The Caustic Prophet has spoken... he advocates retreat and surrender for anyone who cares about console games. Myself, I'm not ready to give up that battlefield just yet - but I still need all the things that he suggests - funding and especially marketing. Is there a way gamers with a genuine desire for innovation can help developers make innovative games?
Yes, part two of Greg Costikyan's Death to the Games Industry - Long Live Games article is up at The Escapist. I admire Greg for putting himself up in the firing line like this, and I'm really glad to see he has suggestions for what we can do. But I'm slightly disappointed that his plan of action is for us to give up all the consoles and focus on PC development. I have nothing against PC games and will continue to develop them, but as Greg himself observes, PC games need to be designed for a mouse and keyboard. This inherently leads to different games than the console design methodology, and the elegance of the controller as an interface device (especially when the designers resist using every damn control on offer) draws me like a wide-eyed moth to the incinerating flame of a candle.
In terms of developers getting control of their funding, this is something I'm not enormously worried about. If we build companies on stable business models, we will have no difficulty getting investment. Besides, and Greg may not realise this, in the European mid to lower market it's already the case that games can be developed without the developer signing away IP rights. I was frankly flabbergasted when I discovered 3D People had retained the rights to Kult: Heretic Kingdoms when they signed to a publisher - but in the mid to lower market, those franchise rights aren't worth so much to the publishers anyway. This side of the equation should resolve itself... the marketing problem is more troublesome.
The specialist press and gaming websites are too partisan to be the ally of inventive mid and lower market game developers. Did you know, for instance, that in the UK you cannot get a game previewed in the specialist press unless there the game has already been signed to a publisher? In principle, I'm sure this acts as a filter to save them looking at the doubtlessly endless stream of chaff that publishers aren't interested in, but in practice this means some of the wheat gets thrown out as well. This isn't really the problem, though - the problem is that the specialist press is in the game of selling magazines, and that means shiny photos, demos (when allowed - I'm glaring at you Nintendo) and gloss, gloss, gloss. They have to suckle at the teat of the upper market publishers because their readers want to read about the upper market games. And the specialist press reviewers, if they looked into their heart and could be honest, aren't that unhappy with their lot. Sure, the moan about the rubbish games, but there's plenty of big budget titles they love and enjoy - and they don't even have to pay for them.
That said, I'll bet there are allies out there in the specialist press who could help us... game journalists with a genuine desire for seeing new and innovative product, and who don't mind if those inventive games are on a lower budget with less polish. We just have to find them.
What we really need, as Greg so shrewdly observes, is marketing. Ideally what we need isn't paid marketing at all - because ideally we want a community that promotes innovation because innovation is what they want. What we need is a network of grass root gamers.
I've been spending some time thinking about how to make this happen, because it's not easy. There are two key problems: how and who.
How do you build and maintain a network of gamers to support and spread the word about innovative games?
The first idea I had was a chain letter approach... an underground railroad of game innovation fans who propagate email between each other like an overgrown phone tree. You can't get the same result with a mailing list, because you can't get a mailing list big enough without running into community driven problems, such as spam bombardment. Remember - we'd need a community of the order of at least 100,000 people or so. A self-managed network can self-govern and protect against spam - because you only forward on the emails which represent genuine signal. But this approach is flawed... Ideally such a network needs to be bidirectional, and a chain letter tree broadcasts better down the branches than up.
I've been trying to improve upon this by thinking of a way of making a set of interlinked linear chains (like a rope - its fibres intertwined for strength) - but even if I solve this problem, I'm not certain this would work. Its a participatory approach, and the thing with marketing is that it really needs to be a broadcast approach, because only students and the highly motivated have the energy to commit to direct participation.
