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Throwing Himself On the Innovation Grenade 78

spidweb writes "A long-time Indie game developer writes on IGN.com about trying to make innovative games, and the occasionally painful consequences. From the article: 'Like all (or many, or some, or none at all) other game developers, I spend a lot of time staring into the void of my own uselessness. So, to try to give my life a sense of meaning and accomplishment, I occasionally try to innovate. I really hate trying to do something new. Sure, it gives personal satisfaction. But you know what else is fulfilling? Staying in business. Not losing your house. And you can't pay for food with Creativity checks. But, every five years or so, I try to do something that isn't the standard material.'"
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Throwing Himself On the Innovation Grenade

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  • Nothing for you to see here. Please move along.

    So much for innovation. Personally, I prefer to throw myself on the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch.
  • Hm (Score:5, Interesting)

    by argStyopa ( 232550 ) on Monday April 17, 2006 @04:57PM (#15144652) Journal
    I feel his pain, but I'm not sure I buy his message.

    "Innvoative" does not necessarily mean good.

    I agree with him that a lot of cool indie games (Nethergate might be an example, King of Dragon Pass another similar one) get 'missed' because they simply don't have the exposure to the market stream - for this I largely blame the gaming press, who'd apparently rather review the umpteenth incarnation of the Sims or Civ or Generic First-Person Shooter X, than to invest their precious reviewers' time in exploring some of the indy games.

    In Nethergate's particular case it DID get good press - but not very wide coverage.
    * 4 Stars - Computer Games Online
    * Computer Games Magazine RPG of the Year - Honorable Mention
    * Vault Network Shareware RPG of the Year
    so it's a damn shame that it didn't do better. It WAS a decent, if not stellar-quality game. You had one media outlet (CGO=CGM) giving it rave reviews and that's it. Where's PC Gamer? Where's Byte? It was a while ago: was Gamespot around? Gamespy?

    In the end, I'd have to answer his questoin "Why didn't Nethergate do better?" with "You DID get pwned by the competition. Not for your excessive innovation, just that you were swamped by other great titles. 1998 was a good year for gamers, suckage for Indy developers."

    For the /. audience, other games from 1998:
    Thief:Dark Project,
    RRTycoon2
    Grim Fandango
    Unreal
    Baldur's Gate
    Tribes
    Starcraft
    Half Life
    Rainbow 6
    Fallout 2

    (holy crap was that a bad year to intro a new game)
    • Re:Hm (Score:4, Informative)

      by KarmaticStylee ( 962482 ) on Monday April 17, 2006 @05:13PM (#15144742)
      That is another *really* good point to consider. I don't care whether you were innovative or not, screaming on the top of your lungs for people to buy your product, hell, giving it away for free--to stand out amongst the crowd of games released at that time was damn near impossible.
    • Re:Hm (Score:2, Insightful)

      by hclyff ( 925743 )
      The point is, is the game innovative in the right direction?

      There are genres and general ideas not followed by any mainstream titles, but have considerable demand from gamers. For example, I always wanted to play a somewhat realistic game with medieval setting and without any magic, basically some kind of freeform RPG game, but without any supernatural nonsense. I finally stumbled upon Mount&Blade [taleworlds.com]. And I found out there are many people who would be waiting for a game like this coming from the mainstr
    • Re:Hm (Score:4, Informative)

      by spidweb ( 134146 ) on Monday April 17, 2006 @06:04PM (#15145003) Homepage
      "Where's PC Gamer?"

      PC Gamer has written nice reviews of my games, but that started 2-3 years later. It is a very good lesson for aspiring Indie developers. You have to have the tenacity of the cockroach. Editors WILL go out on a limb and writie about indie games, but you need to put games on their desk for quite a few years before they'll finally notice you.

