Series Info...Biting The Hand #43:

The New Year Begins To Takes Shape For Me

by Jessica Mulligan
January 28, 2003

It has been a busy two weeks for the kid. We, meaning me, my co-author Bridgette Patrovsky and New Riders Publishers, have been putting the final touches and polish on our first book, Developing Online Games: An Insider's Guide. You'd be amazed how many finicky details there are to getting a book in shape for a print run, especially when you're working with almost exasperatingly precise professionals such as those at New Riders. According to them, the book goes to the printer on Friday, February 7 and should be available at retail in time for the Game Developer's Conference in early March. That makes me happy: if the book is well-received, I want it available there and if we're going to get pilloried for it, we might as well take it into the lion's den and snarl at the beast in his own home.

It has been a long process to get to this point over a year, with many interviews of experienced online game developers, many of them old friends and associates, having some very experienced developers do technical reviews on the book to check for accuracy and driving much sweat equity into pulling it all together. There have been times when I've wondered why anyone would write a second book after going through the process once. However, nothing makes the whole long process quite so satisfying as seeing the advance publication links go up on Amazon and Barnes and Noble; when you see your name in lights, you tend to forget just what a pain in the rear it was to write it in the first place. Now if we could just get the booksellers to correct the spelling of my co-author's last name, life would be nothing but goodness.

And while all that editing, checking, rechecking, hair-pulling, swearing and correction was going on, I accepted a gig from a persistent world developer and had to start coming up to speed on that project, too - more on that as I can talk about it. It should keep me occupied for a number of months, at the very least, and looks to involve much travel over the next few weeks. In this mini-Ice Age that we call the Winter of 2002-2003 that covers most of the US at the moment, driving should be just gobs of fun. And whatever happened to global warming, for heaven's sake? Can I have some of that, please?

So between those two items, I've been busier than a one-armed politician at pork barrel funding time and time has been at a premium, so I'm going to take the easy way out this column and just ramble. Much like I do every other column, I suppose; at least this time, I have an excuse.

Taking Risks: And now for the rest of the story...

Last week's column started a very interesting thread on the forum. I encourage you to check it out. There are some unusual takes on just what it means to take a risk in computer game development posted there, including a few thoughts from developers on the why and how of it all and just what it means to be a developer in today's market. For one interesting take, consider this: What if one of the reasons we're making so many clones these days is that most of the good ideas were tried out in the golden age of the 1980s?

For another possible reason, check out this email I received from Rich Pizor (used with his kind permission):

Just read your latest column (got there from Greg Costikyan's blog) and I wanted to comment on one thing. You caution early on that you might be "indulging in nostalgia" when you look at the patterns of the early game industry versus the current clone-heavy crop. While it's likely a truism, I think it is a very valid point, and one that can be easily demonstrated by loading up a copy of MAME with a representative cross-time sample of games.

I think it's a question of limited versus comparatively limitless resources. If you look at the early games, when memory and graphics were extremely limited, you find much more diversity in concepts. This is because, with fewer graphical effects possible, a game *had* to have a unique concept or it couldn't compete. Somewhere around the early 90s, concepts start to solidify and you get a few genres of games (the beat em up, the 1 on 1 fighter, the driver, the shooter, the vertical shooter, and the platformer) with an increasing number of licensed characters. At the same time, you see quantum leaps in the ability to create and process distinctive sounds and images. Coincidence?

This is the classic pattern in all media available to study; a new technology develops, a few pioneers try it out, then some investors come in and form conglomerates, which become corporations, which eventually dominate the industry through informal agreements to compete with everyone else.



Rich's email struck a cord with me, especially the part about how game development matches up to the evolutionary pattern of other media. When you look at the history of, say, television, you can the same trend; the technology starts out with low capabilities requiring ingenuity on the part of content creators, then matures until it is possible to do some pretty amazing stuff on the screen pretty easily. At the same time, the overall quality seems to drop as the broadcast corporations appeal to the formulas they have discovered and now know will make certain amounts of money, without having to take larger risks to see possibly greater gains.

I haven't fully digested Rich's thought yet or begun my own research to check it out, but it strikes a true chord for me. Thoughts from the crowd would be appreciated; this is a subject that needs more debate.

Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life...

Volume 8, Issue 8

First Published: Tuesday, March 23, 1999

Author's Note: Considering the reaction to last week's column, I thought it appropriate to dig out this three year old column and take another look. From the vantage point of three years later, it seems a bit naïve in some places and some elements may no longer be true. For example, the budgets for some shooters are matching or exceeding RPG budgets these days. And, of course, many of the other numbers herein have changed, in some cases quite a bit. Still, I think some grains of reality still exist in this piece and I find it interesting that this was a topic of conversation three years ago, too. As usual, a Post Mortem follows the column. -Jessica

People often ask me why game publishers keep retreading two concepts, the real-time strategy (RTS) game and the 1st person, 3D action game (Shooter). The implication here is that gamers are getting bored with these two genres and want something new and fresh.

