In a Developer Direct video about Mario Kart 8, producer Hideki Konno gave several details and insights into the inspirations behind some of the changes coming to the new Mario Kart. Among the details described was the new "anti-gravity" mechanic, which will allow players to drive on walls and ceilings at certain points throughout the game's tracks. However, the way Konno talked about it has me oddly worried that Nintendo is sort of becoming "out of touch" with how innovation works. Before I bias this up too much, take a look at what he said:
"In Mario Kart 7, we had underwater racing and flying through the air via glider. This time, we wanted to add something entirely new. We're calling this new feature anti-gravity. The tires will now transform. When they do, Mario and Luigi will race on the walls and ceilings, which is something new, that we haven't tried before." -- Hideki Konno
The part I have an issue with is that he seems to think this anti-gravity idea is going to radically change the game, but I'm not convinced. I'm not sure Mario Kart 8 quite understands the difference between "mechanics" and "dynamics." Now, as I often do, I'm going to refer back to an episode of Extra Credits, "Aesthetics of Play." In "Aesthetics of Play," the show lays out three related terms: "mechanics," "dynamics," and "aesthetics." Mechanics refers to the fundamental systems the game works upon, the individual abilities of the game. For example, "the Hookshot latches onto wooden objects" in Ocarina of Time or "the longer you run the more momentum you gain" in Sonic the Hedgehog. Dynamics refers to the way in which a game's mechanics interact. To use the same two games, "combat" is an example of a dynamic in Ocarina of Time. The mechanics involving the sword's range, the enemy AI, the targeting, the amount of damage specific attacks do, the death-state when a health bar reaches zero, and maybe even the placement of Link relative to a ledge when he falls off of it all come into play to form the dynamic of combat. And in Sonic the Hedgehog, a primary dynamic is simply the way you traverse a level, the way the game's momentum physics, enemy collisions, jumping, and probably many other mechanics work together to create the experience of running through a level.
The last one, aesthetics, refers to the core reasons you play a given game, or, as Extra Credits put it, "the underlying emotive reasons we go to that game for." Things like challenge, sense pleasure, discovery, and narrative are all examples of this type of aesthetics. And it's worth noting that most games have elements of many different aesthetics, but only one, two, maybe three that are paramount to the game. However, I'm not going to give my opinion on the major aesthetics of Ocarina of Time because, frankly, it's a topic that spurs a lot of debates that aren't totally relevant right now. So instead, look at a game like Final Fantasy. For a lot of people, Final Fantasy games are all about the plot and characters, so one of that game's primary aesthetics would be "narrative."
As you can probably tell by the descriptions above, there's a big difference between mechanics and dynamics, but sometimes I'm not sure game developers know this. The major difference between Half-Life 2 and Portal, two games running on the Source Engine, might stem from the mechanics of the portal gun, but the real changes come from how you're focused on gunplay in Half-Life 2, while in Portal you're focused on puzzle-solving. Shooting to puzzling-solving is a change in dynamics, not mechanics.
As I brought up earlier, it seems like Nintendo, a developer renowned for their countless innovations, may even be falling into this trap, particularly with Mario Kart 8. But before I go there, let me make one thing clear; this does not mean I think Mario Kart 8 will be a bad game. I'm critiquing a design choice, sure, but honestly, Mario Kart is a social game (in the literal sense, not that bullshit genre of Facebook crap) which is already able to serve its purpose. In other words, while I may be singling out Mario Kart for this article about failing to understand innovation, it's among the series that don't even really need to innovate, so I'm sure Mario Kart 8 will be a fine game anyway. But, that doesn't change the fact that I think Hideki Konno has the wrong idea when he's talking about "adding something entirely new."
Innovation is a tricky thing. Essentially, though, it comes down to creating new and interesting dynamics. However -- and this is the tricky part -- as I said before, dynamics are created by mechanics. But, just changing or adding a mechanic isn't necessarily going to change or add a dynamic to a game. You have to make sure the right mechanical tweaks are made so the dynamics are legitimately altered.
Innovating within a series, as Mario Kart 8 is attempting, only makes things even more confusing. Not only must you then alter the mechanics in the correct way so as to create new dynamics; you also have to make sure you don't alter the dynamics to the point that you move away from the series' aesthetics. If aesthetics are the core reasons we play a given game, then changing those aesthetics changes the game at its core. A series is defined by that core -- change the core and you may as well not be making a game in the same series anymore. So now the challenge has become: mess with the mechanics enough to change the game's dynamics, while making sure not to alter the dynamics so much that they change the game's aesthetics. That's easier said than done, obviously.
One golden example of a series which was able to accomplish innovation within itself is Super Mario. The shift to three dimensions in Super Mario 64 brought with it a more exploratory approach to platforming, a completely different camera perspective, and differently flowing enemy encounters. All of this added up to some very different dynamics, such as the way you approached an enemy and the way you traversed a level. Yet, even with all of these changes, the people who played Super Mario 64 still felt like they were playing a Mario game. It went deeper than simply seeing Goombas and being told to save Princess Peach again. Right from the start, anyone who played Super Mario 64 could tell that the way he or she was interacting with the world of Super Mario had changed, but the inviting tone and cartooney fun of the predecessors was left intact. The game "felt" like a Super Mario title, so people who wanted to experience Super Mario still felt satisfied with Super Mario 64.
Mario Kart 8, on the other hand, seems to be reaching for straws, so to speak, and, rather than changing dynamics, is changing only mechanics. The idea of anti-gravity sounds like it could be a fantastic addition to a wacky racing title like Mario Kart, but Nintendo is not fully embracing the mechanic, so it's instead going to end up as a simple gimmick. Based on what I see in the trailer, the anti-gravity will only take place after you hit certain pads, at which point you'll be able ride along whatever wall the pad was directed towards. This is an obvious mechanical shift, but it doesn't really seem like it's going to affect the dynamics of Mario Kart much at all. Once you're on the wall, everything but the camera is back to normal: you still drive in the same way, you can still swerve, you can still collect coins, and whatever else. So the problem is that anti-gravity seems like it's going to be virtually identical to ground racing, just with a wonky camera. They're adding a new mechanic thinking that's innovation, yet the mechanic likely won't actually change the game's dynamics.
Like I said before, this isn't going to "break" Mario Kart 8 or anything, it just worries me that even parts of Nintendo seem to be misunderstanding what innovation really is. If they wanted anti-gravity to really change Mario Kart, they'd have to fully embrace the mechanic. They'd have to get rid of those pads and give players the option to ride up every wall of just about every level. Think about how many other parts of the game would be affected by that mechanical shift. Suddenly smacking into a wall wouldn't slow you down, but would instead send you on a different part of the road. Throwing a green shell to your left might mean getting hit by your own item as it runs the entire perimeter or the wall and comes right back to you. Those pads are just too limiting to really "innovate" the franchise. Get rid of those and open up whole levels to anti-gravity. That would be a dynamic shift for Mario Kart. And truly innovating an existing franchise requires those dynamic shifts.
This article is an entry in the column series Virtual Microscope. Virtual Microscope is a series of analytical articles which take an in-depth approach to discussing a specific topic. The accompanying podcast, Virtual Telescope Podcast, takes a more cursory approach and applies it to a number of different topics throughout a given episode. The podcast, hosted by myself -- Barry Herbers -- and Joshua Hitz, can be found here: "Virtual Telescope Podcast"