Posted by nintendoeats (5975 posts) -

Anybody who has been following the video game industry in recent years knows that the growth of the indie game scene has led to an explosion of news ideas and niche mechanics that we haven’t seen since the early days of the Commodore 64, and bedroom coders. It also seems pretty obvious why: large scale production is expensive, and publishers need to know that games getting a lot of funding will sell. Indies face bigger personal risk, but since they really can’t compete with large-scale development houses anyway they have no choice but to try innovative things. Now that I’m a bit of a ways into developing an indie game, I think that I can express that sentiment in a slightly more concrete way.

This is my obligatory Call of Duty image

It’s not simply a matter of audience familiarity. Some people believe that big developers only make titles that are similar to other popular games because audiences already know what to expect from them and will make a purchase based on prior good experiences. That may be true to a certain extent, but I don’t think that it’s the main reason. No, the really big difficulty is designer familiarity.

If you can tell your coworkers "go build me Starcraft and I'll be back with cool stuff in a month", you'll save everybody a lot of time and embarrassment

Imagine that you are a game designer. You have been tasked with making a first person shooter, and the development cycle is 18 months. The programmers need to know generally what the game is going to look like as soon as possible so that they can start coding up the engine, and the tools, and all of the interactions that you need. The artists need to know what the technical requirements of their work are, and what types of things to start working on. Well, you already have a pretty good set of things to tell them! “The player is going to be a camera floating in space that will control like *** and we are going for a feel that is like *** so the animation system should work like ***…” so on and so forth. You know basically what you’re going to need because there are already a whole bunch of genre conventions that you can work with, and can adjust at the outset based on prior experience. This buys you valuable time to innovate on more trivial, but safer things. You know that unless you really make a hash of it, the game is going to have tried-and-tested elements that will make it at least playable.

Now I’m going to pull an example from the game that I’m working on (which some of you may have played in an early form before). It looks and controls like a twin-stick shooter, but it’s also very fast and intended to be quite tactical in spots…and that’s just the start of it. Without getting into details, it’s got a whole bunch of elements that are intended to make it feel like an action movie. Now, we already have some mechanics that we know can be a lot of fun, but we didn’t get that from prior experience. We got it from a prototype that I had to work on in my spare time for almost 6 months. So it’s taken us half a year to get not even to the point where a team developing a shooter starts: a basic sense of what elements are core to our game.

Does this image make sense? It's OK if it doesn't, because we're still figuring out how it's supposed to work too

The most useful trick for getting around this problem is to look at games in other genres that have achieved things that you like, but adapting one element of a game and putting it into a new structure isn’t easy either. The prototype that I built contained a system lifted directly from Bulletstorm, and while it worked in that game (sort of) it didn’t fit ours well. In the end, all we managed to prove is that using a scoring system like that isn’t worth the problems that it creates. If there were more games already out there like ours, we would have known that much sooner.

And in the end, it may turn out that we’re wrong, because we can’t really forsee what problems are going to crop up later in development. Will it turn out that our mechanics create a lot of restrictions in level design? We want stealth sections, but will it turn out that there is no way to organically force the player to be more cautious? These kinds of questions can be answered easily in genre games, but they require a lot of time to answer otherwise…time that can be difficult to come by. They need to be answered too, because even simple questions like “should we make bullets deal less damage over long distances” can be very costly if you answer them wrong at the beginning of development.

The point that I’m trying to make here is that small scale innovations are much easier to make than big ones, not because new genres are hard to come up with but because developing them into something fun is a massive and risky undertaking. With that said, it’s worth it: Assassin’s Creed, Burnout and even Mario had to go through released iterations before they reached their full potential, but I think we’re all glad that they did.

EDIT: Rereading this, it sort of looks like a thinly-veiled advertisement. That was not my intent. Sorry :(

#1 Edited by nintendoeats (5975 posts) -

Anybody who has been following the video game industry in recent years knows that the growth of the indie game scene has led to an explosion of news ideas and niche mechanics that we haven’t seen since the early days of the Commodore 64, and bedroom coders. It also seems pretty obvious why: large scale production is expensive, and publishers need to know that games getting a lot of funding will sell. Indies face bigger personal risk, but since they really can’t compete with large-scale development houses anyway they have no choice but to try innovative things. Now that I’m a bit of a ways into developing an indie game, I think that I can express that sentiment in a slightly more concrete way.

This is my obligatory Call of Duty image

It’s not simply a matter of audience familiarity. Some people believe that big developers only make titles that are similar to other popular games because audiences already know what to expect from them and will make a purchase based on prior good experiences. That may be true to a certain extent, but I don’t think that it’s the main reason. No, the really big difficulty is designer familiarity.