      I don't blame them for this, of course. It's entirely understandable.
      • You're in a slightly different situation though. The attractive thing about your games is exactly that they're not particularly innovative, at least in terms of technology. The value is entirely in the stories, puzzles, and particular challenges, which can be enjoyed effortlessly because you don't have to learn a complex, "innovative" interface to play. (That they're also very, very playable on older machines that lack the latest and greatest hardware is a nifty bonus.)
    • It sounds like a marketing problem to me. Does he know his audience and market to them? His games seem interesting to me but I run Linux and it looks like his games don't run on Linux. Thus the type of customer that would buy his games, a geek that uses Linux, won't because he has excluded them. I'm sure there are people besides Linux geeks that'd be interested but is he targeting them any better than he is targeting me? If you're doing something a little different than the usual then you really have to let
  • Uh? (Score:2, Insightful)

    'Like all (or many, or some, or none at all) other game developers, I spend a lot of time staring into the void of my own uselessness.'

    So, that statement should've just read "I spend a lot of time staring into the void of my own uselessness."

    Anyway, about innovation, creativity, and doing new things. People get burned out. You can't constantly come up with new things, at least not ones that are actually better than what you have come up with before. If you could then we wouldn't have the word 'progress'
    • Re:Uh? (Score:3, Funny)

      You can't constantly come up with new things, at least not ones that are actually better than what you have come up with before. If you could then we wouldn't have the word 'progress' because everything would have been done by now.

      To finagle your own words, "If you could [constantly come up with new things]...everything would have been done by now." But doesn't that mean that you couldn't constantly come up with new things?

      I think my head is starting to asplode.

  • by Svenheim ( 723925 ) on Monday April 17, 2006 @05:00PM (#15144664)
    From TFA:

    It got good reviews for an indie game, and a lot of people really loved it. I didn't lose my shirt. But it sold much worse than the standard fantasy game that came before it. And I don't think that it was a terrible game. It was about the same quality as the standard fantasy games I wrote before and after it, both of which sold much better.

    And herein lies the problem. When you innovate, it's not enough for the game to have "about the same quality" as regular dime-a-dozen games. When you innovate, it has to be not only different, but way above average quality as far as gameplay goes to become a hit. If it's original, but only mediocre or good, it won't create the buzz needed to become a good seller. And games that are "different" need buzz to sell well. It's of course hard for an indie developer to make a game that's both spectacular and innovative, but that's beside the point. Innovation is good, but it's never enough to sell a game.

  • Innovation is neither a formula for success or for destruction. When a game developer chooses to be innovative for the sake of being innovative, without a truly inspired vision, the results will be dismal sells. For innovation to work, a product *must* be *fully-realized*. Many innovative games have done a great job mixing Innovation with Marketability. And just arround the corner is an entire innovative system: Nintendo Revolution. IMO, Innovation is the key to the greatest kind of success in the gami
  • Innovation is hard. Especially, if you're running a three-person outfit. I'm going to find out exactly how hard when I start my indie outfit this summer. Starting with a business plan and a partner, I'm going to set up the business entity and website, write the design docs, program the game, and released a finished product for the Mac in one year. A modest project considering that my largest programming projects to date includes a database program using XML for persistent storage for a class and the databas
    • If you don't already have a buisness plan, a well fleshed out idea/design for your first product, and have at least one finished major project under your belt, stop now. Running a buisness is hard work. Programming a complex project is hard work, even for those who have experience at it. Doing both at once is exponentially harder.

      If you don't already have your product decently fleshed out, you're planning on doing design, development, Q&A, all in under 1 year. At the same time, your only experience
      • You'd be far better off getting a job, getting some experience, and working in your off hours to design your game.

