Innovation vs Nostalgia in the Gamer Psyche

That title sounds like a university PHD project doesn’t it?

Don’t worry. It’s not. It’s just the rambling of this old gamer.

Wilhelm at TAGN, has titled his latest post Innovate! Is The Mating Call Of The Lazy Gamer. While the content of his post is something I can agree with, I don’t agree that it is necessarily a lazy gamer who is always calling for innovation in games. Wilhelm’s conclusion:

If you are complaining about no innovation and ignoring them, then you didn’t really want any innovation in the first place I guess.  Heaven forbid you get off your ass and go find something new.

Well, we do keep hearing calls for innovation, but if we examine the evidence on Kickstarter it is quite plain to see that the projects that get the most funding the quickest are the ones that are built on nostalgia. I have no stats, and have done no research here, but I have an opinion. Surprise!

For an example look no further than Wasteland 2 and the latest project by InXile, Torment, which has raised nearly 2.2 million dollars with 27 days left to go. Incidentally, the total raised for Wasteland 2 was 2.9 million over the full Kickstarter period.

Both predecessors for these games were well loved fan favorites. The original Wasteland spawned the Fallout series, and Planescape: Torment was an RPG touted by many as one of the greatest of all time. Lots of players have fond memories of their time playing these games. Some still do play them today.

I’d be interested if someone did a breakdown of the Kickstarter success, failure, and way-over-the-top-success numbers; what the actual stats showed. My guess is the bulk of the failures would be indies that put up tiny Kickstarters with new & innovative ideas. I’d also hazard a guess that many weren’t all that well presented and run, leading to their failure.

Well then how about the difference between successful and wildly successful, and by that I mean making more than 1.5 times the original goal?

Again, just a guess, but for game projects I reckon that it would be the nostalgia based campaigns that do the best.

Wilhelm says that this is because of laziness. I think it is more the case that the gamer who calls for innovation is a tad confused. Why?

After all most people know what they like, and don’t like what they don’t know. Despite calls for innovation, someone is more likely to invest in a game that they have experience before, and have liked.

Game developers on the other hand, have to eat. They’re in the same boat, indie and AAA. This means that they need to go where the money is, and the same rules apply. Players are more likely to buy a game with which they have some familiarity or nostalgic bias. That innovative new game is likely to get overlooked, not to mention that indie studios have less money to promote their games while the AAA publishers have such large development budgets they can’t take a risk on anything innovative. We’re less likely to see innovation in games.

What we will see is innovation within features. Blizzard for example took a fairly minor aspect of MMORPG gameplay, the quest, and made it into the foundation of World of Warcraft gameplay. That’s not to say that Blizzard invented quests, or that they weren’t major gameplay elements of single player games; they were. But quests were the side dishes of most MMO gameplay of that era. In order to advance you simply ground through mobs. You quested as a diversion from that. In some cases a quest didn’t even give XP. Blizzard changed all that.

Now every new MMO has the quest as the central feature of gameplay. And perhaps now it is too much, too overdone.

So, having said all that. When a gamer says they want innovation really what they are saying is that they want the same thing that they’ve played before, but gussied up with a new feature or two, and perhaps with a few gameplay elements modified a tad. For some, an old game with sparkling new graphics is enough.

For others it might be the modification or removal of an aspect of gameplay that didn’t make sense or was too hard, or that spoiled their enjoyment of the game. Permadeath or corpse runs for example. And even others might want those elements brought back.

So, laziness? Well no. I don’t think so. It’s just the way that people see the world. From bias and nostalgia. People have a fundamental need to keep moving forward. The desire for progress drives invention and the call for innovation. Nostalgia provides an emotional and sometime real safety net. It’s a strong, evolutionary imperative to keep us safe. There’s a constant tension between the two; so we say we want innovation, but fall back on security.

What do you think?




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  1. Wilhelm Arcturus

    Heh, I think you give Tobold less credit than I did. I at least took him at face value about looking for innovation, and was primarily critical of him looking for it in the wrong places. Anything innovative out of a big studio is purely accidental, but that was who he claimed he wanted to see innovation from.

    But yes, I would say in general, we are torn in our desires and at times seem to be saying, “I want something new and innovative that is comfortable and familiar.”

  2. Stropp (Post author)

    I wasn’t really looking specifically at Tobold in this analysis. I was thinking more of a general attitude that gamers have. And if I be fair, I have to a certain extent too. We all have our biases.

    I wouldn’t be as harsh when you say anything out of a big studio is accidental. I think you are giving the devs in such places less credit than they deserve. The guys and girls at the coal face of game design want to create the best thing they can, but have to do it in face of upper management mandated formulae. And I do think that innovative features can appear in formulaic and derivative games. It’s just harder to spot them, and perhaps harder for innovation to rise into view.

    But I also think we’ll be more likely to see true innovation come out of the indie sector from now on.

  3. Bristal

    Tobold’s posts invariably devolve into a definition of terms. He uses a broad term like innovation, which he lazily leaves to be broadly interpreted by his readers. Then he critically analyzes gaming using his very specific point of view which the readers then have to figure out.

    It sometimes feels a bit like a game see if you can figure out what he really means. And if you disagree, it’s just that you didn’t understand what he meant. I often delete my comments in frustration because I just end up trying to pin him down, which isn’t interesting conversation.

    I do like his posts and im a fan for the most part, but I’m starting to notice that trend more and more.

    Sometimes I just wonder why he actually likes about gaming, other than just consuming them for material to write about.

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