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Risky Business 1: Innovation

16 Nov 2012  by   Tim McDonald

In this feature series, we’ll be trying to puzzle out the whys and wherefores of making successful games. We’ll be looking at why particular games sold well or sold poorly, what we think when we see an old brand being relaunched, the role of the press and its impact on sales, and a whole lot more. This first article serves as an introduction to the series on the whole, while taking a quick look at why “playing it safe” in the games market can actually be more dangerous than “taking a risk” on something new.

Some developers and publishers appear to have it in mind that the best way to make money is to play it safe. You look at what’s doing well in the market, you release a similar game with your own brand, and you then buy California just so that you have somewhere to put all the money.

Except that this regularly doesn’t work, and after the disappointing sales of things like Homefront and Medal of Honor: Warfighter, you’d think that maybe – just maybe – people are starting to cotton onto this. But they aren’t, are they? Plenty of shooters are still set in gritty, modern-day military settings, with regenerating health and massive setpieces, and they’re so linear that spirit levels must’ve prominently featured in development. There are still plenty of MMOs patterned after World of Warcraft, and lots of casual games are casually lifting mechanics and concepts from each other. Parts of the games industry are seemingly immune to the exasperated sighs of the public.

The thing that few appear to understand is this: you need to innovate. I don’t mean that you need to come up with some new genre that nobody’s ever heard of before – the advantage of using well-known genre templates, after all, is that people immediately have some simple expectations and less of a learning curve – but you need something to make your own game unique. If you don’t have the strength of a ridiculous brand behind you (the brand that started whatever trend you’re trying to follow, for preference) then you have to stand out somehow.

(Marketing is also obviously important; if you have a ground-breaking game but nobody has ever heard of it, you’re still not going to get sales. Marketing games well is an entirely different ballgame, though, and I’m not going to touch on it in this piece.)

There’s plenty of evidence for innovation being a strength if you look around, anecdotal though it might be. Let’s look at two genres that, historically, have done rather well on PC.

FPS games: Doom popularised the genre with style and pure, mind-searing adrenaline. Half-Life had fantastic setpieces, story, a unique setting, and some rather good AI. Battlefield 1942 focused on multiplayer with high player counts, wide open spaces, and a hefty number of vehicles. Modern Warfare moved things into the modern age with a frantic (and surprisingly subversive) setpiece-driven campaign, and multiplayer featuring a number of unique touches, like compelling levelling. Hell, the original Call of Duty was an answer to Medal of Honor, with multiple playable characters as well as massive battles alongside NPC companions.

RTS games: Dune 2 pretty much kicked off the genre, although it certainly took cues from other titles. Warcraft added a vague plot and drag selecting, allowing for less fiddly tactical management. Command & Conquer had a modern-day setting, a lightning fast pace, and a simple interface, helping draw in those who generally feared being overwhelmed by strategy titles. Starcraft had a hefty story, three wildly asymmetrical factions, and solid multiplayer codified by the might of Battle.net.

Deus Ex. Splinter Cell. The Sims. Diablo. World of Warcraft. Civilization. SimCity. All sold well, all are pretty big deals, all influenced later games, and all had something differing from the competition.

I’m not going to say that all big franchises are powered by wild innovation, because that would be a blatant lie, but at the very least they tended to cherrypick mechanics and then fix and polish them into something that felt new. It also helps that the majority of these games were bloody good in their own right, too.

I’m also not trying to say that if you innovate then you’ll change the direction of games forever and start a new trend. Gaming history is littered with innovative titles that just didn’t sell as well as they deserved. There’s more to it than that.

Instead, my point is this: carefully following in the footsteps of games that are currently popular is absolutely no guarantee you’ll have a smash hit on your hands, and might well cause you more harm than good. Early on, you might be able to capitalise on a trend while things still seem new and fresh, but if you’re trying to make a military shooter right now – five years after Modern Warfare, and seven years after Battlefield 2 – then all you’ve done is give yourself extra problems. You have to deal with genre fatigue. You have to deal with the fact that you’re almost certainly not going to do a Call of Duty-alike that’s as good as an actual Call of Duty game. You have to deal with the fact that you don’t have the brand or the embedded playerbase. And, obviously, you have to deal with people bemoaning a lack of innovation (or how brown everything looks). How many indie titles on Steam Greenlight are currently being lambasted, rightly or not, for being Minecraft clones?

The simple, hard truth is this: there is no guarantee to success. Games are, as the title says, a risky business. Games are expensive. Games are hard to make, and even harder to make well. It’s a crowded market with a vast number of target demographics. But following the footsteps of other games too closely without doing anything particularly special or unique is far more likely to hurt your game than to give you extra profits. With games, playing it safe is an oxymoron. There’s a reason why people bemoaned much of Warfighter but championed its driving section. It did something interesting.

You know the biggest irony of the lot, though? There’s actually a military shooter out there now that’s mixing things up. It’s got a slightly unusual spy-fi setting; a branching storyline that doesn’t just reflect discrete choices you make but also your performance in the missions, letting you continue on even if you fail objectives; a pre-mission loadout that lets you choose your weapons, while giving a small amount of room to manoeuvre in terms of how you want to kill the next room full of enemies; and plenty of other little tweaks that change things up a little. It doesn’t always work and most of the ideas need refinement, but hey, it’s heartening to see someone trying something new within the setpiece-heavy corridor-shooter space.

The game is called Call of Duty: Black Ops 2. Did you see that coming? I bloody didn’t.

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