Iterations vs innovations

The two things in the title do not exclude each other, but for the sake of argument let’s consider them as two things that don’t exactly mesh. Why? Because when we consider video and computer game sequels, we often see both practiced quite a lot, and there’s no real cohesion which one the consumer prefers, but at the same time we can see both criticised for different reasons. That should already tell is that this is kind of tomato sauce case, where people are split in preference. As usual, there’s no real one way to go with things.

If we were to use examples of iterative games, perhaps the best example would be Super Mario Bros. and the Japanese Super Mario Bros. 2 that was got the Lost Levels name in the West. This Japanese SMB2 is an iterative sequel, intended to effectively be more of the same, a pro-player’s version with the stage design and difficulty kicked up a notch for those who found the first game to be lacking. Western Super Mario Bros. 2, which got the USA label in Japan later on, is innovative sequel in contrast, as it expanded the playable roster, the world, characters and mechanics that would be seen later on in the series. Yes, we are going to ignore Doki Doki Panic, and if we didn’t I could use the same points of arguments for Super Mario Bros. 3, which we could use as a third example of innovative evolution of the Super Mario Bros. trilogy of games on the NES. If we extent the lineage to Mario Bros. the innovations become clearer, as the sheer point of having well scrolling action game at that time was something of a marvel, something past consoles didn’t really do or do well. Even Pitfall, the game some would argue to be the best action game on an Atari platform, moved in screens rather than with scrolling. Computers at the time had a hard time to do scrolling well, which is very apparent how the games were structured as per-screen basis or had a chunky scrolling, like what Konami did with their MSX shooting games like Nemesis.

While the Japanese SMB2 is a good example of an iterative game, we’ll use something like Doom and Doom II as an example most people should know. We can extend to this to numerous WADS that simply add stages or weapons, and perhaps even to some total conversion and such, but at the core there will be the good ol’ Doom experience; Shooting demons and trying to save your bunny from being staked. Doom II is by all means a large expansion with new weapons and levels, which was the team exactly did. The levels in Doom II are far more expansive and intricate compared to the first game thanks to the advanced in basic hardware. The enemy type number was effectively doubled. For an original Doom experience, the second game and its later iterations are effectively a sort of Best Of version, though some hardcore purists would argue that the pure classic experience still lays in the first game. Pokémon falls into this category as well, effectively being unchanged since the first game. The series has no renewed itself at any point, which has been more or less why its spin-offs have played with some of the concepts a bit more.

Adding new stages, some new mechanics and weapons don’t really innovate anything; they’re adding things on top of the base that’s already there. Innovation requires that a game is thought again from the grounds up, where the basic premise of the core design is effectively blown apart and the best parts are picked up while discarding everything that didn’t all the while building something new. Innovation is to take a house and renovate it from bottom floor all the while you’re considering all the room framing and how the yard is. Iterative is effectively building a new garage. Sometimes all you need is a new garage and some good lick of paint, because not all innovation hits the spot.

There is safety in iterative games, as they don’t fix something that was already broken, though sometimes they don’t fix what was broken. To use Pokémon as an example again, its iterations are interesting in that each new entry creates a new side mechanic only to be forgotten and abandoned in the next. Seasons of the year still hasn’t made a return from Diamond and Pearl. To contrast this, Digimon games have been widely different from each other from time to time and how they play, both to its benefit and detriment, as the franchise doesn’t have a cohesive core. Super Mario Bros. is a franchise that has a cohesive evolution with its games that innovate, as they don’t simply change the games’ genre on the fly. Side games certainly do, and New SMB series has effectively been nothing but iteration after iteration instead of innovating how the series could play in 2D, despite 2D Mario still making the biggest bank out of the series.

