In a recent interview with Eurogamer, Assassin’s Creed III‘s creative direction Alex Hutchinson had a few choice words to say about criticism leveraged at sequels that suggests it’s impossible for them to stay fresh:
“There’s often a misunderstanding that a sequel or a franchise is by definition not innovative or not fresh. That’s complete nonsense. There are plenty of franchises in the gaming world that have made huge leaps within a consistent universe. To sort of cap games with that definition isn’t fair, I think. We’re trying to be as fresh and innovative as possible, across a bunch of areas. Whether that’s through things like having a minority figure as a lead character, breaking some barriers down there, or other things like narrative decisions we make, then we’re making good progress.”
It could just be because, as a creative director, his job is to supervise the art, the story, and the world, but I think he’s missing the mark here. People’s complaints about games not feeling fresh can have a lot to do with the “universe” – the characters, the environments, and the story – but franchise fatigue has more to do with a failure to provide compelling game content.
That’s not to say that I don’t think the universe is important. For example, the constant revisiting of the same eight worlds in the New Super Mario Bros. series has definitely pushed all the wrong buttons. The comparatively ambitious expansion of the Mushroom Kingdom universe in Super Mario Bros. 3, with the addition of multiple kingdoms, each its own unique part of Mushroom Land, and the awesomely chilling atmosphere of Bowser’s airships and the demonic Dark World sticks out a lot more in many people’s minds, and for good reason.
At the same time, bringing a unique story “hook” with each new game isn’t exactly a “huge leap,” nor is it the kind of “fresh and innovative” that gamers are constantly yearning for. Leaps don’t come primarily from the narrative elements; they come from enhancements to the play experience.
In my recent article ,”Zelda Wii U Needs More than HD Visuals to Succeed,” I elaborated on how important a solid set of central game mechanics is to making a solid game experience. If a game can make something as simple as hitting enemies with a sword and avoiding their moves exceptionally satisfying all by itself, imagine how great that game would be once you sprinkle tricky level design, a big overworld, and a diverse palette of secondary items on top of that.
People aren’t complaining about Assassin’s Creed feeling overdone because of the story (well, I’m sure there are at least a few). They’re complaining because they don’t feel it’s done enough to satisfy their primal urge to do interesting stuff. The series’ unique focus on stealth may have been “interesting” a few years ago when the series first launched, but has it made the right moves to remain interesting? It may just be me, but the inclusion of secondary gameplay modes such as the “tower defense” minigame in Revelations suggests that perhaps the original elements have struggled to stand on their own.
Will Assassin’s Creed III bring a new series of innovations to the franchise? It seems as though the team is trying to achieve this by placing more emphasis on the wilderness with the new Frontier to enhance exploration, adding new weapons to enhance combat, and redesigning and refining the stealth system. But if players aren’t drawn into the wilds, engrossed in the combat, or thrilled with the stealth mechanics, it’s not going to matter if the story takes on the issues of race, religion, and regionalism better than anything else in existence – it’s not going to succeed as a video game.
When it comes to innovation, the only true test is commercial success. If people don’t buy into your new ideas, it doesn’t matter how good you think they are – they’ve failed to truly innovate because they’ve failed to prove to the world that they truly make your game worth playing.
It’s the same tune I sung in my article about controversy. Make your game fun to play first and foremost, and whatever else you want to do can follow.