James O in the comments here at this blog suggests a website which catalogs and draws attention to innovative product - which frankly is a fantastic idea. But it still needs people with the time and the dedication to commit to running such a site, albeit considerably fewer than my idea. That said, it may need less people, but it needs more dedicated people. It's much easier for people who love a particular genre to commit to running a site glorifying that genre (for example, adventure game sites such as the literally titled Adventure Gamers) because at least then you know what you're supporting. When you're promoting innovative product, you're have no idea what you're getting - that's the nature of innovation.
This leads us to the other side of the problem.
The real nature of the catastrophe isn't that we don't have mechanisms to provide grass roots marketing - it's that we don't have people who can do it. Because it takes a very special person to promote innovation, for one simple reason: there will be many innovative games that you won't even like.
Writing about the commercial failure of Ghost Master this week (see the first of the two monster posts on this subject; the second is more about the game design) made me realise that the problem is that no matter how often people say they want to see innovation, what they really want is games they enjoy that include some innovation.
So hungry for innovation have we become that when a game pushes our buttons, we find reasons to single it out for innovation. Witness the absurd number of people scrambling to find something innovative to say about Doom 3 such as this review ("innovative, riveting gameplay"), or this ("one area you could note Doom 3 as being innovative is the way it uses great lighting and atmosphere...") or even this ("Probably one of, if not the most innovative things involved in Doom 3 is your handy flashlight". Thankfully, in this case, this is balanced by a large number of people who are willing to say that Doom 3 offers nothing innovative.
I think the problem is that gamers are so used to hearing people cry out for innovation that they believe it's not acceptable to like a game that isn't innovative. But the fact of the matter is (and The Caustic Prophet may disagree with me if he wishes) is that there is nothing wrong with liking games that aren't innovative.
I'm going to say that again: there's nothing wrong with liking games that aren't innovative. I'll go further: there's nothing intrinsically wrong with games which aren't innovative. The entire value system of the gaming community is completely out of touch with reality right now, and as a result there are very few people who could fulfill the role of independent evangelist required to provide grass roots marketing for games.
Values for Grass Root Gamers
Are you interested in becoming a grass root supporter of innovation in the games industry? If so, I urge you to consider taking onboard some or all of the following values:
- Competently designed and implemented games should not be attacked for not being innovative. Simpsons Hit & Run may be GTA repackaged with the Simpsons license, but it is competently implemented. Save our bile for games which are badly implemented. Don't praise X Men Legends for being 'better than the other rubbish X Men games' - slam it for its terribly incompetent mechanical design.
- Refinement is a valuable contribution to the industry - Doom 3 and Warcraft 3 should not be attacked for being refined iterations in a franchise, because refinement is as valuable as innovation in terms of stabilising the industry. And games that excel at refinement like Halo should be praised for refinement, not innovation. (None of these games appeal to me personally - but I bite my tongue, because they don't deserve to be attacked).
- Work out what a game brings to the table that is of value, rather than dismissing a game because at first glance it looks like old hat. Burnout may look like Pole Position, Greg, but its core gameplay is driving recklessly in order to maintain breakneck speed - that's not Pole Position's core play. Plus the Crash Mode in Burnout 2 is genuinely inventive, and great fun. The Burnout franchise may not be the most inventive around, but it's another example of competently implemented games with refinement (and just a little innovation thrown in for good measure). I'm not an enormous Burnout fan, because I'm not much of a racing fan, but Burnout is not the enemy.
- Try and remember that there are many different play styles - don't attack a game because it doesn't meet your personal play needs. In this regard, remember that there are players for whom the mimicry experience is more important than the ludic experience - value innovation in all play styles, not just in the ones you prefer.
- Evangelise innovative games even if you don't like the gameplay. This is the big leap of faith, I'm afraid. I didn't much enjoy the Darwinia demo - but damn it, that's an inventive little game which deserves some attention. Ghost Master didn't meet the play needs of many specialist press magazines, but if you say you want innovation - draw attention to it when you find it!
We need grass root gamers to evangelise innovative games. It starts with a change in the value systems of those gamers who say they want innovation in games.
Grass root gamers...
Your Games Industry Needs YOU!