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Balancing Innovation and Tradition in Gaming Franchises

Balancing Innovation and Tradition in Gaming Franchises

Oct 16, 2013

As gaming technology has improved, it is only natural for developers to incorporate this into their existing franchises as they work on new titles. In an industry that constantly pushes itself to its technological limits, it’s key that developers make use of the improved power, greater visuals and explore new and exciting game mechanics that they can introduce into their titles; innovation helps to keep a franchise fresh. However, it is of equal importance for these dynamic changes to have a positive impact and add to their franchises, rather than take away from it.

It is essential to strike a precise balance between keeping a franchise ‘traditional’, keeping in contact with its roots, while simultaneously adding to their product with new, exciting innovations that will keep fans interested. If a franchise moves too far away from the original, it may upset gamers who loved the core values of the previous games, and is a potential risk in development. However, if there is not sufficient new content and innovation, it can make the new title feel like a boring, uninventive re-hash of the previous titles. This would be received poorly by its audience, and in turn would reflect badly on the sales.

One prime, and very topical example of this, would be the Pokémon franchise. The 6th generation of Pokémon titles is released on October 12th, and for the first time in Pokémon’s history, the handheld games have a global launch on the same day. Pokémon X and Y mark some of the biggest changes to the franchise that it has ever seen from its handheld titles. Firstly, the game is adopting many new 3D elements that previous handhelds weren’t capable of achieving. The world of Kalos can be explored fully in 3D, while allowing for the player to move around in freely with the circle-pad, finally moving away from the four-way movement permitted in previous generations. Furthermore, Pokémon battles will also occur in 3D, with both the Pokémon and battle animations showcasing how far the combat system has evolved.

Innovation is key to keeping Pokémon alive

For the first time in Pokémon’s handheld history, the battles and world exist in 3D.

After 15 or so years, Game Freak are finally moving away from the 2D Pokémon sprites, and have replaced them with excellent 3D graphics and animations. However, probably the most significant change and innovation to the development of the franchise is Mega Evolutions. Certain Pokémon have access to new forms, vastly superior to that of their original. Not only is this a big change for the game, but it also influences Pokémon on a larger scale because it is directly tied to the anime.

Many gamers have expressed that the Mega Evolutions feels too much like Digimon evolutions, however the impressive look of these new Pokémon forms have helped inject a lot of excitement and hype to Pokémon X and Y’s release. On top of the expected, brand new selection of unseen Pokémon, the game adds a new type; Fairy, which alongside Mega Evolutions, will have a dramatic impact on the Meta-game.

Innovation with Mega Evolutions will keep the game fresh by creating new elements

The new Pokémon Mega Evolution will change the meta-game substantially, as well as making many under-powered Pokémon more viable.

The changes implemented by Game Freak for Pokémon X and Y are far beyond anything they have previously done with the handheld games. The general feel is that this particular innovation and move forward will be met with success, as the hype for this generation in particular seems much greater than its recent predecessors (which, by the way, were still good!). It is also worth noting that Pokémon X and Y seems to have secured more than 1.26 million pre-orders in Japan alone, but also that retailers have already sold out of physical copies before Saturday’s launch.

Another key example of innovative pushing games forward, while still keeping to the games ‘traditional’ elements would be the Super Mario, The Legend of Zelda and Sonic the Hedgehog franchises. Super Mario and The Legend of Zelda leapt onto the 3D scene by embracing the Nintendo 64’s increased power and ability to render 3D graphics. Super Mario 64 and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time marked a key milestone for the already hugely popular franchises, and have kept up their success since. Sonic also joined the 3D world when Sonic Adventure was released for the Sega Dreamcast, a title which eventually became the Dreamcast’s best selling title. It’s important to remember that Grand Theft Auto also started out in 2D, where the game is played from a top-down view, but has adapted successfully over the years and has developed into one of the greatest franchises of all time.

Mario titles balance innovation with keeping in touch with its core elements

Mario’s transition to 3D was met with overwhelming success. Both its 2D and 3D platformers are still some of the most anticipated games to be released.

However, Sonic’s move to 3D didn’t prove as successful as other franchises. Both Zelda and Mario have achieved overwhelming and continued success, whereas Sonic has, somewhat ironically, failed to keep up. Although Sonic has had success in the “Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games” franchise, his self-titled games have been hit and miss, but more so the latter. It is unfortunate because  Sonic is a popular character in the gaming industry, but it seems that whatever innovation Sega try to implement to the franchise, it still cannot match the achievements made by the originals, Sonic the Hedgehog and Sonic the Hedgehog 2. Sonic Generations tried to literally mix tradition with innovation, allowing gamers to play as past and present Sonic, each having their own respective level styles, 3D and side-scrolling, but it still felt underwhelming.

Innovations to the Sonic franchise have failed to encapsulate its audience from the Genesis days

Mixing past and present: Sonic Generations allowed games to explore both their favourite side-scrolling and 3D Sonic levels.

Curiously, Mario, Zelda and Sonic have all kept a foot in the past, and have released side-scrolling/top down titles for handhelds, alongside bigger console games. But, yet again, Sonic falls short of Super Mario and The Legend of Zelda titles in sales and popularity.

Developers must push for innovation with their franchises, or gamers will soon get bored and start to invest their money elsewhere. However, it is incredibly tough to balance innovation, to keep the game fresh, with tradition, allowing the game to retain features that are core to the franchise. It is a shame when our favourites fall down along the way, but they must keep up and adapt to remain successful in such a dynamic industry.

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