"Innovation" is often tied to niche video games -- those weird gems that are flashes or even full-blown blazes of interactive entertainment ingenuity.
And it's true, most innovation comes from the smaller, more agile developers that reside happily on the commercial and creative fringe. They can take risks without fear that their company's stock will dip half a percent, or that a $20 million project may tank at retail, dooming an entire studio.
But there is a balance between innovation and commercial viability, says 5th Cell, developer of games including Scribblenauts
, a weird gem for Nintendo DS that shipped 1 million units in about half a year on the market -- all in spite of its innovative scribble-based puzzle-solving.
"We call it 'marketable innovation' here," 5th Cell creative director Jeremiah Slaczka tells Gamasutra. "Commercial viability is extremely important to us. When we do something, we don't just throw it at a wall and hope it sticks. We look at market data, what people are interested in playing, and offer our own take on that."
Now the 70-person company is applying the same strategy it used with the family-friendly Scribblenauts
to create the upcoming Hybrid
, an Xbox Live Arcade-exclusive cover-based sci-fi shooter that puts a unique twist on the popular -- and crowded -- shooter genre.
"People think that Scribblenauts
was some crazy idea, but when I was designing the base concept, I looked at Nintendogs
," he explains. "I asked, 'Why is that a market leader?' And I broke it down scientifically, looking at things -- the art style, how the input works. The core theme is puppies, and you know, nobody hates puppies."
Slaczka asked himself what else people love, other than puppies. For Scribblenauts
, the answer was surprise and imagination, two elements that the title's emergent gameplay successfully provided.
For the upcoming multiplayer shooter Hybrid
, the answer to "what does the audience love" was not puppies, surprise or even imagination. Hybrid
's answer for the Xbox 360 crowd is shooting other players in the face.
Slaczka says Hybrid
will implement what the studio calls "combat-focused movement." The difference between this and other cover-based mechanics used in shooters like Epic's Gears of War
is that players do not have free movement. Instead, they move strictly from cover to cover so they can -- in theory -- focus on what shooter fans love most: shooting.
"When you look at Xbox 360, there are a lot of shooters out there, and we want to get into that market as well, just to try it, just for us to try something different," Slaczka explains. "If we fail, we fail. If we succeed, we succeed. We actually don't care that
much [about making it a big hit], but we want to be successful."
Slaczka has looked to top-selling shooters like Halo
and Call of Duty
-- games that sell millions on Xbox 360 -- much in the same way he looked at Nintendogs
on the DS. He says, "To try to be successful, we look at the market leaders and say, 'What are they doing right, and what should we take from that?' Then we ask, 'How should we be different than that?'"
Aside from the unique cover-to-cover gameplay, the 3-on-3 Hybrid
will also feature a "persistent world war" (details are under wraps, but it appears the small, 10-minute matches are played against a backdrop of thousands of other players battling for control over sectors) and a squad-on-demand feature that lets players spend kill points to call in A.I. help instantly.
is a departure for the studio, which also created the DS games Lock's Quest
and Drawn to Life
(another unannounced project is in the works). But Slaczka hopes that every 5th Cell game is a departure in some sense.
And even though he wants 5th Cell's games to sell well, to nail that "marketable innovation," he seems to look at commercial success as nothing but one of the lovely side-effects of being a bit different.
"We call ourselves innovative and different -- that's kind of our MO," says Slaczka. "So if we're going to say that, we shouldn't be stuck in our comfort zone. Whenever we do another project, we want to push the boundaries of what's comfortable to us. ... That's why we come into work every day."