        Worked at Atari for six years. Three years as a QA tester and three years as lead tester. Tested 50+ video games and responsible for 10 titles, including Backyard Football (GCN), Backyard Baseball (GCN), Backyard Hockey (AGB) and DBZ: Buu's Fury (AGB). Even done a couple of Quake 2 levels. Prior to that, I did an internship at Fujitsu where I tested the release builds and wrote a 70-page man
        • Ahh, I can see it now... Minesweeper 2: The Explosioning
        • I went by your previous comment "A modest project considering that my largest programming projects to date includes a database program using XML for persistent storage for a class". My appologies, based on that your original post sounded more like a college kid thinking he'll be leet and not work for the man, rather than someone who's planned things out.
          • Not a problem. Technically, I am a kid out of college. I have plenty of testing experience and familiarity of the video game industry, but developing a full blown application is still a challenge. Think of it as a Google "Summer of Code" stretched out for a year. The payoff will either be a finished product that people will want to buy or a learning experience that I can apply later on when I get my consulting business off the ground in five years.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 17, 2006 @05:25PM (#15144805)
    ...if you are independent and one unsuccessful game still wrecks your place!! The whole reason you run a studio as an independent developer/distributor is so you don't have to make the same stupid marketing/management mistakes as EA or Acclaim or Midway or any of the big giant studios out there. How is it that you run your place so close to the bone that you can't afford to make a slightly experimental game every now and then? Why don't you have your own community site to help promote all your games? Even tiny companies need to promote their work (MoonPod have banners on all the major game-related webcomics for example) (although i see the author is using articles as a way to advertise too, which is pretty clever! he even got onto slashdot...). What happens if the market tanks or a more talented developer moves into your niche? There is plenty of room to innovate, and many video game companies (heard of Nintendo?) actually require innovation in order for their business plan to succeed. 3M does the same in their industry. If you can't innovate without unreasonable risk then it is your fault, not the consumers or the publishers.

    I am working on building a self-supporting indie studio right now, and there are plenty of very valid sources of income that can help support you and your studio while you develop innovative titles of your own. They're not my dream projects, but they are short and pay VERY well, and give me lots of free time to pursue my real goals. If you box yourself in, and continue to make titles that sell ok but not great, and you never build yourself a financial cushion so that you can experiment, well then shit man too bad! Don't whinge on the internet about how innovation just doesn't sell; if you're going to innovate, PLAN on it not selling, and build your business around that. Time, word of mouth, and creativity are all on your side here! Just because your first couple experiments didn't sell well, that's no reason to start bitchin and moanin. They might have been bad games; they might be ahead of their time; they might be too late.

    Final thought: If the game had real historical content, why do you cringe at its possible Educational (TM) value? There is a market for educational software that badly needs exciting historical games. A man can only play Oregon Trail so many times, and try as it might, Oregon Trail will never be received as the new God of War, especially if its a shareware PC title :P look at your games' strengths, find your audience, target your niche, and help people find games they love!
    • You have obviously never run your own small business.

      Unless you inherit a lot of money the only capital you have is what you saved at your "real" job (and maybe some money from friends and family) before you started your business. Unless you REALLY luck out your indie game is not going to sell a million copies. Having a nice web site isn't going to make a big difference. You have to realisticly look at how much you can earn on a title and only invest the time and capital in the title that you think you can

      • by Anonymous Coward
        Thanks for the reply :) A couple responses to your thoughts:

        1 - I have been running my own small business for almost a year now. Granted, it is not full-time yet but it is doing very well.

        2 - Well, there is "luck" and then there is "networking and research". The latter can hook you up with some nice easy jobs that have a lot of value to the right clients. Also, you do not need capital to make a game. You do need TIME and TALENT. Sometimes you need FRIENDS. But you do not particularly need capital (un
  • by MaWeiTao ( 908546 ) on Monday April 17, 2006 @05:43PM (#15144892)
    There's a simple problem facing most indie games. They simply aren't very good. A few offer innovative concepts, but most are very derivative. The games also seriously lack polish. Often its poorly conceived controls, a sloppy interface or extremely amateurish artwork. The concept might be great, but the game in general is poorly executed.

    The standard commercial game is fairly refined despite the occasional bug. Despite contrived content and a general lack of imagination a player can still expect a sufficiently satisfying gameplay experience. That's why these games continue to sell; they're adequately good.

