I’d known it for a while. I’d felt it whenever picking up my trusty, blue controller. I would play a game absentmindedly and nod off. Even when it was an exciting game, an immersive one, I would focus and start off just fine before… getting completely bored. For the longest time, I thought something was wrong with me, that perhaps, I’d… somehow grown out of gaming, but I knew that wasn’t true. It never would be.
So when I sat down to watch 2017’s bland E3, filled with its sad Porsche-filled attempts at making the crowd go wild, it hit me: gaming has stagnated.
Yes, stagnated! Which Assassin’s Creed are we on now? The billionth one? Even great series need to end sometime. Uncharted knew exactly when to do it, as even die hard fans, such as myself, would have rolled their eyes at the announcement of yet another. But EA introduced a fully-fledged story mode to its never-ending FIFA series. And despite the changes to God of War, with a different setting and father-son element, it’s still all about monster slaying. PlayStation VR stuck to its staples: Batman, Star Wars, Resident Evil. And despite my interest in Days Gone, it does strike that familiar chord. It’s like The Last of Us.
But there’s still time to change things around, right? Yes! There’s always time, and you can kickstart it now. Indie has grown exponentially in the last few years and is now influential enough to tilt the industry. In order for AAA to innovate once again, indie needs to be the one to ignite the flame.
There’s an erroneous notion in the indie scene: that copying other games will lead to success with minimal effort. Take it from me, it doesn’t work that way. Working in the industry, sifting through different games, a lot of the time they become a blur, because they all have things in common. In such an over-saturated scene, you want to stand out, not blend in. How is blending in a promise of success? If you want to meet your sales goals, marketing goals, whatever goals, then you need to put in some effort. As the saying goes, nothing good comes easy.
Just this year a game called Fur Fun was accused of ripping-off Banjo-Kazooie and Yooka-Laylee. But hey, games do that all the time, right? Minecraft, Terraria, Starbound, Minecraft: Pocket Edition, and Stardew Valley are all similar in nature. The same pixel style, the same concept. Amnesia got copied extensively. Similar games include Soma, Penumbra: Overture, Penumbra: Black Plague, and Outlast.
But sometimes it goes far beyond just copying. Sometimes it goes into the plagiarizing/stealing territory. Consider the indie game Orion, which ripped off the weapons from Black Ops 3 and Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, and got taken off Steam after Activision took action. More debatably, No Man’s Sky was once accused of plagiarizing another indie game, Out There, that wasn’t as well-known. And once upon a time, Sony accidentally promoted Solbrain: Knight of Darkness, an indie game full of ripped-off art and music. It was highlighted on the PlayStation YouTube account quite a bit, but the theft was obvious. One example was Skyrim‘s Dragonscale shield. It was in Solbrain‘s trailer.
AAA, the Unoriginal
Let’s not sugar-coat it: AAA has been doing the same thing for a while now, far longer than indie games have. In fact, this is so much the case, that it can be summed up in three parts: recycled (remasters, reboots and spin-offs), games that pose male characters as either the better or the only option for playable characters, and games that are reminiscent of other games.
God of War is a reboot. Days Gone is reminiscent of The Last of Us. Both Madden and FIFA have never-ending series, much like Assassin’s Creed. As great as the original game was, and as amazing as the remaster looks, Shadow of the Colossus is still just another remaster. Uncharted: The Lost Legacy is a spin-off. Even their sad attempt at a new IP, DragonBall Fighter Z, isn’t original. It’s based on an anime that isn’t even popular in Japan anymore, and hasn’t been for years. Continually created for the sake of American audiences, it’s tapered off here too. It can only be so popular after 28 years (created in 1989).
And did you notice there weren’t many female characters? The new South Park offers the option to play as a female, as do some other games, but pretty much every fixed protagonist is a male. Beyond Good and Evil 2 featured a female character alongside a male one. Where were all the single player female protagonists? They weren’t really shown. What a step backward this E3 was!
