Innovation by Iteration

The cry for innovation is a strong one, as dying consoles breathe their last and their mystery-cloaked successors loom ominously on the horizon. It’s a cry I often take up, but worthy indictments of the status quo and excited frenzy for all that’s new only do so much for me; I’m left in the collective dust cloud, pondering what exactly we’re so fanatically pursuing.

The natural answer that leaps to mind is “innovation”: that which boldly challenges and ushers us forth from era to era. Without progress our polygons would still be pixels, and our awful hair physics still slightly-more-awful hair physics. However, I’ve come to question how exclusively tied innovation really is to progress; at its most basic, innovation is just the introduction of new ideas (something obviously constructive when seeking a fresh future). Often the “newer” something is, the more praise it receives, sometimes just for being new. As one who sees near-limitless, and largely untapped, potential in the future of videogames, this onslaught of innovation is a heartening thing. Yet (and of course there’s a “yet”) upon further thought, I realize innovation is not alone in its success.

It’s pretty clear this was anything but a “new” idea.

Iteration has become a particularly nasty heresy in modern game critique; understandably so, as images of gun-toting lookalikes and stab-happy acrobats flash through one’s mind whenever it’s mentioned. But the iterative process is no stranger to progress; rather, it’s a critical component. Where innovation seeks to introduce, iteration seeks to refine. There are a thousand ideas worth trying, but for every one of those there are a thousand that can’t begin to compare with what they’d replace. Age alone doesn’t reduce an idea’s worth, and iteration keeps alive those ideas worth keeping, rather than letting them dwindle away into obscurity merely for having been tried once or twice before. Often only through care and persistence can these ideas grow past the good to the truly excellent.

Some of gaming’s greatest masterpieces owe as much to iteration as innovation. World of Warcraft rebuilt the foundations of Everquest with stunning artistry, and Dragon Age rekindled a fading and beloved era that deserved its new life. Even the breathtaking and unconventional Shadow of the Colossus was an iteration on the themes of ICO, itself being inspired by Another World before it. Rather than just remaining a constant constraint on the future, iteration can serve as a vehicle for the very best of eras past as experimentation drives ever onwards.

Squint and you can see ICO! Or, well… close your eyes and imagine ICO and you can see ICO!

Not that this lovely ideal is always the case. Oh no, quite far from it. Just as “innovation” can lead to Fable III, iteration is an easy excuse for stagnation. The modern ideal of yearly instalments and the sad state of Japanese RPGs speak volumes to this. Fresh and good ideas can be written off as unnecessary while existing bad ones long overstay their welcome (random encounters still aren’t truly gone. How, I ask? Why?!). But this is a form of iteration, not the concept itself; when done right, preserving and refining the best of gaming is not only necessary, but often, as demonstrated in the titles above, thoroughly progressive in itself. You’ll never have the Flower if you throw away the seed.

Perhaps my fears are obsolete, and I’m just stating the obvious here. The fact that “good ideas are good” isn’t exactly revolutionary analysis. But I find it’s easy to lose sight of in this world where iteration and innovation war for supremacy. They are collaborative, not competitive, and the sooner that idea is embraced by creator and consumer alike, the better games are likely to get. And speaking of which, it’s time to play some Half-Life 2.

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Written by Bryan K

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