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Brian Dreyer, Blogger

September 23, 2010

8 Min Read

I’m sitting in a conference room in Santa Monica, California with the Studio Head, an Executive Producer, Writer and the Art, Design and Programming leads.  The Head is pasting Yellow Sticky notes all over the walls and organizing them in categories. 

Some are feelings, others sounds, some architecture and others lines from poems, stories and movies.  This was a daily exercise he hosted in an effort to get the teams creative-juices flowing in nontraditional ways in an attempt to discover the next big thing. 

At first I thought, this is good; group discussion, participation and ultimately group buy-in as the team locked themselves in a conference room every day for at least an hour.  The ultimate goal was of course to create new intellectual property and a new game based on this that had a fresh story and new objectives that had never been done before. After about 5 sessions it was clear to me… it’s all about features.

I think it’s safe to say we all tend to over think and over analyze in business.  After all, we know our business, capabilities and markets so we naturally should be able to see fairly far down the road. 

As in all businesses there’s competition and with that the never ending pressure to continually be successful, to think of and deliver the next big thing.  It’s the same in Hollywood, where you’re only as good as your last $500 Million tent-pull feature film.  The trouble is that the quest for the Holy Grail can lead to some real nonsense.

I’ve always been uneasy about comparisons between Hollywood and the Video Game Industry.  While there is an obvious common denominator (entertainment) virtually everything else is significantly different. 

Films are passive forms of entertainment; they tell a story and convey feelings that are consumed passively – story, characters, environments.  Games are obviously interactive as the player is an active participant in the story telling – story, characters, environments, and physically uses a controller to navigate through the story. Also, let’s not forget the game’s interactive objectives, achievements/awards and multitude of things to accomplish and do.  

Films are easier.  The better mirror for video games is one’s dreams.  Dreams allow us to do things we could never do in the real world and that’s the essence of what players want, whether it’s exploring a new world or escaping the real one by clicking through an engrossing puzzle game. 

The appeal of the “Madden” video game is an opportunity to be a NFL Pro Football player and coach.  Microsoft’s “Halo” series allows you to save the civilized world in a world not yet here.  This summer’s hit, “Red Dead Redemption” lets you wander freely, living and surviving in the Southwestern United States and Mexico in the mid 1800’s. 

Like Hollywood, there are experiences to be had that are only limited by the writer’s imagination, but the successful Western, Science Fiction and Sports films can be completely differentiated by story, characters, and environments; again, films are easier.

Video games are interactive entertainment; the key-word is interactive.  Making great games is about emphasizing the interactive, painfully obvious, I know, yet as an industry we tend to pump-out a lot of crap and dare I say, more crap than Hollywood. 

The traditional approach to making the interaction better is to make it different.  That is, have the player do something he’s never done before; take the player to a new world to do new things, visits new worlds in a tactical sense. Give them a world they’ve never been to before, underwater, underground, limitless space and so on.  While this is all very logical, it’s not practical.  Again, story, characters, environment is just not enough.  That is, there’s too much emphasis on holistic, generic, wholesale change and not enough focus on improving known good game play features.

Features, individually and/or several, basically come down to two forms: in-game mechanics and generically new content.  The best example of innovation with in-game mechanics today, in my humble opinion, given the number of times it’s been used for console games is “Bullet Time”. 

3D Realms took a simple shooting mechanic, messed with the camera speed a bit and allowed the player to slow down the run time speed of the game to show slow motion shooting. This was obviously first seen in the film “The Matrix” and then adopted and trade marked by 3D Realms (now Warner Bros) in the game “Max Payne”. Borrowing… or stealing ideas from Hollywood is very common but in this case it had ‘legs’.

If you go back and look at Max Payne today, the original “Bullet Time” feature looks sort of lame. If you look at the epic titles that used this feature, who upgraded it or adopted it in some way successfully, the list is impressive; “Enter the Matrix”, “Dead to Rights”, “Prince of Persia”, “Jade Empire”, “Gun”, “Mirror’s Edge”, “Fallout 3” and my personal favorite, the “F.E.A.R.” series as well as many others. Take something that works well and make it better. The proverbial better mouse-trap.

The second feature type is generically new ideas for content creation. The number or total amount of ‘content’ can be a bit daunting. The subsets of ‘content’ are things such as environments, locations, music, voice overs, even story and graphics, all of which are important components in achieving the goal to be new, different, fresh, provocative and so on.

Frequently, and a staple in the video game industry, is to not just attack one of these areas but several or all of these areas when creating new intellectual propriety or a new game. After all, ya’ can’t just change the graphics, slap it on a crappy game and expect to win awards. While all new games have to upgrade many design areas it is imperative to have a finite list of these with specific research, tools and tech that can support the innovation.

Too often developers and publishers try to do too much and the results are not good. In the last 8 to 10 years, the list of generically new and commercially successful titles that came from a generically wholesale look, feel, mechanics and genuinely different is a very short list; “Heavy Rain”, “Wii Sports”, “Little Big Planet”, “Shadow of the Colossus” (sort of), and GTA.  Now the list of epic fails; .

Great video games come from great features that are iterative enhancements to known good game play mechanics. The fact of the matter is we know what these features are. We know the ones gamers love. We should focus more on taking them up a notch or two and not focus on reinventing the wheel so often. Trying too hard on story, completely reinventing controls for 99% of the development community is foolish and just too risky in a world where our costs remain high and where the customer is fickle. So why do it?

From a pure business perspective, building console and multi-console games is expensive.  Since the last console launch the costs of developing games have gone down across the board but there’s still no way to really bring down the high-cost elements in games: namely creating the art, animations and assets which account for about 60% of the total cost.  So the barrier to entry is still high. 

Add to this the fact that the Big-3 (Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo) control the games that go on their platforms, you’re dealing with a closed market.  Digital download offerings on these platforms do open up some possibilities but again, these are controlled and have file size limitations. Most of the dollars are still earned on the retail level. The big retailers are in the mix in terms of publishers green-lighting or not green-lighting these games. That is, if Target and GameStop says, “we’re not seeing this as a seller,” it’s not going to be made.

Retailers are to the video game publishers as theater owners are to Hollywood studios.  Traditionally, publishers build, contract, market and finance products for sale at retail to consumers for Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft platforms.  This retail model has traditionally fulfilled the demand for video games.  Digital download continues to grow as well and it’s obviously a game-changer to the console game business model. So the idea that ‘if you build it, they will come’ is just not true here.

Clearly, the video game console market has been a controlled market and consumer prices have remained unchanged because the costs of building games had essentially remained the same. With a supply chain that includes marketing costs, product returns and other retail product marketing fundamentals. It’s a bit of a mixed bag.

The controlled market has made it safer for developers to spend the money needed to make these big budget titles while the consumer has to suck it up at the cash register. Over all these economics are not going to change dramatically in the near future which is good for game quality and here again driving the need for richer feature based ‘money-shot’ innovation.

So, back to the conference room in Santa Monica.  After several months of these meetings, brain storms and creative exercises, the studio head pitches the game internally.

The basic fundamentals of the game involve the player being in a world where they would use several different baits and tools (yes like fishing rods) to ‘fish’ for an array of monsters that live under the ground while being on different vehicles. One of the first questions that comes to mind is; “Why would the player want to do that?” Answer; “Because it’s different and cool.”

The bottom-line time - focus on features. Players want cool features, smooth frame-rates, good looking graphics first. A cool story, unique creativity and character development second. If I want a story, I’ll buy a book.

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