Innovation Has Never Been the Cornerstone of the Video Game Industry

Illustration for article titled Innovation Has Never Been the Cornerstone of the Video Game Industry

As expected, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 is a huge seller and is breaking all kinds of sales records. It's been parodied on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and is being blamed for the loss of the Louisville Cardinals this past weekend.


The game has its fans and it has its critics, and in typical internet fashion the critics of something really popular are being very, very vocal about the game and the fans of it.

The number one criticism aims at the "lack of innovation" in the game and other first-person shooters out there today. One columnist went so far as to claim that MW3 is what is "wrong with the game business" and whatnot, speaking of how he came from an "era that watched innovation reign supreme" where he mentions titles such as Pong and Super Mario 64.

With a wide range of noted games like that, it appears that the author has a pretty wide range of gaming history on his resume, perhaps even more time than I do despite the fact that a I started playing video games in 1981.

Here's the thing: while I've loved video games of all eras, platforms and types for 30 years, I have no idea how these critics and the mentioned writer think that innovation has ever been part of the video gaming industry.

Since he mentioned Pong we'll start there. I could note how 1972's Pong was the second consumer-release arcade game in history, therefore making it's "innovation" moot, but I won't. Pong was actually copied from a concept Ralph Baer had shown publically for his Odyssey video game system, as was proven in court. In what would become standard issue, clones and copies and minor revisions of the Pong games would be made by thousands of companies for years to follow. Whole lot of innovation there. 1977's Breakout was an attempt to finally "innovate" the ball-and-paddle concept, creating a game that is cloned to this very day.


1978's Space Invaders became the first true killer-app smash hit in video gaming, trumping every sales record that existed before it across the world. The video game industry dogpiled on the concept with titles such as Galaxian, Phoenix, GORF, Astro Blaster, Astro Fighter, Moon Cresta, Pleiades, Galaga and dozens more that "innovated" by also releasing games where a spaceship went left and right at the bottom of the screen while blasting aliens. Even Atari's answer to Space Invaders, the smash hit Asteroids, borrowed heavily from 1977's arcade hit Space Wars, including the vector monitor and controls.

Want to complain about new Call of Duty games coming out yearly? In 1982, Midway released Ms. Pac-Man, Super Pac-Man and Pac-Man Plus.


1980's Pac-Man continued the original video game craze and shattered records of its own, but also spawned a number of "innovations" aimed to counter it including Lock 'n' Chase, Mouse Trap, Lady Bug, Thief, and countless bootlegs and hacks followed by even more home computer and console copies of the concept. Critics want to complain about new Call of Duty games coming out yearly? In 1982 alone, Midway released Ms. Pac-Man, Super Pac-Man, Pac-Man Plus and Baby Pac-Man with Jr. Pac-Man coming out in 1983.

1985's Super Mario Bros. was a smash as well and helped to revive the American video game industry, though many of the "innovative" gameplay concepts already appeared in 1984's Pac-Land (look, another Pac-Man game!). Sega fired back with Wonder Boy, a game that was copied into another Nintendo Entertainment System title known as Adventure Island. Sega then followed it with Alex Kidd in Miracle World, a similar platformer concept that even contained the same question mark blocks. It also added a little overworld map that was later copied back into the Mario series of games and little vehicles that Nintendo copied back in Super Mario Land for the GameBoy. Sonic the Hedgehog, a game the author of the noted column mentioned as an example of innovation, was designed as an answer to Super Mario Bros. games by adding to the concept (rather than innovating with a new one) and spawned a number of similar sequels of itself for years.


A million puzzle games using blocks came out after Tetris hit, then game a little game called Street Fighter II in the early 1990s. The game was a sequel of 1987's Street Fighter, itself a copy of concepts seen in Yie-Ar Kung Fu which added to the concepts seen in 1984's Karate Champ. It was the biggest arcade smash in some time. Capcom followed it with Street Fighter II: Championship Edition, Street Fighter II: Turbo—Hyper Fighting, Super Street Fighter II: The New Challengers, Super Street Fighter II Turbo, Super Street Fighter II Tournament Edition, Street Fighter Alpha, Street Fighter Alpha 2, Street Figher Alpha 3, Street Fighter: The Movie and many, many, many, many, many others all before the end of that same decade.

