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The Golden Formula: Or how I learned to stop worrying and love innovation

Video Games, as a commercial product, have a paradox. Consumers love sequels, but at the same time there's no such thing as a golden formula that a game can copy forever. We are left being forced to both innovate and make sequels at the same time.

Johnathon Swift, Blogger

April 11, 2012

4 Min Read

There is a generally accepted rule in the entertainment industry, proven in every field time and again. Consumers, on average, feel more comfortable going with the names and properties they've had good experiences with in the past over risking their money and time on something new.

We shouldn't, couldn't blame consumers for this, as consumers ourselves we know the feeling, and it's a logical strategy to boot.

The strategy that so many fields of entertainment employ is that of reccuring draws. The CSI's, John Grishams, and serialized romance novels of the world rely on a familiar brand name and selling the same exact story to an audience they know will buy it over and over again.

Meanwhile professional sports relies on competitions to drive fodder for its own story. A clever system of entertainment has been built around generating a narrative from the ups and downs of each team, selling it as a narrative to fans over and over, season after season.

Movies, meanwhile, don't have near the luxury of serialization that sports or tv does. Any one franchise might be able to go for a while, but will inevitably drop off. This is because the investment for consumers is so much higher than that of tv or a cheap novel. Generally consumers need to spend $9 and a trip to a movie theater, or whatever the cost is for seeing the movie from home, not to mention a solid hour and a half plus of attention in front of a big screen. And for this cost they expect some more originality and effort than what might go into the latest medical drama.

And so movies rely on directors, and movie stars as their draw; as their recurring, familiar pull in for audiences to let them know what they're getting.

Video games, meanwhile, don't have any of this. In general most don't have truly appreciable stories. Even the games that try quite hard are usually paltry compared to the stories present in many good movies, let alone novels which rely almost solely on stories to sell themselves.

Which means video games have relied on gameplay formulas and brand names. Call of Duty, World of Warcraft, Assassin's Creed, Halo. But there's a problem with relying on gameplay formulas, and that is that, regardless of the cost, people universally get bored with repetitive gameplay a lot more quickly than they get bored with repetitive stories.

Every titan of video gaming that has tried to sell the same gameplay to customers for too long has fallen, even while their publishers wished they wouldn't. World of Warcraft is bleeding customers just as Everquest is a shell of its former self. Farmville's vast and quick rise has already seen diminishing player numbers. Even Call of Duty is feeling it, Modern Warfare 3 has generally been predicted to have a much shorter tail than it's predecessor Black Ops and may signal the start of its decline if it doesn't change appreciably.

So what is a business minded publisher to do? Well if you look upwards you'll see some fairly obvious ideas. While its doubtful video games can cultivate any star power from its voice actors, letting a games director take more of the limelight might just be a solid strategy for ensuring future interest, especially for new IP's. While its true that most game studios run on a more egalitarian model in terms of overall game design, and thus a game's director often has less direct influence than the James Cameron's of the world, it's still a PR message to consider.

Another strategy is one relatively newly developed. Recent games like Fallout 3 and Deus Ex 3 have taken relatively new approaches to gameplay, while at the same time relying on established brand names and setting to help sell themselves to customers. If a reliable brand name and setting can help, theny why rely on the staid gamepaly formulas for too long, knowing that they will nigh inevitably fail?

Even narrative continuance can be brought in, if done right. The recent spate over Mass Effect 3 has shown that players can indeed become invested in a series narrative, enough to draw them towards a purchase. A more succesful example of this is Microsoft's Halo series, which has a very strong following from its narrative alone.

Whatever the case, the point is that reccuring draws, and familiar names CAN help sell video games to consumers. It's just that staid gameplay formulas are not something that can be relied upon for any particularly great amount of time, and so it may be best to consider other strategies while ensuring gameplay itself changes after any given apprecciable interim. 

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