    Although I tend to follow whats out there I personally could care less about most games. I haven't played probably 90% of the commercial games available in the past few years and I've purchased even fewer.

    I'm not looking necessarily for innovative gameplay. I'm looking for games that are outright fun; that make me feel like they're worth the money. I think there's too much of an emphasis on the latest and greatest 3d graphics with so much potential being wasted.

    I don't have a problem with sequels. I like the familiarity of playing the same characters and seeing their worlds evolve and grow. What I dislike is when they're called franchises. Because it means the sequel is nothing more than a way of making money on the reputation of the first game, which inevitably means insufficient effort is put into making the sequel good.

    There seems to be this fixation on innovation like that's somehow going to eliminate the glut of uninspired gaming. I don't need to wave around a wand like a fool in order to experience great gameplay. It might make for a great party game, but do I really want to physically move something every single time I play a game? There's already the problem on the DS with developers who are feel they absolutely must utilize the touch screen an end up with a weak game as a result. Those tools are great, but they just wont work with the majority of games.

    Just focus on good gameplay. Blizzard has done well for a long time because they'd take an existing genre, strip it down, and focus on the elements that made that genre fun. Nintendo also has great games because they generally understand what's fun.

    The problem is that game development is a time consuming process. I've developed a few flash games and most of it I've never finished beyond a basic proof of concept because of how involving it can be, although I tend to get too ambitious. I've also tried to initiate some projects with friends but those go nowhere fast and again, it can be a daunting process. You either need too much free time on your hands or a group of people who are committed to giving up their spare time to develop something. Creating artwork is overwhelming let alone actually coding these games.

    One other problem is that of all the people out there trying to create games only a handful really have the skill to produce something truly good. The problem is that the ones who are that good probably end up working for the big developers in one form or another. That's probably why we rarely see outstanding indie work, because the ones that good are usually swallowed up by commercial gaming.
    • "There's a simple problem facing most indie games. They simply aren't very good. A few offer innovative concepts, but most are very derivative. The games also seriously lack polish. Often its poorly conceived controls, a sloppy interface or extremely amateurish artwork. The concept might be great, but the game in general is poorly executed."

      This is a problem facing ALL games, by EVERYONE! If you would have written that paragraph and left out the word "indie", people would have read it and agreed with it wit
    • I think your comment contained a lot of insight and solid reasoning, there's just a couple bits of it I take exception to.

      do I really want to physically move something every single time I play a game?

      Like your thumbs?

      I doubt that operating the Revo-mote will be any more physically taxing than operating a mouse, or a standard joystick or gamepad for that matter. Sure, there may be some games where swinging it around like a sword or a baseball bat makes sense, but I suspect most games that use its positional
  • Inovation is risky (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Opportunist ( 166417 ) on Monday April 17, 2006 @05:49PM (#15144928)
    With a shooter, at least when it has decent graphics and more story than "kill all the robots", you simply know it will sell. Certainly not to me, but I'm hardly the mainstream anyway.

    Same with real-time strategy. Make a Command and Conquer 2007, throw in a few "upgrades" and a few ways to "tune" your strategy, and it will sell.

    Everything else is a risk. It's not a proven concept. It isn't known to sell. And most of all, the audience doesn't know what to expect. Or, worse, the audience expects something different.

    Take "Black and White". Innovative? Most certainly. Sure, it had "build up" elements, but by far less than any given RTS game. It had a very detailed AI for the creature (which, unfortunately, was more a nuisance than something that increased gameplay), but it failed for so many different tiny problems.

    Biggest problem: Wrong expectations. People heard "god game" and were thinking of something akin to Populous or, if they're younger, some RTS game. Of course, they were disappointed.

    When you hear "shooter", you know what to expect. When you hear "RTS", same. Even with "Adventure", you have an idea what course it will go. But if you really dare to come up with something completely new, you're going on thin ice. If you're successful, all the other studios will copy your idea 'til it doesn't move anymore. If you're not, you're out of biz.

