When Innovation Attacks

Friday, March 6, 2009
Innovation is a two way street. Many of today's greatest games can link their success to something they've done differently. Call of Duty 4, Spore, Grand Theft Auto, Portal, just to name a few. But as I said before, no game has to innovate to be good.

All too often in fact, developers focus too much on innovation, ignoring playability or design in favor of some mechanic or another, turning something good into a gimmick. Other games just don't implement their innovative tech effectively. Either way, many games every year have their potential wasted in the name of innovation,

When talking about gimmicky games I can think of few better examples than LucasArts sole non Star Wars release in a billion years, Fracture. Fracture relies on one little piece of gameplay known to us as terrain deformation. Essentially you can manipulate the ground somewhat, raise or lower terrain as you see fit. It's nothing new, it's been a part of many games since Myth: The Fallen Lords. This however, isn't just a piece of the greater game, it's the whole damn thing.

Everything, from the level design to the weapons to the horrible story revolves around terrain deformation technology. Here's where it gets a little hard to follow. Playing through the demo, I could see where the story was wrapped around the play mechanic rather than the other way around. It's a time tested method for making a failed game, and it worked.

Trying to fit a game around a play mechanic is like trying to fit an orange skin around your head. It doesn't work out too well for the orange skin or your head in the end. Developers concept meetings should never start with "it'd be really cool if you could do (x mechanic) in this game." Comments like that too early kill games. That magic phrase should only come (if ever) at the end of the development process.

Some games manage to avoid this line of thought and still fail, despite innovative touches. Sometimes the developers try too hard and cram in too much stuff for one game. Sometimes people make Alone in the Dark (people in this sense being Eden games).

Alone in the dark didn't have to be a bad game. It could have been a great game in fact, had it not tried to stack so much new material into its spindly frame. All those different things you could make and do were really cool, I just wish it hadn't landed the game a control scheme more unwieldy than the pain box from Dune.

I remember one part of Alone in the Dark in a museum. I was being attacked by these fissure people (So-called because of the glowing fissures erupting from their skin. Aren't I clever?) and knew that ire hurt them more than just bullets. So, as the monster approaches, I open my coat, scroll to my lighter fluid, select it, then scroll over to my bullets select them and okay the combination to get a clip of flaming bullets. As if the process weren't tedious enough, Every time I ran out of bullets, I had to repeat the process if I wanted more.

Neither Fracture or Alone in the dark had to be this awful. They could have been good, or in Fracture's case at least not so awful. But Fracture's team had a mechanic before they had a game and Alone in the Dark's team didn't know when to stop. They all put their money on "innovation" and they all lost in the end.