From the Trenches: Whither Innovation?

The clock can still be heard striking seven as William Ambrose De Geeke bursts from his bedroom and charges downstairs, seven-year-old eyes aglow with the gift-laden promise of another Christmas morning. A frantic blur of tangled feet and garish yellow Poke-sleepwear, he charges past his still groggy parents and into the warm glow of the De Geeke living room.

Ignoring his mother’s belated proffering of a hearty breakfast, Billy heads directly for the gigantic gaudy pile of presents nestled beneath the well-worn family tree. Eyes wide and fingers twitching, Billy dives into the pile like a thing possessed, his frenzied searching sending gifts of all shapes and sizes hurtling around the room like so many plastic balls on senior bingo night.

“Not this one… nah, that’s not it… this one’s too small… wait a second… YES!”

Billy throws an enormous package to the floor, attacking it with the focused destructive intensity of a starving cannibal army. Torn strips of red and green wrapping rise from the package in a festive fountain, each ornate strip a barrier between Billy and the object of his frenzied desire. Finally, the toy is pulled free of its festive shackles and thrust triumphantly into the air.

“YES!”

Mr. De Geeke enters the room, gazing on in bemusement as his son runs hyperactive circles around the room, favorite new toy held proudly aloft.

“Hey, isn’t this the same thing that we got you last year?”

“No way dad, it’s totally different. The eyes glow blue now, not red, and the gun shoots Digi-pellets, not those dumb old Poke-ones.”

Shaking his head, Mr. De Geeke returns to the kitchen, muttering something about 75 lousy dollars.

Any gamer who has returned home from the software store, brand-new game clutched tight in his or her sweaty little hands, is likely to have been in a situation remarkably similar to that of Billy’s paterfamilias. Far too often, that aforementioned hot new game turns out to be little more than a retread of a remake of a classic idea, a few shiny new baubles grafted onto its unavoidably stale surface.

Videogame innovation is rapidly descending to an all-time low, with each successful title spawning countless imitators, sequels and spin-offs in less time than it takes to microwave a copy of Vampire Hunter D. In a situation remarkably similar to the videogame glut of ’83-’84, store shelves are being flooded with generic crap at an alarming rate, drowning the few inventive titles in a deluge of complete and utter mediocrity.

While this “remake, remodel” school of design is nothing new, never has it been more inexcusable than in today’s age of 128-bit wonder machines. Developers now have access to technology capable of pushing more polygons, performing more complex calculation and generally kicking more ass than ever before. Yet, for the most part these incredibly powerful tools are being used in the most unimaginative way possible, producing more of the same crap in a new, high-poly package.

It’s almost as if most developers are afraid of innovation, scared that producing something new will drive away their game-hungry public. Why is this? What are the factors that keep these developers from producing something new and different each and every time? Well, after extended discussion with some of our more respected forum elders, I believe that we at Trenches may be able to answer that most pointed of questions.

The first, and perhaps largest, problem is that innovative games tend to not sell nearly as well as their more mainstream competitors. Sad as it is to say, unless a “non-standard” game can be linked to a well-known design entity, such as Miyamoto or Kojima, it’s unlikely to shift all that many units. The inarguably brilliant Silent Hill is a perfect example of this conundrum — while Konami’s unique horror title sold respectably, many far less innovative titles, most notably Resident Evil: Nemesis, eclipsed it financially.

There are multiple reasons for this: PR hacks that don’t know how to hype something they don’t understand [Ed Note: See ad campaign for Fear Effect 2, “It has boobies!”], publishers who would rather bet their budgets on a known quantity and, biggest of all, the fact that videogames are an expensive investment for the end user. Simply put, most gamers felt far safer going with a known brand than risking their hard-earned dollars on something new and different. Consequently, just as we will continue to see derivative crap like Save the Last Dance or Gone in 60 Seconds rocket to the top of the box office, tried and true videogame concepts will continue to outsell their more innovative competition on a daily basis.

