A Change Would Do You Good

Change is equal parts powerful and frightening, and in some kind of Newtonian equality of opposition so to is the resistance to change. Change is unknown, uncertain and unfamiliar, none of which are necessarily traits that translate well into the world of business. Publishers are very conscious that, despite the occasional half-hearted complaint, gamers pay to play in a comfort zone of familiarity. It is one of a few foundations on which the video game industry is built, this idea of iteration and repetition. It is why we are about to enjoy a fifth Burnout, why Halo 3 breaks records for the entire entertainment industry on the day it's released, and why we naturally look forward to Starcraft 2. These are games built on the idea of repeating past successes, building naturally off the familiar and firmly entrenched in the idea of meeting fan expectations. And there is a meaningful place for these games.

But, I worry that the mainstream gaming industry is so locked into the financial necessity of meeting fan expectation, that the freedom necessary for experimentation is being undermined. Developers and publishers exist in a high-pressure environment where there are already a dozen or more reasons to temper creativity by the necessities of doing business in the big-budget machine, so it seems troubling that fan expectations sometimes compound the problem.

I enjoy predictability in my pabulum as much as the next guy, and for as completely formulaic as a game like Halo 3 might be at times, it is satisfying like a Big Mac when you're hungry or a watered down American beer when you've just finished mowing the lawn. But like the certain gastric doom of subsiding entirely off mass produced food stuffs, these games are not really enough to sustain an industry of big budgets and long development cycles. That may sound a little ridiculous on the heels of Halo's record breaking sales, but, of course, it needs to be kept in mind that at some point Halo itself was a new and uncertain franchise, a force for its own change of a kind.

After all, if Bungie had stayed the original course, they'd have just released another Marathon game for the Mac.

Innovation in gaming comes from daring to do the sacrilegious, the blasphemous, the ridiculous, the laughable and the offensive. It is weathering the scorn of producing a handheld with two screens, breaking away from the publishing chain to release your own direct distribution and community service or even eschewing the cemented vision of fans for an entirely new direction. Innovation often fails, is too expensive, is critically successful but commercially forgotten or never even has the opportunity to reach the market, and it's really not the best way to try and do business, but it is also the lifeblood that fuels a market that strains toward stagnation. The failures, in their own way, are as important in the long run as the games that redefine genres, IPs and expectations.

And, it's often its own worst enemy.

We revolve around an industry built on marketing and hype, and that does not make for a consumer base that is particularly comfortable with change. It's so conveniently easy to be excited for a Starcraft II that on passing glance seems to be virtually identical to its predecessor. And, considering that we will be saddled with a year or more of anticipation, increasingly meaningless screenshots and poorly informed previews, the saccharine taste of familiarity is going to make it a lot easier for fans of the series to grow their anticipation. Had Blizzard showed the temerity to dramatically alter Starcraft II, and then put it into the public eye for a year of development, the discontent of fans unhappy with the changes would have become a living and growing thing. Every screenshot of this unfamiliar game would be an insult, and with some degree of justification.

It's not that fans of a series are in the wrong for concocting their own vision of succeeding games, but that the industry demands years of public development while the internet gives endless voice to critics and supporters alike. The problem is not in the expectations, which are inevitable in a consumer base. The problem is with a cycle that forces the incomplete into public scrutiny, particularly when the publishers or developers are swimming upstream against expectation. It forces the makers of games, and particularly sequels, to fall in step or face outrage.

The solution is not in naively asking fans to change their expectations or worse have faith. You might as well ask the sun not to rise in the morning. It is the nature of fandom to take possession and to challenge those who break from canon. The solution instead is to trim the lead time on the entire industry, cut the years between announcement and launch down to weeks.

