The Ryan Lambie Column: does innovation matter?

Is there room for originality in the videogaming market? Ryan goes looking...

Mr Ryan Lambie's amazing joypad.

Whoever it was that said there’s a novel inside everyone was wrong. I’ve been trying to get one off the ground for years, but every time I have what I think is the perfect idea, a guaranteed bestseller, I realise a few days later that someone’s already beaten me to it.

Take the other day, for example. I had the most vivid, detailed dream I can ever remember, and on waking decided this was it – the perfect premise for my first novel. Excitedly, I reached for my laptop and began to type urgently, anxious that I might forget the dream at any moment.

Just as I’d finished typing, Sarah – my better half – wandered in. “What are you up to?” she asked.

I passed over the laptop by way of explanation, and she began to read.

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“What do you think?” I asked after a few minutes’ silence.

“Interesting,” came the reply, followed by a pregnant pause. . . . . . . . “A kind of cross between Nineteen-Eighty-Four and V for Vendetta.”

My heart sank. Even my dreams, it seems, are unoriginal.

Maybe I’ve got it all wrong though; maybe novels don’t have to be ‘novel’ at all. Maybe people don’t want some totally new, genre-defying idea, and just want to be entertained instead.

Which brings me neatly back on topic; just how important is innovation in video games? Does it matter that the vast majority of the titles sitting on our shelves are disturbingly similar? It’s a question I often ask myself – and it seems critics aren’t always sure themselves.

When Resistance 2 was released late last year, Edge magazine gave it a six, citing a lack of innovation as a major reason for the low score; “It’s okay to do things by the numbers, as long as those numbers are bigger than everyone else’s,” the reviewer lamented. Resistance fans were less than impressed, many leaving comments arguing – quite rightly – that a game doesn’t have to be groundbreaking to be worth playing.

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The problem, of course, is that innovation – or at least, the attempt to develop an innovative title – is a huge risk; one, it seems, that is often doomed to failure – whether it be critical, financial, or both.

When DICE, the Swedish creators of Mirror’s Edge, tried to break with convention by inventing the first-person platform game, the audience response was one of confusion; scores varied wildly, some praising the game’s atmosphere and unique gameplay, others grumbling about frustrating controls and linear map design. Edge described it as “a piece of Scandinavian furniture” with “he wrong pieces in the box, ambiguous instructions and too few tools to make it all come together”, and awarded it five out of ten. Fair enough, but shouldn’t they have given it an extra point or two for innovation?

Even when developers get it right and produce a game that is both innovative and critically acclaimed (not an easy feat), success isn’t necessarily guaranteed. ICO and Shadow of the Colossus – cult classics that I regularly drone on about in this blog – were hardly big sellers, and Okami wasn’t exactly a goldmine in either of its incarnations.

Gamers may say they crave fresh new ideas, but the evidence suggests that they rarely rush out to buy them when they eventually appear. December 2008 saw the release of the quirky and wonderfully original LittleBigPlanet, a game which should have shot to number one in the charts. But what did the public choose as their top Christmas game? FIFA 09, which I’m told is a football game of some kind. Even the abysmal Need for Speed: Undercover, a game so bad it gives me a headache, is currently in the top gaming chart top five while LittleBigPlanet languishes in relative obscurity.

My conclusion? That the innovative, the original and the quirky are a relatively niche interest, enjoyed by a small (but vocal) minority. The broader game buying public, meanwhile, prefer sequels, tie-ins and sports titles – hardly an incentive for developers to flex their creative muscle.

That’s why my first novel – if I ever write one – won’t be a Finnegans Wake-style work of earthshattering originality. It’ll be called The Michelangelo Conundrum, and it’ll be appearing in a bargain bin near you soon…

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Ryan writes his gaming column every week at Den Of Geek. Last week’s is here.

8 January 2009