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The Irony of Innovation

Gamers often shout; ‘We want innovation, do something different!’ The irony is, actually they really don’t. They say they do but ultimately they vote with their wallets. And over the last five years or so the vote has clearly gone against innovation.

Nope, I’m not just making this up let’s look at some of the most successful multi-player games of 2010:

  1. Call of Duty Black Ops – 18.88m
  2. Wii Sports – 16.60m
  3. New Super Mario Bros. Wii – 11.31m
  4. Wii Sports Resort – 11.29m
  5. Wii Fit Plus – 8.87m
  6. Fifa Soccer 11 – 8.44m
  7. Halo: Reach – 7.55m
  8. Red Dead Redemption – 7.21m
  9. Kinect Adventures – 7.17m
  10. Pokemon Heart Gold/ Soul Silver – 6.39m

[Sales are cross platform Worldwide. Figures from VGChartz]

Out of all those products Kinect Adventures is the only new franchise that was launched in 2010, along with the widely promoted Kinect hardware. Every other product has had another iteration pre-2010. If you look at the top 20 there’s still only 1 new franchise launched in 2010, and looking at the top 30 there’s a total of 2 new products launched:  that’s 6%. Of course every few years or so you get a break-out success with something new like a Guitar Hero, Kinect or a new franchise launched like Assasin’s Creed. But these are increasingly rare.

Arguably World of Warcraft did so well because it was part of an existing franchise, in terms of innovation it was the most successful MMO of its generation but it wasn’t the first. It was an established brand visually and by name with the Warcraft franchise. Even the world of Azeroth was known to loyal Blizzardians. Much of the look and feel of the original RTS games was put into WoW, even down to certain icons and sound effect. So to a Warcraft fan everything had a very familiar feel. And even though every  Wow-fanboy now shouts that every MMO since WoW is a WoW Clone you don’t need to look too far back to see that WoW borrowed a great deal from the  MMOs that preceded it. The big difference being that WoW just did it way better than any MMO ever had before. On top of this WoW is firmly rooted in the Fantasy MMO genre.

Which brings us to another interesting aspect with innovation or lack of in MMOs; the only ones that have enjoyed substantial success have all been in a Fantasy setting, by this I mean, Elves, Orcs, Crossbows, Swords, etc… you get the idea. Eve has been the only exception to the rule here, the guys at CCP have done a tremendous job with persistent and slow but steady growth. You could maybe list City of Heroes and a couple of others that have done okay, but nowhere near on the scale of industry leaders. Every other MMO that’s tried to do something a little different has failed faster than you can say ‘server shut down’. Remember The Matrix Online, Star Wars Galaxies, APB, Auto Assault? Tabula Rasa? All games that tried to break out from the fantasy umbrella and do something a little different. Now, were they all amazing games? Probably not and the genre alone is not the root cause of their failure but my point is that the rest of the industry looks at these failures and takes note. No one is going to be developing another driving MMO in a hurry, so if gamers really want innovation they need to broaden their tastes a little and give more niche products the time of day. Otherwise publishers and developers will continue to play it safe, which in an increasingly competitive and fractured market you can’t really blame them for.

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