Somehow, I thought the answer was a tad obvious; it goes to greed and laziness.

Then again, those of us who work with this stuff, day in and day out, have a tendency to be amazed that everyone doesn't understand what we do. It is a symbiotic relationship; if that is what the gamer will buy, that is what we will make. However, money does play another part in this; as we'll discuss below, RTS and Shooters are pretty easy to develop compared to RPGs or adventure games. So there is something of self-fulfilling prophecy in all this; sure, you'll buy a good Shooter, but you'll buy a good RPG, too. Only, it takes more money and time to develop an RPG, so more Shooters and RTS games get to the shelves.

Both the Shooter and the RTS have been around for about five years now and we have so many clones of the original Warcraft and Doomon the shelves, it sometimes seems as if they are the only types of games developed these days. In the final analysis, they are all pretty much the same game. What is Half Life, after all, except Doom on steroids? What is Age of Empires, if not Warcraft without the elves and dragons?

So, if they are so undifferentiated, why do publishers keep developing them?

Publishers know you will buy them.

We all figure there are about 4 million hard-core gamers out there. These are the people most likely to buy one or two games a month, 12 to 14 games a year, so these are the customers that publishers and developers cater to. The Hard Core gamers like Shooters and RTS games and they are fairly easy to produce, so that's what gets developed.

In reality, most developers would rather be working on the Great American Game, much as writers thirty years ago wanted to write the Great American Novel. The realities of the business don't allow for that, so they work on the next boring 1st Person, 3D action game and dream of having the cash to do their dream project. That's why small groups of developers have a tendency to break away from parent companies at the first sign of success; to work on the games they want to work on.

Once you've done one RTS or Shooter, it is a hell of a lot easier to do the next one.

Change some of the art, add a few weapons and voila! You have the next game in the series. You didn't really think the developers went back to the drawing board and did Shooter 2, 3 and 4 from scratch, did you? The only thing about Shooters and RTS games that should amaze any of us is that so much money is wasted developing the sequels. Considering what we actually get in terms of features and new game play, probably half the money spent on developing them represents valuable dead presidents tossed down a rat hole. A very deep and dark rat hole.

They are a lot easier to develop than a game with an actual storyline and game play.

Let's be realistic: Shooters are just the PC's answer to console games and RTS is a cool fad that developed legs. They are both easy to learn and play and, for the most part, don't put a whole lot of strain on the gray matter.

Games such as Star Control or Betrayal at Krondor, on the other hand, are far more compelling experiences. They are also a lot tougher to design and more expensive to develop. Basically, it requires real talent to design an adventure game, and real talent is a commodity in short supply in the game industry.

Not to say developing a game such as Warcraft, for example, doesn't take some talent; at the risk of offending friends in the industry, it just doesn't take as much talent as a good RPG or adventure game. For all that Warcraft kicked off the RTS craze, it shouldn't escape us that the RPG version of it was quashed in its infancy.

Publishers know you will buy them.

Did I mention that publishers know you will buy pretty much any piece of junk they send to the retail shelf, as long as it is labeled a Shooter or RTS? Look at the list of Top Twenty sellers from PC Data any month ( (No longer working, sorry. It is harder now to get this data than it was three years ago. Now they make you pay money for it, the bums. -JMM). It is dominated by Mass Market trailer trash, Shooters and RTS games. Sure, the occasional RPG or adventure game slips in, but only because they so few RPGs and adventures get developed. When someone actually bothers to spend the time and money to develop one, it pretty much automatically hits the list for a while.

This means that, in one sense, publishers are just following the money. You pay for Shooters and RTS, that's what yer gonna get, pard.

What it all comes down to, then, is this:

Right now, there is no incentive for publishers or developers to innovate and come up with something new; you buy everything they slap on the shelves in enough quantity to pay the bills. Why should they take a chance on innovation when they don't have to?

If you really are looking for something new and fresh and are bored with Shooters and RTS games, stop buying them. Buy something else, like an RPG or adventure game. If you can convince enough people to do this, then the industry will have to come up with something to replace them.

Seems simple enough to me.

Post Mortem: And you are still buying them...

...even though the clarion call in 2003 from y'all is still, "Where's the new genre, guys?" The gaming industry is starting to look like television before cable came along: viewers went with the least objectionable choice available on the three network channels. When cable came along with first twenty-three, then over fifty channels, the networks lost viewers and advertising revenue. They then started scrambling to produce different or at least more popular content, which is fraught with its own problems.

With any luck, the online world will end up being the game industry's 'cable competitor,' spurring them on to produce more compelling content to compete with the multiplayer experience. We'll see; it is still very early in the race and with over 200 online games of various sorts in development, we're bound to see a lot of crashing, burning and cloning in this space, too.

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