While I was very impressed with the services’ ability to run console-style 3D games in an Internet browser, I wasn’t quite as blown away by the games themselves. Not that they weren’t fun, it’s just that I knew they were fun because I’d played them before. For all that it makes a better dimensional transition than Ms Pac-Man, Marble Madness in 3D is still Marble Madness. And I was astonished to see a game that appeared to be a completely unexpected blend of Asteroids with Intellivision Auto Racing, of all things. Good fun, but not exactly new.
The curse of an encyclopedic knowledge of electronic gaming history is the ability to retroactively ascertain a game’s conceptual pitch. “It’s like Grand Theft Auto, but set in Tokyo!”, “It’s like Doom, but you can jump!”, “It’s like World of Warcraft, but with an amazing license!”
While these X-but-Y pitches are often a perfectly reasonable way to describe a game, and may even serve as an accurate means of estimating its eventual sales, they bear absolutely no relation to actual game design. Indeed, one can make a very serious argument that many games produced today are not so much designed as they take shape from an amorphous fog of mindless imitation, minor alteration, and a myopic focus on the bottom line.
Consider the automotive industry, for example. When an American car maker produces a car and decides to sell it painted red in France, this is not considered automotive design. Producing a right-hand drive model for the British market is also not considered design, nor is giving a model a different name for the Spanish market. And yet, in the game industry, that is about the amount of so-called design that many so-called game designers are presently doing. Think about how many imitations of Grand Theft Auto have been produced, with all various spins on the Mafia, the Yakuza, the Triads and whatever the organized crime gangs are called in Madagascar. The level of creativity exhibited is so low that no one has even gotten around to producing ‘Big Steal Chariot’, complete with dwarf hookers and magic elven hit men… and yet even this relatively radical facelift wouldn’t amount to a genuinely new game design, it would be nothing more than a colorful paint job.
There are two ways to go about actually designing new games, the evolutionary approach and the revolutionary approach.
There isn’t a hard and fast line here, as what at first appears to be completely revolutionary often betrays its evolutionary origins if one looks hard enough with an experienced eye, but for practical purposes the distinction is a useful one. The evolutionary approach involves making distinct improvements to existing modes of gameplay, while the revolutionary approach involves creating new modes of gameplay. Needless to say, it’s a lot harder to do the latter than the former, but the revolutionary approach offers more personal, critical, and financial reward if you can manage to pull it off.
Actual game design is hard. It’s always going to be a lot easier to throw an X-but-Y pitch together than design something truly new and different because doing so doesn’t require any creative thinking. Not only that, but it’s always going to be a lot easier to convince the financial individuals whose approval is required to sign off on an X-but-Y pitch because they wrongly perceive me-too products to be safer investments. While historically there has been a reliable market for generic imitations, the appearance of the MMO and web-based Flash games has drastically altered the market dynamic. Because World of Warcraft and Diner Dash can now easily add new content and be incrementally improved, there’s not much incentive for an online gamer to bother moving to an imitation when the updated original may well offer more interesting new gameplay.
There is no easy solution to the challenge. The rising cost of development will continue to put pressure on designers to chase tails, but history has shown that this is ultimately a dead-end strategy for the entire industry. In the end, it
will fall on the best designers of today and tomorrow to come up with new and better ways to play, and give everyone else some new tails to chase.