At what point is a game too much the same as its past incarnations?
This is a question that comes up every year during annual-release gaming season with franchises like Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed, and Mario pushing out the current year’s installment. They don’t ever get released to complete fanfare and pageantry as there’s always criticism about the games being glorified map-packs and rarely ever justifying the cost of a full-fledged title, but to be fair most games change slowly overtime and it’s where the developers choose to focus that change where new innovative gameplay spawns for long-standing franchises. There are ways around this by pairing leaping-innovative ideas with old characters or jump-starting a new franchise altogether where these ideas can be explored and tested to see if they have any footing, but franchises are easier sells and less risky.
A different way to phrase this question then is this: Where is the innovative divide between DLC and Standalone justification?
You can argue that the traditional Mario series where platforming was the main focus has only had three big innovative leaps in its franchise if you look at them superficially. Super Mario Bros being the first solid 2d platformer, Super Mario 64 being the first solid 3d platformer, and Mario Galaxy being the first to introduce an unrealistic mobility mechanic that was easy to understand with the planet-curvature jumping that the game was sold on. Probably not a lot of innovation by this standard considering the 20 platforming Mario games that are available.
If you look past these superficial enhancements, though, you’ll see that each game brings something new to the table justifying its existence to being its own self-contained playground. Just going through the first 5 Mario games in condensed format:
Super Mario Bros
- Mobility – Run, jump, swim
- Attacks – Fireflower, Turtle Shells, Head-stomp, Star
Super Mario Bros 2
- Mobility – Different characters means different abilities, high jump (Toad), fast run (Luigi), glide (Peach). Vertical Stages
- Attacks – Pick up and throw, bob-ombs
Super Mario Land
- Mobility – Submarine, challenge door exits
- Attacks – Submarine
Super Mario Bros 3
- Mobility – Different suits, flying. On rails stages.
- Attacks – Tail Swipe, Boot, Tanooki
Super Mario World
- Mobility – Flying and Gliding, Yoshi
- Attacks – Yoshi, Cape-swipe.
This is completely excluding things like new enemies, types of stages and variations, different bosses and mechanics for these bosses in the comparison.
If you want to see this philosophy exercised to its most extreme, look at Super Mario 3d World. While not my favorite game in the franchise, it does completely justify every single level in the game. Each level has some new mechanic that it wants to try out, to test the player on, some challenge that hasn’t existed yet in its game or any game prior to it.
For Mario games, there’s always an innovation in many of its mechanics. New power-ups and suits that has unique levels designed around them to stretch out every possible use of these power-ups. Bee-suits, Cat-suits, Tanooki, Flying, Yoshi, Plesi. Anything and everything is tested in some form or another which justifies a clear separation between the different titles of the franchise. Maybe there’s some gray area between New Super Mario Bros U and New Super Mario Bros Wii era games, but not much.
Call of Duty, on the other hand, is consistently criticized for having its lack of innovation year-in and year-out. While I would say the lack of innovation compared to Mario as the previous example is evident, but to completely discount Call of Duty on its yearly changes would be a bit of an overstatement.
The single player game always has some new element within the game, albeit they tend to be short-lived, but the game uses it as an exercise not just for the single-player story but as a tutorial in how to use their new mechanics in the multiplayer arenas. Modern Warfare 2 had the AC130 attack ship and many other killstreak perks that were “Demo’d” within the single-player. Ghost had the Loki Satellite. Advanced Warfare had the mech suits. Some of the new mechanics are integrated a bit worse within the system, like the human-controlled attack dog in CoD:Ghost being used in only a few scenes at the beginning of the Single-player campaign for example or the two space-scenarios that bookend the game. But there are always new perks for the multiplayer, new level designs that change the meta (strategy) of the game in every installment. Even in the single player, there are new enemies, new scenarios to be had, new layouts where the enemy is placed changing the tactics that the player needs to think around.
There doesn’t need to be a large change in the core-mechanics to test the player in a new way. Having small changes to the mechanics and placing the player in a different, unfamiliar scenario is enough for the Challenge-Reward Feedback loop to feel fulfilled, if only for a short time. Like how homework was in Algebra class. You can solve the problem, but change how the problem looks, and you might need to use a whole new toolkit to help solve a similar but completely different looking problem.