    It's sad, but you're best off if you just copy what was already there. It sells. And as much as I hate it, that's the way to success.

    I'd buy a good, innovative game, even if it costs 100 bucks instead of the usual 50. The problem is, few others would, and are instead satisfied with the n-th copy of Doom.
    • It's sad, but you're best off if you just copy what was already there. It sells. And as much as I hate it, that's the way to success.

      Not just games, that goes for all media too: TV (sitcom plots recycled), music (all pop/hip-hop sounds the same), magazines (just how many times can you recycle the same tired celebrity), etc. etc. Re-hashing someone else's success (I believe the current management wankword for this is "standing on the shoulders of giants") is like betting on the favourite in a horse race - ch
    • "Biggest problem: Wrong expectations. People heard "god game" and were thinking of something akin to Populous or, if they're younger, some RTS game. Of course, they were disappointed."

      The biggest problem with Black and White was that it was two separate games badly merged together. The creature training and play was pretty innovative. It was wed to a sort of thrown together version of Populous.
      I don't think the problem was one of expectations - the prerelease hype was entirely around the creature aspect of
  • by spidweb ( 134146 ) on Monday April 17, 2006 @06:02PM (#15144986) Homepage
    Thank you all for the comments on my article ... very interesting reading.

    I think that, if there is any point I'm trying to make, it's how terrifying trying to do something different is. I really do try to do new things with the RPG genre. But, when I do, I can picture in my mind the dollar bills flying out the window. If we care about games, we developers have to try to do new stuff. But, once I've taken my turn in the barrel, I let other people do it for a few years.

    I love Nethergate, and I have every plan to make a v2.0 shinier, improved version in the next year or two.

    But if the experience taught me anything, it is how hard it is to not have your next game be Previous Game [n + 1]. I am starting to get the itch to try to do something new. I hope I don't end up killing myself this time. :-)
    • by Anonymous Coward
      Hire better artists next time. Your art assets are consistently very, very weak.

      You need someone who understands composition, balance, contrast, and a number of other things that are missing. What you appear to have is someone who can do decent, not fantastic, cartoons.

      Take a look at Heroes of Might and Magic or Warcraft III. Every single screen could have been painted by hand. You can hardly tell the characters are sprites or 3-D models.

      In your games, every character is an awful, two-dimensional thing slap
      • Oh fuckin waahhh. The graphics are bad. Big deal.

        Find something real to focus on. Is the game fun? Is the story good? Is it addictive? That's the real question. Slapping bad graphics on a good game shouldn't be much of a big deal (See Trade Wars, or a text MUD), and slapping good graphics on a bad game won't do much to improve things.

        No, you're not going to see super-uber graphics from most small outfits - doing graphics is a major pain in the ass and tends towards expensive. Spend your resources making a g
    • Have you considered making Linux ports? If it is a true Mac OSX port and Windows port, the effort of adding in Linux should not be that great.

      I would recommend checking out LinuxGames [linuxgames.com], Linux Game Tome [happypenguin.org], and TuxGames [tuxgames.com].

      If you do write a Linux game, I recommend packaging it in the Loki Install Wizard.
    • Hi, Jeff.

      Loved Nethegate, bought it and subsequently several more Avernum/Generforge titles. Looking forward to Nethergate 2.0.

      Speaking of indie rpgs, have you tried the Mount and Blade [taleworlds.com] betas?

      Spiderweb needs a better engine, those guys need a plot and an English spellchecker -> a marriage made in heaven!
    • There is a big secret to innovation that I've found over the years, and if I may be so pretentious I'd like to share it.

      Pretend your game isn't innovative.

