Game designers stuck in a rut, or a groove?

Commorancy over at Randosity posted a little bit ago on how he believes game designers are stuck in a rut and not progressing at the same pace as console hardware. He covers so much ground that I decided to respond through my own post as opposed to a comment.

First off, I agree that while games have become increasingly beautiful and complex it seems that designers have increasingly turned to proven gaming conventions as opposed to innovative new gameplay.

Mostly I see this as hedging their bets and not necessarily a bad thing. If they didn’t work well, they wouldn’t be conventions. When you are investing millions of dollars and one to two years to develop what you hope will be a AAA title, you probably don’t want to stray too far from what has been proven to work. If it aint broke…

That’s why the indie game scene has to be the realm of innovation. That’s where titles like Braid come from. These smaller budget games can better afford to take chances because the risk isn’t as high. It’s just like music and movies. You have your major players who play to the masses, and your subset of independent companies struggling to get noticed so they can become major players. The major players stick with what they did to get to the head of the pack, while the smaller companies leverage true creativity in an attempt to usurp them.

If they have any success then the major players will hire some of the people from the smaller companies to attempt to mimik or recreate that success at a commercial level, which leads to compromise, which leaves the door open for new independent companies to usurp the new order. I’ve seen it a thousand times. Well, once. OK, never.

But gamers are not stupid, and we decide through our purchasing power who succeeds and who fails in this endless wheel of innovation. We are the keepers of the almighty dollar that these publishers worship, and we can see through them when they try to cheapen that trust by cutting corners to make a quick buck.

Just because we have to wade through five bad or marginal first-person shooters before someone comes out with a Call of Duty 4 doesn’t mean that developers should stop making first-person shooters. And by wade through, I mean hear about… You don’t have to play them; I am highly discriminatory myself (at $60 per game in this economy who can afford to not be). But those bad shooters may have some good conventions or ideas that eventually work through the meat grinder to find their way into better titles.

I’m never going to criticize someone for creating something. I may not buy it, or play it, or like it, but I’ll definitely encourage the creative process.
And games are big business now ($22 billion last year), so I wouldn’t be surprised to see even more less-than-quality titles as developers shovel out games on a tight budget just to turn a profit. For some of these bargain-bin guys it’s just about the money first, the customer second.

I would argue that is a bad business model, as developers like Valve have proven that if you take good care of the customers the money and loyalty will follow. And I would go even further to say that the existence of companies producing shovelware is a good thing for gaming. It’s from those projects that budding designers cut their teeth. And think, cheaply produced B-movies haven’t ruined the movie industry. Just because someone makes a game doesn’t mean you have to buy it or play it… You’re probably not the target audience.

What is happening in the world of gaming is similar to what has happened to Hollywood. For example, you have your large studios with massive budgets filming blockbusters and marketing the hell out of them to turn a profit (Here’re your Halo 3s, Killzone 2s, Grand Theft Auto IVs, etc.).

At the same time you have smaller studios filming more innovative and thought provoking pieces that don’t necessarily get the same national play as the large studio’s films, but are critically acclaimed and well liked by those who do have exposure to them (and here is Braid, World of Goo, Crayon Physics Deluxe, etc.).

And then you have the porn industry, companies trying to make a quick buck with absolutely no innovation (i.e. Nintendo Wii shovelware).

Inspiration from: Random Thoughts – Randosity!

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3 Responses to “Game designers stuck in a rut, or a groove?”

  1. commorancy Says:

    We only need to look at recent Hollywood movies as a basis for my rationale. In the last 5 years, innovation has been stifled in Hollywood. Movie producers are, like video game producers, taking the easy formula route. They use a time-tested formula to crank out their blockbuster titles. Instead of producing an innovative film that challenges the viewer, the film becomes a mediocre throw-away commodity. One only needs to look at box office receipts to understand this trend.

    This trend WILL follow into the video game industry, eventually. As money gets tighter, gamers will become more discriminating in what they buy. So, unless a title is outstanding, gamers won’t line up to buy it. Time-tested formulas work right now, but that’s because gamers aren’t completely pinching pennies, yet. When penny pinching time comes, the titles that are considered mediocre won’t sell even if they use a tried and true formula. It’s not the formula that matters in a game. It’s that the game is compelling to play. And, you create a compelling game through innovation. It’s that the game challenges the player in new ways, not in old ways that have been done before. As a gamer, you don’t want to play the same game 5 times wrapped in a different story.

    After all, $60 is a lot to shell out on a title that you play for a day and trade back in because it sucks. Gamers will only tolerate a certain level of this in games before these games stop selling. Once game buyers reach this point, game designers will have to innovate or close their doors.

    If any company is both an early casualty and prime example of this trend, it’s EA. EA is cranking out so many games with overused formulas that used to work that this is part of the reason EA actually had a loss. While most of the rest of the industry is doing well, EA is actually failing… and that’s due primarily to lack of innovation in EA games.

