Just What is Innovation Really Worth?

by Steve Bowler on November 24, 2008 · 6 comments

in general

Keith Stuart posted what comes off as a little bit of a defensive post in favor of Mirror’s Edge regarding some reviews of it (or really at least just IGN’s) which he claims are overlooking the “innovation” that ME brings to the table.

First off, I don’t know what he’s getting so upset over.  It’s not like he worked on it (or did he?).  I’ve seen games that I’ve worked on for years (ones that caused me to abandon my family for months at a time) get ripped apart by shallow callous reviewers, and I had to bite my tongue and take it.  Sure, I would have loved to have gone on the internets and registered my righteous indignation at the reviewer, but to what end?  It wouldn’t move any more units; it wouldn’t convince anyone to buy the game.

Second, I don’t really think that Mirror’s Edge is all that innovative.  After all, someone beat them to market with a mod of Crysis that ostensibly covers their core navigation mechanic.  But more importantly, Stuart makes some heavy-handed comparisons, putting Mirror’s Edge and films like Blade Runner, Apocalypse Now, and The Magnificent Ambersons in good company.  

Can you imagine, for a second, critics emerging from the press screening of Apocalypse Now, or The Magnificent Ambersons, or Bladerunner and proclaiming, ‘yeah, it had some good ideas, but it wasn’t perfect – I’ll look forward to the sequel’.

Allow me to pull out my LLoyd Bentsen misquote right off the bat, and say that Mirror’s Edge, sir, is no Blade Runner.  It’s not even in the same league, let alone ballpark, as Apocalypse Now.  And more to the point, I think he pretty much makes his own counter-argument by claiming that fictional reviewers might look forward to sequels to films that were never considered for sequels.  The films never made enough money or interest to merit one, regardless if their plots or creators ever deemed a sequel necessary or worthy. 

Apocalypse Now has made in its lifetime $82 million.  Most movies nowadays, especially the innovative ones, cost more money than that just to make.  Blade Runner worldwide made just $32 million.  Pan’s Labrynth is $83 million.  For comparison with some more “mainstream” films (some would say just as innovative), Star Wars (just A New Hope) has made $775 million in its lifetime.  The Matrix has made $460 million.  Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, easily the worst and least innovative of the Indy movies, has done $786 million worldwide alone.

The point in pointing out these numbers, since we’re throwing out analogies to films and videogame innovation, is that it seems that no matter how well a movie is interpreted as “innovative” by a reviewer, the truest mark of success lies in its ability to inure itself with the consumer.

However, I wonder, what is Stuart really after here?  Okay, I’ll give.  Let’s say, just for argument’s sake, that Mirror’s Edge really is all that.  Let’s say it is just as good as a Pan’s Labrynth or an Eraserhead.

Shoudln’t that mean it is reviewed and received at the “box office” just as well?  None of the movies Stuart lists can be considered a box office smash by any means.  In fact, if we look back at the “Clover” era of gaming, all of which were given the “innovative” nods in their reviews, we’ll see a whole lotta flop.

Okami, Viewtiful Joe, and Godhand, were all for the most part failures at the “box office.”  Okami and Viewtiful Joe were both received very well by reviewers (93 and 90 Metacritics respectively), one enough to spawn an ill fated sequel, but in the end it wasn’t enough to keep the studio open.  Because nobody bought the games.

And that’s because no matter how much a reviewer cares about innovation, the general consumer public does not.  And before everyone throws out anecdotal evidence to the contrary, keep in mind that if you’re reading this website then you are not the general consumer public.  A good review, even the most shining one will never be enough to convince people to go buy innovation.  The market has already proven this.

What convinces the market to buy a title is the general “verve” a product has.  From marketing, to buzzworthiness, to “attach rates,” to simple peer or forum discussion.  Reviews hardly ever come into play.  Gerstman’s 6.whatever review of Kane and Lynch (and the overall Metacritic rating of 65) didn’t stop it from selling well over a million units.  We can always trot out the Enter the Matrix example, where the general Metacritic of 62 didn’t stop it from selling ahead of four million units (or was it six?).  We’ve already visited examples of well received games that didn’t even make enough money to keep a company afloat.

So we can plainly see that even if reviewers can see the innovation (and let’s be fair, there isn’t that much innovation in Mirror’s Edge other than a change of camera), it really just doesn’t matter.  

The game, no matter how innovative, won’t be served by getting a better review, because in the end, it’s the consumer who dictates if a game is worthy of a sequel.  Not the reviewer.