This, in turn, brings us to our next problem — the ever-increasing cost of game development. As technology advances, the required resources for videogame production increase exponentially while sales remain roughly unchanged. Faced with drastically reduced profit margins, developers are left with two equally unpleasant options: innovate and risk going bust, or churn out mainstream pap until the next big thing comes along.

Of course, it would be somewhat myopic of me to blame the dearth of originality in the videogame market entirely on either gun-shy consumers or the Hugo Boss suited executives they support. Shockingly enough, those long-suffering game developers must also bear their fair share of responsibility for this sad state of affairs. For, alongside those hordes of dev-hacks perfectly willing to produce knockoffs at the lowest possible price, there sits a group of developers undermining the cause of innovation through the sheer fact of their own incompetence.

These are the second stringers who, while on their perennial quest for radical new paradigms,” have managed to confuse being different with, well, being good. For every Art Dink or Sega, successful innovators whose games remain fun no matter how different they are, there are a hundred “wacky” developers who couldn’t manage to produce a good game if Shigeru Miyamoto himself descended from the heavens and bestowed it upon them.

Consequently, innovation-seeking gamers get sick of blowing 50 bucks on the latest “innovative” failure and instead decide to invest their hard-earned money in the latest dependably semi-competent Tomb Raider sequel. By flooding the market with these half-baked ideas made silicon, such developers are doing far more harm than good to the innovation cause.

In the end, however, the future of gaming innovation rests firmly on our Dual Shock hardened shoulders. So, next time you find yourself with 50 spare dollars and the urge to game, do a little research before heading out to your local Software Etc. Read a magazine, talk to your friends, go online and try to find out what enjoyable alternatives there are to the latest Resident Evil sequel. After all, if enough of us start buying original titles, innovation itself might become the “next big thing.”

Now, head on over to the Forums and tell us what you think…

Poy Poy – A Sega Lookback

In the early ’90s, when Sega did what Nintendidn’t and NEC’s quirky Turbografix 16 was quickly becoming the cult console of choice, a little game by the name of Bomberman rose from NES semi-obscurity to become the geek-party game of choice. From the moment you popped that wafer-thin Bomberman hu-card into your humble TG-16, sleep was no longer an option. It wasn’t unusual for hopelessly addicted gamers to collapse from exhaustion after a hard night of explosive multiplayer action, wake up several hours later and pick up exactly where they left off. Forget Samba De Amigo, forget SSX — the original Turbografix version of Bomberman was pure addiction in digital form.

As the years rolled on and Bomberman grew from cult status to assuming the mantle of a full-on gaming culture phenomenon, the design gurus over at Hudson unwisely decided to fix what wasn’t broken. Subsequent updates of the classic title managed to transform the original’s near-perfect gameplay into a shallow, diluted mockery of itself. While a few dedicated gamers hung on out of sheer brand loyalty, most were driven away by Hudson’s meddling, leaving the once proud franchise floundering in a sea of poor sales and lackluster response from the gaming public. While many titles attempted to pick up where Bomberman left off, few have succeeded in coming anywhere near the sheer addictive simplicity of the original.

Few, that is, except for an obscure second-generation PSOne title from Konami, one that went by the rather unusual name of Poy Poy. While this quirky little game was conceptually quite divergent from the Bomberman tradition, its frenzied multiplayer action tapped into the same vein of sheer addiction that made Hudson’s classic so eternally beloved. Once again, socially active console gamers had something to feed their obsession, a game that would keep them awake for nights on end, hands fused to the joypad as they screamed obscenities at their equally obsessed co-conspirators.

At the most basic level, Poy Poy is little more than a gloriously cartoonish re-imagination of that age-old schoolyard tradition — the snowball fight. Up to four bizarrely deformed combatants are thrown into an equally surreal arena, packed with a seemingly endless selection of gigantic objects just ripe for the hurling. The resultant gameplay is frenetic beyond belief; players scramble frantically across the bird’s-eye-view gamescape, barely dodging a seemingly endless stream of lightning-quick projectiles while searching for the one precariously placed powerup that will gain them victory.

