Any piece criticizing “the state of gaming today” is bound to be met with a few eyerolls. Am I so arrogant as to believe that I can provide a comprehensive and cogent takedown of the video game industry? Hardly. So let me preface this post with a bit of positivity: video games today are damn impressive. They’re not just about shooting swarms of generic enemies in repetitive environments anymore. Today’s games are grand and cinematic, sometimes even playing like interactive films. What was once the realm of a few hobbyists working on ten-person teams has become a billion-dollar industry. Could you have imagined a decade ago that actors like Liam Neeson and Martin Sheen would be lending their voices to top-selling video games?1 I don’t think so.

Yet for all the cash that’s being pumped into the industry, the amount of tangible innovation is remarkably low. Yes, sound design is rapidly approaching realism, and graphics continue to get better and better.2 However, basic core gameplay mechanics have remained the same for the past couple of decades. Games fit into a few distinct categories – e.g. shooters, racing, fighting, strategy – or sometimes, they combine a few categories. New categories are rarely introduced. Even within categories, there is little real change. The “WASD to move, mouse to look around” paradigm is so firmly entrenched in gamers’ minds that to suggest an alternative control scheme would be blasphemy.3

So now, we’ve reached a stage where games are becoming increasingly ambitious in scope, art direction, and story, but there is little to no innovation on the actual gameplay front. After the jump, I’ll take a look at the possible causes for this phenomenon and the implications it could have for both the gaming industry and gaming culture if it were reversed.

In my view, there are two main root causes for the dearth of gameplay innovation in video games: persistence and risk-aversion.4

Simply put, persistence is the notion that game developers produce the types of games that they do because those are the types of games that they play. The reason that there are so many first-person shooters is because there have always been a lot of first-person shooters. It requires less imagination to make incremental improvements to an existing genre than it does to invent an entirely new one. Thus, the same types of games are produced continually. Though this explanation by itself is surely the cause for some of the lack of innovation, I feel as if there are enough imaginative people in the gaming industry that it alone isn’t adequate. There must be quite a few novel ideas out there, but…

…getting people to support them is another matter entirely. Today’s AAA games are multi-million-dollar investments. If such a game doesn’t sell well, then it represents a loss of a huge magnitude for the game’s publisher. So instead of taking a risk on innovative new game ideas, publishers tend to focus their energies on games that they’re pretty sure will sell, hence the abundance of virtually indistinguishable shooters and RPGs, not to mention the sheer number of sequels, prequels, side stories, etc. If a game can set itself apart from the pack by being sufficiently different in setting or scope, then it stands a chance of becoming a top seller, despite the fact that it introduces no new gameplay mechanics.

Even indie developers seem reluctant to undertake any real innovation. The games they produce don’t cost millions of dollars, but they’re too small to afford project failure. So they set themselves apart from the AAA crowd by producing quirkier or more stylistically adventurous games, while not really bringing anything new to the table.

Gamers themselves are partially to blame as well, and I’ll freely admit that I’m part of the problem. Gamers know what they like. For instance, I have a strong preference for 3D platformers (e.g. Psychonauts) and shooters with RPG elements (e.g. Deus Ex). I’m not a big fan of hardcore fantasy RPGs. (Oblivion is lying on my hard drive, collecting virtual dust, having only logged a 3-hour play time. I’ll get around to completing it…one day.5) Games can be expensive, with new ones costing upwards of $50. I’m not going to waste my money on something that I may not enjoy. I’ll drop a wad of cash on Bioshock Infinite because it looks like something that would appeal to me, but the new Elder Scrolls game is going to have to be something really special if Bethesda wants me to fork my money over to them.6 By that same token, I’d be reluctant to spend a lot of money on a completely novel gaming experience that I might hate, and I imagine that many others feel the same way. If no one has played a certain kind of game before, then very few people are going to be willing to take a risk by spending money to experience it.

So we’re stuck in a never-ending cycle: gamers play the types of games that are produced, and designers make the types of games that are played, and so on and so on. How do we break out of it?

Honestly, I don’t know.

Short of being patronized by really rich people who are willing to throw their money away for “the arts,” I don’t see how developers could be encouraged to undertake financially risky projects. And let’s face it, video games aren’t like sculpture or orchestral music; they just don’t have the same kind of cultural currency.7 If video games are ever going to be considered “high art,” it won’t be in my lifetime.

That’s a shame, because as much fun as video games are now, they’re all starting to blend together into a sort of formless gaming murk, especially with so many games blending different genres together. Take Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, for example, which mixes open-world gameplay with a third-person shooter, as well as elements of stealth,8 racing, and role-playing. Ten years from now, we might not even be able to tell video games apart!

Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but it speaks to how much I want to see something truly novel hitting (virtual) store shelves. For instance, what would a second-person shooter look like? I’d imagine it would involve ordering someone around to do your bidding or something like that. Or how about a legal simulator? You’d get to represent clients in a virtual court, or even play as a judge and bang the gavel of justice!

I know those ideas are terrible, but hey, I’m not a game designer. I’m not paid to come up with these things for a living. But I wonder what would happen if the people who do design games for a living were allowed to let their imaginations truly run wild. What kind of weird and wonderful games would we get? I’d imagine that we’d see truly revolutionary games, like SimCity and Portal, a lot more often.

I write all of this not because I’m disappointed with the current state of gaming. In my lifetime, we’ve gone from lo-fi 2D sidescrollers to veritable interactive films, text-based management games to real-time 3D simulators, bird’s-eye RPGs to fully immersive open-world games. Gaming today is better than it has ever been. But what it lacks is a true spark of imagination, the ability to astonish and dazzle. Allowing developers the freedom to build entirely new genres of games would be the best way to capture that spark.

1 Fallout 3 and Mass Effect 2, respectively. ^

2 As far as character models go, though, I’d say we’re now firmly in the uncanny valley, but the teenage boys who drool over Mass Effect 2’s Miranda Lawson might disagree. ^

3 I suggest RDFG, which would leave your pinky freer to press more keys quickly rather than reaching right across the keyboard with your thumb or index finger. You probably think I’m nuts. In any case, shifting your left hand over two keys isn’t exactly what I had in mind. I’m talking about a completely different control scheme. The old MechWarrior games – remember those? – had a control scheme that involved using the number keys to control your speed, but it was awfully clunky. A streamlined version of something like that could be fun to use in an appropriate context. ^

4 The terminology employed here isn’t necessarily intended to parallel the economic literature, but the analogy is available should you wish to use it. ^

5 Well, apparently one can never “complete” Oblivion, per se. But I guess one can finish the main quest. ^

6 As far as I can tell, Skyrim has dispensed with the faux-English accents of Oblivion, but…”arrow in the knee.” Also, bugs galore. I can’t take Skyrim seriously. Sorry, folks. ^

7 But at the risk of getting into semantics, they’re still “art.” Sorry, Ebert. ^

8 Yes, there are a few missions in that game that require stealth. (Or are at least much easier to accomplish with stealth.) ^