Innovation: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

"Innovation" is a commonly defined as "something new or different introduced." Two recent examples in gaming hardware are the Nintendo DS with its dual screens (one of which is touch sensitive) and the Nintendo Wii with its motion sensitive controller. Such innovations are looked upon as a positive thing by the majority of the gaming populace; they are advancing gameplay in a unique direction by experimenting with new ideas. I am here, however, to argue that such innovation, more often than not, is leading to the stagnation of our favorite genre, the RPG. A radical idea, to say the least. Let's look at a few RPGs:

Case #1: Unlimited SaGa (PS2). Despite the pre-release hype, with an average ratio of 52% over at Game Rankings, it is nearly unanimous that Akitoshi Kawazu's latest installment of the SaGa series was a remarkable failure due to its departure from the rest of the series. Unlimited SaGa introduced (or rather, regressed to) a "board game" gameplay mechanism which had players traversing through grid-based maps. On these maps, there were "traps" which could be triggered, the outcome of which was determined by the spinning of a wheel. Whether the player escaped the trap successfully, or took lethal damage, was determined completely by one factor: luck. For the hardcore Dungeons and Dragons gamer who is accustomed to rolling dice to determine successes/failures, this is an acceptable mechanism. For the modern gamer, who prefers the results of his efforts to be based on his skill, not luck, this is an exercise in utter frustration. This "Monopoly meets Slot Machine" gameplay system fails to enhance the overall experience, it simply removes control from the hands of the player.

Case #2: Shadow Hearts (PS2). A series with a solid fanbase, Shadow Hearts introduced the "Judgement Wheel," a circle with different zones and a spinning needle. Upon executing each and every attack, this wheel must be contended with; poor timing can result in a miss, good timing can result in a critical hit. My question is: Why is this necessary? Are the turn-based battles any more engaging due to the implementation of this device which, in effect, only slows combat down? After the 2000th battle, is it still "fun" stopping the needle as it spins around the wheel ad nauseum? When you remove this timing-based mini-game from each of the enemy encounters, you have at the core, Dragon Quest. A classic, turn-based battle system. Superficial tack-ons like the Judgement Wheel are doing little to spice up an old formula; they only make it more tedious. While Unlimited SaGa failed in its attempt to completely overhaul how we explore and interact with the field, Shadow Hearts' foray into the innovation sphere simply takes an archaic battle system and makes it much more troublesome than it's worth.

Case #3: Final Fantasy XII (PS2). A great example of innovation done right. The Gambit system is, quite possibly, the best advancement in Console RPG gameplay in the last decade. Allowing players to customize companion AI to an incredible extent, it required thought and strategy to be best utilized in each of the game's scenarios. Should Vaan focus on removing status ailments from his companions, or concentrate on physical attacks? Under what circumstances should Penelo drop everything and cast Cure? "Prioritizing" was the name of the game in Final Fantasy XII, and success was dependent on the player's ability to think ahead. This was completely unprecedented in the genre, and as a result, was an amazing innovation in modern gameplay. As always, however, opinions varied on the Gambit system. Some felt that the overemphasis on micro-managing each character's actions was a little cumbersome, while others welcomed it as a fresh challenge. All can agree, however, that it brought something new to the table and succeeded on the whole.

When thinking about innovation, we must ask ourselves: Is this gameplay mechanism making the game more "fun," or is it simply "different?" Is being different always a good thing? Are modern RPGs encouraging us to think harder and challenge ourselves? Are they actually changing the way we play games, or are they ad-hoc additions which, if removed, would leave us with the same gameplay mechanics we've been loving (or hating) for years? A call to game developers: If you want to be innovative, do it right! Let's say "no" to over-complicated item synthesis systems, which make us run around gathering materials and wade through screen after screen of tutorial text. Let's say "yes" to solid storylines, well-developed character casts, and gameplay which maintains focus on "challenge," "fun," and "player control."

- Ryan Mattich


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