Over the last decade we’ve been lucky enough to see the game industry change from a focused and “bro-centric” market to a much broader market that encompasses children and retired grandmothers. During this change some developers seem to have lost sight of what their real goal should be; to make great games. These days game developers wear the hats of not only designers and programmers, but of marketing and PR as well. Publishers and investors urge developers to make a game that is highly profitable rather than simply fun to play. They require micro-transactions and a slow methodical pacing to keep players steadily addicted rather than just having fun. This method is fundamentally flawed as it forces design conventions that might not be the best course of action.
World's Best Game Devs
You may be asking, “What does this have to do with the Underpants Gnomes?” Some would call it erroneous but honestly the Gnomes’ approach to making money is brilliant in its simplicity. For those unfamiliar, their process is;
1. Steal Underpants
This doesn't mean developers should be clamoring to sneak into bedrooms and pilfer through people’s unmentionables, but it does bring an interesting philosophy to the table. Your first step should be to accomplish your real goal. If a developer is too fixated on steps 2 and 3, then they end up making a “product” rather than a “game”. Their focus should be to make a great experience and figure out how to make it profitable afterword. The methodology of game development really needs to be;
1. Develop a great game
The Perfect Plan
Publishers and Marketing departments have the job of step #2. If Step #1 is executed well by the developers, the game should succeed. This is assuming the Publisher and Marketing department do their job. A developers’ frustration is understandable when a game is a critical success, but marketed poorly. This frustration can lead to developers wanting to take this process into their own hands, but that is a very dangerous path. Game developers are artists and need to be allowed to create their games without fear or concern of another department dropping the ball. Their one and only focus should be on the game, it’s someone else’s responsibility to figure out how make money from it.
Beyond Good & Evil was a great game for its time...but it sold like a hat full of butt-holes
There is a caveat to this philosophy though, and it’s not one that sits well with developers. When a game fails commercially, who do you suppose is the first group to get hit with lay-offs? We’ve seen this happen with companies like THQ, EA, Activision and countless others. The developers often, unjustly, suffer the brunt of an unsuccessful game while publisher CEOs continue to collect multi-million dollar bonuses. So while a developer’s main focus should be on the game, their frustration is understandable when their (critically successful) game fails.
Seems simple enough, yet some people still can't grasp it
It hurts to put your heart and soul into a game, to spend countless hours away from your family, only to have that labor of love thrown under the bus because another disembodied department failed at their job. That being said, it’s of the utmost importance that developers keep the Underpants Gnomes in mind when creating their game. This goes for developers of all sizes. From the 400 person strong teams working on this holiday season’s triple A titles to the small indie teams with just a few (or sometimes one) members. Don't hold back for DLC, don't lock content away purchases. Make the best game you can, and the money will come.
The Xbox 360, Wii and PS3 generation has produced some great games, but not all of them got the attention they deserve. Hidden Gems is a (hopefully) multi-episode series dedicated to highlighting some of the lesser known quality games of this generation. Please enjoy.
It's important to note that the game is still under development and likely has a number of improvements in store for future updates. That being said, please enjoy our early beta review of Don't Starve. A game where starvation, ironically, is the least likely thing to kill you.
EA's handling of Simcity has been one of the biggest cluster-poops in recent memory. It's one thing to have a problem, fess up to it and try to fix it...but it's an entirely different thing to act like there's no problem at all and come up with excuses. This is just a quick video discussing the ramifications of the botched launch.
PS: Shot with my super crappy MacBook Pro iSight camera.
There’s been a lot of talk in the industry lately about the “indie spirit”.
Indie Spirit is loosely defined as a style of game development which tends to be more free flowing and artistic than traditional triple A game development. This fosters unique ideas that seem to only manifest from small teams working out of garages and basements. Great games like Anti-chamber, Proteus and Fez are just a few examples of this radically different style of game making. Large game publishers usually lack this edgy development philosophy and there are a few reasons. Let’s take a closer look at how publishers could, won’t and can’t shift to this more radical and the innovative form of game design we refer to as “indie”.
