Doom and gloom

Greg Costikyan has a very heart-felt (and profanity-laden) blog entry about this year’s GDC, and about the current state of the game industry. Basically, he feels frustrated about the lack of innovation and creativity in the gaming industry, a topic which the industry in general and Greg in particular have been talking about for a long time, and that this is building towards a crisis.

It’s true that this topic was more visible than in other years. Jason Rubin of Naughty Dog said that better graphics will no longer allow you to differentiate from your competitors; the only directions he sees are innovation or attachment (making a sequel or using a license). Guess which ones he thinks publishers will be prepared to pay money for? Chris Charla of Digital Eclipse Software held a lecture about how you can be creative even while making a game based on a licence (and I have to say it’s well-argued). Warren Spector apparently said something similar during the game design keynote. Greg’s mention of Will Wright is all the more sobering when you realize that Will experienced a lot of resistance to The Sims.

(Interestingly, Chris Crawford predicted a crisis along these lines around 1996, when he left the industry.)

The lack of innovation and creativity are very frustrating. When you’re inside the industry, it is so very easy to get used to it, and it is hard to determine whether the small signs of improvement are just that or just feeble, futile glitches. When something blindingly original and not entirely unsuccessful appears (sadly, usually in other mediums) you are reminded how complacent you have become.

I won’t try to analyze the whole situation here and now, just make some random remarks:

  • The people with the money won’t pay the people with the ideas because of the high costs and the high risks. Costs are on the rise, because certain low-risk investments (think of Vice City’s soundtrack) can increase sales, and because low-risk developers are expensive. Risks are on the way down, because high-risk developers are going out of business.

  • The industry does not yet know how high quality, innovative game experiences are created, or that they are worth paying for. Otherwise there would be more experimentation going on (game design R&D), there wouldn’t be so many titles that fail because of relatively cheap flaws (say, bad story or bad localization), and people such as game designers and writers would have a higher status.
  • Developers are not as creative, or as aware of how to reach a sufficiently big market, as they could or should be.
  • There still is no reasonable way to make money from innovative, low-to-mid-budget games. In fact, due to the rising costs of AAA titles and sales skewing towards these titles, the situation is getting worse.

Food for thought.

By the way, the “entry from some Japanese guy whose name I don’t catch, who has something he claims is PSII email software that plays like some bizarre rap dancer with a synthesized voice rapping the text you enter, and a character bopping about swishing a Japanese calligraphic paintbrush and spattering virtual ink about the page” is called Mojibribbon and was designed by Masaya Matsuura, designer of Parappa the Rapper and Vib Ribbon. Read about it here and here. And it puts paid to the tired old idea that console games are less innovative than PC games – a topic for another blog entry some day.

(Thanks, Ryan.)