchises, they could probably list off a fair few. Series such as Call of Duty, FIFA etc are more recent examples of an ever increasing gaming phenomenon, whereby games are churned out regularly with only slight tweaks to previous instalments. They sell like hotcakes, and those perceptive gamers with a high enough pedestal condemn them for ruining gaming. And so ensues 99% of all comments section arguing on video game forums. The other 1% left for discussing how awesome a HD Secret of Mana (no, were not counting the iOS spit and polish) would be. Clearly.
But if these iterations are so allegedly awful for our industry, then why do they sell so damn well? Firstly, there's little getting away from the fact that some people don't view gaming as a progressive industry, and more a means to an end for their entertainment needs. They couldn't care less about the success of indie developers or the progress made in a particular genre, as long as they can play the latest instalment of their favourite game every year. And for the record that's absolutely fine.
In fact it's better than fine, especially if you're a game developer, because it means you are in a very strong position; you know exactly what your consumer wants. And for any business that is extremely powerful stuff. Ask one perceptive gamer what they want, then ask 9 others, and you'll have 10 different directions that the next Sonic the Hedgehog game needs to take. And that not only breeds uncertainty for developers, but also it brings risk. Risk of not selling as many copies, risk of not hitting targets, risk of your career. It sounds drastic, but things can be that severe, and sometimes pandering to the whims of those who believe they know best is a dangerous strategy.
And let's not forget something else. Just because you've played the 57 other 2D Mario platformers doesn't mean that people new to gaming have. Having franchises means people newer to gaming can still join in on loved IPs without having to trawl bargain bins or searching endlessly on the internet. It's all part of gaming being more accessible. Releasing new games that seem like rehashes of older games, do not just tick the nostalgia box either. Not all people currently interested and enjoying gaming can be blessed with having experience of every worthwhile gaming moment of the last 20-odd years. We've all got back catalogues and piles of shame we mean to get cracking on, so it's no surprise that even the most ardent of us sometimes join a franchise later than the rest when a new instalment comes out.
So, sticking to tried and tested formulae certainly has it's plus points in terms of stability and familiarity, but what about the other side of the argument - the need for change.
"To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often."
Think about your fondest memories in video gaming. Your favourite games, your favourite moments. You'd think such a thing was very unique and personal to you. But chances are these games and moments are embedded in our memories because of one particular reason - they surprised us. And not in a jump-out-from-behind-the-curtain sort of way, but more of an acute surprise, something we weren't expecting, something we'd never experienced before. It could be a gameplay mechanic, it could have been some music, it could have been a whole genre you'd stumbled across. But the fact is when you first try your hand at something new, and you like it, that memory sticks with you.
And it's why if we're all honest, our favourite gaming moments aren't in Call of Duty: Ghosts or New Super Mario Bros U, because they're just iterative games that have exhausted tried and tested gaming formulae. They're not bad games, they've been played and enjoyed by millions, but as time goes by we probably won't remember them fondly as surprises - unless of course they were your first steps into that genre or franchise.
It's this surprise and excitement that veteran gamers - and therefore people with a passion for the progression of the industry - yearn for. We want game developers to mix it up and surprise us. As much as we try to predict what will happen next, Sony's dominance or Nintendo's demise for example, what we really want is to think one thing and then to be completely blown away by something totally unexpected.
No one predicted the Nintendo Wii for example. Many mocked the controller, many more mocked the name (I'll put my hand up to that one too) because it was different. But this change - and resulting surprise - blew everyone away. It was a perfect example of taking the entire industry and putting it on it's head, Nintendo being acutely aware of the potential appeal of such an intuitive control system. Kinect and Move followed and the rest is history.
So change is great right, it's exactly what this industry needs right? RIGHT!? Well yes, it is hard to argue against it. But then of course you have the Nintendo Wii U staring you in the face and suddenly change doesn't seem quite so glamourous. It's back to that risk factor again, and sometimes you win with change and sometimes you just 'pull an Ouya'. And that can be hard for developers because sometimes even their most thought-out and planned changes to our industry can fall flat, and sometimes it can be difficult to overlook the profit margins, and relative less stress associated with releasing the same software year after year for a guaranteed paycheck.
So what's the solution to this one then? Well as with most things, it's about balance, and a happy medium.
We need franchises to build loyalty and familiarity. Sometimes these need to be regular to facilitate changes in other entertainment industries (like say FIFA) and other times it's simply satisfying the demands of your audience (like say a Call of Duty game). But, what we also need to remember is franchises like Call of Duty may not have even been conceived if people hadn't taken risks. If developers didn't decide to push the boundaries of what we feel safe with and dared to surprise us. The step change from Call of Duty 3 to Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare was huge, and it's impact was even bigger. You don't win Dealspwn's Game of The Generation Award for nothing you know.
So when you're next engaging in that 99% of comment section arguments around the quality of a particular game. Remember that iterative franchises serve a great purpose to the industry, as do surprising breakthroughs. But each need the other to keep them in check. We need the stable games to create gaming catalogues to enjoy and for developers to understand what gamers want, which in turn allows them to feel more comfortable with their latest leap forward, to prevent those stable games from becoming stale.
It's a beautiful symbiotic relationship that has helped this industry grow, and we should welcome the two different factions rather than point out either's flaws. And besides, wouldn't we all rather be spending the whole time talking about Secret of Mana HD?