    • cornfedgamer Says:

      I think we largely agree on a lot of points. I agree that there is a general complacency with “the old ways” in a lot of new games. I just don’t think it’s necessarily all bad news. I think its a sign of the medium maturing.

      But I disagree on one thing. I think tighter budgets will mean more formulaic games. Gamers by and large will turn to IPs they know and trust, or new games that look similar. They will be less likely to risk their hard earned cash on experimental games.

      And I agree that Electronic Arts is a big culprit. But they’re the 700-ton dinosaur, supporting thousands of jobs and shareholders. They’re so large they’re going to be slow to innovate and slow to adapt. They have to stick close to formulas of the past because they can’t afford as much risk. But on the flipside, when they’re pushing so many game out the door each year you think it wouldn’t hurt to have at least one “experimental division.”

      And you could also argue that EA is flirting with new styles of gameplay using Mirror’s Edge as an example. A first-person parkour simulator that discouraged combat in favor of fluidity of motion… so different it was difficult for some reviewers to peg, while traditional FPS veterans were butting heads against the wall by trying to go against the grain by running headfirst into combat situations.

      I would also disagree that innovation is the only way to create a compelling game. Narrative plays a big part in that. The games I want to play through to the end have stories that make me feel like something real is at stake and that I have to see it through to the end.

  2. commorancy Says:

    It is agreed that tighter budgets will likely lead to more use of formulas, not less. But, that also means less innovation and more stagnation. Whether the games that come out of that stagnation cycle are good or bad is not presently known. What is known, however, is that stagnation leads to monotony. Monotony is a precursor to boredom, so eventually the titles will suffer from lack of sales due to gamer boredom. In fact, I’ve seen that trend emerging already.

    Game titles are rapidly moving towards the same problem as movies. Sequels and existing franchises sell because of past successes, not because they are innovative. New titles and franchises don’t sell initially because gamers won’t take the chance. After all, $60 is a rather costly mistake. But, even sequels won’t last forever. Sequels and franchises usually have a life of up to 6 additional titles reusing the same formula. Final Fantasy and Harry Potter are the exceptions to this. Eventually, sequels die and can’t be revived (Star Trek, prime example).

    There is a certain amount of luck that goes along with producing a successful title. There’s no way around that. But, the amount of luck needed can be reduced if gamers are allowed to play test the game before release. Play testing can give valid positive (and negative) responses to the way the game works during the game development cycle. This can reduce the amount of luck necessary to make a successful game.

    As far as innovation goes, there have been some very innovative titles that have, at the same time, been quite successful. Three of these come to mind.. Bethesda’s Oblivion, Katamari Damacy and Shenmue. All three of these titles used innovative gaming techniques to produce compelling content. Was it a risk? Probably.. but Oblivion won game of the year. The GOTY moniker should have said something to the gaming industry as a whole. Yet, the designers have largely ignored Oblivion’s gaming formula in favor of Halo 3 style checkpoint campaigns. And this makes no sense really. Halo 3 was popular only because it had Master Chief and the Halo name. Every other game that’s used Halo 3’s formula (without the name) has been nowhere near as successful. So, it’s not really the formula that matters. Even gamers I’ve spoken to have admitted that Halo 3 wasn’t as compelling as previous Halo titles and overall lacked in inventiveness.

    As far as stories go.. that’s a problem that goes hand-in-hand with Hollywood. Innovation comes on two fronts. Technical innovation and narrative innovation. Technical innovation requires new and different gaming techniques be built by programmers. Story innovation drives the game by narrative content. For example, Assassin’s Creed had an excellent story behind this series. Even though the game itself became rapidly repetitive, the story was compelling enough for most people to overcome these technical issues. Although, there were still a lot of gamers who hated this title.

    While I would love to say that the stories are compelling in video games, the truth is.. most aren’t. Most games play off of ‘challenges’ to keep the gamer occupied rather than using engaging characters, storylines and dialog. And, as you said, it’s a matter of what’s at stake… when old gaming systems are used to drive the story and the story is only mildly entertaining, there’s very little that can make up for bad gameplay or overly hard challenges.

    For example, it drives me nuts when I play a game what shows me weapons in an intro level, but won’t let me pick them up or use them simply because ‘it’s not yet time’. This is an arbitrary decision that, for me, hinders the overall play value. Another issue is when games break from live FPS battles and jump into button timing and sequence mashing. For me, this slo-mo button pressing gets in the way of the storytelling and makes you focus on timing. This is not fun nor is it challenging. In other words, it’s important that the story and the game create synergy… that they work together to get to the end. When the gameplay gets in the way of the story (or vice versa), the game has failed.

    While executives may be thinking that reusing old formulas is the key to success, it isn’t. The key is in producing a compelling game title that works on multiple levels (graphics, audio, narrative and yes, even on technical inventiveness). So, we will have to agree to disagree that technical innovation combined with a reasonably engaging story is the key to keeping video games fresh.

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