EA’s very gradual innovation

Joystiq has a post up on a talk EA executive Neil Young gave at the Game Developers Conference about innovation, and it reflects the same troubling EA strategy I wrote about a while back.

In his GDC talk, Young described EA’s focus on “feature IP,” or “feature innovation.” As he explained to GameSpot last year, feature innovation is “new, innovative features that take the existing franchises and move them forward in interesting ways” — as opposed to “franchise innovation,” which is taking a chance on entirely new games like Spore. Young gave one example of a feature IP that he thinks will make Medal of Honor the top World War II franchise: ” ‘ECAP’ for ‘Emotion Capture.’ Emotion Capture is enabled by software that allows EA to generate believable emotion in digital characters in order to generate player empathy.” As Joystiq puts it, this is equivalent to Disney having much more believable, emotional animation in Little Mermaid versus Snow White.

Even if Emotion Capture does result in more realistic faces and more believable characters, it’s not the kind of innovation that really boosts sales and enriches a company. For one thing, if video game writing remains cliched and bad, more believable faces won’t make a game any better. For another, incremental innovation is too often simply a justification for releasing derivative games that are otherwise rehashes of the previous installment.

The biggest problem with feature innovation is that, unlike fully new games that a company owns and profits from, any new feature that catches on inevitably gets incorporated into every other company’s games. If Emotion Capture works, you can be sure Activision and Take-Two will work up their own versions. When Zelda: Ocarina of Time introduced lock-on targeting, which solved a big problem of 3D gaming, everyone else copied the feature. That’s why so many sports games hype some new batting control or motion capture or fantasy sports feature — they all copy each other, and none of them stand out.

EA has been paying lip service to innovation a lot recently, but Young’s talk adds more reason to be skeptical. Their whole strategy seems to be to let Will Wright do whatever he wants and otherwise churn out reliable sequels. We’ll see where the next huge, original non-Wright franchise comes from. I bet it won’t be from EA.

— April 15, 2006

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