Personally, I'm never more enthusiastic about a game when I find that the time between its announcement and its release can be measured in months or even weeks. Not only does it lay the groundwork for a release not infected with unrealistic expectations, but it tends to catch me when my enthusiasm can still be fresh rather than spoiled by a long and tedious wait. I don't seem to have the self-control and strength of will to avoid endless developer diaries, screenshots, previews and interviews, even though I know that as my anticipation for a given game is desensitized by each publication so to my expectations, fueled by promises and hype, become unrealistic.

In the end, developing in an environment outside the marketing machine is an obvious boon to the quality of games. Without the necessity of having to meet fan expectations even years before release, it is conceivable that the quality of games could universally increase, and I remain unconvinced that the year of marketing hype that we would no longer suffer actually generates meaningful sales numbers. In the end, such a process might work to the betterment of everyone involved.

Comments

Call of Duty 4, as Rat Boy noted in his awards, is an example of what you're talking about.

It was announced in May (spearheaded by a Game Informer cover story), stole the show at E3 in July, was on Live as a multiplayer beta in September, and in our hands as a retail product in November.

While not quite boiled down to weeks, that's pretty damn great for a AAA franchise title. 6 month lead with a month-long beta in there.

I kind of think the real meat of your complaint is that, like test audiences who didn't like "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" in Wizard of Oz, it sometimes seems like developers pay too much attention to the kneejerk paranoia and complaints of the hardcore vocal minority fanbase, which can sometimes be a detriment. I can think of a few games where they seemed to be making changes to their work based on comments the rabid forums are insisting should be made.

Of course, it goes both ways. As you said, the negative to releasing info about your game years before it is released means you're talking about ideas and concepts in previews that may not come to fruition or hasn't been fully fleshed out, leading to misinterpretation by fans of what to expect from the game.

I also think the problem is that sticking closely to the ideals of a franchise seems a lot safer than taking something in a different direction. Look at how much disdain and anger is being attached to games like Nights and Burnout Paradise for rather modest changes to the previous formula. At a time where a developer has a good chance of folding after just one sales dud, it's understandable not to take very many chances on an established franchise.

This piece conflates a lot of ideas and is confusing me. Is the proposal to cut the development cycle time or just the public face of the cycle?

The game industry desperately needs the equivalent of the inexpensive handheld HD camera. The time, cost, knowledge and infrastructure needed to get a game off the ground is just so massive that few people who really enjoy gaming and have great gaming ideas will ever be able to realize them.

I wish some gaming studios would do what some of the better actors do and create a formulaic blockbuster and live off the proceeds while you do a few highly creative low-budget/indie titles that appeal to a smaller audience. Of course many actors are artists and are interested in furthering their art, whereas game studios are corporations and are inherently profit driven.

As for the long drawn out marketing cycle, I'd be quite happy to see that go away. However, good luck convincing the marketing world to give up their efforts to create 'buzz'.

/concur

*Edit Executive Summary:

Because we continue to buy the sure bet and avoid most innovation (yes I am aware that there have been departures that have been financial successes see Resident Evil 4) the industry will continue to stagnate. Blogs, reviews and podcasts are not the place to make our point, game developers will only hear money talk. The same goes for over priced DLC.

End Executive Summary

I think that Kuddles hits on some really great points especially where innovations are not well received. I will illustrate by using the obvious example, Nintendo. The Zelda series has been said to be loosing steam and in need of a revamp, I don't disagree. The problem is that Nintendo has repeatedly tried to breathe new life into the series and each time they are scolded for it (sometimes in the same breath as the need for innovation speech). Majora's Mask was a departure, but was not loved nearly as much as Ocarina of Time. Perhaps they needed to hold off between innovations the first bringing the franchise to 3d and then the later the groundhog day style Majora's mask stuff. Because the games that have made a departure did not sell as well as their previous installment the message sent is more of the same. I think that we as gamers overestimate the effect that critical acclaim and game blogs have. The bottom line is that game developers need to make what sells if departures do not then development will retreat to the safety of the installment that did sell.

On a side note innovation for the sake of innovation needs to go I am looking at you GHIII boss battles.