Method to the Madness
OK, so it’s clear that the industry has some problems. Where did we go wrong? What happened? For one thing, sales and marketing met their match at an explosion of games and developers. It seems like everyone is working on a game these days, whether it be on a large or small scale. With more games on the market, there’s a ton of pressure on getting noticed in order to even make a sale, let alone however many you need to see a return on investment. This pressure has driven people up a wall. Indie developers are under the impression that copying other popular games will provide them with fame and fortune. AAA is stuck doing what’s worked in the past, seemingly stuck in time, while the players have evolved since then.
And players have evolved. With so much to choose from on the market now, finding a new game to play should be easy, right? Well, not exactly. There’s a lot out there, but not all of it is good. Even if it’s good, it’s not jaw-dropping by any means. These days, half of all PC gamers wait for games to go on sale before purchasing copies. A lot of this has to do with how publicly sales success is announced. Nick Statt, a writer for The Verge, described this perfectly:
“For instance, when a company does not announce day-one sales figures — or cumulative sales for the first three days — it’s a telling sign. The largest and most successful games can make hundreds of millions of dollars in the first week alone, and publishers will announce this fact proudly. When they don’t, analysts sometimes speculate that expectations were too high, or something else is amiss. But it’s not exactly clear what went wrong. Sometimes, publishers wait for retail data that reflects a positive development, such as when Activision got its hand on numbers saying Infinite Warfare outsold its competitors.”
Just like you probably don’t purchase anything with three stars or less on Amazon unless it’s dirt cheap, players don’t feel they should have to spend full price on a game with telling signs. The same goes for the movie industry. When a movie like Transformers: The Last Knight gets 16% on Rotten Tomatoes just three days after release, you’ll get a series-low opening day.
And at the end of it all, it’s like this: a bargain is a bargain, and it’s unbeatable unless you find something worthy of the price tag. In other words, smart shoppers will always find a way to get access to everything in life in a cheaper, more effective way than their less enlightened counterparts. But when they find something that is quality, they will splurge. This applies to clothing, games, movies, you name it. Your goal as a developer is to be—first and foremost—an entrepreneur. And as such, your primary focus should be in delivering quality products that your players will want to splurge on, not wait for deals on.
Turn It Around
But don’t be disheartened. You can turn it around. The indie industry is influential enough these days that it can force AAA to innovate once again. While old habits die hard, and tweaking a proven recipe for success can be worrisome for big AAA titles, indie has a lot less to worry about. There’s less pressure to meet those million dollar goals, because the cost of investment isn’t anywhere near that range! Therefore, you’re the ticket. You’re the gateway needed to turn the sinking ship around.
Here are some things you can do:
Stop Taking Inspiration From Others
Yes, a lot of the time it’s nice to learn from the mistakes other game studios have made. It’s nice to pay homage to certain things that have left an impression on you, maybe even take a little inspiration. However, indie has gone beyond inspiration, and has begun stealing. Player trust is waning. Just like a romantic relationship, when things are rocky, you ease up and let things settle down. If your partner is losing trust in you, stop giving them a reason to mistrust you! Stop doing anything close to suspicious, and work on earning that trust back.
This is what you should be doing. Earning that trust back. Players need to know that when they’re playing an indie game, it’s not just recycled portions of other games. So for the time being, stop looking to other games for inspiration and knowledge. Trust your own judgement for once. You’re a developer. You should have pride in your ability to create something completely, authentically you.
Stop Looking At It As Just A Matter of Sales
Development is about more than sales. It’s about releasing some art into the world. Something (hopefully) innovative, fresh, exciting and creative. It’s about using that art to connect with other like-minded people, make new friends, and establish more of an audience to showcase your projects to. Sure, you’re running a business when you become a developer. And yes, sales are important. But you know what else is important? Remembering the younger version of you that just wanted to play and make games. The wide-eyed, innocent, naive version of you that didn’t understand just how much work the entire gamedev lifestyle would bring.