Love him or hate him, Blow has become something of a poster child of indie game development
How They Could
If publisher and developers really wanted to harness the creativity of the “indie spirit” they don’t need to look far and wide for quirky developers. They don’t need to purchase the titles for millions of dollars either. All they would have to do is take a look around them. The odds are high that the developer sitting in the office next to them has a fun pet project that they’d love to get developed. The game industry is packed with incredibly intelligent and creative people. It’s almost a shame that these brilliant and creative minds are busy creating someone else’s idea. The intelligent thing to do would be to harness this creativity and let them express their artistic side, but how does one do that exactly and still pay the bills?
Why They Can’t
Many large companies sit and wonder what the next big thing in their industry will be. Bill Gates has said that he doesn’t fear the multimillion dollar company that is churning away on their next great iteration of hardware or software, he’s more concerned about the one or two man team that is toiling away in their garage on something new and innovative. He’s absolutely right. So why not harness the creativity of your individual employees? Why not allow them to go off on their own and create their own works of art?
The biggest reason is because you’re not playing with your money, you’re playing with shareholder’s money. Most large investors are not interested in the game industry as a whole and trying to advance it as an artistic medium. When they look at the latest progress report of a game, they don’t see fun factor or artistic integrity. They know Call of Duty sold a bazillion copies last year and they want the game you’re building to do the same. They knew Call of Duty has dudes with guns and that’s what they want to see in your game. If you don’t want to play along, they may very well take their money and leave you high and dry. Once a developer is so large that they are forced to take money from a publisher/investor, they are giving up a large amount of their creative freedom.
Even Activision has investment interests to look out for.
Why They Won’t
When you start to grow as a company and add throngs of employees to your roster, you have to start making rules and roles. There are assigned tasks, responsibilities and duties that must be carried out and straying from those may be considered a form of insubordination. This is also when people will start turning off their creativity and lean away from new and innovative ideas. They work within the perimeters given to them and rarely color outside of those lines. That’s a big problem when trying to cultivate a creative workplace.
True innovation and creativity come from outliers. They come from people who haven’t been given boundaries to work within. So why not let everyone just do what they want? Because large organizations need structure to function efficiently. It’s hard to fire someone for not doing their job, if their job hasn’t been clearly defined. It’s difficult to know who to blame for a bad mechanic, when you don’t know who all worked on that section of the game. In the long run, it’s just easier for a company to have set rules and leave the creative thinking to a select few, regardless if they are qualified.
Once the team is big enough, people start appearing more like cogs than people.
Why There’s Hope
There are those who are taking steps to overcome these limitations and attempting to progress the medium as both a business and an art form. There are programs in the game industry being helmed by some of the best and brightest our medium has to offer. Double Fine has a program called “Amnesia Fortnight” where the studio takes two weeks to come up with unique ideas and create prototypes to pitch for full development. Volition, the creators of Saints Row, has a program called “awesome week” where the team spends a week creating and implementing new ideas for their current games. Valve is attempting to overcome role limitations by not giving people official titles or roles…it seems to be working out well for them so far. These are just a few of the programs that the industry is trying to implement to interpolate more creativity and innovation into their products.
Tim Schafer and Double Fine are helping lead the charge with game development innovation
There is no doubt games offer some of the richest experiences available in the electronic age.
With all sides being measured, it’s important to note there’s nothing wrong with big budget games. They may fail to innovate, but as long as they are still enjoyable that’s all that matters. Would it be ideal to have every game bring something new to the table? Absolutely. But until the industry evolves to that utopian paradise, we can always rely on the small indie developer to help remind us that game development can be considered an art form.
Let's take a moment and pretend that it's the 1980's and arcades aren't just a relic of a lost generation. Now, imagine you're in charge of one such arcade. Sound like fun? You'll just have to watch the video review and find out if the XBLIG title "Arcadecraft" is a thriller, or just a broken heart of glass.