As a developer, how difficult is it to choose between innovating in an untested market vs. going with a safe rehash in a tried and true market?
This is the question of the hour these days, with so many players up in a frenzy over lack of industry innovation in the AAA market. So many developers are honestly just trying to put something out there that can generate income while simultaneously entertaining the masses.
Where did things go wrong? Can things be made right? At what point does something provide just enough innovation, without completely throwing caution out to the wind?
Let’s dig deeper and find some answers.
Things Go Wrong
Being honest, innovation has been lacking in AAA for a while now. This is in large part because AAA companies have a lot riding on each game project.
To put it into perspective, Bethesda Studios has roughly 180 employees. They take pride in being on the smaller side of AAA, and continuously stay “small.” If 180 employees is small, then large is Electronic Arts, with 8,800 employees.
In a hypothetical situation, if a studio were to have, say 3,000 employees, then that’s 3,000 mouths to feed, not including their families. Not including any CEOs and founders either.
Now let’s assume that studio decides it will only innovate. That will go one of two ways: 1) they will put out new and fresh games that sell well and make tons of money, or 2) they will miss the mark just enough times to fail or barely hold on by a thread.
Remember, that’s 3,000 families you’re gambling with.
In business, you need to follow the golden rule: give people what they want, without completely sacrificing your needs. You need to make money to pay the bills and stay in business, but you also need to be innovative enough to draw in an audience.
It’s a lot to balance, and so it’s no surprise that most companies decided to play it safer. E3 2017 was proof—and a turning point in the industry. Suddenly it became clear that indies needed to innovate, whereas AAA were only willing to put out safe games in a tried and true market.
Before throwing tomatoes at the stage, remember: they have more employees, they’re larger companies, and each game project has a hefty budget. If a game fails, it’s a huge blow to the company’s economic stability. If enough games fail, simply because they wanted to be innovative, the company would crumble, and thousands of employees would be out of work overnight.
Hope for a Fix
At this point, it might be easy to decide that indie games should keep innovating, while AAA plays it safe. But that’s not a genuine solution. AAA and indie should both be innovating enough, while staying in business. Both have the right to innovate and stay alive in a competitive market. Both have an audience dying to be entertained.
When one side of the industry does one thing, while the other side does another, it creates a kind of segregation. Suddenly, it becomes black and white, and the grey area is nonexistent. Players suddenly have to choose what kind of games they want to play going forward, and we’re not just talking RPG vs. FPS, or MMO vs. single-player.
We’re talking about what side of the industry they want to support and stick with.
But just how can this problem be fixed? How can two sides of the same coin generate just enough innovation between them to remain on the safe side of the fence?
The Innovative, Yet Cautious Balance
Here’s the thing: players want to play indie and AAA. They want innovation for the money that they’re paying for each game, which at $60 a pop, they have a right to demand.
But a business is a business. And at some point, someone needs to arrange a meeting and talk about strategy. Someone needs to address when a game is a direct copy of another game they’ve made before.
Here are some ways you can walk the fine line:
- Use tried and tested mechanics from several other games, not just one specific one (directly copying one may result in a battle like the one with Assassin’s Creed and Shadow of Mordor). Make your own combination of tested methods, don’t just reskin one particular game.
- Have your game be influenced by other games story-wise. People enjoy adventurers like Lara Croft and Nathan Drake, but both are worlds apart from each other. Apply the same rubric to a story, or character, and add your own spin.
- Stop creating sequels for games past the third one. How many Assassin’s Creed games are there now? Eleven of them. And that doesn’t even include the ones outside the scope of the main series. At some point it’s a sequel too many. It’s like a book series that never ends. At some point the story gets stagnant, because the story is just suffering from having to keep on going.
- Stop ignoring customer demands and wishes. Yes, that means the players are always right. That’s a lesson everyone learns in their high school job! If the players are complaining about your games not being innovative enough, and it seems to be most or all players repeating the same rant about your company’s games, then yes, it’s time to get more innovative. Listen to the people that play your games.
- Remember that less is more. You don’t need to innovate every nook and cranny, every mechanic, character and storyline to meet player demands. Innovate with the combat system. Innovate with the mechanics. Pick something to innovate and don’t go completely overboard every time.
It is possible to straddle the line between innovation and security. It’s possible to generate enough sales and favorable reviews. All you need to do is listen to your players, meet their needs, and stop going overboard with innovation. Less is more. Do just enough to make your game fresh and new, and tweak your game through updates and patches if necessary.
Making games is an experiment in the balance between creativity and business.
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