With Advanced Warfare out, there should be a clear distinction that gameplay is different and justify the new installments existence. Mech-suits for faster running, jumping higher and close combat more chaotic makes for a completely different experience in singleplayer and multiplayer settings and a bigger innovative leap than the past few iterations combined.
Where there seemed to be a more clear line in the innovative divide that wasn’t crossed was when Bioshock 2 was released after the highly-acclaimed Bioshock shook the singleplayer FPS genre in telling a compelling story, designing a highly detailed and well thought-out creepily-awe-inspiring underwater steampunk setting, and having challenging but not frustrating combat mechanics.
Bioshock 2 tried to tell a story where Bioshock left off. The environment was still in Rapture, the enemies were still splicers and the big baddie was still the Big Daddy. The only additions to the game were playing as a Big Daddy from the beginning, and the Big Sister being the new hall monitor to make you hide in a corner.
The storytelling at best told a parallel parable about morale choice and its consequences to those you leave behind. Bioshock telling a story about your moral choices affecting your personality, being the father/leader that the Little Sisters could follow or the Tyrant who would abuse and take advantage of them. Bioshock 2 with a similar moral choice script where your actions literally become the conscience for the saved girl to use for her lifetime or teaching her to murder you where you stand because that’s what you would have done.
The innovative line gets visited and touches on similar areas that Bioshock explored, but never explores enough to break through the creative walls that Bioshock had created for itself. It uses the same engine and many similar aspects both gameplay and story-wise to explore different alternatives for a story to tell, but never creates a voice that’s strong enough to be a solo-act. At best Bioshock 2 is a great DLC expansion or fan-made game, using the existing engine and to tell something different.
Bioshock Infinite, on the other hand, vastly improved on Bioshock-Rapture. Replacing the underwater, pipes-and-airlock claustrophobia of Rapture for the more open-air acrophobic-inducing floating city-platforms of Columbia; the slow-paced hugging-the-corner jump-scares replaced with heavy duck-and-cover intermingled with high mobility zip-lining around the arena; the story focused on the one Elizabeth instead of the many of the Little Sisters. It gave for a change of scenery, pace and emotional narrative that Bioshock 2 didn’t try to innovate towards because it borrowed too heavily from the template of Bioshock.
It not only told a story paralleling the ideals of Bioshock, reflecting of its similar backgrounds, but also expanded on what philosophies get twisted in the many directions that they could take as choices are lead followed. Choice and their consequences are highlighted and sometimes exaggerated in Bioshock reflecting that the self and agency are important to have because our choices lay the foundation for those who follow us. Choice is made irrelevant in Bioshock Infinite because the story not only marginalizes the choices that the player does make, further making light of player agency, but emphasizes that no-matter the choices that you do make, the outcomes are still the same.
Your agency as Booker DeWitt doesn’t matter because everything that happens would have always happened. The bad, the death, the destruction… nothing will change because your motivations will have always been the same and the only way to end the pain that gets spawned in the many timelines that can be created is to end it at the beginning and not in the other endpoints of your timeline. (Trying to dance around the story of the game without a spoiler tag is a bit rough)
I don’t want there to be a confusion that there needs to be a complete scenic change for the justification of a new game, but it is a bit of a slap in the fan’s face because we associate much of the game with its scenery. It just becomes hard to disassociate one game with another when much of the two games look and feel very similar. It also limits the amount of creative freedom a designer has when thinking around the setting for a game. Much like how Bioshock 2 continued with the claustrophobic nature of Bioshock leading to very similar if not exact gameplay design and mechanics, it was only after thinking about a more open environment when you free your gameplay-creativity to include high mobility tools like the zip-lining mechanic in Bioshock Infinite.
The Innovative Wall doesn’t get broken often, but it’s important to remember why we use this metaphor and where it applies in our lives of designing and playing a game. If the game doesn’t push the boundaries and at least attempt to break through the Innovative Wall or cross that Innovative Line, then it’s only playing on old mechanics and can be found elsewhere, obsoleting itself before it even has a reason to exist. It might as well have been an expansion for a game and wouldn’t have been judged as harshly as a standalone game.