Innovations in Games: My Thoughts

July 20, 2013

Originally posted on SeeThrough Studios

Yesterday, I was in a panel at PAX Australia on the topic: “Games Can Be Anything – Are We Seeing Enough Innovation or Not, and Why?”. In preparation for the panel, the moderator (the amazing Epona Schweer) asked me to write up some of my thoughts. I ended up writing something of a mini-essay, which I’ve edited into readable form below.

As we’re launching, showing and everything else-ing Particulars at PAX (have you been to our Greenlight page yet? You totally should!), I won’t have had a chance to get my thoughts down on the actual panel discussion yet. That’ll be another blog post, sometime in the next week. For now, here’s my thoughts on innovation in games.

First things first: there is definitely a lot of innovation in the games industry. I think that when we say that games aren’t innovative enough, we’re short-changing the huge amount of massively creative work that does happen, even if a lot of it just happens to not end up anywhere that’s all that interesting to us personally.

So in blanket terms we’re seeing quite a lot of innovation, but much of that isn’t where I’d like to see it. A lot is happening on the monetisation and business side of development (because the new industry landscape has demanded it). Not all of that is good, however – it’s what’s led to a lot of the dodgy F2P (free-to-play) practices that we’re seeing these days.

But we’re also seeing innovation problems on the gameplay front: we tend to see new things in very narrow bands. It’s detail-focused innovation, rather than big-picture stuff. It’s innovation without creative ambition. And the same can be said for the games themselves.

It’s a little sad that as an industry, we’re seeing far more people celebrating and attempting to emulate ‘Angry Birds’ than  ’Dear Esther’. Games like Dear Esther change what we think a game is. It challenges established notions from within. It’s innovative mostly because it’s daring to be less and more at the same time. Angry Birds is innovative, but it’s innovating on a small scale. It found a really interesting small piece of gameplay that could be varied almost infinitely.
Both of these games are innovative, but I’d argue that Dear Esther is more interesting, because it has larger ambition behind that innovation. In the same way, most AAA games are innovating. They’re just doing so on the smaller scale, in the details and on the business side.

For AAAs, innovation without ambition makes sense. Why rock the boat? There’s a lot of money on the line. You’ve got a bunch of people that’ll buy your game, and adding massive, untested ambition-based innovation doesn’t make commercial sense. The problem is that we’re also seeing this from a lot of indies.

Part of this is economics. Let’s be honest: most of Australia’s indie games industry is based in mobile, because “that’s where the money is” (I don’t particularly agree with this, by the way, but that’s another topic). As a platform, mobile rewards innovation (Fruit Ninja is incredibly innovative), but it doesn’t necessarily reward ambition. It doesn’t really reward games with depth, or at least it doesn’t appear to do so. (I’d actually argue that a lot of successful games on these platforms have more depth than they appear to, and that part of the trick to success on mobile is actually hiding that depth and interesting stuff.) But because of this, studios think that shallow games are the answer, and that’s what they make, with varying levels of success.

The other part is where we come from. I’m a developer who loved and played games while I was growing up, but haven’t been anywhere near as immersed in the medium as most developers have been. There are times where that’s a disadvantage, but I often find that it’s a massive advantage. I find that my game ideas are quite often more unusual and ambitiously innovative than other designers (this has its drawbacks – it leads to games that are harder to make well). That’s because I usually don’t start with a genre that I love that I have to make, or with a game I’m wanting to emulate.

Instead, I take ideas from outside the games sphere and find the gameplay and systems that complement it. To me, this external source of inspiration is key to ambitious innovation: it’s really hard to get out of the box designs using only things from inside the box.

This then relates to all sorts of things about our industry as a whole, including who enters the industry (generally game mega-fans) and why (because no-one else would put up with the crappy conditions). It also goes into the whole gender balance issue, if you want to open that can of worms. Essentially, more perspectives means more ambitious innovation. We usually see variations of a single perspective in games, and it leads to a narrow focus.

I would say that this is all getting better, but that it’s still a work in progress. It’s something that we need to be continually aware of as we make new things. There’s also always going to be a Call of Duty equivalent, and that’s ok. Being ambitiously innovative is really risky, and I’d be worried if all games tried to do that. Sometimes things have to be safe, and some people love that stuff.

Why is the more interesting stuff less heard of? Generally because it’s harder, and therefore generally less polished. A great example is Achron – an RTS with real actual time travel in multiplayer that actually works. That’s an amazing innovation. Amazing. The system they came up with was great. The RTS part of the game – not so much. RTSs are pretty damn hard to make, and they simply didn’t pull it off.

Which is, at some level, the developer’s fault. The hardest thing as a developer is to keep your scope low and to pick your battles. It’s even harder when you’re doing something very new. Achron, for instance, could have shown off it’s awesome innovation with a much simpler, squad-based game. But it didn’t, so it wasn’t a joy to play in the same way that, say, Temple Run is.

Even if you do that, you run into marketing problems. Your game isn’t as long, or it doesn’t have as many powerups. It’s more linear or has a smaller tech tree (for particulars, we’re giving up game length and non-linearity. There just isn’t time for it). How do you compete with games that have been able to pour all their time into these features? Essentially, you’re then riding completely on your ambitious innovation, and whether it’s able to be turned into a 1-sentence catchphrase and a 60 second trailer (sometimes that works – Achron had this in spades).

Which sucks, because some of the most interesting games are those that are multi-layered. They’re the ones that do lots of things well at once, and have those things play off each other to create awesome, unique experiences. They’re often patient, and don’t show all their cards at once. They surprise and delight. They’re not necessarily predicated on a gimmick, and the reasons why they’re awesome can’t always be summarised in one sentence.

In short, we don’t see that much ambitious innovation coz it’s hard. Really hard. But it leads to the best stuff, so I hope we see more of it.

What are your thoughts? Do you think that there’s enough innovation, and ambitious innovation, in games today?