If you can tell your coworkers "go build me Starcraft and I'll be back with cool stuff in a month", you'll save everybody a lot of time and embarrassment

Imagine that you are a game designer. You have been tasked with making a first person shooter, and the development cycle is 18 months. The programmers need to know generally what the game is going to look like as soon as possible so that they can start coding up the engine, and the tools, and all of the interactions that you need. The artists need to know what the technical requirements of their work are, and what types of things to start working on. Well, you already have a pretty good set of things to tell them! “The player is going to be a camera floating in space that will control like *** and we are going for a feel that is like *** so the animation system should work like ***…” so on and so forth. You know basically what you’re going to need because there are already a whole bunch of genre conventions that you can work with, and can adjust at the outset based on prior experience. This buys you valuable time to innovate on more trivial, but safer things. You know that unless you really make a hash of it, the game is going to have tried-and-tested elements that will make it at least playable.

Now I’m going to pull an example from the game that I’m working on (which some of you may have played in an early form before). It looks and controls like a twin-stick shooter, but it’s also very fast and intended to be quite tactical in spots…and that’s just the start of it. Without getting into details, it’s got a whole bunch of elements that are intended to make it feel like an action movie. Now, we already have some mechanics that we know can be a lot of fun, but we didn’t get that from prior experience. We got it from a prototype that I had to work on in my spare time for almost 6 months. So it’s taken us half a year to get not even to the point where a team developing a shooter starts: a basic sense of what elements are core to our game.

Does this image make sense? It's OK if it doesn't, because we're still figuring out how it's supposed to work too

The most useful trick for getting around this problem is to look at games in other genres that have achieved things that you like, but adapting one element of a game and putting it into a new structure isn’t easy either. The prototype that I built contained a system lifted directly from Bulletstorm, and while it worked in that game (sort of) it didn’t fit ours well. In the end, all we managed to prove is that using a scoring system like that isn’t worth the problems that it creates. If there were more games already out there like ours, we would have known that much sooner.

And in the end, it may turn out that we’re wrong, because we can’t really forsee what problems are going to crop up later in development. Will it turn out that our mechanics create a lot of restrictions in level design? We want stealth sections, but will it turn out that there is no way to organically force the player to be more cautious? These kinds of questions can be answered easily in genre games, but they require a lot of time to answer otherwise…time that can be difficult to come by. They need to be answered too, because even simple questions like “should we make bullets deal less damage over long distances” can be very costly if you answer them wrong at the beginning of development.

The point that I’m trying to make here is that small scale innovations are much easier to make than big ones, not because new genres are hard to come up with but because developing them into something fun is a massive and risky undertaking. With that said, it’s worth it: Assassin’s Creed, Burnout and even Mario had to go through released iterations before they reached their full potential, but I think we’re all glad that they did.

EDIT: Rereading this, it sort of looks like a thinly-veiled advertisement. That was not my intent. Sorry :(

#2 Posted by JasonR86 (9707 posts) -

For innovation to succeed the innovator needs some luck too. Bethesda makes fairly innovative products but they also happened to release Oblivion at the perfect time. The same is true of Fallout 3. The Wii is another example. The Wii remote is one of the most innovative products this generation. But it just happened to come out at the right time too. This 'timing' however seems almost random. I'm sure there is some thought behind when it is a good time versus a bad time to release a product but I still hold that 'luck' had a hell of a lot to do with it.

#3 Posted by Video_Game_King (36272 posts) -

@JasonR86 said:

For innovation to succeed the innovator needs some luck too. Bethesda makes fairly innovative products but they also happened to release Oblivion at the perfect time. The same is true of Fallout 3. The Wii is another example. The Wii remote is one of the most innovative products this generation. But it just happened to come out at the right time too. This 'timing' however seems almost random. I'm sure there is some thought behind when it is a good time versus a bad time to release a product but I still hold that 'luck' had a hell of a lot to do with it.

It also helps that all your examples are pretty good. Remember, kids: a game can innovate and still suck ass.

#4 Posted by nintendoeats (5975 posts) -

@Video_Game_King said:

It also helps that all your examples are pretty good. Remember, kids: a game can innovate and still suck ass.

That's basically my sub-thesis here. We could build a playable 6 hour game in 3 months, but it wouldn't be very much fun.

#5 Edited by Dylabaloo (1549 posts) -

@Video_Game_King said:

@JasonR86 said:

For innovation to succeed the innovator needs some luck too. Bethesda makes fairly innovative products but they also happened to release Oblivion at the perfect time. The same is true of Fallout 3. The Wii is another example. The Wii remote is one of the most innovative products this generation. But it just happened to come out at the right time too. This 'timing' however seems almost random. I'm sure there is some thought behind when it is a good time versus a bad time to release a product but I still hold that 'luck' had a hell of a lot to do with it.

It also helps that all your examples are pretty good. Remember, kids: a game can innovate and still suck ass.

That actually happens quite frequently. Similar to genres of music.

