Major publishers and developers keep churning out game after game, without any innovation in gameplay or content, and, though we gamers keep paying them our hard-earned cash, we keep wondering how many innovative and revolutionary ideas had to be sacrificed on the altar of the so-called “market-oriented design”. There must have been a large number of lost chances for change over the past two decades, or else computer games would be the driving force of many economies, we think- and we would probably be right. So why don’t the big boys in the industry get the point? Why don’t they give us revolutionary games as they did in the past?
In this series of articles I will discuss the reasons for the lack of creativity in design in the game industry from a developer’s point of view.
As gamers, many of us miss the days when almost every single new game was filled with novel game design ideas and interesting mechanics. Though our tastes in games have arguable been refined somewhat due to having played so many great games, a growing number of gamers feel alarmed about the fact that most major titles seem to have stepped back from creativity in design, and moved towards a limited incremental refinement of graphics, and sheer content volume.
The market appeal of such an incremental “me too” development process is questionable, as many innovative games have proven over the past couple of years. So why do big developers and publishers still “play it safe” when it comes to innovation in game design? The common answer is that bigger companies are risk averse by nature. This is an oversimplification in my opinion, and in many cases it is simply not true. Having worked for both small startup developers and a major game developer, I have found that there are other matters at the heart of this issue. Gamers pay 50-70 Dollars for a game, in addition to possible monthly subscription fees, and they expect a lot of content from such an investment.
For any worldwide release, a considerable portion of that money needs to be poured into marketing, customer support and distribution. These marketing costs do not rise proportionally with the amount of content in a game, i.e. it is no cheaper or easier to advertise on a global scale for a nifty little game! In fact, in today’s marketplace it might prove to be a lot harder to do so. This mechanism automatically lowers the chance of a smaller game, with lower development and purchase costs to reach a global audience.
Once the decision is made to create a game with a lot of content, you will automatically require a lot of people to make that game. Thus, you will end up creating a large number of administrative and managerial positions, and the costs rise even further. Also, developing any larger product naturally requires more documentation, tracking and communications in general, thus reducing the amount of time each developer is spending on actual work. This ballooning amount of resources required to create large amounts of interactive content, is the major hurdle that startup companies have to face if they plan on competing with the “big boys” and starting their own brand of games. In the past few years, there have been but a handful of startups that have succeeded in that jump, and the revolution in casual gaming and garage development that everyone keeps talking about has not materialized yet, because neither the main players in the market, nor the gaming market itself have changed much.
All of this has brought me to the conclusion that Major publishers and development houses are here to stay, and while there are no exotic changes in the nature of gaming itself, all major titles will be released by large development houses. However, if that is true, we will need to have some serious research into the problems that limit creative design within such companies, or else we run the risk of computer games ending up sharing the fate of board-games, comics and puzzles, namely, being degraded from an avenue of artistic and creative expression, to a minor pastime for children. In this series of articles I will try to discuss the factors that limit design creativity in large game companies from an insider’s point of view.
Hurdles to Creativity
Besides company-specific issues, there are a number of common problems game developers face regarding creativity in game design and production. I will try to list some of them, in no specific order.
Issue: Within large game development and publishing houses, verbal communication is less pronounced than in smaller companies. Many times the enthusiasm-evoking gist of a design idea is lost once verbal communication turns into written documentation, and the implementation turns into a soul-less corpse of the original.
Solution: designers and developers need education on writing and presenting their ideas in the most precise and positively engaging way. There should be a huge difference in tone between the design book, which should be written before the actual implementation, and the design documentation, which is filled in after implementing features.
Issue: Spatial relations have been proven to be of utmost importance in human communication. People tend to communicate a lot more with someone sitting near them, rather than a colleague sitting behind closed doors on a different floor. This problem becomes very pronounced when a company has to house a large number of employees. The very common segregation of developers into groups of programmers, artists and designers should be avoided at any cost. It disconnects designers from the rest of the team, which prevents designers from getting valuable feedback, and others from sharing the joy of contributing to the design and feeling the satisfaction that comes with it.
Solution: Seating in a game company should ideally be open, with the designers and leads centered and easily accessible in the rooms. Make small teams of a few artists + programmers + designers to work on separable portions of the project.
Issue: Within startups and smaller game companies, designers are the heroes, and management is extremely accessible, if not shared among all developers. On the contrary, the social distance between a top manager in a large company and its least paid employees (often designers) is huge. This will always result in the designers trying to avoid direct confrontation (a free exchange of conflicting ideas IS a direct confrontation when it comes to games, because it is ultimately those ideas that make or break a game) with managers (including producers). This creates the lopsided relationship, where designers give in to producers, sometimes even surrendering some of their design responsibilities and freedoms to those producers.
Solution: A good game idea is always the result of a balance between an idealist designers and practical producers/managers. That relationship is almost un-achievable as long as content and game system designers are considered expendable grunts of game development. The fact that the lead designer on the team might be best friends with management, does not solve this problem, but only further disconnects the lead designer form his team. It is extremely hard to solve this problem, but it is one of the most important tasks of upper management to actually allow the designers to find their rightful place as the creative leads. Generally speaking, the bigger the company, the more creative control the practical-thinking game producer takes from the designer(s).
