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Similarities between games genres and other media formats

This post compares a number of different games genres with other common media formats and asks whether there are lessons that the games industry can learn from the traditional media formats, with respect to design, production and financing.

Jonathan Lawn, Blogger

September 24, 2010

10 Min Read

Long-time listener, first-time caller!

I've seen a number of blog posts on this site recently comparing games with films (movies), and in particular suggesting that the similarities are sufficient that the games industry could benefit from moving towards the finance and production models used by the film industry. 

That set me thinking: surely there must be better analogies. This is how far I've got. I hope it's enough to interest some of you and kick off some discussion at least.

Caveat emptor: I'm not in any of these industries, and I've not done any specific research for this. It's from my head, and I'm happy with both well-informed and equally uninformed feedback.

By the way, in the same way that some people switch between he and she to try to keep the reader thinking about a disparate group rather than settling on an image of a single person, I've decided to keep switching between the gaming terms like "player" and those more normally used with traditional media like "viewer". Hope that's not too painful!

Action games are like action films

I'm primarily comparing AAA single-player action films with blockbuster movies here, say Drake's Fortune with a Bond film, but I hope the analogies survive as you scale down both.

  • Both are intense experiences, visually and emotionally, and they are designed to be consumed quickly. However, only a few people will play through them more than once or twice.

  • Actions and effects are key: what can/does the protagonist do and what do they cause to happen, things we can't do in reality. It's all about our hero blowing up an ammunition dump, and the player getting to experience that.

  • Some prototyping may be required. However, when you enter production, it needs to be fast, so that you aren't overtaken by technical improvements that make them look dated, or a similar game or film doesn't beat you to the punch.

  • Fast development of something intense means a lot of parallelization, big teams and a lot of money up front.

  • They play into a big market, but need a good share because of the high costs, and therefore invest heavily in publicity.

I can definitely see the games industry learning from films here. As I understand it, films are created by a production company who do the planning and prototyping with some seed funding, but are then financed with a lump sum as they go into production based on the track record of the producers and a detailed visualization of the end product.

  • The role of key talent does seem to be a recent theme here, but mostly in terms of creative and technical talent. However, this model also requires key management talent to pull together quickly a big team from scratch for a single release, though that can come from the publishers.

  • I also haven't seen much on the different profiles require early and late investors play, with the former placing a high risk but relatively small stake on the creative and technical talent, and the latter having a good understanding of the planned product, but gambling high stakes on the reaction of the public to it.  Each should understand their risks, so it makes sense for the publishers to continue to provide much of the production funding and perhaps the producers. However early funding from game experts may make more sense (like the Indie Fund perhaps). Having all funding and control in house is like the old 30's Hollywood studios.

  • Gameplay ideas and engine enhancements may be better produced with agile development techniques, but before the games get the green light the should have moved to waterfall production, shouldn't they?

Who doesn't this model suit? What would be lost?

RPGs are more like box-sets

Roleplaying games, single player and particularly MMOs, are like TV series: the sort which you missed out on the first time, but bought the box set, and you are now evangelising to all your friends about it, even though they watched it last year (e.g. Sopranos, House, 24).

  • They provide medium intensity entertainment, and lots of it. That's the key: masses of content. And that costs.

  • Development can be ongoing though, so long as it stays ahead of the consumers.

  • A good product can get a decent share of a fairly big market, so it's worth the costs.

I think TV networks tend to be pitched a concept and some initial content, pay for a pilot (which is mostly a test of the script and actors, and tends to be lower cost than a regular episode) and then pay production costs as they are incurred. Franchises can be heavily milked, so long as the content keeps coming and the quality stays high.

Does this mean that RPGs should have a completely different funding model to FPSs?

Casual games are like daytime TV, and also like magazines

  • They are low intensity but fun.

  • They are also surprisingly addictive. Though they don't usually create loyalty to draw you back to them like the other genres here, they are hard to ignore when the are just there, and the barrier to picking them up again is very low.

  • You make them quick and sell them cheap.

  • They are sold into a large but very crowded market, so anything to help them stand out is the marketplace is very valuable.

  • Developed with a deliberately limited scope, and just enough art and craft.

There is probably already a good corrolary between the consolidation of much of the market into the hands of big producers. Tiny independents can still find a niche (in games and magazines at least) but it can be hard for them to market themselves in such a crowd.

Strategy games are like novels

I'm stretching here perhaps, but I've decided there are quite a lot of similarities between turn-based strategy games and novels.

  • It's all about the world created. How does it all fit together?

  • Both tend to be spare but highly crafted.

  • A long, slow development is fine, because neither tech nor originality are key.  However, balancing is very important.  Teams tend to be very small therefore.

  • This can be very efficent, in terms of the number of man hours spent creating it versus the time any given reader will spend with it.

  • Though the market is quite big, it's divided into niches, and it's difficult for any one product to grab much of the overall pot.

Books are generally developed by a publisher providing an advance to someone with a good idea who they think has a decent chance of completing the task. They monitor progress, without applying too much pressure.  End quality is key to them, so they let the author decide when its ready.

Could TBS game dev be more like this? Or is it already. This is not far off the traditional model of publishers funding developers, but I get the impression that game publishers lean much more heavily on their authors to finish. I don't know if the publishers know to be more hands off when the game type makes it appropriate.

Sandbox games are like colouring books

Okay, I'm just being silly now. They are more like biographical novels.


So, if there's anything I've drawn from this, it's a belief that game genres are
more different than I'd considered before. Not just in their effects on the players, and the markets they sell into, but also in their development and funding requirements.  Therefore it should be no surprise if they are developed using very different business models.

Any of the above strike a chord with anyone? Any mileage in this analytical line? Or do you perhaps have the knowledge to point out the fatal flaws in the above? Comment are very welcome.

FPS and film: intense, visually and emotionally, limited life

Actions and effects are key: what can/does the protagonist do and what do they cause to happen

Fast dev (cos tech dependent)

Needs lots of money up front

Sold with a detailed plan and a producer with a track-record in place

Broad market but high costs means need good share.

"Experience": http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/6142/a_complex_journey_ninja_theorys_.php?page=3

TBS and novel: spare but highly crafted, high efficency, low market though

World (simulation) is key

Slow dev fine - tech is not key, balancing is

Paid for with advance

Sold on initial idea, and a sense that the author will complete the task, but the author given lots of freedom

Niche market probably, but need to hit it

(MMO-)RPG and series: high investment for lots of content, providing lots of medium intensity enjoyment

Content is key: what the player sees

Ongoing dev, end not important

Sold on idea, and a plan for early content

Paid for in installments according to budget

Looking for a decent share of a medium-sized market

Casual game and magazine: just enough art and craft, cheap but low price so needs large market (for total produced)

Episodic game and casual TV: low intensity, high value, especially in time

Keys are concept + enough content

Some brand loyalty

Sold on the concept

Paid for in arrears?

Looking for any share of a big market

Production style of tradional media make good model for associated games?

Player control ("interactivity"? "involvement"?) extends the player time of media enormously

Addictiveness product of something? Some ratio? Persistence times intensity? Why then film and casual game outliers? Closure? Perceived cost? Variability? Control?!

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