Innovation: Indies vs AAA

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?

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Figure 1: Hotline Miami 2, not for the faint-hearted

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?

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Figure 2: the Wii controller, a small revolution

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.

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Figure 3: Odama, crazy stuff

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!


References

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)

Images

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)

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Casual Nintendo: the Blue Ocean Strategy

What are casual games? They could be described as quick and fun mobile, browser, or console games, easily played and understood. Because of their accessibility, these games are usually marketed at “non-gamers”, in other words people who are not traditional gamers and who don’t sink hours or days into games, but who could still enjoy gaming now and again. This genre is usually associated with small publishers or mobile developers, but one video game giant has famously dipped its toes in the casual market: Nintendo and their Blue Ocean strategy.

In the early 2000s, hardware competition in the gaming industry was rife. Sony was riding on the success of its acclaimed PlayStation consoles, followed with the PlayStation 3 in 2006. Microsoft, the computing giant, had entered the market with the Xbox and, in 2005, indicated it was here to stay by releasing its follow-up, the Xbox 360. Nintendo found themselves and in a bind: how could they retain (or regain) their market-share with their new 2006 console while competing with this increasingly sophisticated competition?

Nintendo turned away from technical escalation and chose instead to apply a strategy known as “Blue Ocean”. Perrin Kaplan, VP of Nintendo of America in 2006, explains this model in an interview: “Seeing a Blue Ocean is the notion of creating a market where there initially was none–going out where nobody has yet gone. Red Ocean is what our competitors do–heated competition where sales are finite and the product is fairly predictable.” (Kaplan, 2006) He then explains how Nintendo will now strive to make games for people who have never played games, or who may not like core gaming genres such as first-person shooters or role-playing games, adding on this subject that these games were “not the core of what we want to develop, but we do offer them” (Kaplan, 2006).

The result? A resounding success. This new Blue Ocean console, the Wii, sold over 100 million units (Nintendo, no date). Despite its technical inferiority, the Wii allowed for sensing devices, allowing the platform to release game genres never seen before. One of the Wii’s flagship titles, Wii Fit, came with sensing platform and prompted the user to do physical exercise, monitored and explained on-screen; the game sold 42 million copies worldwide (Hollensen, 2013). Nintendo released numerous titles based on family mini-games (Wii Sports) or petting animals (Nintendogs), all with great results.

However, this success was not to last eternally. By 2011, Sony and Microsoft had their own version of the Wii’s sensing device, and had regained their market share superiority over Nintendo (Hollensen, 2013). This shows that appealing to the Blue Ocean “new gamers” proved to be insufficient as the only growth incentive, unfortunately for Nintendo. With their following console, the Wii U, Nintendo moved back towards a hardcore gaming market, a strategy which resulted in the console selling a disappointing 2 million less units than expected in its first year (Hollensen 2013).

Has the Blue Ocean strategy damaged Nintendo for good by focusing on a casual market that proved to be lacking? Will their next console attempt a full swing back to its principles and attempt to attract yet more new gamers, or will it succeed in convincing hardcore gamers to pay attention? We should have the answer soon!


References

Hollensen, S (2013) ‘The Blue Ocean that disappeared – The case of Nintendo Wii’, Journal of Business Strategy, Vol. 34: 5, pp. 25-35. Available at: http://www.academia.edu/3254871/Hollensen_S._2013_The_Blue_Ocean_that_disappeared_-_The_case_of_Nintendo_Wii_Journal_of_Business_Strategy_Vol._34_5_pp._25-35 (Accessed 22 February 2017)

Kaplan, P (2006) ‘Nintendo’s New Look’. Interviewed by Rachel Rosmarin for Forbes, 7 February. Available at: http://www.forbes.com/2006/02/07/xbox-ps3-revolution-cx_rr_0207nintendo.html (Accessed 22 February 2017)

Nintendo (no date) ‘Hardware and Software Sales Units’ [online]. Available at: https://www.nintendo.co.jp/ir/en/sales/hard_soft/ (Accessed 22 February 2017)

Images

Wind Waker Ocean (2014) [image]. Available at: http://www.howtobeabettergamer.com/2014/07/11-years-later-i-finally-beat-wind-waker.html (Accessed 22 February 2017)