MikeMac wrote:
The game industry desperately needs the equivalent of the inexpensive handheld HD camera. The time, cost, knowledge and infrastructure needed to get a game off the ground is just so massive that few people who really enjoy gaming and have great gaming ideas will ever be able to realize them.

Indeed. Indie film thrives because even on a lower budget, you still have generally decent production values that competes with the biggies, and it also doesn't need to be a massive hit. Once game publishers can know that they spend a quarter the usual development budget on a title, thus not needing a million in sales to get their money back, and it also appeals to the general gaming crowd that would dismiss it due to "dated graphics", we'll see a lot more chances. My hope is Spore is the tipping point in the technology they utilize with that game and how similar stuff can be used in the future. Imagine if small development studios could create a character or creature design, and the engine automatically determines how it would move and animate for them.

Even larger productions that are sold to a smaller user base, not million selling main stream hits, could look at alternatives for fiscal feasibility. Looking at downloadable content as an alternative, a company could create a game that would only sell to the smaller enthusiast audience, but make a lot of money by selling more maps levels etc. I get the feeling that Rock Band is sort of doing this with the exception that I expect it to be a mainstream hit, they could be loosing money on the upfront sale (compare the band pack to the cost of GHIII) and making it up by selling song packs. This could come across like gouging though if the buy in to the game is too high compared to the initial content.

MikeMac wrote:
The game industry desperately needs the equivalent of the inexpensive handheld HD camera. The time, cost, knowledge and infrastructure needed to get a game off the ground is just so massive that few people who really enjoy gaming and have great gaming ideas will ever be able to realize them.

XNA ? RPGMaker ? Countless others ? There's a well-selling indie game made out of some sort of transmogrified RPG kit, which looks like a SNES RPG, pretty much. There's a lot of things out there already meant to simplify the technical aspects of making an indie game.

One thing however that will never be easy is transforming an idea into a detailed plan with a foundation that won't crumble under its weight later on. Playing games and having "ideas" is entirely different from implementing those ideas.

You may get rid of "cost" and "infrastructure", but "work" and "knowledge" will always remain as requirement. Using other people's tools to write a game may, let's say, bring your game-making to the level of ease with which you can take a pencil and start writing a book. However you need to know how to write a book. Everyone has ideas for a book they want to write, few actually end up writing one.

Is the proposal to cut the development cycle time or just the public face of the cycle?

The proposal is to cut the public face. Spend however long you need to make a great game, but only start really telling us about a couple of months at most before launch.

I agree with this. This also addresses the recent issues with the enthusiast press, marketing and possible conflicts of interest.

You know, I think the best example of this is shown in Star Trek Online. The official website (in some form or another) has been up for a long time, but you haven't really been hearing anything about the game save for a "monthly" devlog which doesn't really touch on any sort of meaningful gameplay mechanic. I believe the first one was, "Hey, look, this is how we make a world in STO." That's great, but what can we do in that world? How do we get to it? If there's any example of developer diarrhea, as shihonage put it, it's the devlogs of STO.

Going back to the topic, the people working on STO may have it right. They don't really let much get out as to what it is they're actually working on, aside from the reassurances that it will be true to Trek. Sure, you have the occasional screenshot or "hey, we think that this partiicular element of the game will work like this" but that's about it. Unfortunately, this just leads to people believing that a game is stuck in developmental hell since there's no previews to show the progress of the game, and what they have released have polarized the people who want this to be a Star Trek simulator and the people just looking for a fun Star Trek-based MMO.

You can't get away from the louder critics. You have to release something to keep people interested, and there will always be a group of people who don't like the direction the game is going.

A Big Mac? Eww..

Elysium wrote:
Is the proposal to cut the development cycle time or just the public face of the cycle?

The proposal is to cut the public face. Spend however long you need to make a great game, but only start really telling us about a couple of months at most before launch.

