The truth is, gamers are liars. Gamers cry for innovation in the video game industry; it is extremely easy to find articles and forum posts moaning about the lack of innovation. GameStop blames the decline in console sales on the lack of innovation. The Call of Duty franchise is represented as some antichrist of game creativity and is always blamed for the stagnation in the video game industry, even though every other company is busy trying to transform their games with similarly successful game designs. Games like Dead Space and Resident Evil abandoned their original genre of horror to claim a piece of the pie with a shooter alternative. Shameless, uninspired cash grabs hit the store shelves every year, while the consumers all talk about how we want something new, something innovative.
But gamers do not know what they want. They claim that video games are now looking more like smartphone franchises, churning out five or six installments. Games are constantly getting remastered and re-released, and people are back to playing Tomb Raider. In this endless recycling of the same ideas, sales would decline if we really wanted innovation in our games, but statistics tell us another story.
Look at the sales of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare: it earned the title of the highest-selling first person shooter at the time, selling over 18 million copies. After releasing dumbed-down titles for seven years, Activision sold over 24 million copies in 2014 and 32 million copies the year after. The situation is not so different for non-shooting games. The Assassin’s Creed series has sold eight million copies for its first installment, followed by nine and 10 million copies for the next two follow-ups. Madden NFL, an American football game, releases a new version each year that is merely a roster update, and yet it manages to sell more than two million copies every year.
The “true” gamers who grew up with Super Mario and The Legend of Zelda games claim that these statistics reflect the casual tastes of “fake” gamers. If such is the case, there should be a huge difference between the buying habits of the two groups of gamers, but there is no such difference. By tracking the sales of major releases in the Super Mario franchise, we see that the top eight most sold Super Mario games are all two-dimensional platformers, a formula as old as the first game. All of them have sold over 15 million copies even though the nature of the games did not change. The least successful of these games are Super Mario Galaxy, Super Mario Galaxy 2, Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island, and Super Mario Sunshine, which are praised for being fresh, innovative entries in the series that broke the typical Super Mario formula. Despite all the praise, the “innovations” have sold less than 13 million copies each, only half of their more formulaic counterparts. This phenomenon is not limited to the games, either. GameCube, which is perhaps the most innovative system, also suffered from poor sales. Apart from Super Mario Sunshine, gamers also enjoyed on the system Metroid Prime, The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker, and Resident Evil 4, games hailed as some of the best — ones that bravely broke the boundaries of what their respective franchises stood for. Even with the new intellectual properties (IPs) on the system such as Animal Crossing and Eternal Darkness, amazing cutting-edge games that tried new ideas, only Mario Kart: Double Dash and Super Smash Bros. Melee have sold 6.8 and 7.4 million copies respectively and no other game even comes close. GameCube quickly became one of Nintendo’s worst performing consoles despite its innovation.
Innovative games just don’t sell. List off from the top of your head some of gaming’s most critically acclaimed titles, games that have shaped the industry. The Portal franchise has sold eight million copies with Portal and Portal 2 combined. Bioshock has sold four million copies. Now let’s compare those numbers with the sales figure of the eighth installment in the Mario Party franchise. It has sold eight million copies while The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker, for all the praise and perfect scores heaped upon it from gaming magazines, has only sold three million copies. How about the dumbed-down games, the games accused of selling out? Well, they are selling out.
Sequels with increased sales and new IPs with decreased ones demonstrate that games that break their molds don’t sell but the ones that fall into established formulas do. For as much as we would like to deny it, budget spent and creative risk taken are inversely proportional and the numbers prove that repeating the successful ideas of past releases is the smarter choice. Why spend more money on inventing a new wheel when releasing the same wheel with a new paint job gets you more?