Personally, I think this is a question that must plague all the top game development studios on the market today. It is a problem that I think can make or break a studio, in both directions. They might decide to push the envelope and do something never before seen in the genre of the game they make, earning the ire of fans who fear change and demand games that are more like others. Or they might decide to play it safe and make their game quite similar to others of the genre, thereby angering the player-base who accuses them of being lazy. In essence, I think it becomes a gamble on which side of the player-base they are more likely to rile depending on which path they decide to follow.
On one hand, the players who become angry when a game turns out to be drastically different from another in its genre are, I think, the vast majority of the player base. They are those I referred to in a previous blog; gaming doesn't mean the world to them, but it's something they do and so they want it to be enjoyable. Yet since they don't surround themselves with all things gaming, every time they play a game they have to relearn how this new game plays. They are not interested in the nuances of different game mechanics, all they know is that when playing a game that is too different from others in the genre they have to spend time just learning how to play. Learning the way a new game works is boring and annoying to these people, because they just want to have fun shooting, adventuring, flying, or what have you.
On the other hand, I think those players who crave innovative gameplay, the ones who chastise game companies for doing the same thing that other games of the genre have done before, are at the heart of gaming. I, for one, count myself among this crowd. Gaming is something to which I devote the significant majority of my time, effort, and resources. When I play a new game I genuinely want to see new game mechanics because I find it entertaining to think about how those mechanics work with others, and how they're different from the way games of that particular genre normally do things. For us, learning how to play a new game that's different from other games of its genre can often be part of the fun. When we encounter game mechanics too similar to those other games of the genre, it appears to us as if the developers didn't care about their game enough to experiment, and just pushed out "another clone," to use a derogatory comment.
So to which group should the developers cater? The first group is, in my estimation, the one to which is generally deferred in the vast majority of situations. By simple virtue of their greater numbers, the casual gamers and hobby gamers carry enough monetary weight that either developers have no fiscal choice but to listen to their wishes, or the production studios that own said developers make it a requirement. If they don't keep the majority of the customer base happy, a studio might simply wither away and die. They are, after all, in the business of being in business.
Yet the second group is one I believe remains important to the developers simply because, in a sense, they're the same. I don't doubt that there are some game developers who are only in the business because they see it as a burgeoning industry where fortunes might be made. Yet I fully believe that most people who get into the gaming industry do so because they love games, they love gaming itself, and they want to be a part of it. For this reason they can identify with those of us who crave new and innovative game design, because they want to see it too. When they play new games from other studios, and when they make games themselves, it's more fun if the game mechanics are new and interesting. So to avoid developing new mechanics for their games risks angering and alienating the core of the player-base that is, frankly, more identifiable with the development team. They're the ones who follow specific careers, who genuinely care about the work the developers are doing.
So what you do? Do you aim to please the people who genuinely love your work and care what you do, but whom are not numerous enough to support your business? Or do you aim to please the people who don't really care about the love you put into your work and just want to play a fun game, but without whose money you cannot remain in business?
There are studios that manage to walk such a fine line, angering the smallest number of players possible. I am continually impressed with, proud of, and happy for them.