This is the sort of gameplay that the multitap was designed for, allowing four eager participants to go at it with a minimum of fuss and an almost nonexistent learning curve. By wrapping a somewhat innovative design in a familiar, almost Robotron-esque package, Konami ensured that Poy Poy was as accessible as it was unusual. Which in turn answers the question I was struggling to answer back in that greasy Los Angeles coffee house: What is different? What is innovation?

Innovation is the different wrapped in the familiar, allowing the user to take baby steps towards a bold new era of game design. Revolution is all well and good, but I’d be more than happy to settle for games like Thrust and Poy Poy until it comes along.

Special Thanks to 989Fanboy, Arch Storm, BigSky, ddaryl, Duplicity, Janus12k, JayTheFF, Kevs, keyth, LaRosa, Lunchlady Doris, Luthien, muntedman, OomPa, Psikoalpha, Morpheus, quarterstaff, $oNega Gaiden, Squiggs, The_Enigma and Zuppy for helping inspire this article.

Gameplay, Joypads – What’s the Difference?

Even in its mid-’80s heyday, Budget software remained an almost exclusively European phenomenon, gaudily packaged titles that sold at newsstands and software stores alike for little more than three bucks apiece, including tax and a candy bar or two. Unfortunately, while these games were considered something of a godsend for the cash-strapped geek-in-training, they were also almost unanimously awful in their content.

As the ’80s drew to a close, with technology and development costs increasing at almost every turn, the cheap and cheerful lures of budget software fell out of favor with the gaming public. Once prosperous labels such as Mastertronic, Codemasters and Budgie disappeared or rethought their focus, leaving behind a legacy of low-impact titles soon forgotten by the ever-hungry gaming masses.

Despite the low-budget, low-class origins of most of these titles, there were one or two games that managed to rise above their bargain-basement origins and become cult classics in their own right. Of all the quality budget titles that have earned a place in the hearts of penniless gamers everywhere, from BMX Simulator to Zybex to Dizzy, no game is more fondly remembered than the vaguely Gravitar-inspired Thrust, one of the most unique and frustratingly addictive games ever to grace a home computer.

As with all classics, Thrust is at heart an a incredibly simple game — players must steer their generic triangular spaceship deep into a series of gun-turret infested enemy caverns, snag a weighty fuel pod with their tractor beam and then lug the damn thing back to the welcoming expanse of the planetary surface. While this may all seem well and good, Thrust’s devilish designers threw a hefty monkey wrench into these otherwise quite simplistic works in the form of a remarkably detailed physics system.

Simply put, players must not only battle the enemy, but also the inexorable forces of gravity. Gamers point their wedge-shaped craft in a chosen direction, take a deep breath, and then gingerly apply just enough of the titular thrust to set the damn thing in motion. Given that much of the level design is both painstakingly intricate and heartlessly unforgiving, gamers are likely to spend about as much time being sent plummeting into cavern walls by the dead hand of Isaac Newton as they are doing battle with the ever-encroaching enemy forces.

Things get even more sadistic, however, when players finally bust their way through the level’s cavernous environs to grab hold of the aforementioned fuel pod. This dastardly device acts like Satan’s own pendulum, swinging in opposition to players’ every movement and slamming their fragile little space-wedge into the jagged walls without a moment’s notice. Needless to say, the return trip to the cavern entrance is by far one of the most harrowing gameplay experiences this side of Super Mario Bros’ ice world.

Despite being more aggravating than a whole basketful of Rubik’s Cubes, Thrust has managed to develop an obsessive cult following that lives on to this day. Its influence can be felt everywhere, from the classic inertia-dependent gameplay of FTL’s equally memorable Oids to the indoor shenanigans of Forsaken and the Descent series. In fact, one enterprisingly fanatical home developer recently produced a version of the game for Atari’s venerable 2600 console, bringing the title full circle and back to its eight-bit gaming roots.

While Thrust is definitely not for everyone, quick-witted gamers with a high tolerance for frustration and a desire to play something different should most definitely track down one of the many versions out there on the ‘net. You may be driven insane, leaving a trail of broken joypads and torn out clumps of hair in your wake, but you certainly won’t be disappointed.