Maybe there are franchises that don’t exactly require innovation as such without effectively breaking the game’s core design. Umihara Kawase is a platforming game that has always been about the rubber band physics action; how to get from point A to point B, or C or D. If you’re not familiar with this niche classic, check this longplay for few minutes to get the idea. The point of the game is to use physics and mechanics tied to the physics in order to clear a stage, and these elements were further polished with its PlayStation sequel, Umihara Kawase Shun. Except in its PSP release, which broke the physics completely. Sayonara Umihara Kawase added new playable characters, a time stopping stopping mechanic for one of them and few new things, but ultimately where this series’ concentration on the sequels has been in the level design. If the physics change even a bit, or of new mechanics are introduced, the stage designs can and must reflect this either with new geometry or with additional hazards and interactive stage elements. Changing the core gameplay has to be taken seriously with heavy consideration in order not to break the basic design. Umihara Kawase Fresh changes the series’ core structure significantly from stage-per-stage progression to open world exploration with story elements, quests and health management. Effectively, the development team has taken the same route as so many other 2D action game team, and made it action-adventure in fashion of Montezuma’s Revenge and Metroid. While on surface and as an idea this sounds like changing the genre altogether would be in lieu with SMB’s innovation path, we have to seriously question whether or not the series benefits from these changes and additions.

Innovation in itself does not necessarily mean change for the positive. You can innovate something, completely overhaul and change the core of things and be left with something that is broken and doesn’t work. Umihara Kawase Fresh may now be broken due to its additional mechanics and heavy emphasize on story compared to its previous iterations (in which Shun is still the best entry in the series) though at the same time we have to grant the game the benefit of the doubt that the developers are able to keep the core design and mechanics at the forefront and not overshadowed or hindered by the new additions. I’ll probably end up buying the game for a review rather than out of joy to get a new Umihara Kawase.

Innovating a game’s core gameplay to the point of changing a genre can also impact the consumer reception rather harshly, as was feared with Metroid Prime. While taken against the larger FPS crowd, Metroid Prime isn’t stellar material, but against the 2D Metroid titles it made the transfer to three dimensions all the while making stuff work as intended was nothing short of on point. We can argue whether or not Prime actually innovated anything or if it simply moved dimensions, but the rest of the series’ entries have been iterative. Nevertheless, the genre change the game had to carry with it was received relatively well. This might not go so well with niche franchises with a cult following. Shububinman as a series might’ve been changing with each entry, and despite being semi-popular in Japan, the series effectively died with the end of the 16-bit machines. Personally, I’m afraid the management mechanics and story emphasize in Umihara Kawase Fresh will effectively kill the game, though it might as well bring it to a larger audience that can’t handle a straight-up platformer nowadays. Perhaps this is one of those cases, where the developer thinks their game is “just” a platform game, that it needs to be more and slaps everything on top of it. I doubt many would choose a well made meal over haphazardly made five course dinner with raw bits everywhere.

The danger of innovating a product in a way that it backfires is rather common. Ultimately, very few corporation do straight up innovation without having multiple product iterations under their belt already, though some new companies make their breakthrough with something newfangled innovation that hits the consumers’ wants and wishes just right. Games are like any other product though when it comes to sentimental values and emotional attachment, and this extents to the gameplay, mechanics and even visuals. You can innovate something to be something completely new and you might even test well, but if you make an error in what the consumers value in your games and change those elements, you’ll end up like New Coca-Cola. Not every game franchise can innovate itself step-by-step and so many of them are expected to have only incremental changes in their iterations. If you play the first Super Robot Wars now, and then move to the latest one, you’ll see that almost thirty years of iteration upon iteration has transformed the game to something rather different, but still has that familiar game play. While companies have a large amount of research in how people attach themselves to names and faces, brands and such, I’ve yet to see any research on preference on game play mechanics and how they’re presented. Perhaps this is significant part enough for the game developers and publishers to put more attention into, and would possibly explain why Call of Duty and Battlefield titles alongside EA’s sports titles sell year after year despite their most common criticism being in not changing anything. The consumer just has that preference for it, and even positive innovation is met with a cold shoulder.

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