Wednesday, March 11, 2009

I'm sorry, we're all out of Mirror's Edge. Would you like some more Halo?

Guess what? The economy sucks, and the gaming industry is eating crow for its earlier boasting of being recession-proof. As smaller studios go dark, larger studios are thinning their ranks and hunkering down for what could be a long, dark period for the American dollar. They’re also hedging their bets on original Intellectual Property (IP).

In 2008, Electronic Arts published two big-budget original IPs – Dead Space and Mirror’s Edge. It funneled all the resources of a franchised, AAA title into the two games, put the PR crew to work and expected suitable returns. While the former was a critical smash and the latter divisive, both were commercial disappointments. When it came time to announce Q4 figures, EA was forced to admit that its gambit had flopped.

If we believe the recent remarks of Sega Europe's CEO, recent belt-tightening means fewer risks, fewer original IPs, and fewer fresh ideas. We’ll buy our sequels and we’ll like ‘em. Should we lower our brims, slouch in our recliners and say: “Wake me up when the recession ends?”

On Charge Shot!!!, the quasi-jargony “original IP” gets thrown around a lot. Intellectual Property is any human thought with copyright protection; really, all IP is by definition original, so excuse the redundancy. In the gaming industry, original IP denotes a game that features a story, cast and universe that has no correlation in film, books or other games. It is not Halo 3, nor is it Call of Duty 4: 2. Bioshock is an original IP, but Bioshock 2 is not. Savvy?

Both Dead Space and Mirror’s Edge immerse the player in a universe that was tailored to the game. Dead Space ripped off System Shock 2’s plot and Resident Evil 4’s control scheme, but the presentation and atmosphere were so compelling and the gameplay so honed that any odor of plagiarism was ignored. Mirror’s Edge, however, is as original as they get. DICE and EA brought us a first-person parkour game, strapping players into the sneakers of Faith, a rooftop courier in a squeaky-clean dystopia that feels like a cross between George Orwell and Office Max.

Mirror’s Edge didn’t work as well as critics or gamers hoped, but there was no denying its freshness. Frustrating as it could be, one was glad it existed. It signaled an industry that was willing to make mistakes in the name of innovation.

When Q4 losses revealed an industry that was all but recession proof, everyone knew that original IPs were put on ice and locked away. Sega Europe CEO Mike Hayes only confirmed it:

"... I think that publishers in general will reduce the number of titles that they'll bring to market," said Hayes. "Whether than means people will focus less on innovation and more on sequelization of course is a big debate.

On deck for 2009 is a spread of sure-fire success sequels like Bioshock 2 and Call of Duty 4: 2. Halo: ABCD will sell even if the box is revealed to contain ten grams of Anthrax instead of a disc. Despite Microsoft's stated commitment to original IP, don’t bet on larger developers investing their legions of designers, programmers and artists in the name of art. Not until the market shores up.

Where, then, do we turn to innovation? Thankfully, titles like World of Goo, Audiosurf and Braid have shown that new, vigorous IP is being produced by independent studios and designers. These are people whose interest in game design is, by and large, solely artistic. Hell, Jonathan Blow sank his personal fortune into the creation of Braid. This is the providence of risk-taking. There’s nothing to lose.

EA will continue to expand its profit-turning franchises, and I can only hope they’ll one day empty their coffers in the name of innovation. In the meantime, keep an eye on, or even us, your humble servants at Charge Shot!!!. We’ll be watching the soul of the industry grow alongside its pockets.