Innovation vs. Refinement: The Twin Concerns With Game Development

A while back when I was doing my 2012 awards show, a commenter lamented the fact that I didn’t need to put Persona 4: The Golden against The World Ends With You: Solo Remix (“TWEWY”) because both games were enhanced ports. I thought about how I might go about comparing the two games, and I came to this post. In the video game industry, there are two major paths when making a game. Firstly, there is an emphasis on innovation. It may not seem like it with all of the remakes and sequels out there, but innovation is still a driving force in the industry, particularly in independent development. The second focus is refinement. This has become increasingly important as the video game industry settled into an established franchise model. It has become increasingly the goal of developers, particularly for sequels, to refine past ideas to optimize the player’s experience. These two aspects sometimes go hand in hand, but, more often than not, a developer will choose to innovate or refine when creating their game. That’s what brings me back to the Persona 4 and TWEWY. Persona 4 is a game built entirely on refinement, taking what was done in Persona 3 and creating a much stronger game. On the other spectrum, TWEWY was a game of new, fresh ideas, taking surprisingly little from older series. Today, we’re going to be looking at refinement and innovation in video games and weighing the pros and cons of each approach.

You don’t have to read the article if you go out and play this game, so what are you waiting for.
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First let’s look at refinement since it’s the primary force in big budget releases nowadays. Saying that refinement is more important than innovation sounds silly. It sounds as credible as someone calling Hollywood blockbusters riveting cinema, but, in actuality, the refinement side of the industry has created some truly amazing games. The reason that this lack of innovation approach gets attacked so often is because the bulk of games released under this model are hardly necessary, or offer too little refinement to add enough to the table. The New Super Mario Bros. series is a great example of this, as is the Call of Duty franchise, or any of the countless yearly sports titles. These are all games based on refinement over innovation, but, for the most part, they don’t offer enough of a refinement, or they’ve past the point where a well refined game simply becomes a lifeless rehash. This is the dark side of the refinement approach. A game series that only makes tiny changes, while presenting practically the same game year after year, will result in a lack of applause from the fanbase. It doesn’t matter that the newer games are technically better. Constant releases with little change won’t impress anyone.

Call of Duty Modern Black Ops War 6

These releases make the refinement side look bad from a critical, but not commercial standpoint. However, they are not the stalwart examples of the method. When I think of recent games that follow the refinement model, I immediately think of Borderlands 2 and Dark Souls. Both games took almost the entirety of their gameplay from their predecessor, but each game was so superior to the previous game, it’s not worth even talking about Borderlands 1 or Demons’ Souls. These are the games where developers take in everything they learned from making the previous one and refine it to a point where the game shines. This is true of Persona 4, which took almost everything it did from Persona 3, yet it is the superior game. These games don’t need innovation because of the strong foundation laid down by previous games. In these cases, refinement can add more than blind innovation could possibly hope to. I do note that these three games only refine concepts from the previous game. In this way, they avoid over staying their welcome like longer series who abandon innovation such as the God of War series (No, adding multiplayer isn’t innovative).

I love you, Persona 4, but you didn’t come up with a lot of new ideas.
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Sequels are not the only place that the refinement method exists; although, it is the most prevalent area. Video games, like every other medium ever relies on building upon ideas of the past. This kind of refinement usually exists in smaller forms, but it is essentially taking gameplay or gameplay elements and refining them as part of your game. Some games that go to far with this method are referred to as rip ffs, such as Darksiders’ obvious Zelda connection, or Dead Space’s Resident Evil 4 inspiration. Whether they are ripoffs or not, these games often bring a lot to the table by moulding an older idea into a fresh setting. Parasite Eve 2 could be called a Resident Evil ripoff by people who can’t get past the style, but it would be foolish to dismiss it as nothing but derivative. Sometimes games are created as ‘spiritual successors’ such as Bioshock, which took many of the concepts and ideas from the game System Shock, but putting them in a modern gaming context. Finally, sometimes only minor concepts are taken. This is usually the most interesting part of the refinement process, where developers see ideas that may not have been properly executed or were ahead of their time, and appropriating them for their game. Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII, seems to be taking the incredibly innovative Scenario Overlay System from Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter. Refinement isn’t simply about stealing ideas or desperately trying not to innovate. Instead, it’s about taking older ideas and getting the most out of them.