Why do we need to assume a rather self-deprecating view that we, the fallible and feeble-willed, should not be even given a choice whether to follow the marketing song or not, lest we voluntarily whip ourselves into an anticipatory frenzy and then blame the publishers and developers for that? We're mostly adult people, I think, and we can make a rational choice whether to get overly excited early and burn out early, or to nod in acknowledgement of the marketing onslaught, but let it just wash over our calm heads?

I'm having the worst writers block trying to get my thoughts into words.

Indie games are just starting to influence the mainstream, and I think this is going to have a huge impact in the next few years. Sure the tools have been around for quite some time, but it's only now we're starting to see what people can do with them.

The tools for indie cinema were around for years: cheap video cameras (VHS or Beta), affordable film schools, how-to books on the subject, long before we saw an indie film that really impacted the mainstream. You need it wait until it's affordable for someone who's driven to tell a story to do so. Kevin Smith had such a burning passion to tell the story of Clerks that he was willing to max out his credit cards to do so. A regular studio may not have backed such a "unique" comedy, but the tools were affordable enough for Smith to do it on his own. The same could be said for a movie like "Pi". A regular studio would be unwilling to fund such an experimental film, but Aronofsky was able to do it on his own.

Both directors had vision, a burning desire to make something different, and were able to afford the tools needed to see their vision come to life. They also both grew up with movies being their primary entertainment medium and wanted to not just contribute but to change it as well.

I think we're only now starting to see the same happen with game development. We have a generation of kids and young adults who've grown up with videogames as their primary entertainment medium. Who've got their own "stories" to tell. Who have access to affordable tools to do so.

And just like indie directors before them, they're making a huge impact. Students from Digipen impressed Gabe Newel so much he hired them to make Portal. Sony was so impressed with Johnathon Mak's Everyday Shooter they brought it, along with Genova Chen's Fl0w to PSN. All three of these games were completely non-traditional and had a huge impact. Portal was game of the year for many people on this site. Everyday Shooter took the traditional Shmup/Robotron gametype and re-mixed it into something new. Fl0w polarized review scores, but had people talking.

We've hit a point where gaming is a culturally acceptable leisure activity. Like movies before indie cinema, we love our blockbusters, but we also want to see something new. Indie game developers, like the directors of indie cinema before them, are stepping up to the plate.

You can't get away from the louder critics. You have to release something to keep people interested, and there will always be a group of people who don't like the direction the game is going.

Yeah but if no one knows you are creating a game and than a month before release you say, hey get ready because next month we are releasing a Star Trek MMO and it's going to be true to trek. The amount of time you have to sit there and placate anyone is greatly reduced. Telling people you are creating a Star Trek MMO months if not a year or more in advance is I think the problem Elysium is referring to. Doesn't matter how much they give up, the cat is out of the bag and well the fans (and fanatics) will have way too much time to think about the possibilities, and get angry about the decisions being made.

Old Man Grant wrote:
Perhaps they needed to hold off between innovations the first bringing the franchise to 3d and then the later the groundhog day style Majora's mask stuff. Because the games that have made a departure did not sell as well as their previous installment the message sent is more of the same.

Alternate between Ultima and Ultima: Underworld titles?
(Sorry, I know Ely was trying desperately not to mention particular series names. BTW Ely, did you have this article sitting in your back pocket for just after your last Front Page Article?)

Gaald wrote:
You can't get away from the louder critics. You have to release something to keep people interested, and there will always be a group of people who don't like the direction the game is going.

Yeah but if no one knows you are creating a game and than a month before release you say, hey get ready because next month we are releasing a Star Trek MMO and it's going to be true to trek. The amount of time you have to sit there and placate anyone is greatly reduced. Telling people you are creating a Star Trek MMO months if not a year or more in advance is I think the problem Elysium is referring to. Doesn't matter how much they give up, the cat is out of the bag and well the fans (and fanatics) will have way too much time to think about the possibilities, and get angry about the decisions being made.