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Capcom even copied its own concept with games like DarkStalkers while Midway came up with Mortal Kombat, Mortal Kombat II and Mortal Kombat 3 while making Killer Instinct and Killer Instinct II for Nintendo. Data East's Fighter's History was so similar to Street Fighter II that it went to court, while SNK came up with seven King of Fighters games each year from 1994 to 2000. Did I mention Tekken, Tekken 2, Tekken 3, Primal Rage, and Virtua Fighter yet? Did I mention that all this is just a portion of the games that came out during this oh-so-innovative period of time?

I could go on all day, but I think the point has been made at this point. You say Gradius and I'll point out Scramble and Defender and R-Type and others. You say Double Dragon and I'll note Kung Fu Master and Renegade and River City Ransom. How many games have been called a Tomb Raider clone over the years again? How different have driving games ever been? Have critics and the writer mentioned here already forgotten the Guitar Hero and Rock Band games, sequels, follow-ups and offshoots? Are they ignoring the current Just Dance and Dance Central stuff?


Bottom line is this: innovation has never been the strong suit of the video game industry. Yes, there are probably a number of innovative game titles, both past and present, that could be noted here, but for almost every one of them a dozen clones that followed could be noted while other "innovations" were actually just clones of a previous concept themselves.

This doesn't mean these games aren't fun. I don't play Call of Duty for innovations, I play it because I can play with or against almost anyone on my Xbox Live friends list at any time. It's ok that the basic structure doesn't change all that much, but at the same time each edition has different timing, weapons, level-ups and the like to keep me having to learn.


I could also note the sequels that changed too many items, like Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, are criticized in gaming history for not copying the concepts of the title before it and changing too much, but I'll save that for another time.

Patrick Scott Patterson is a video gaming personality, writer and historian. Gaming since 1981, he also holds world record scores on a variety of game titles and aims to promote the events and history of gaming culture through his website and activities. He can be found on Twitter @OriginalPSP.



The fact is that games are a business. The companies are made to sell software to people, rather than push the boundaries of the medium. Sure, there are cases when those goals coincide but in general, too much innovation is a poor decision business-wise compared to less innovation.

There's no market research, there's no case studies, there's no realistic forecasts to develop your budget, etc etc. You can guess what people want but in the end, the people with the money at the helm of the game company just want to earn more money than they spend the majority of the time. It's simply much much easier to predict whether something is a winner or loser based on history than blind faith in the average game designer.

People don't like innovation. They're naturally risk averse. They SAY they like innovation but it's just not true, at least not in the respect they're willing to reward innovation with financial reward as a primary reason. They like to be able to categorize games into neat little categories (hence "what kind of game is it?" is usually met with a genre or a past game to compare it to).

They know what they like and often the least risky way to spend $60 is to buy something they're familiar with. If gamers truly valued innovation, there'd be a distinct correlation between innovation and financial return... but it's hard to say there is and game executives know this.

If a company created a mediocre but highly innovative game, most people wouldn't try it. Heck most people wouldn't try ANY highly innovative game without a stack of reviews and/or recommendations. In fact, innovation is only desired by people who truly want to see the medium expand. But we're a niche minority. We're vocal but we constantly overestimate our own numbers.

And these are not specific to gaming. Any for-profit industry with a quality level that is subjective could be seen as the same.

Movies, books, TV shows, restaurants, music, etc. are all the same way.

It's why we have 2 Starbucks each block instead of enthusiast coffee shops, why Justin Bieber is a billionaire, why Michael Bay is a big name in Hollywood, why Twilight outsells the-Great-American-novels of the world.