Game Design Marketing/Business

Blaming Innovation

Some of you may have been reading Spiderweb Software’s Jeff Vogel’s “View from the Bottom” series of articles. I think he is generally pessimistic when it comes to indie games, and his previous articles basically show that he thinks innovation won’t come from them. His latest article, #3, seems to make the argument that innovation isn’t rewarded, giving Jeff’s personal account as an example.

I really hate trying to do something new. Sure, it gives personal satisfaction. But you know what else is fulfilling? Staying in business. Not losing your house. And you can’t pay for food with Creativity checks.

If you are an indie and your game flops… well, small companies have a real hard time surviving the blow. And I don’t want to lose my house.

Remember that the next time you look to the independent developer to be the source of innovation in this industry. There is nothing scarier that aiming at a market that doesn’t exist yet. It might not exist at all.

It’s hard for me not to get upset about such words. Unfortunately, I also don’t have the authority to say anything to it. I don’t have my first game published yet, let alone sales figures to argue against Vogel.

Luckily, David Michael has something to say. Blaming Innovation is Michael’s take on the issue of innovation. He agrees that it makes sense to continue investing in what already works. Innovating means you’re leaving your established audience and trying to find new ones.

But if you never move past what you know works, you’re in what’s called a “rut”. And I’ve never heard that described as a good thing.

Sometimes you just have to face the uncertainty.

You might as well try to enjoy it.

I’d argue that finding new audiences is a good thing. Yes, you may have your loyal customers, and yes, innovating might turn some of them off. I think that if you have a core audience and great customers, you should reward them well.

But isn’t it possible that doing something refreshing and unexpected means you’re expanding and diversifying your base? Are you stretching yourself too thin? It’s possible, but it is also possible that by not innovating, you’re locking your potential audience to the same exact audience you already have. Game players grow older and stop playing games. Without new customers, you’re not only stuck with the same customers, but it’s also possible that your customers will leave you. Who will replace them if you don’t try to appeal outside of them?

5 replies on “Blaming Innovation”

I agree with you. I didnt do starship tycoon 2, I did democracy, which massively expanded my audience in a different direction. I promote those games to each other audiences and it does well.
And Im not doing democracy 2, but kudos.
If you can financially take the risk, innovation is certainly the way to go. We cant do amazing 3D or huge content, or big name franchises. Innovation is our only trick.

I promise my goal was not to turn this into an advertisement for my blog, but when Jeff’s second article appeared there were several ripples through the blogosphere that I commented on here and here.

I think Jeff is simply playing the realist, a position that is largely left unadvocated by anyone else in the community. I echoed some similar sentiments myself: the indie gamedev scene is overflowing with bashing of mainstream titles as repetitive, non-innovative crap. The rallying word of the day is “innovation,” but I, like Jeff, feel the vast majority of the indie scene is in over their head with gamedev before we even start talking about innovation.

And to be clear, I’m not saying that this is how I think it should be, or that I like that things are this way… I’m merely echoing Jeff’s realism in stating that it is how things are now.

In this third article by Jeff, I tend to disagree a bit with him. I think his example, while useful, doesn’t necessarily prove his point but only serves as a single sampling of what could (and often does) happen. Of course, the kind of “innovation” he practices is exactly the kind of innovation practiced by the major game developers: take what works, fine-tune and tweak certain elements of the gameplay, rinse and repeat. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I think that does count as innovation.

The problem is that a lot of folks in the indie gamedev scene don’t consider that innovation. They consider it more of the same. So, it sounds as if it’s a matter of degree rather than kind. Which is fine, each to their own, but considering the source of most of the innovation shouts — folks who’ve barely finished games, let alone shipped them, depended on them for their livelihood, or depended on others to make them — not be surprised when people who do ship rain on the parade.

Don’t misunderstand: I’m a huge proponent of indie gamedev, and I’m incredibly interested in new and different gameplay. I’ve been a judge for the IGF for many years (as well as a judge for AIAS), and I’ve spoken at indie gamecons and such, taught classes on gamedev, even had a book project at one time — so I’m definitely the friend of indie! But I’ve also worked in the “pro” game industry for the last five years and have a bit of an idea of how things “work in the real world.”

The real problem at the end of the day? The majority of the indie gamedev scene are folks like us: programmers who want to program games. And that’s fine. It’s like being a cinematographer who wants to make movies: programming is the essential skill/craft at the heart of interactivity. The problem is that there’s not enough honest-to-goodness artists in the field. I’m not talking about “drawing sprites and making models” artists, but just generally creative interactive designers.

The reason there’s a lack of that in the indie gamedev scene is because it’s a scene dominated by programmers, and much like a Linux open source project, there’s an unmistakable elitism that follows most crowds of programmers that turns away the more creative (understandably). I don’t think that attitude is going to change, so our only real hope is to somehow help the creatives skip the whole programmer-centric scene. In “pro” gamedev, that’s accomplished through the wonders of a “business” that hires “employees” that form a hierarchical “team,” all fairly foreign concepts to the bulk of the indie gamedev scene. While the commercial-drive may run counter to many indie goers’ senses, the structure is a necessity to properly position (and empower) the “creatives” relative to the techies.

There’s another route that’s fairly unexplored in a mass-produced kinda-of-way: better tools. While I can pick up consumer tools to make movies like a pro, and I can pick up consumer tools to make art like a pro, and I can pick up consumer tools to make music like a pro (regardless of my ability to do any of those), I can’t really pick up consumer tools to make games like a pro. Sure, there’s Game Maker, et al, but they’re still targeted at the techie crowd. There’s still a gap there.

Of course, maybe I’m just a tools programmer who thinks tools can solve everything! 😉 What do I know… I’ve never shipped a game myself.

Thanks for your comments, Troy! One of the things I’ve been grappling with is my assumptions about what game development would be like. When I started, I assumed that I would need to get better at C++ programming. It was a language I felt I needed to relearn because the way I originally learned it was wrong and/or outdated.

Eventually I realized that the language wasn’t as important as the APIs I had available. It’s why I found and started using the Kyra Sprite Engine.

I already knew that there was a world of difference between someone who has completed a game and someone who has only made a demo. Extrapolating out, however, I realized that tools I used (C++ vs Python vs Java) weren’t as important as the GAME itself. The game isn’t the engine, which sounds obvious until you realize that a lot of people focus on the infrastructure of a game rather than the actual content.

I think the reason why there aren’t more creative games out there is because the ones who come up with them aren’t able to make the game come to life on their own. It’s relatively easy for a programmer to create a better FPS. It’s harder to come up with a different type of game entirely, and harder still to implement it. You’re right about the lack of appropriate tools. Prototyping should be a lot easier than it is.

I think the point of Vogel’s article was that indies that are making their living making games can’t afford to go off the beaten path or else they don’t get to eat. And in fact that’s why we don’t see alot of “indie innovation” – we also don’t see alot of commercial innovation either. I think we should all just shutup about innovation and ship some games 😉

By the way I *have* (technically) shipped games 🙂 I don’t really care about innovation, I just want to make some money doing something I like to do which is make games. However i’m not really into cloning a bunch of other games, however, my games seem to all be clones 😉

But i’m working on it. I’ve only “shipped” 3 games and they were junkers — but it did give me some extra work.

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