Series Info...Biting The Hand #42:

Taking Risks

by Jessica Mulligan
January 21, 2003

The state of PC and console game design scares me. I don’t see many risks being taken and, to accomplish anything, one must take risks. I’m not certain exactly where I’m going with this one; stick with me and let’s see what happens.

It is axiomatic that unless one is willing to take a risk now and again, one’s life is pretty well guaranteed to be static, as in stuck in place and going nowhere in a slow, plodding and exceedingly predictable manner. For those who appreciate security and derive a sense of comfort from it, risk-taking is not high on the list of daily activities and, truthfully, there probably isn’t anything wrong with that and I’m sure there are times when taking a risk is the worst thing you can do. For those who seek to make momentous changes in a short period of time, however, there is nothing that will accomplish this except putting it all on the line and being willing to lose and lose big. That loss may involve large sums of money, prestige, reputation, security or all four. The rewards, however, can be grand, indeed, should the risk prove a good one.

The videogame industry used to be passionate and willing to take risks. Back in those ancient days of the 1980s and early 1990s, it seemed like some new and innovative game was coming out almost monthly. Just when you’d start to get a bit bored with a The Bard’s Tale or Imperium Galactum, BattleChess or Balance of Power would hit the shelves. When the latest and greatest Ultima episode was completed, some other truly new and interesting game such as Civilization or Wright’s Sim City would be there to suck dollars out the wallet and time out of the day. Maybe I’m just indulging in nostalgia, but it seems to me those days are gone. Nowadays, we see true innovation once every three or four years, if then; the rest of the time, we’re waiting around on the evolution track to see who can make prettier pictures for a shooter or out-Starcraft Starcraft. Or, god help us, ‘push the edge’ with something really ‘new,’ like having hookers to beat up or a titillating X-rated bicycle racing game.

So what changed? In my infinite and infallible wisdom of hindsight, I lay much of the blame on three factors:

  1. Publishers discovered that pretty pictures and groovy sounds sell better than excellent game play.

    All they have to do is check out the sell-through figure for their own products, for Heaven’s sake. When the latest tired clone of Half-Life or Starcraft, only with another 100 megabytes of graphics, sells more units than any original game they’ve ever done, why should they take a huge risk? Sure, maybe they’ll hit on something as wildly successful as The Sims, but more likely they won’t; plain old statistics tells them that, too. Developing another clone provides much more security overall. And pretty pictures are a lot easier to come up with, too. There are few people willing to risk a couple million dollars on the belief that a proposal put before them is a truly innovative game idea and design that will sell a million or more units; there are plenty of people who have learned to use 3DMax and can draw an elf, and their pay is easily quantified.

  2. Lots of pretty pictures and sounds take lots of artists, engineers and time, which means greater development costs, which means less resources for other games and fewer risks being taken on new – and almost certainly chancy – game concepts.

    If you check out any game CD, chances are you’ll find most of the storage space is taken up not by the game application itself, but by graphics and sound files. The ratio has been getting larger for years; part of that is that today’s PCs and consoles are capable of doing more, and part of it is just stuffing the disk to achieve a perceived value through sheer size. This is the trade-off that you, the consumer, have partially chivvied developers and publishers into making. You’ve shown that, 9 times out 10, you’d rather spend money on a clone with a nice soundtrack featuring the current hits bands and lots of 3D models and graphics of blazing guns and spectacular explosions over something that might actually challenge something besides your opposable thumbs.

    The other reasons costs to develop a game have risen so high is that publishers simply wanted to raise the barrier to entry into the market. They’ve seen what small teams like iD can do when left to their own devices and investing mainly sweat equity, and they just plain don’t need the competition. The easiest way to do that is shove the disk so full of hit music, effects and graphics that consumers come to expect it and associate it with the word ‘hit.’ Unfortunately, that also takes resources away from other potential games, raises the costs and, thus, makes those responsible for spending money much more risk-averse. In a way, it is the pure symbiotic relationship, capitalism in its purest form. And there isn’t anything necessarily wrong with that… unless you are one of the people who buy those clones-of-clones and still complains about a lack of innovation in the videogame industry.

    It also hasn’t escaped me or most other people in the industry that many, if not most, of the innovative and ground-breaking games since 1994 have been turned out by small development shops working with more passion and love than available cash. Games like Doom and the original Warcraft prove you don’t have to have a large budget to turn out a great game, just plenty of passion, some talent and a willingness to out in long hours for a dream.

  3. As an industry, we spend almost all our time making games specifically for the core buyer, not exploring the new and different.

    This is especially true on the PC side of the equation, although console games are pretty much in a rut, too. For example, take away sports titles – games that are mainly retreads of the previous year’s game with changes to reflect the new team rosters – and you take away over 30% of the revenue the industry bills annually. The point is that, for the most part, the industry spends it time building games not to open up the market to a wider audience, but to appeal to the people they know will buy certain games.

