Another of the events I managed to work my way in to at PAX was a panel where the topic of innovation in games was discussed – is there enough innovation in games, why or why not? Do we even need to care? The panel had some interesting points to discuss, and it stemmed from an initial discussion around one of the panelists stating that games aren’t innovative enough as there aren’t many games that come out these days that give the gamer a truly unique experience that they haven’t had before. Some do, but most are improvements or differences on games that have come before them. The specific example he gave was when guitar hero came out, it was something that was totally new and hadn’t been done before – so where are the games that gave that same feeling was the question he put to the panel.
The first response though, “why?” – which I thought was a valid question to ask. As gamers are we content with games being what they are and have traditionally always been? This sparked some interesting conversation around what really makes a game feel like a new experience, and that we know more about making a good game today than ever in gaming’s history, so why are the new versions of the classic game theories not feeling new based on new technologies and skills being applied to them. After some to and fro with this concept though, the panel did hit what I felt was the first key point in this discussion though – doing something new is hard – a point I completely agreed with. Putting together new art pipelines is hard, new tools to work with new engines, this all takes a lot of work, time, and most importantly, a lot of money.
This led in to the next section of the discussion though, around the fact that at the end of the day the people making games need to be able to make money out of it, or they won’t be able to keep making more games. Publishers will drive developers to be able to create more content with the tools and art they already have at their disposal because it leads to a game that can ultimately be more profitable – and this approach will ultimately hinder the process of trying to be more innovative with games. Realistically if it can take a team up to 6 years to write a new game engine and get it right, which is a ton of time and money, and at that point you still don’t even have a game from it yet! The point was also raised that even if you do decide you have a new idea to be innovative with and you’re working it in to your tools, at some point you have to draw the line and stop innovating and start shipping to make some money so you can continue to innovate and make more games – which is perhaps why people feel like there isn’t any big innovations in gaming as it all happens as a gradual part of the game creation process, and we see new techniques and ideas applied to each new version of a game.
The conversation then led to the indie development scene, with the panel agreeing that indie devs are usually more innovative – but not without some intense discussion as to what makes them more innovative though. Indie developers are usually made up of smaller teams, so it’s easier to work with when a change of direction needs to happen, whereas massive production teams can be very difficult to turn when the chance to innovate comes up. Again though looking at the realities of making money though, when an indie dev company takes a chance on trying to innovate the potential loss for them is smaller for the fact that they are a smaller in size, where a big publisher and big dev team might be out of pocket by millions if an idea tanks on them, which is why innovation can be hard in the bigger projects.
From here the panel moved on to talking about the big boys of games development and how they are operating these days, based on the previously discussed points they wanted to talk about whether or not the realities of the industry inhibit innovation. If you go and look at the AAA genre of games coming out of the big publishers, you’ll see a trend these days – franchises, lots and lots of franchises, less one off games – and the reason? Money. It’s a lot easier to re-use the dev tooling and art pipelines you have built up for one game to produce a second one. So the process for them becomes about creating games with exceptional production values that will make a consumer want to buy in to that world and that brand, rather than just the idea of one game. Now if you look back at your typical indie game houses and they tend to lack the production values applied to a AAA game, because they aren’t big enough to have things like dedicated art staff, they work with people that are jacks of all trades to be able to create the games – so at that point they might need to look at producing games from the point of view that if they aren’t doing something innovative and different, then how do they compete with those amazing looking AAA titles? How do they get people to take notice of their games? They have to be different, end of story – so is it that indie devs are more innovative by nature? Probably not, they are forced to be by the industry, and saying that there is no innovation happening at that AAA level either is wrong too. They have the same types of people working on them, guys and girls that are dedicated to making awesome games, the realities of the processes they work within will dictate how much room and how necessary that innovation will be is for them.
The guys did hit on a pretty interesting point about innovation in big games here too, comparing it to other industries. Take something like the beer industry, take something like a Carlton, it’s cheaper to make and it will appeal to a pretty wide audience, which makes it profitable. Niche beers might cost more to make and be done on a much smaller scale, but need to have something to make them stand out and get noticed before they can get popular and grow. So if you take a game like the Call of Duty series – it’s like Coke – you don’t mess with the recipe for Coke, it just sells! Just being unique doesn’t mean you will have a successful game though. Take the Borderlands series for example, it was hugely successful with its different approach to the art in a game – and while it was successful at doing this, for every game that tries something new like they did 10 others will try and fail. A quote that came out here was that the guys were amazed at the number of bad games out there that have amazing ideas – so innovation won’t always make you successful, so you can understand why it’s not an easy thing to do on any level.
The guys wrapped up by talking back through some of their key points and answering a couple of questions from the audience, but it was a very interesting session to sit in on, especially given that I hadn’t ever really given a lot of thought to the whole process of being innovative in game development at all.
So what do you guys think? Is there enough innovation in games? Do you agree with the points the panelists made? Hit us up in the comments and share your thoughts!