Innovative concept, but the gameplay’s nothing but refinement
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Now let’s move on to innovation. The guiding principle of the innovation method is the generation of new ideas. This can encompass a huge variety of gaming aspects such as gameplay, story, environment, characters, or even camera angles. The problem with innovation often is that, since so many untested ideas are being thrown at the wall, many of them simply won’t be any good, or they’ll be poorly executed (And open to further refinements). Look at Suda 51’s catalogue of games. Each one tries to be innovative and many of them fall flat on the innovations being a particularly bad idea, such as being meta with the forced mini games in No More Heroes 1. Other games bring some great ideas to the table, but simply can’t execute them properly. This was the case with the original Silent Hill, which brought innovative camera angles and setting, but simply wasn’t able to push it enough to be more than a Resident Evil clone. Silent Hill 2 did almost the exact same thing, but the refinements made in that game, actually made the town of Silent Hill stand out, and launched the series into the mainstream. Ideas don’t mean anything without the execution behind them, which is why refinement is such a powerful force in the industry.

What the hell, Suda?
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Of course to dismiss innovation simply because some ideas don’t work would be incredibly silly wouldn’t it? Without innovation we’d all still be playing pong, and nobody wants that. Innovation is the reason we have the biggest games, and its the reason that the industry exists at all. Without Shigeru Miyamoto’s acid trip-induced Super Mario Bros, we wouldn’t have a huge number of gaming tropes and concepts. Without Dragon Warrior, you can say goodbye to the JRPG genre. Without Resident Evil, no more survival horror (Although it seems to have killed survival horror on its own). Some games have incredibly innovative characters, either in design or in development. Whether you like it or not, the industry is not soon going to forget Sephiroth or his impact on gaming. The same can be said with Mario or Link. Innovation is the pillar that the entire industry stands on, and, even when it’s incremental, innovation is incredibly important for the industry moving forward. The issue is that innovative games aren’t often the best games. Many of the truly best games are the refined games, but this refinement would often be impossible without the previous innovation.

You owe half of the entire industry to this man alone.
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Most games aren’t pure innovation, however. Games that put complete innovation in the forefront like TWEWY. That game utilized each component of the DS in order to create something truly unique. Most games only innovate in one or two minor or major ways, while relying on refinements of past ideas in order to create a well balanced game. Limbo had an innovative style and concept, but it relied on tried and true platforming gameplay tradition in order to make a good game. It’s foolish to think that any game would rely completely on innovation, as that would ignore all of the building blocks that previous developers had laid down. The problem with an innovative focus is that developers often ignore the refinement process. There’s a reason that Silent Hill and Resident Evil were stuck with some truly terrible combat for a long time. In the modern context, innovation is often thought to be dead, as someone somewhere has tried a concept at some point. However, this ignores the context and framing of the expression. Stealth is nothing new to video games in the slightest, yet Batman: Arkham Asylum managed to be innovative in its presentation and execution of its stealth elements. It’s easy to pick everything apart, reducing things to their base ingredients, but tons of innovation still happens in the video game industry even without the addition of new tools such as touch screens or motion controls.

Spiders are you friend…
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In the end, there is no winner in this battle. Innovation provides the gaming industry with unique ideas, which can be used to create some truly memorable and exciting games. However, with innovation comes risk. It’s dangerous to put an untested idea out there, and many developers aren’t willing to take the risk. Refinement can take a poorly executed, or unoptimized idea and bring it to completely new levels. However, too much refinement risks stagnation and gamers are an easy group to bore. Many developers mix and match, refining or appropriating some concepts, while trying to innovate in other ways. This middle ground isn’t a perfect compromise between styles as there will always be a focus, and parts of a game will always shine or suffer for it, but it is a common tact. As it stands, there will always be a battle between innovation and refinement among developers, who want to bring out the best game they can. There are upsides and downsides to each method, and like many things, there is no clear answer. Each game and situation is different, and each needs to be approached in a different way.

– Mistranslations for the Modern Gamer

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2 thoughts on “Innovation vs. Refinement: The Twin Concerns With Game Development

  1. That was a very in-depth analysis on the gaming industry. Are you sure you aren't working in a major gaming company? Its' quite interesting to get such complete explanations, especially without prejudice.And Yah! I get mentioned! Oh, and just curious, but which game did you find better overall? P4G or TWEWY:SO?

  2. That's an awful question, since both games are just so good. I'm not sure if I can decide, but I can say that I've played Persona 4 more times than TWEWY. That being said, TWEWY was a singularly interesting experience. Truthfully, it's a crapshoot, and my answer could easily change based on the mood I'm in.

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