Grand Theft Auto 5. Persona 5. Call of Duty 4. Civilization 6. What do these titles have in common? They are all AAA, and they are games from long-running franchises. A collective sigh can sometimes be heard when we get to the numbers at the end: “Another one? AAA don’t innovate anymore.”. Indie games, however, benefiting from smaller monetary risk and more creative freedom, are able to bring to life concepts seldom seen before. Is innovation now exclusive to indie games, or can AAA compete?
Games are a form of self-expression, and therefore can be a medium to tell innovative kinds of stories – even when very gritty or controversial. Similarly, they can focus on finding new forms of gameplay, not necessarily explored previously, that can challenge players in new and unexpected ways. AAA production, dependent on funding, shareholders and usually comprised of very large teams, may find such content too risky to attempt – if the game doesn’t sell or alienates a large audience by proving to be too niche, consequences could be disatrous. Indie games, however, can be a very advantageous breeding ground for this type of content: indie production requires less money upfront, is comprised of smaller teams, and has the creative freedom that a large business may not have: if a game doesn’t sell, millions will not be lost and the team can try again. Ultraviolent game with a 1980s aesthetic (figure 1)? Short game about the horrors of war for everyday citizens? A remake of a 1990s farming game? Graphics paired down to the main character being a cube? A game about language without any words? It’s all possible, and even encouraged, in a world where creators showcase their “pushing the envelope on what video games can do” (Washenko, 2015). When considered this way, why look at AAA for innovation?
One initial answer might be to look at technology. AAA, due to their monetary advantage, have more means to innovate technically: Virtual Reality, expensive and beautiful game engines, long and complex games, and beautiful art aplenty. A great example of this is the Nintendo Wii , the first console to offer motion control (figure 2) – a trend that is still in gaming 11 years later. Nintendo is also accredited for popularising gameplay innovations such as Asynchronous Gameplay, which they define as “multiplayer gaming in which players are experiencing the same game very differently” (Herold, 2016). Is this the only way AAA can innovate, however?
Over time, games have suffered from a lack of diversity, featuring largely male, white, and heterosexual characters. Challenging this status-quo was no small affair, but was successfully heralded by BioWare, a… AAA company. David Gaider, previously a lead writer at BioWare, explains that “it’s something the team pushed for, because it “needed to happen”” (Gaider, 2015). This implies that in some cases AAA may be willing to take risks, and may not be as removed from innovation as one might think.
Consider a game being a fusion of pinball and war game, set on a medieval Japanese battlefield, and voice-controlled. An innovative, never seen before and goofy concept that sounds like a perfect candidate for an indie game! Except… this was AAA game Odama (figure 3), developed by Nintendo in 2006 (Nintendo, 2017). The game, while not a critical success, was a great example of a large AAA company taking a gamble on gameplay itself and putting creativity first.
In conclusion, is innovation exclusive to indie games? No. Put simply, there are different kinds of innovation, and there are game designers trying to push the medium in every corner of the gaming industry. It’s up to us, gamers, to remove the blinkers and to enjoy all the wonderful content available to us!
Gaider, D (2015), ‘BioWare Writer Talks Gay Romances and Sexual Diversity in Gaming’. Interviewed by Eddie Makuch for Gamespot. Available at: http://www.gamespot.com/articles/bioware-writer-talks-gay-romances-and-sexual-diver/1100-6427587/ (Accessed 3rd March 2017)
Herold, C (2016), Lifewire, ‘Asynchronous Gameplay ‘. Available at: https://www.lifewire.com/asynchronous-game-play-2498315 (Accessed 3rd March 2017)
Nintendo (2017), ‘Odama’. Available at: https://www.nintendo.co.uk/Games/Nintendo-GameCube/Odama-268489.html (Accessed 3rd March 2017)
Washenko, A (2015), Mashable, ‘6 indie games that pushed boundaries at E3’. Available at: http://mashable.com/2015/06/25/innovative-indies-e3-2015/#CDwbDQpjlsqP (Accessed 3rd March 2017)
Cassandra (2014), YouTube. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vm7T2y2bVAE (Accessed 3rd March 2017)
Hotline Miami (2015), IndieHaven. Available at: http://indiehaven.com/hotline-miami-2-wrong-number-review/ (Accessed 3rd March 2017)
Odama (2017), Nintendo Life. Available at: https://www.nintendolife.com/games/gamecube/odama/screenshots (Accessed 3rd March 2017)
Wii (2008), Destructoid. Available at: https://www.destructoid.com/good-idea-bad-idea-wii-motion-controls-68766.phtml (Accessed 3rd March 2017)