Ever since the early nineties, I have been hearing people say that there is not enough innovation in the games industry. Lately these voices have been getting stronger, as one can see from the reactions to Greg Costikyan's post-GDC rant.
Partially, I share these concerns. There have been many uninspiring clones and sequels, and many obvious techniques and improvements that have taken too long to be introduced. (Look at Zelda: The Wind Waker's amazing reactive character animation, and tell me how this could not have been done five years ago.)
However, I think a fair case can be made that some significant innovation has been taking place right in the middle of the industry, and it has come mainly from Japan and it is happening on consoles.
I don't want to make a simple-minded claim that Japanese developers are superior to non-Japanese, or that there is no innovation coming from non-Japanese or PC developers, but I think generally speaking, Sony, Nintendo and Sega have a better understanding of games as a market similar to movies, toys, or records - including the business need for innovation. Thus you get products such as Rez, Ico, Animal Crossing, Shenmue, Parappa the Rapper, and others which I will describe in more detail below. Each of these games, which all came out in the last few years, are innovative in some significant sense.
Chris Crawford has argued in the past that the difference between Hollywood and the games industry is that Hollywood will fund off-beat titles because they know they need the innovation, whereas the games industry will not. I am arguing that things are not as bleak as all that.
Sony made the development of non-hardcore games a part of their strategy about five years ago (here's an old, but good, CTW article about it). Eidos set up a special label just to publish quirky Japanese games in Europe and the US. (I also think Oddworld's games can be considered innovative: mass market games with a strong social message. I haven't seen that aspect mentioned a lot.)
And - shock horror!- I think the increase in production values and quality makes a significant qualitative difference to the player's experience. Yes, I'm talking about eye candy. Progress in technology is outpacing progress in games, people are approaching photorealism for current game types, and are therefore beginning to look for new things to differentiate themselves from other games. Look at the games from Nintendo and Capcom coming for Gamecube: although many use cel shading or other 'known' techniques, they all manage to develop strong individual styles. (I must add that at this year's GDC, Jason Rubin made a strong case for the opposite argument: that improvements in graphics will make diminishing improvements to the player experience. But I will leave the explanation of that paradox for another time.)
I think a lot of the aforementioned effects are signs of maturation in the industry. All the stakeholders (developers, publishers, players) know and are familiar with certain basic types of interactivity. Developers and publishers are getting more and more familiar with how to develop large 3D games (I think this partially explains the shakedown that is going on in the industry right now). It is no longer a Herculean effort just to ship a game, whether it's good or not. Most developers understand the tools at their disposal now. Now they must differentiate through content and style.
I am not saying the industry is mature: I just believe we have passed a certain point on a curve somewhere. I also hope and believe that maturation does not imply a slowdown of innovation.
I think I know the kind of innovation people such as Chris Crawford are talking about: strong innovation actually involving interactivity, and innovation in broader content matter. And it's true that that kind has been absent for a while. The question is whether that particular direction is so worthy that it makes the other forms of innovation going on right now worthless. (Which leads to the evolution vs revolution debate, which I will not go into here. But I will have more to say on innovation in the future.)
Please note that I am emphatically NOT saying that one form of innovation is superior and that it should be pursued at the expense of all others because it is a shining path to a better tomorrow. And I do realize that being inside the industry means I can mistake microscopic movements for momentous changes.
I believe all of these games were either critical or commercial successes, or both. Whether they made a profit or not is hard to say, even if one were to have sales figures. However, I do not think one can make the argument that these are a few feeble thrashings before innovation in the games industry was finally killed by the cruel hand of capitalism. Au contraire.
A company might get other advantages out of publishing games like these, apart from merely breaking even. I believe that to be a top publisher, you cannot focus exclusively on getting your money back (lack of time and marketing know-how preclude me from making a more sophisticated argument here). Some of these games generate a lot of good PR, be it in the mainstream press, in the special interest press or in the developer community (e.g. Ico). They can improve the image of a games platform and broaden the audience for games. And they can inject new ideas that, even though the original product might have failed, are then reused in other games (although the original developer and publisher may not reap the benefits of that).
Here are some of the games I'm thinking of:
Vib Ribbon, Mojibribbon (which has not yet and may never be released outside of Japan), Parappa the Rapper, its sequel Um Jammer Lammy, all from Masaya Matsuura. All of these games, while being simple in terms of interactivity, are hugely entertaining, make innovative use of music, and have non-standard art styles. Someone is obviously willing to give Mr. Matsuura money to make these kinds of games. (More info on him and on Um Jammer Lammy can be found here.)
Sega's Rez, produced by Tetsuya Mizuguchi. It does not seem innovative when analyzed solely in terms of interactivity. It's a shooter game, a clone of games such as Space Harrier and Panzer Dragoon. However, when experienced in its entirety, it becomes clear that the game's audiovisual presentation and the way it reacts to the player are unique. Mr. Mizuguchi talked about Rez at the 2002 GDC. It is clear that the innovation was not accidental - note the way the development process was adapted to the game. Rez won a Game Innovation Spotlight at the 2002 Game Developers Choice Awards. Mr. Mizuguchi also produced Space Channel Five, a rhythm game with a unique visual style. A sequel to Space Channel Five has been released in Japan.
Ico. In my humble opinion, the most innovative and beautiful game of the last few years. I will spare you my raving for now - suffice to say that it won a Game Innovation Spotlight and was awarded the Excellence in Visual Arts award at the 2002 Game Developers Choice Awards.
Nintendo's Animal Crossing. Basically an MMO game that is neither M nor O. Nintendo has a solid game development strategy that is focused on new forms of entertainment. Without this they wouldn't be where they are today.
Shenmue (and Shenmue 2). A special case of innovation: this is the most expensive game ever made. Yu Suzuki showed everyone what happens when you turn all the production values up to 11, and it makes a big qualitative difference to the player experience. Again, solely in terms of structure and interactivity, this game is fairly conventional. I think this is significant and intend to write about this in a future blog entry.
Silent Hill. A AAA title, one of Konami's top franchises, various sequels were or are being made. It was innovative in the way it moved the in-game camera, the interactive sound (that creepy radio), and the bizarre Lynchian story. Solely in terms of structure and interactivity, it's a Resident Evil clone.
Jet Set Radio. A AAA title, various sequels and ports were made. The subject matter and treatment were innovative.
Seaman, a highly bizarre game that sold a million copies (!) and to non-hardcore gamers to boot.
Disaster Report. A completely new angle on the survival horror genre.
There are many others: Mister Mosquito, Mad Maestro, Shadow of Memories, Animal Leader, Tail of the Sun... I'm sure there are many worthy games I've forgotten.
Ironically, Mr. Mizuguchi developed Rez in part because he felt a crisis of lack of innovation in the games industry. This is why it is good to push for more innovation, so that we don't get complacent. My point is not that we couldn't use more innovation, just that the situation is not as bleak as one might think.