      This may seem like a weird thing to say, but the fact is that innovation does not promote accessability. Accessability is someone looking at your game, and within the first screenshot and title being able to say "I know what that is. I like that. Let's try that." Then within the first 10 seconds of playing "I know what this is, I'll keep playing." Af
    • I think most innovation in the gaming world is a gradual evolution. For starters, you have to rate the amount of change the gaming audience is willing to take. Creating something wildly different may be difficult for mass audiences to pick up and understand. One of the reasons World of Warcraft is so successful is that it didn't dramatically innovate, but rather took all the gameplay elements that worked well in the MMORPG realm and polished them all to a beautiful shine.

      If you wish to innovate, try t
  • While we are on the subject of innovative games that didn't succeed. OMF: Battlegrounds was a 3D sequel to the old dos fighting game. What was innovative is that it was a multiplayer online fighting game in 3D. It came out in like 2002/3. It never got enough press to help it, that and the company didnt have enough funds to really put on the extra polish of eye candy. The graphics were good, but one of the things so many reviews rated down on it, was that the graphics werent modern enough. But the gameplay w
  • Look at the Avernum games that they are releasing now. They are just remakes of the old exile games they made. That would be *great* if the remake was an appreciable improvement on the original. Exile I, II, and III were great games, especially for mac users, since there were so few other rpgs for the mac at the time. If you haven't played them before, check out Exile III/Avernum III. Exile III was kind of a cross between elder scrolls and a tactical RPG. However, the only real improvement between the exile
  • In my opinion the guy's big mistake wasn't that he made an original RPG. His mistake is that he made another god-damned RPG at all. Never innovate halfway [lostgarden.com].

    From the linked article:

    "Developing a game title will often consume years of your life. Making a game that is only 'moderately innovative' simply is not worth the effort. Each project must choose its focus.

    • Are you a craftsman who lovingly polishes an established genre?
    • Or are you an innovator who creates new genres?

    If you fail to

  • Feom what I read, this guy seems to regard creativity as this terrible call of duty. No kidding his games are going to suck in that case. From what I've experienced in my own life, and what I've read, creativity isn't simply "forced." It's a combination of vision and and practice.

    Take for example, what I know of Shigeru Miyamoto. He gets his best games ideas from life - Nintendogs from the purchase of a new pet, Pikmin from gardening, Zelda from his childhood adventures in Japan's natural places. Sure,

    • Take for example, what I know of Shigeru Miyamoto. He gets his best games ideas from life - Nintendogs from the purchase of a new pet, Pikmin from gardening, Zelda from his childhood adventures in Japan's natural places.


      And his idea for Donkey Kong came from the nightmarish incident when he was trapped in the Tokyo zoo for 2 days and nights. The Japanese Self-Defense Force eventually defeated the simian revolutionaries, but a young Shigeru was scarred for life.

  • Puh-lease. "Wah, I can't be creative all the time or I can't feed my children, so I have to pump out crappy sequels and clones to keep driving my BMW." What a total load of bullshit.

    Make one truly creative game, sell a million+ copies and sit back and cash the checks. Not only that, but take a gander at the greatest artists and creative minds of all time... most were poor and down and out for the majority of their lives. Sure, Einstein could have wasted time writing and selling 5th grade math books, or Van
  • I didn't see a single ~gameplay~ innovation mentioned in the article apart from playing both sides (but apparently playing them through entirely conventional means). The setting did sound quite unlike the usual fantasy fare, but I don't really associate a new setting or plot with true videogame innovation.

    You've clearly made games that people enjoyed and will remember. I'd hardly call that a pointless existence in a world where so many people can't make that claim. Really Jeff, if you've got a model that
  • the true problem with indy games is that they try to go after the same lowest common denominator market that all the big financed games go after. They really need to look around the gaming community and see what niches haven't been filled. for example, there has yet to be a decents sports mmo, a decent non-ship based space/sci-fi mmo (swg was innovative but not fun, now it is neither innovative nor fun). wizardry 8 was the last decent turn based rpg, there is not a decent 3d roleplay mmo yet, not a one ha

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