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The cost of innovation

There has been a lot of talk about a lack of innovation in the gaming industry. I think it's important to look at the facts of funding large titles and let innovation happen on a smaller scale to then trickle down to mainstream titles.

Recently there's been a lot of talk about the lack creativity in big budget games. Especially Japanese developers have received a lot of critisism but western developers have also been under bonbardment for even longer than their Japanese counterparts. The critisism is mostly about AAA titles costantly copying each other and each game looking just like its predecessor. When you look at games like Battlefield or Call of Duty, this is certainly true.

But when you think about it, these games cost tens to hundreds of millions of dollars to develop, which means that there is a need for an entity with substantial financial muscle behind these kinds of projects. Such companies are usually publicly owned as privately held businesses rarely have the capacity to come up with such funding. These companies have responsibilities set upon them by law and their responsibility is to be profitable and make money for their owners.

When these companies fund video game projects they want to see returns from the projects. They are investing serious sums of investors' money and those investors will not be happy if they lose it. This forces the companies to proceed with causion and the best way to maximise the possibility of a return is to make something that has proven to be popular and boasts a substantial fan base.

The gaming industry is a creative industry but making something as big as Battlefield requires much more than just creativity. It's a very complicated business afair and must thus also be understood as such. These games can surely be innovative but only within certain bounds. It has to be something that has proven to give return to the investment or the funding company might risk going under.

Creativity has not died in the game industry. It has just changed form. It is now the responsibility of indie developers to come up with new ideas and introduce them to the gaming community. These companies have the option to take risks as they operate with much smaller budgets. Indies can come up with totally new genres and ways of playing games. They are at the forefront of creativity in gaming. Once indies have proven that certain types of games actually work, other companies can take the proven idea and add to it to make it mainstream.

Another method for funding more daring titles is crowdfunding. Systems like Kickstarter allow you to present your idea to the community and know whether it would gain interest even before going into full production. Recently there have been many projects that have been funded with immense amounts of money that would otherwise never have seen the daylight. However, most of these games are from big names or they are games that continue an old series that still has an active fan base. They might also be old ideas that have proven to work but have been forgotten by the publishers and might be totally new to the new generation of gamers. Still, there is great potential in these kinds of methods for funding more daring middle tire games that cost more to develop but do not belong to the ten million scale.

A while ago the general manager of DICE, Karl Magnus Troedsson, spoke in an interview (How DICE Does It) that Electronic Arts gets too much crap for not being innovative. The innovation there is on a much smaller scale. This is perfectly justified as there's nothing as bad as fans of a certain game taking you on because you changed a feature that they loved. You do have a certain level of responsibility when working on established titles and coming up with new IP is a very risky business indeed. I personally have nothing against all the Battlefields and Call of Dutys because they are fun games, and my preferences do not change that much over time. I still like playing role playing games and first person shooters, and I don't need to see that much change in them.

I think it's important to realize that innovation is something all of us want but it's not something that players vote for with their wallets. We need innovation, but to be totally honest, you can't throw ten million dollars at something that you have no idea if it will pay off.

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