“New” Doesn’t Mean Innovative: Video Game Originality Comes in Many Forms

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For the past several years, it has been often suggested that there are simply not enough original titles in production in the gaming industry; that the triple-A mainstream gaming space has become obsessed with leaning on existing successful video game franchises – as well as other popular IP from the world of pop culture – in order to generate the greatest consumer interest in their releases. Indeed, as far back as 2011, critics including notable blogger Michael Abbott wrote that the industry was in danger of coming to resemble “a snake devouring its own tail”, with “meagre differences” between titles being an example of studios going back to the well one too many time.

On the face of it, many could argue that the critics had a point. After all, according to figures released by market research firm NPD Group to gaming publication Gamespot, annualized juggernaut Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare dominated the best-selling sales charts for 2016 following its release on November 4, emulating the success of the first-person shooter series’ previous entry, Black Ops III, which achieved over $550 million in revenue within 72 hours of its launch on November 6, 2015. The news came as especially encouraging to publisher Activision – and perhaps equally as discouraging for the industry – due to the fact that the title had received only middling reviews, with critics complaining that Infinite Warfare lacked innovation and instead relied on a rehashed formula that was far too a familiar sight for regular players of the series.

Original IPs, Good and Bad

A cursory glance at the same best-selling list reveals a different story, however. Nestled in alongside yearly franchises such as FIFA and CoD, sit brand new titles including The Division, released by Ubisoft on March 8, 2016 and Blizzard’s Overwatch, which launched on May 24, 2016 following an extensive beta period. Particularly encouraging was the fact that the latter also scooped multiple game-of-the-year awards and was acclaimed in our own review as “amazing“. Both games, while one an open-world action adventure, and the other a team-based first-person hero shooter, embodied everything new games should be about: innovation, originality, and some of the best gameplay in recent memory.

That being said, for every Overwatch and The Division, there was a new IP released that failed miserably, from Gearbox Software’s Battleborn to Deep Silver’s Mighty Number 9; the former of which saw a fall of concurrent Steam players from 12,000 to less than 1,000 in only a few months following its launch on May 3, 2016. Are we missing the point completely if we are judging a game’s originality simply by whether or not it is based on an existing franchise?

Case Study: Jurassic Park

To illustrate the point, let us take a look at the mainstream behemoth of a franchise that is Jurassic Park. Some 24 years after the premiere of Steven Spielberg’s seminal flick (and 27 years after the release of the Michael Crichton novel it was based on), the series’ name alone still carries with it a certain amount of clout and prestige. The theatrical release of the commercial and critical hit that was Jurassic World in 2015 proved that it is still possible for creators to be original and innovative with decades-old franchises. That movie, which grossed $1.6 billion against a budget of $150 million, and the series as a whole, has also gone on to spawn numerous original releases in various forms of popular culture.

TT GamesLEGO Jurassic World, released for consoles and smartphones in July 2015, received widespread positive reviews for its engaging and intuitive gameplay; it was the latest entry in a long line of video games based on the series. The franchise has also seen the release of an officially licenced 5-reel, 243-ways-to-win online slots game hosted by Betway Casino, which features iconography, sound effects and music from the original film set against a parallax scrolling jungle background. Two comic book series, published by Topps and IDW Comics respectively, were released between 1993 and 2017, whilst the series has even provided the theme for a number of theme park rides at Universal Studios locations in the US, Japan and Singapore: Jurassic Park: The Ride in LA was developed while the original film was still in production, and is open to this day.

If Abbott and the like were correct, you would think that after so many releases in many different forms of media, the Jurassic Park franchise would have long outstayed its welcome. Instead, Jurassic World 2, which will see Chris Pratt reprise his role from the first movie, is perhaps as hotly anticipated as any other upcoming Hollywood blockbuster; a “first-look” single-frame image received almost 16,000 likes on Instagram recently. The enduring success of the franchise just goes to show that innovation and originality are still possible in a franchise that are almost three decades old.

“Originality” and “Existing IP”: Not Mutually Exclusive

That is a philosophy that can be directly applied to the video game industry, as well. Take EA’s Battlefield 1, for example, which released back in October of 2016. Despite being the fifteenth installment in the DICE-developed first-person shooter franchise, the title received widespread critical acclaim for its unique and original retelling of World War I, as well as some much-welcomed innovations to its squad-based warfare. The success of Battlefield 1 (it was the second best-selling of 2016, according to the NPD, and achieved 89% in our review), coupled with the aforementioned failure of Battleborn, would certainly seem to point to the fact that “innovation” and “existing IP” are not mutually exclusive terms. Effectively: while the owners of existing successful franchises will often leverage their popularity to produce a sure-fire commercially successful video game, that’s not to say that innovation through iteration is out of the question. And while there are plenty of examples out there of developers being lazy with popular IP – such as the rehashathon that was 2K Sports’ WWE 2K17 – Jurassic Park and its ilk go to show that originality can still be achieved within the framework of an existing franchise if developers are ready and willing to put the work in.

Guerrilla Games’ PS4-exclusive Horizon Zero Dawn, released on February 28, 2017, was one of the most anticipated video game titles of 2017, with initial reviews, including our 95% score, suggesting the hype was well deserved. The action RPG has sold 2.6 million copies to date, making it the most successful launch for an original IP on the PS4, and is likely to follow in the footsteps of Overwatch by achieving multiple game-of-the-year nominations come the end of the year. Surely, that must make the case for new IP trumping existing franchises? Not really. You only have to look at the other early leading candidate for game of the year 2017 to see that that is simply not the case. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, released alongside the Nintendo Switch on March 3, 2017, falls within the confines of a franchise that is even older than Jurassic Park (the first Zelda game launched for the NES in 1986), but has been widely praised for being one of the most innovative and original games in recent memory; it may well be the title that saves the Switch from an early and undignified exit from discussions regarding the best video game consoles.

Innovation and Iteration

Overall, what we can ultimately take away from the case studies we’ve looked at today is that “new” doesn’t necessarily equate to “originality”, nor does it equate to a successful video game industry. Rather, video game developers must instead continue to innovate and drive originality from within whichever frameworks they are bound by – be that new or existing franchises. Laziness and the stifling of creativity will ultimately lead to an unhealthy gaming industry, but these must not be confused with simply the continuation and iteration of existing, successful IP. While there are many sequels out there that simply rehash the same formula of their predecessors, there are countless more that showcase innovation and gaming excellence. Similarly, while there are a number of failed new IPs on the market, there are also a number of hugely successful, popular ones; they too will become embedded within popular culture and go on to spawn their own successful (and not so successful) successors.

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