It’s that spark of love that sells games, not the pushy, gimmicky tactics most people associate with marketing. Truth is, marketing isn’t supposed to be salesmen style, it’s supposed to be a direct reflection of you and your product, in all your glory. It’s supposed to celebrate you and encourage others to partake, without being a nuisance. As long as you stay true to who you are, and truly love everything that entails, people will follow.
Stop Looking to the Past
This especially applies to AAA, but also to indie developers that have seen a certain amount of success, even on a small scale. Stop looking to the past. It’s tempting, sure. If you’ve made some sales, established a fan base of sorts, and created a name for yourself, it’s only natural to want to keep that. You want to hold on to that success and milk it for all its worth, really. But that’s not how business works.
Business tells us to take our past achievements and use them to learn the tactics needed to continuously achieve success. However, stasis is the moral enemy of business. Becoming obsessed with proven tactics will only drive those tactics to the ground, and beat them until they’re pulverized. The trick to business isn’t the past, it’s balance. If you can manage to learn from the past, while still innovating everything you do, you’ll breathe new life into your business continuously. That’s not something that goes unnoticed.
Enjoy the Work
Remember when you first became a developer? You probably stayed up playing around with Unity or Unreal and eating food made with “cheese product.” Probably had a small group of friends working with you, surrounded by game posters and dirty dishes? It’s been a long time since mom’s basement, but you’re out here still making games, look at you! After a quick pat on the back, ask yourself one question: are you still enjoying the work? Do you sit at your desk each day/night, with a more adult appropriate snack and genuinely enjoy all the rendering, animating, marketing, blogging, metric tracking, etc, etc.?
If you answered with something along the lines of “there’s nothing I’d rather do,” then when was the last time you showed that love publicly? Do your players know how much you enjoy the work? Happy people are contagious, you can’t help but smile with them, so don’t be afraid to show how happy you are! Make a cute new pet for players, just because. Add a new weapon and name it after your first fond memory in game development. Celebrate your work through your work, and let the fans know about it. Then watch the support roll right in.
Connect with the Players
Fun fact: when players communicate directly with you, or post on forums or even comment on a blog post, they’re leaving you recipes to success. Reading over them and feeling miserable is one way to approach the feedback, but the way a business mogul would approach them would be to jot them all down, and implement those changes. By implementing the changes that your customer base wants, they get what they need to leave you higher ratings. Furthermore, by giving them what they want, you essentially become a great business owner, capable of understanding that although the game is yours, it’s for the players. Their experience is what matters the most.
And don’t be afraid to connect! Really connect. Start a blog, and ask people for feedback. Post about your changes to the game, or even things to come. Stay in touch on social media. Announce every patch, and maybe start a YouTube channel. Whatever it is, we’re living in the day and age to do it!
There’s Still Time!
Gamers are a unique group of people. They can slice your heart open on a forum, completely berating your video game, but they can just as equally show honest, enthusiastic support for your game. They’re a forgiving group of people, albeit suspicious, and rightfully so. They’ve been promised entire galaxies by the industry, only to be left with poor renditions of the same experiences they’ve had before.
It’s a good thing that the time is always right to get them to change their opinions. As I said, they’re forgiving. One day, you might be knee deep in raging forum comments, but the next day, you might be getting praise for rising to the occasion. All you need to do is listen. Achieving success is an obtainable goal, you just need to pay attention to the clamors being shouted from the rooftops. Do they hate your combat system? Is it the artwork? Maybe it’s the music. Perhaps it’s the fact that you copied another well-known game and that game just… does it better still. Listen and alter. Take the heat with a smile, and learn from what they’re saying. Do that, and suddenly the tides will mellow out. You’ll find yourself meeting the demands of the people who are telling you what they need from you in order to purchase and enjoy your game.
This means you, and the whole industry for that matter, need to stop looking at the past. Stop analyzing what games have made it big, because you weren’t on those teams and these aren’t those games. More importantly, this is the here and now. This is what matters. So don’t be afraid to innovate like you did when you first started out. Even if you fail, at least you’ll be standing out for it.
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