This is true, and I really can't argue that point. However, I expect that it can be extremely difficult to keep a large development team perfectly quiet for the 5+ year development cycle that MMOs go through (or however long the given game is in development for) before somebody on the team brags to a friend and a rumor gets started, or an overeager PR rep accidently drops the ball and "announces" the project.

I really wish I hadn't heard that Perpetual was making this game, because the wait until 2009 is... painfully long. So you're right: certainly hold off on announcing games until the beta process or shortly before it. I think the point I was going for is what you do AFTER a company makes the mistake of announcing a game too early, which unfortunately is the norm.

I couldn't agree more. In my most decadent fantasies I envision an enthusiast press that spends more time discussing games that have been released than those still in production.

Note Microsoft's decision not to show any of 2008's anticipated releases at last year's E3. I'm hoping it means we'll see more COD4-type announcements from them this year.

I'm all for it. How about this site ban all talk of games more than 2 months out?

Elysium wrote:

The proposal is to cut the public face. Spend however long you need to make a great game, but only start really telling us about a couple of months at most before launch.

I`m afraid it`s never going to happen because of Wallstreet. They want to know what you`re working on in order to know how much your stock is worth.

trip1eX wrote:
I'm all for it. How about this site ban all talk of games more than 2 months out? ;)

It never occurred to me until just now that Elysium has two front page threads going. One about how he's looking forward to Fallout 3 and this one.

Gaald wrote:
You can't get away from the louder critics. You have to release something to keep people interested, and there will always be a group of people who don't like the direction the game is going.

Yeah but if no one knows you are creating a game and than a month before release you say, hey get ready because next month we are releasing a Star Trek MMO and it's going to be true to trek. The amount of time you have to sit there and placate anyone is greatly reduced. Telling people you are creating a Star Trek MMO months if not a year or more in advance is I think the problem Elysium is referring to. Doesn't matter how much they give up, the cat is out of the bag and well the fans (and fanatics) will have way too much time to think about the possibilities, and get angry about the decisions being made.

And based on your example, it could even be dead in the water before it ever gets released.

One about how he's looking forward to Fallout 3 and this one.

I did admit that I can't be held responsible for my insufficient will. In many ways I wish I didn't even know they were making a Fallout 3 yet. That's part of where I'm coming from on this.

Elysium wrote:
But, I worry that the mainstream gaming industry is so locked into the financial necessity of meeting fan expectation, that the freedom necessary for experimentation is being undermined.

Ok, I might just be confused...but huh?

Innovation never happens in sequential releases. That's the whole point of the concept of "series" or "franchise". Every Bond film stars James Bond and has roughly the same story-line, super-villain, Bond-girl, lots of action. How do you think people would've reacted if between LotR 2 and 3 Jackson switched to 300/Beowulf's form of animation and did the 3rd film like that? Innovation in writing? Lots of innovation happens in writing, but it's not like a Harry Potter series is the format in which you can experiment.

Same goes for games, just like any other industry, there's nothing exceptional about that. Series are attractive to publishers because the ground has been broken and you can repeat the formula, that has nothing to do with consumer expectations, that's what the publishers want themselves. Granted, there are lots of times this communication breaks up, like Fallout or Metroid, but that's not what we're discussing here. Those are exceptions, not the rule.

That's why your editorial doesn't make any sense. Series aren't the place for innovation, not just because of fan expectation but because their whole raison d'etre is the opposite of innovation.

Let's say...Hellgate: London. It didn't innovate much but it could have, if it wanted to. But even the simple switch from bird's eye view to lower down was one that was possible because this was a new franchise. It would not have been possible from Diablo 2 to Diablo 3, right?

Right.

And what's wrong with that?

Nothing. That's the way the industry works. All industries, even cars. Want to overhaul into a revolutionary new model? You don't do it in a series. The different models of the Audi A8 are all basically the same because that's what people expect and that's what the car factory wants to do.

Want to innovate? Make a new franchise. Tadaa, problem solved.