#6 Edited by deathstriker666 (1337 posts) -

Thinking new ideas isn't hard. Being creative or original isn't either. It's just that implementing those ideas successfully is hard, challenging work. Then there's just plain old, bad ideas. All too many times a game developer has learned that the hard way. As in they've spent weeks, even months trying to implement this idea only to realize how fucking stupid the whole idea was to begin with. All the work and effort they've poured into just to be flushed down the drain and never seen in the final product. It can be demoralizing, wretched, and even be the reason why some games never even come out. Yes, certainly innovation is hard

#7 Posted by Video_Game_King (36272 posts) -

@deathstriker666 said:

Thinking new ideas isn't hard. Being creative or original isn't either.

Yes, they are pretty effing hard. People back in Bible times knew that there weren't any new ideas left, and I doubt things have gotten better in the following few thousand years.

#8 Posted by nintendoeats (5975 posts) -

@Video_Game_King: A 6 legged chair with fins made out of a furry substance with an Mp3 player and guitar amplifier built into it.

See? coming up with ideas is easy.

#9 Posted by Video_Game_King (36272 posts) -

Ah, but is that idea new? You had to reference previous ideas to get to that idea, and in that sense, it is not new, but a composite of older ideas.

#10 Posted by nintendoeats (5975 posts) -

@Video_Game_King: Hmm, fair enough. I'm not sure that it's possible to express a truly new idea using only written language.

I must ponder.

#11 Posted by Video_Game_King (36272 posts) -

Of course, this issue becomes more complicated when one realizes just how intricately tied thought and language are.

#12 Edited by TheDudeOfGaming (6078 posts) -

Well, it's not really impossible to bring innovation in video games, difficult, sure. But i could argue it's a lot more difficult to bring innovation to music or movies. Gameplay mechanics offer a wide range of possibilities, and despite video games being around for let's say 40 years, we're just at the tip of the iceberg. And innovation doesn't necessarily have to be in gameplay or its mechanics. Graphics, plot, storytelling, OST, design, art style etc. These are all areas where you can implement new, innovative ideas, depending on the genre it can be more or less difficult.

And by the way, pretty interesting thread.

#13 Posted by nintendoeats (5975 posts) -

@Video_Game_King: Hey, you're talking to the guy who is in the process of reading everything that George Orwell ever wrote. Thought and language be tight bra.

@TheDudeOfGaming: Gaming has it's own limitations though, because it has to account for audience a lot more. If I lose the plot thread in a movie, I can pick it up later or just enjoy some other aspect. If I lose track of how game mechanics work, I'm just going to stop playing.

Though overall I agree, there is a lot more room overall to innovate in games as a medium than is at least immediately apparent in music or movies.

#14 Edited by deathstriker666 (1337 posts) -

@Video_Game_King said:

@deathstriker666 said:

Thinking new ideas isn't hard. Being creative or original isn't either.

Yes, they are pretty effing hard. People back in Bible times knew that there weren't any new ideas left, and I doubt things have gotten better in the following few thousand years.

Oh wise Video_Game_King, forgive my peasant ignorance, but surely the Bible has nothing to do with video games. I speak not as an infidel, but surely this Moon Kingdom is not one that would believe in Jesus? Unless, Space Jesus?

#15 Posted by Slag (4379 posts) -

Neat thread, @nintendoeats

Yeah in the financial sense Innovation is risk. Iteration is low risk and easier to project.

Innovation is "tough" right now in some cases because, game pubs are trying to carry increasingly larger budgets while being forced to adhere to lower prices to appease the consumer and thus are risk averse. It's what makes things like Steam and kickstarter so exciting in a way , if devs can find alternate ways to fund their games than they can decide whether they want to risk innovating or not.

Online
#16 Posted by Video_Game_King (36272 posts) -

@deathstriker666:

Who said I cited it for religious reasons? The quote itself does not reference Jesus in any fashion, and I do find it quite relevant to video games as a whole (hell, it was even used in a video game (LA Noire, anyone?)). If we are to hold up newness and originality as ideals (itself a fallacy), then we must establish that they are both real things. I used that quote to do just the opposite.

#17 Posted by RagingLion (1365 posts) -

This reasoning has gone through my mind before and I completely agree. It also explains as you elude to in the final part of this blog why sequels aren't as negative a phenomenon as they might otherwise be. For those games that push the boat out in delivering something quite new (though probably with many still very recognisable elements from other games) it often doesn't work out so well on the first try, but these are all things that can be much better honed on later attempts, especially because your design pipeline and a lot of the tools have already been created by this point. Assassin's Creed is a good example of this.

#18 Posted by tourgen (4500 posts) -

Yeah. I pretty much agree with all of this. Even making a decent clone of another game from the ground up is a monstrous amount of work and takes skill and experience.

#19 Posted by Arker101 (1474 posts) -

@nintendoeats said:

@Video_Game_King: A 6 legged chair with fins made out of a furry substance with an Mp3 player and guitar amplifier built into it.

See? coming up with ideas is easy.

Sorry, I already patented that. You could try that with 7 legs and feathers if you wanted.