With technology reaching incredible heights, there is constantly pressure to innovate. But while developers try and try to come out with the Next Big Thing (see Virtual Boy, motion control, glasses-free 3D, controller-free gaming, etc.), plenty of companies are banking on simply updating what has already proven to work -- and that is not necessarily a bad thing.
The most obvious example is Nintendo, specifically the Super Mario and Legend of Zelda series. Let's start with Super Mario: while the graphics have improved with each new game and Mario may become a bee in the next game instead of a tanuki, the core gameplay is essentially the same. As Mario you will walk, run, and jump in an effort to reach a flag or star at the end of the level and collect coins along the way. These basic game mechanics have been thriving strong since the 80's and continue to be celebrated. The Legend of Zelda accomplishes a similar feat, and even if its biggest fans have grown weary of the formula they'll still buy it within the first week of release because it's something they've enjoyed before and know they can enjoy again. Sure, Link will once again talk to villagers until something dangerous happens, find an unimpressive sword, fight his way to a legendary sword, and collect a sacred god-related object that will aid his journey in defeating Ganon(dorf) and saving the princess, but each iteration will include the same level of fun adventuring. The enjoyment of rediscovering each game's boomerang or bomb bag is a consistent treat.
And that's the key here: consistency. While many will argue it’s nostalgia that keeps gamers coming back, newer series debunk the theory. Games like Uncharted 2 and Gears of War 2 may have done a large amount of revisiting of elements from their prequels but it worked because the first games were so well done. Consistency means gamers can expect the same enjoyment out of the next iteration as the last, and with gaming becoming more expensive with each generation consumers want to know that they'll like a game before they put money into it, all the DLC that will follow, and sometimes a subscription.
But this consistency and familiarity does not necessarily mean only remaking the same game with new storylines. Some game engines become so popular and versatile that a company can base multiple unrelated games around it. Let’s look at Rockstar Games: Grand Theft Auto III, Vice City, and San Andreas, all use pretty much the same engine and gameplay mechanics with only graphical upgrades, and each game was very popular – this series illustrates the point above with the nostalgia a possible added factor – but Grand Theft Auto IV, Red Dead Redemption, and L.A. Noire also use this system (albeit a more technologically matured version) and yet they are all very different games. They of course share similarities because of they share the same developer and game engine, but it’s the familiarity of the combination of these things that continues the company’s success.
If you’ve ever played a Grand Theft Auto game or played Red Dead Redemption, when you pick up L.A. Noire for the first time you’ll already know how to play. The genre’s different, the gameplay is slower and more thought-based than action-based, but you have your mini-map, you have the option to drive around the city, you have the same “run”, “aim”, “attack”, and “pick up object/item” buttons, and you know how to use them. It’s the genius of Nintendo’s NES controller scheme translated into a more complicated modern day game pad, from when “A” was jump in every game and “B” was for a game-centric action (usually attack, though in Little Nemo Dream Master “B” threw candy).
The other extreme is the 8-bit remake (like Mega Man 9 and 10), the 2.5D remake (Bionic Commando: Rearmed), and the new game built in an old-school style (Scott Pilgrim: Vs. The World: The Game and Half-Minute Hero). Titles like these thrive on the nostalgia attached and while they are all great games in themselves the reason people pick up the controller is because it looks like something they used to play (that they’re familiar with). Or if they’re too young to remember then they fall for the game because while it looks different than what’s currently out there, it feels the same – there’s consistency to them: you hit a button to jump/grapple and you hit another button (or three) to attack (except for Half-Minute Hero which plays more like Final Fantasy I with automated battles).
While innovation is always exciting, compelling, and necessary for storytelling and gameplay to move forward and mature, there will always be a place for “sameness”, for the reuse of past control schemes, formulas, and plot arcs, and as long as they’re done with tact, respect, and stay up-to-date within those previously done schemes they will continue to thrive and be successful. After all, it’s not a coincidence that the same company that made the popular Prince of Persia series is currently making the popular Assassin’s Creed series – people have always loved running and jumping (see Super Mario Bros.), and Ubisoft honed in on the familiar and modernized it with current technology. And assassins. And, just like in Atari’s Pitfall, we’re still in awe when we land a near-miss leap.