Designer and industry veteran Steve Meretzky broke precious ground in the 1980s, heading up Infocom's Planetfall, Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, and other classic titles known for innovation.
While the modern game industry heralds its broadening audiences, Meretzky now feels that the industry's actually narrowing its focus on teen and young adult males, and innovation is suffering.
"I believe the problem is institutional -- that individually, almost everyone in the industry would rather do something very original than something imitative, but the huge budgets and corporate decision-making structures push us into the same narrow alleys," says Meretzky, talking recently at a Gamasutra-attended talk at GCDC in Leipzig.
Meretsky says he likes to play a lot of board games because of the sheer diversity of roles available -- from Medieval French kings through power station managers, time travelers, paranormal investigators, cow exploders, and more.
Meanwhile, in video games recently, he's played "A Dwarven warrior, a WWII soldier, a Dwarven warrior, a WWII soldier, a Dwarven warrior... well, you get it."
"So why do we seem to keep making the same few games over and over and over again?" Meretzky asks. "Innovation is what has got us from Pong to Rock Band, it's true, so we have had a lot of innovation, but have we had enough innovation lately?"
Meretzky points to profit/loss figures and sales data stacked highly in favor of the Wii -- "one of the few shining lights of innovation in the past few years" -- to demonstrate why creativity is not only good, but vital to the health of the industry.
"You could argue the Wii is a technical innovation, not a creative innovation -- I'd argue it was a marriage of the two," he says.
Portal, says Meretzky, is an example of a "pure creative innovation," though time will tell if it's birthed a new genre on its own.
Such innovation, Meretzky says, is essential to helping the game industry avoid "a repeat of what happened to the comic industry," wherein industry standards eventually meant that superhero comics were the only sort being produced -- thereby creating a feedback loop where the only people who read comics were people who liked superheroes.
Broadening games beyond a self-referential state can also help the industry avoid censorship by elevating itself to a diverse art form on par with other media. As a bonus, the "Christmas table discussion" will no longer be full of careful explanations for family members on what the game developer's job entails.
"Aren't you tired of going through that conversation over and over again?" says Meretzky.
Finally, "Isn't it just more interesting and fun to work on something new rather than something exactly the same as the last game you produced, or the last ten games?"
"Let's get that fun back, let's get that passion back, it's our industry, let's take it back," Meretzky urges passionately.
"I feel like we're squandering the promise of games. We've been saying for years that it's an art form, but then we as an industry do as much as we can to disprove what we're saying!"
He continues, "I like violent games as much as the next non-psychopathic gamer -- but with the whole range of human experience, is there nothing else, nothing else that we can concentrate on? It would be like if the film industry did nothing but big budget blockbusters! We can do better than this! We should be doing better than this!"
Meretzky acknowledges that meeting publisher expectations in a high-risk environment can create a measure of self-censorship -- but having thrown out all one's best ideas before the pitch meeting is "fucking idiotic."
"Every time we've settled for the easy idea rather than search for the harder innovative idea or every time as a gamer in a store you've reached for the sequel rather than the new game next to it -- everyone is at fault to some extent and shame on us."
Making the shift to a culture that demands technical innovation while "actively [discouraging]" creative innovation won't be an overnight process, says Meretzky, but it needs to happen.
"We need to fight conservative ideas at every point -- from brainstorming to pitch meetings even just when talking to a friend. Be subversive. If you invent a better mousetrap, other developers will see it and they'll use it and the innovation will spread until it's the standard. And be an evangelist."
And the picture's not so grim, he adds, pointing to the independent game industry and user-generated content on sites like Kongregate as sources of future promise.
"Already a million flowers are starting to bloom and genetic mutation just has to occur. I know my talk has been a little pessimistic, but personally I'm very optimistic. The games industry as we know it may go away, but games aren't going to. The best is yet to come."