I think you're flipping the issue upside down, Elysium. The problem is not that sequential game-making is the bane of innovation, because that's the way all industries work and that's the way it should work, you make things in a series, you don't change much (unless the nature of the series is change, like FF).

The problem is there's too many series, and not enough new franchises. And because there are few new franchises, there's not enough room for innovation. That's a two-step problem, though, and you, insanely enough, are blaming a lack of creation of new franchises or the stifling influence marketing has on creativity on...the consumer?

Is that a joke?

It's completely wrong to say that innovation never happens in a series. However, it's certainly a risky and dangerous place to do it. For every person asking that the next installment of a franchise not simply rehash the same old ground, there's probably two die-hard fans wanting more of the same and boy will they be angry and vocal when they don't get what they want.

I have to second a lot of what Brother None's said here. A lot of what Hellgate:London did wouldn't have been acceptable in Diablo 3, and I can imagine a world in which both games could exist and be great games.

I think there's room for both franchises and new IP out there. The fanboy screams happen when they feel a franchise veers too far from the game they know and love. Is there not enough new IP on the market right now? Are we talking about AAA titles or including smaller-scale stuff - and can we see some numbers on this trend?

I think there's another idea in Elysium's post, or the comments, the idea to cut the preview time of a game down. Well, since multimillion dollar game development cycles rarely end up taking fan views into account in any case, that is probably a good idea. Of course, Denis Dyack has already gone on record with this - it might be sour grapes in his case, but who knows? Other studios might be silently nodding their heads. Doesn't Valve already do this - how many 'previews' of TF2 were released prior to the beta?

Brother None wrote:
Let's say...Hellgate: London. It didn't innovate much but it could have, if it wanted to. But even the simple switch from bird's eye view to lower down was one that was possible because this was a new franchise. It would not have been possible from Diablo 2 to Diablo 3, right?

Why not? It happened with GTA, it happened with Zelda, and it's going to happen with Fallout. In fact, GTA III completely re-invented the previous formula.

I don't see why franchises are expected to play the same with each iteration, and frankly I would rather that they didn't.

The Fly wrote:
I couldn't agree more. In my most decadent fantasies I envision an enthusiast press that spends more time discussing games that have been released than those still in production.

Such decadence! Do these fantasies also include multi-ply toilet paper? Name-brand tissues?

I'm sorry. I didn't mean that. I admit that I sometimes even think of strawberry jelly as decadent, since it often costs a couple dimes more than grape.

Innovation never happens in sequential releases.

Like Quintin said, this is a false statement. Even games like Madden manage innovate something every year. Almost every series has has to make the jump from 2D to 3D, for example, often bringing a new interface and perspective.
Same goes for games, just like any other industry, there's nothing exceptional about that. Series are attractive to publishers because the ground has been broken and you can repeat the formula, that has nothing to do with consumer expectations, that's what the publishers want themselves.

And who do publishers sell their games to? Consumers. What do consumers buy? Games they expect to be good.
I think you're flipping the issue upside down, Elysium. The problem is not that sequential game-making is the bane of innovation, because that's the way all industries work and that's the way it should work, you make things in a series, you don't change much (unless the nature of the series is change, like FF).

I think he's saying that if franchises and sequels have to be prevalent, they should be pushing harder to innovate within those confines. I think Super Mario Galaxy is a great example of how you can innovate and still retain the flavor of what makes the series so good.
The problem is there's too many series, and not enough new franchises. And because there are few new franchises, there's not enough room for innovation. That's a two-step problem, though, and you, insanely enough, are blaming a lack of creation of new franchises or the stifling influence marketing has on creativity on...the consumer?

Is that a joke?


The consumer buys the games. Over and over again we see that sequels and franchises sell a vast amount of units when compared to original properties. There are exceptions like Guitar Hero, but they prove the rule.

You'll be better off not asking the writer if he's insane because you don't agree with him. That's pretty weak, although given the issues we've been having with people from your site in the past, it shouldn't surprise me.