Again, there isn’t anything necessarily wrong with any of the above; publishers and developers need to make money to survive and a good way to do that is to balance the risk of spending millions on development with building games they know the hard core will at least think about buying. In today’s market, that means many games will be first-person shooters, real-time strategy games and console fighting or racing games, perhaps with a nod towards role-playing or story development.

But that is not risk-taking and it certainly isn’t – dare I say it – art, or even craftsmanship in many cases. Those types of games will sell a fairly predictable number of units, probably in the hundreds of thousands; one or two may break out and a million or more. Because they are clones, and clones of clones, another thing that will be predictable is the game play. It is something of vicious circle, pandering to a known and somewhat limited consumer base in exchange for known and somewhat limited sales. And that is all well and good, but consider this:

The top selling PC game of all time is one that involves no fighting, no spectacular explosions, no racing or jumping or marshalling resources to build units to attack a neighbor, no decapitations or beating up hookers or cleavage shots for cash and prizes and bump-and-bash races between souped-up vehicles. For the most part, the player issues an order or two, then just sits back for a bit to see what happens. It is the antithesis of today’s computer or videogame, in which so many things happen so fast, it is easy to lose control of the action and the essence of game play is loading up a saved game in an attempt finally get through one more badly-designed and overpowered level. In three years, this antithetical game has sold over double the units the previous champ took a period of about ten years to achieve, something like seven or eight times the number of units of the closest 2002 competition for the PC and beat out all but a handful of the best-selling console games of the past three years, when the usual ratio is the reverse. Overall, the game and its expansion packs have sold over twenty million units in three years and brought in gross revenue to the publisher, by some estimates, of over $350 million USD and still the game and/or its expansion packs occupies three or four spots on the top ten sales chart every week, week after week.

According to my sources, to get approval to spend money developing the game, the designer apparently had to argue and cajole the publisher for a long while, mainly because it wasn’t easily quantifiable. It wasn’t a sports title, shooter or RTS clone; what is what was, to management, was a risk. If not for the fact that Will Wright’s Sim City series had make beaucoup bucks over the years, Electronic Arts probably wouldn’t have taken the chance on his The Sims! game. It seems certain that no publisher would have taken such a risk had the idea been proposed by Unknown Designer Guy. Over the years, I’ve seen plenty of ideas that looked just as boneheaded as The Sims! must have looked to the executives at EA, the first time they saw it. I used to sit on the proposal evaluation committee at one publisher and the main criteria used in deciding to give a go or no-go to a project were development cost and sales estimates. That pretty much meant we went with proposals for game concepts we were familiar with. The publisher is now on the rocks, up for sale and has a good chance of going into bankruptcy later this year. I look back now, eight years later, and wonder what would have happened had we members of the proposal committee taken more risks?

So what brought on all this thought about risk-taking? Lately, some major universities and colleges have begun adding courses in game development, along with some schools dedicated purely to game skills degrees. That’s probably a good sign for the industry over time, but one thing bothers me: I notice that the emphasis is learning skills to enable the design and development of levels. The course work seems pointed at building more of what we already build, not in fostering a sense of invention or creativity. There are plenty of courses in programming, 3D modeling and level design, but I see few or no courses that expand the mind beyond code or graphics. Where are the game degree requirements for Asian Mythology or Modern American Literature or Classic Philosophy or anything that will actually stretch the gray matter beyond how to implement a special effect or increase a polygon count? No doubt any interested student can pick these up on his or her own, but making games is more than just pure craftsmanship (and yes, the irony of my making that statement does not escape me). Shouldn’t we be requiring that every game degree candidate have more in his quiver than just execution of tasks? It seems to me that what we’re doing is formalizing a risk-averse atmosphere by training the next generation of digital factory workers to turn out the same old widgets for the same limited audience. How are we ever going to break out of this box we’ve built for ourselves if we train the next generation to simply be worker bees building more standard dimension hives, stocking them with the same old honey?

This is normally the place in a rant where the author makes dire predictions about the collapse of the industry and/or proposes some solution or set of solutions. That we face years of more clones and less true innovation is certain; unfortunately, I am embarrassed to admit that I have no certain solutions on tap. I’m just scared by the fact that we don’t take more risks and I don’t like that that means more of the same old crap hitting the shelves. I mean, I can state, “Hey, take more risks!” but what the heck does that mean to someone who has to decide to put millions on the line? About the only solution I can think of off the top of my head is to encourage more people to form their own studios and put more sweat equity into building the games they want to build, not those that risk-averse publishers with shareholders to please are willing to build.

Somehow, that just doesn’t seem like enough. Or am I panicking unnecessarily here?

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