Issue: Big game companies tend to employ only designers with industry experience. Seldom if ever, are people taken from outside the IT industry, while those might actually be the ones who can revolutionize gaming. There are barely any Ph.D.s in AI, nanotechnology, psychology or literature employed in the gaming industry. Let us face it, we game developers are mostly under-educated, and we know it. Maybe that is one reason for our adversity to academics in games.
Solution: Internships and minor joint projects between game companies and universities are not working out. Major game companies need to invest in employing practical-minded scientists from other industries. We should stop employing university dropouts and go for top talent, which, of course is only possible if we raise the currently below-average standard of life in game companies. Game developers, are a technical-minded bunch, and employing even a couple of great scientists/researchers/professors within a company is enough to seed a huge expansion of ideas on games. It is high time people stop thinking in terms of DPS and start applying Archetypal literary criticism to MMO game narratives and advanced non-linear control theory to game balancing.
Issue: Developing a major title can take a long time; some games have been in development for the better part of a decade. Many people join and leave the company during this time, and though the original developers share the creative aspect of design, when they leave two years into the project, their enthusiasm and feeling of ownership of the design is subtracted from the company, and cannot be returned by the newcomers, because there is no major creative design work to be done anymore. Thus, the longer the project takes, and the more people leave it, the more diluted and conventional the game becomes. There are notable exceptions to this (and I am talking about The Sims) but this is the general rule.
Solution: Preventing employee turnover by providing a better quality of life to all developers in the team. Avoiding an overly long development cycle for the core game mechanics and content, and providing additional content in the form of expansion packs is an important part of the solution.
Issue: Within larger development houses, marketing concerns are often shared with employees, in the hopes that developers will gain insight into the consumer’s mind, and tailor their game to the consumer. None of us developers, however, is well versed in market research for a dynamic market such as games. Neither do we have the psychological knowledge to know what effects our games will have on the consumers. We only draw on our own experience here, trying to keep other gamers happy, and that is not a good idea! Great games are never those which keep the current market satisfied- they are the games that open up new markets and alter existing ones.
Solution: Management must avoid the temptation to impress their creative employees with market(ing) concerns. It is the producer’s job to limit the visions of the designers, and thus producers must know all about the market. Designers, on the other hand should not be asked to mold their vision into what the marketing department envisions” for the game, and should be kept entirely out of the marketing loop; this is even MORE true for lead designers. A one-man designer-producer is a very bad idea, and a proven failure in a creative arena- and in case there are any doubts about what I am trying to say- No! a good designer is not well versed in the market requirement for a best-selling game, and SHOULD NOT be! If he/she is, demote them to producers!
Issue: There is a general lack of on-the-job training in the entire gaming industry. A two-hour talk by a game researcher every six months in not called on-the-job-training. Though game development involves some of the most complex and technical work on the planet, everyone is expected to know the ins and outs of every single aspect of the job when they enter a big game company. These companies are not ready to invest in the training of their employees as any major technology-based company is. As an example, high-tech electronics/hardware companies spend up to a year in merely educating some of their engineers and researchers before they start on their actual job. An employee, who is not confident in her abilities, will definitely have less courage when it comes to creative decisions.
Solution: Companies should start training their employees according to their level of competence. Advanced 3D Max or Maya classes should be scheduled regularly for all 3D artists. Other artists, may be grouped into an intermediate class. All designers should be required to attend in-house or external psychology and creative writing course, etc. Programmers should definitely be brought into regular contact with the latest technology from Microsoft, nVidia, ATI, Intel and AMD through workshops and mini-courses. The Dilbert Principle teaches us that training should not be restricted to the upper echelons, where little if any of the actual development is done, but should be provided to all. Though training might seem too costly, in an industry with a high turnover rate, there are indications that the lack of training is one of the major factors causing high turnovers.
Issue: Every large company, by necessity has a deep hierarchy of creative control. There is the CEO who is in charge of game directors, who in turn are in charge of a number of producers who are in charge of group leads who have their own hierarchies to control. This creates many filters for any idea. Each idea has to be filtered to the top and back before it actually is implemented. It is easy to see how having only a few people in the chain of command who react aversely to radical ideas, will result in them being diluted to the point where they are mainstream again. Indeed, if the radical ideas don’t come right from the top of that hierarchy, there is little chance for them to ever be implemented. The deeper the hierarchy in any company is, the greater its momentum against change will be.
Solution: I have heard a lot of game-making ideas from the QA and designer grunts on the team, and have on occasions witnessed game-breaking stupidity from top brass, so I am speaking from experience here: large developers need to implement a very shallow hierarchy structure so that even the most revolutionary ideas are pushed to the top and get a chance at competing with the watered down mainstream “me too” ideas.
I could go on and on with this list…and I will, in the next article within this series. I will also try to touch on the major problems smaller companies and garage developers face trying to materialize their creative visions for games. If you are a developer, I’d like to hear your view on the contribution of large publishers and development houses to creative gameplay and “fun” in games in general. As always, any comments are most welcome.