To everybody in the industry (I think), it's commonsense that the market was entirely fragmented; not only in the business side, but in the industry as well. Just a few years before, if you wanted to get into videogames, there were some defined paths, well pavemented: you could be a Game Designer, a 3D artist, a musician, Graphic Designer, Programmer, Engineer... all specializations from the basic couple art/code.
But first, came the new business venues. First we used to sell games in a box with some "funny" stuff into, then internet gave us the great opportunity of seeling everywhere and in different forms: freemium games, browser games, online-market games, etc. The internet venue splitted into as many "routes" as the internet is vast, allowing virtually everybody to buy/play a game - and for "everybody" I mean from the classic hardcore gamer to the mom at home. No company in the world has yet demonstrated capable of ruling all those venues decently, so many other game companies appeared, with some niche-based focus who started closing the gaps that appeared in the process. Niche-based companies developing niche-based games, just reinforcing this poisoned formula of FPS/RTS/3rdPS out there. Tons of new games based on a few genre-defining games.
To this point, nothing is really new. But what leaded me to write this post is the fact that it's interesting - at least to me - to see how difficult is, to big budgeted companies and games, to go any further from the obvious, from the success-proven formulas. I will not enter on the subject of how jurassic some companies and publishers are, mainly because the problem is not them - better, not only them. The hurry of making a successful game, based on dream projects, is a disease that affects big and small companies, indie or pros. Most of this pressure comes not from the publishers only, but from the desire the teams have of developing only milestone games as well, despite any other approach they could use when developing the project.
If you think I'm babbling, just take a look on how easily indie games has been taking place in the market today. And they're not developing the classic famous game idea with a twist formula; they're bringing on some genre-defining games as well (think on the iconic Angry Birds at launch). As an indie who develop for others, I could say: it's far easier to develop good (new) ideas from scratch, than trying to pick a starting point and putting some "new" ideas. "From scratch" I don't mean the idyllic situation where I got infinite time and infinite budget to develop whatever I want. I simply mean that it's easier to get a good idea based on the project "demand" than adapting anything else into my reality - simply put, any other idea/game in the world was conceived in a completely different reality from the one my new game will be created.
Anybody familiar with AAA development knows what I am talking about. It's easier to come to the publisher and offer a "new twist" to any game idea on the market, than trying to convince them that a different one (not necessarily new) will sell as good as well. I know it's unfair to blame on those people for acting like this, because only them knows how much pressure they suffer everyday to make the money invested developing a game turns into (high) profit. But at the same time, we get into my point in this article: one thing doesn't justify another. Ever.
The industry entered into a vicious circle which generated vicious creativity. An industry outputting industrial creativity. I wonder how many Producers and Game Designers out there cut their game ideas off when evaluating it with the publishers, just because they know that they will simply cut it off. If the "dream component" is cut away from the game, probably the mind "sliced" will not lead the developing process as it could - it's crippled in the heart.
I take Graphic Design as an example, as I'm graduated on this. For years, the commonsense is that making Graphic Design is to "understand the client and their needs, and output it visually"; I was extremely summary describing it, but I hope you got the picture. Tons and tons of books was written about this with theories and techniques, courses and more courses been taken over the world preparing the students to do such a job... and today, this "industry" received a wave hit: a thing called Design Thinking. Putting it simple, Design Thinking is about putting yourself in the place of the consumer of your client, deeply understanding how they think and feel, what they want, etc. A more critic eye on the situation, to achieve a deeper solution than simply making graphics. To do this, Design Thinking almost suggests blurring the limits of the Design field as a whole, taking knowledge and experiences elsewhere.
At first sight, it's a variation/evolution of this closed relationship trademarks has with their consumers on the XXI century, maybe an evolution to the classic Graphic Design's paradigm cited above. But in fact it isn't. If you think that Graphic Design always was about creating visual solutions that fits the client's needs, so that's something wrong here: or this Desing Thinking is just "more of the same", or we were doing things completely wrong all this time, and only now we saw that we were not evaluating the situation as precisely as the situation needed.
What does it relates to this article's subject? The Graphic Design field didn't perceived that they was swallowed by the same vicious circle Videogame industry entered: dozen of "proven formulas" encaging the industry thinking, till a wave hit them strong enough to show that it was happening. A wave that showed how shallow our ideas became, simply because we feel that it isn't needed to do anything different about that. That big wave seems to arrived into our industry, but it also seems that something bigger must happen for people to perceive that. The infamous Nintendo note at GDC this year showed it clearly: a big company feeling that something different is happening, but they doesn't feel they must do something about - indeed, they asked the industry to "change the focus", as if developers and platforms suffers the same things the same way. They still haven't perceived the simply fact that mobile platforms which cheaper, great (and sometimes better) games is lurking out there. It's not a distant possibility, but a true reality.
I took Nintendo as an example, but many people think the same way: that those cheaper games will diminish game value over time (a thing I agree in many points, but it isn't the subject now). The point is: people WILL KEEP developing cheap games, those platforms WILL STAY in the market for a long time yet (with great hardware configurations, by the way). That's the time to use all the great creative power the game houses have and change the tide. The time to show why we are a great industry, why they're great companies, defining trends. But that's also the time those cages I cited before shows its presence, making people and companies think that the world is the problem, not them. Thinking that, if they can't easily handle the new waves, those waves may change to what they want. It's infantile, to say the least.
The worse part of it is that this struggling situation is completely unnecessary - and there's where my comparison with Graphic Design tooks place. We say we know what the consumers want, and use it to justify that some formulas will work and others will not. But if it was really true, there would be no reason for such a concern about game value, industry, etc. Is it just a matter of offering better products that fits on consumer needs, a thing we're specialist, right? But those cages doesn't allow many companies to try that, and then those small companies Nintendo (and others) complains about gains more and more space - I'm sure Nintendo would not complain if any release of Zelda sold 15-25mi copies for $5 each, for example (which is almost an expansive value, to those platform's standards). In this situation, those game companies are taking the Design Thinking place, offering a more accured game development approach to any idea they have. The difference is that those games are cheaper than the "classic" ones.
To finish it, all this situation also showed that there's no place to think as in the golden era of hardcore-only market. People are enjoying their playtime the same way we did years ago with Atari, Master System, Amiga, and so on. There's no point on offering "twisted ideas", if people just want to have fun, plain and simple fun. I'm not saying that the games must become simpler, but they must become easier to start enjoying it. But if you pick an already enjoyable idea to work with, you'll end with less joy to offer, as people will probably have played that base game before.
Finally - at least for me - gameplay experience is becoming king, taking place of game content. That's why games does exists in first place. More posts here and on my new website, www.ludorama.com.br