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Are derivative games now the only way to hit it big?

A big discovery question, and no clear answer.

[The GameDiscoverCo game discovery newsletter is written by ‘how people find your game’ expert & company founder Simon Carless, and is a regular look at how people discover and buy video games in the 2020s.]

We’re back and it’s Wednesday - what other questions do you have for us? Seriously, thanks for supporting GameDiscoverCo on its unending journey to poke & prod at the decaying cadaver of game discoverability. (We’re your friendly autopsy technicians.)

Next up? On Friday, our Plus subscribers (please be one of those!) get our regular analysis of new trends in Steam & console games - including exclusive data & insight. And for Monday’s free newsletter, we’ll chat to the lead dev of the (nearly 500k units sold!) breakout sandbox game Hydroneer. But for now… let’s talk originality in games?

Game discovery, familiarity, & the ‘fast follow’…

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After ‘not-E3’, we saw a few comments on the similarity of games shown in the big showcases. Callisto Protocol (above), is a legit space horror ‘spiritual sequel’ from the devs of Dead Space. But the same Summer Game Fest showcase saw a host of other scary space games.

The Guardian’s weekly game newsletter dug into this, in part by referencing an excellent, if high-brow recent blog post by Cantata dev Kyle Kukshtel on what he rather fascinatingly calls ‘game design mimetics’. But what on earth is that?

Kyle’s overall point is simple: “If the role of mechanics design in a game is to best serve the content of the game, be legible to the player, and not introduce too much uncertainty into the middle of a production, the simplest answer to ‘what should we do about the design’ is to just ‘copy what already works’

I’ve chatted to Kyle quite a bit during his game’s development, and actually referred to Cantata as an “unconventional isometric strategy game” in our recent Plus-exclusive round-up on its recent Steam Early Access launch, adding that it was “maybe a bit tooo abstract”. So… there’s real meat and experience to his arguments here.

This got me to reflect a bit on our advice to devs and publishers, too. Kyle also makes the spicy point: “A game production environment that prioritizes safe choices and a retroactive lens will slowly dull its ability to think outside of a slowly narrowing field of possibilities.” That sounds… bad, right?

Which led me to think - is GameDiscoverCo part of this same problem, always suggesting you stick to certain genres, but with a slight twist? That is absolutely advice that we give. Elsewhere, Kate Gray just wrote a piece at NintendoLife on the neat ‘textual comparison’ game writers and marketers use as shorthand: “Stardew-like-roguelike with Soulsborne elements”, etc. It’s the same derivative issue, potentially.

The obvious answer is that this behavior can be commercially rewarded. If you look at this recent postmortem of 20 Minutes Till Dawn, the dev was working on a much bigger project, but shifted to a high quality ‘fast follow’ of Vampire Survivors - and had a good-sized hit in response. And in mobile, the ‘merge’ puzzle mechanic is now a full game genre.

So here’s what I’d say. As supply & demand shifts on PC/console, you have to be more laser-focused on the size of the market you are addressing. And to buy your video game at volume, players need to feel excited by the concept. In games, this comes down to: competitive visual look/gameplay style on first glance, if it has a hot external IP, and (somewhat less) the dev’s history.

In TV/movies, there are other visibility anchors - particularly actors, who can genre-hop with aplomb. But it’s also more about IP there too recently - see the Star Wars/Marvel multiverses, etc. And most importantly, networks and streaming services commission TV shows & pay for them in full, based on subjective takes - some of which are prestige-centric, in addition to commercial.

So, I don’t know that this harder competition stage in games kills innovation outright. But there’s certainly a danger that a lot of the new advances are clustered around refining select hot microgenres, rather than going new and interesting places.

And the one thing that’s different in games - versus TV/movies - is that the financial barrier to entry for games is so much lower. You can make any game you like, any time - just not as your day job! And that’s where it get complex.

Does your choice of genre or art style - or just the amount of competition - limit your audience enough that you get paid as a hobbyist game dev, when you’re actually planning to be a professional one? That seems to be the problem that a lot of smaller devs wrestle with currently. That trade-off is at the heart of the ‘mimetics’ discussion…

[We’re GameDiscoverCo, an agency based around one simple issue: how do players find, buy and enjoy your premium PC or console game? We run the newsletter you’re reading, and provide consulting services for publishers, funds, and other smart game industry folks.]

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