Monday, February 1, 2010

The Problem with "Original IP"

A common criticism of the games industry is that it lacks original IP and innovation, a claim especially common in 2009. While there is certainly some truth to this, I feel that many beat this drum simply because others do. The question of innovation, what it actually means and how much of it the audience really wants is a contention for another day. Today, we discuss original IP, why it is not a ubiquitously positive quality and why we should be careful what we wish for.

The announcement trailer for Shinji Mikami's new game Vanquish is what set me thinking about this. Based on this trailer, you play a space marine who must kill aliens to save humanity. It's likely you'll have a gruff voice, dour demeanour, a dark past and a buzzcut. This is so striking coming fresh of the heels of Platinum Games's latest release, Bayonetta. Bayonetta is a fresh, interesting and even empowering game (even though the gameplay isn't to my taste at all).

Vanquish may be original IP, but at least thus far, it resembles the most exhausted game tropes of the last two decades. People clamour for new IP and whinge about sequels, but I'd rather see a follow-up to Bayonetta (or another Viewtiful Joe or Godhand) than yet another game with terse marines blasting aliens in a rubble-strewn ruined city. I'm trying to keep an open mind about Vanquish, but even if it turns out to be quite fresh, I'm sure there will be another ostensibly original IP title to fill in.

In 2009, we saw much anticipated original IP fall somewhat flat. Brutal Legend was brilliant in setting and gorgeous in environment, but mediocre as a game. The aesthetics and characters totally carried it for me, but I can understand why others would get caught up on the gameplay. Similarly, Scribblenauts is truly unlike any other game out there ... but the concept was ultimately more appealing than the execution.

In contrast, Arkham Asylum was an incredibly strong game. It succeeded masterfully even though its ancient IP has seen countless instantiations, a good deal of which were universally terrible. The sequel to Assassin's Creed visited a time and place wholly unexplored by games and recreated a beautiful and fascinating era. Uncharted 2 not only attempted to create a believable, adult love triangle, but actually succeeded.

It's counter-intuitive, but I think part of the reason why these games succeeded is because they were not original IP. If Arkham Asylum had been "sneaky ninja guy fights crazy mutants," I very much doubt it would have been anywhere near as successful. The Batman IP provided Rocksteady with a set of constraints that they were able to leverage. It gave the audience a set of expectations. This common language lowered the production and marketing hurdles all games must overcome.

The truth is, marketing a new game is hard. God damn hard. Way, way harder than most people think it is. When creating brand new IP, not only are you wrestling with this amorphous creative thing, but you have to find a way to make it immediately appealing to those who know nothing about it. Film/TV has famous actor/directors they can use to appeal to audiences; a much smaller number of designers/studios have the same cache.

Often, seemingly "original" IP ends up resembling other familiar games, partly due to risk mitigation and partly due to simply designing what's familiar. In some ways, original games may have less freedom to be creative. When a previous success can basically guarantee free marketing and sales, there's sometimes more room to do things differently. Of course, many studios want a sequel that's the exact same thing in a different shirt. These sequels are toxic and ultimately dwindle, but it's a shame they taint any follow-up for many.

Sequels, or at least good sequels, tap in to the intrinsically iterative nature of making good games (and good software in general). Uncharted 2, Assassin's Creed 2, Mass Effect 2 and hopefully Bioshock 2 have all learned from their previous incarnations and improved upon flaws.

And it's not just sequels. While countless low-budget, braindead movie tie-ins have despoiled the idea of translating existing IP into games, some of the strongest games of all time have been adaptations of other media. There's fertile ground here, as long as you're not just looking for a quick buck.

And note, I saw all this having spend the last year working on original IP. Really original IP. IP that's unique in look and tone compared to nearly every other game on the market. But I see "Where's the new IP?" bandied around too often.

New IP, unless it's just a reskinning of another popular game, means doing something nobody has ever done before. Given how nascent games are, this probably means not everything will be right on the first go. We either have to appreciate new games for what they are and not hold them to the game standards of the well-tred AAA ground, or we have to accept that sequels and ported IP can still be excellent. When it comes to existing IP, we all know there are dead, hollow titles that bring nothing meaningfully new to the table. But there are also IPs that while not original are still "fresh." New ideas, refined mechanics, polished interactions; these things are not incompatible with existing IP.

Rather than hold newness up as the ultimate positive quality, we should really appreciate "fresh" IP and basically, great games. What makes them great can vary, but the experience they provide ought to be where we demand originality, rather than the material it is drawn from.

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Blogger Unknown said...

Excellent post.

February 2, 2010 at 11:38 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Ryan Concise and complementary, I like it ;) Thanks Ryan.

February 3, 2010 at 10:55 AM  

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