“Novelty vs. Nostalgia ” or “Innovation vs. Stagnation”
Micheal Denny heads Sony’s Worldwide Studios Europe (yes, a Worldwide studio for Europe). Speaking at Develop Liverpool yesterday, he says new intellectual properties (IPs) are necessary for the gaming business to thrive and to counter stagnation. He talked about a ot of other things as well, and you can read the full article here. But we will work with just the statement above.
It sounds like a fairly generic, obvious statement. Novelty and innovation go hand-in-hand with memorable experiences and awe-inspiring moments that challenge the very norms that define us as gamers.
But the truth of the matter goes deeper than that.
There are several new IPs in the last few years that have redefined genres, challenged existing modus operandi, and experimented with pre-existing formulas that both surprised and entertained. Mirror’s Edge and Assassin’s Creed are two examples that capitalized on the parkour phenomenon and introduced it, albiet with varying degrees of success, into the gaming arena. Assassin’s Creed’s repetitiveness aside, no other game allowed you to race parkour-style across rooftops, weaving, dodging, jumping, climbing through densely populated cityscapes with the same satisfying fluidity.
Another example is Left 4 Dead. It capitalized on America’s necrotic (necro-erotic?) fascination with the undead, and elevated it to breathtaking heights. (Literally. Remember ‘No Mercy’?) At the most basic level, you find weapons, you shoot things, you heal, you get from point A to point B. But the whole experience was moulded in a way that fed our most primal instincts when faced with near-impossible odds, and structured to reward teamwork rather than the ever-present lone-wolf gameplay. In short, it was the first memorable and lasting IP to explore the zombie genre, and it did so with elegance and style.
Then there are games which mix and match pre-defined and functionally distinct elements of the the gaming macrocosm, and produce something that is simultaneously fresh, yet oddly familiar. Borderlands, a first person role playing shooter game, is a great such example. Although I have some reservations with the game, it has challenged industry norms and brought to life interesting, deviating ways of combining age-old gameplay elements to create a fresh, unique experience.
Innovation even applies to taking the same old concept and applying a fresh twist to it, be it story, gameplay, control or any other aspect that defines the game for what it is. Dragon Age: Origins released three days ago in the U.S. It unlocks for me today (about bloody time). Although I have not played the game yet myself (not that it stops me from shamelessly singing praises about the it), I rest assured because industry veterans, reviewers, bloggers and players are awash with praise. Although BioWare is weaving a tale that the fantasy RPG genre is over-saturated with, Dragon Age: Origins’ “story is rich and engaging, the characters are memorable, and the journey is one that pulls you in, captivates you and compels you to move forward toward the conclusion.” In other words, despite utilizing a familiar setting, the game is designed to surprise fanss of the genre and throw elements into the mix that are both unexpected and against the grain.
Then there are games that innovate and surprise you in ways you never thought possible. Because prior to these games, the genre to which they belong simply didn’t exist. I am talking about Braid. There were moments where I just stopped, and stared at the screen in awe at how much love and energy and effort they had put into something so elementary and simple. A straight-forward platformer was transformed into a cerebral masterpiece that enthralled, amazed, and made you stop dead in your tracks.
And for any fan of Valve, the cake always was, and always will be, a lie. Can you think of any other game that made you fall in love with an inanimate cube?
There are countless other examples, but the bottom line is that innovation is what drives the industry forward, gives us novel, unexpected, at times mind-bending IPs to play, and justifies Micheal Denny’s statement. Mr. Denny may be striving for the Captain Obvious title, but he certainly drives the point home. However, that is only part of the story.
On the contrary, nostalgia plays a big factor in attracting an already dedicated fan base to a new iteration of an old IP. Warcraft, Command and Conquer, Metal Gear Solid, Diablo, Splinter Cell, Max Payne, Grand Theft Auto, Halo (and many, many more) are all examples of great games that relied on nostalgia and the success of the inaugural titles to attract additional revenue.
World of Warcraft is a global phenomenon. With the entire population of Earth, Vulcan, Tattoine and Caprica (that hurt your head?) acquired as the player base of the ever-popular MMO, Blizzard has created a behemoth that is practically impossible to dethrone. ‘The next WoW’ has been applied to countless MMOs released since, and none have achieved the success (at least in numbers and subscriptions) that WoW enjoys to this very day. I can’t help but wonder if the game would have been this successful if prior Warcraft titles had not existed. Would it be laughed upon? Would it be degraded as a shameless clone (I am looking at you Alganon!)? Would it never take off the ground? Or would everything remain the same? Regardless of the level of success WoW would enjoy in this alternate reality, my patented sixth sense tells me it would be nowhere near the level of success WoW is today, had it not been for the millions of avid followers of the IP.
The Call of Duty series is an interesting case study because it applies to both the novelty and the nostalgia sides of the argument. On the one hand, the series has capitalized on a massive base of rabid followers ever since the first Call of Duty hit the market. On the other hand, the series was redefined with Modern Warfare, a title that needs little introduction and speaks volumes about the level of innovation and effort that went into redefining this classic series on a whole new level.
The third rendition Max Payne, for the lack of a better word, looks weird. Max is fat, balding, in South America, and a mercenary for hire. It is almost as if someone designed a new game, and someone else stamped it with the Max Payne IP and course-corrected everything accordingly. But as a fan of the original Max Payne and it’s fantastic sequel, I know for a fact I will buy and play this game. I will not care what the reviews say, or what the screenshots look like, or how far removed Max will be from the familiar New-York-world-weary-cop setting. I will play this game with all the enthusiasm and wonder that I played the first two games with. I will remain loyal to this IP regardless of the vicissitudes of passing years or changing studios.
But the nostalgia factor isn’t limited to rehashing old game IPs in a new light. It also applies to leveraging a tried and true formula, rather than an IP. Consider Knights of the Old Republic. The game took the RPG formula BioWare has essentially and effectively perfected, and combined it with the nostalgic fan base of the Star Wars universe. Yes it was a pre-existing IP, but one that was not leveraged in the RPG gaming industry as such. The result was a product that won grand slam titles, scored high in every category, provided a fresh setting and gameplay, and secured its place as a classic for some time to come.
The most recent of these examples is Torchlight. The graphics looks cartoonish and severely dated. There are only three classes. And it ends too quickly. But it is an incredible experience, offers smooth gameplay and feeds on the far-reaching and widespread Diablo nostalgia that the gaming media has made no effort to hide.
One step forward, two steps back. Two steps forward, one step back.
What started as a ‘Thought of the Day’ post has turned into a 1,500 word piece juxtaposing novelty against nostalgia in contemporary gaming. In the end, I suppose I agree with Mr. Denny, but only in that his statement paints just part of the picture. Nostalgic experiences and revisited IPs are just as important to the genre as novelty and innovation. And in select cases, they can work hand-in-hand to create an unforgettable masterpiece.
Do you guys agree? Which side of the fence are you on? Can you think of some other examples that apply to the two dismetric opposites above?