Here's an idea
For so long we've seen newbies come on these forums, and say something like "I have a great idea for a game - how do I get it made?" The slightly more optimistic, or dare I say mercenary, may actually ask how they sell it, but the underlying concept is the same, in that someone with no knowledge of how the industry works comes on here thinking that a vision is valuable. Not only that, but they believe that their vision is valuable.
Board and industry veterans, myself included, chuckle inwardly and decide how best to deflate this newbie's hopes. A couple of people will mention that ideas are a dime a dozen, and that games companies don't buy ideas because their employees have loads already. Some may mention that games are expensive products, that those who make them are highly paid professionals, and that therefore the value comes in what you can bring to that process, because implementation is the hard part. Some will point out that companies won't look at idea submissions for legal reasons. Tom Sloper will post a link to his wonderfully detailed Sloperama advice site. The newcomer eventually experiences one of three emotions, disappointment (and often a loss of interest), resolve (to learn the tools to get their game made), or bitterness (that nobody can understand just how great their idea is).
All the while, the industry churns out crap. Yes, it's polished, enjoyable crap, but it's crap nonetheless. What sold well last year?
On the PC: World of Warcraft (sequel, admittedly in new genre), The Sims 2: Open for Business (expansion/sequel), The Sims 2 (sequel), The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (sequel), Star Wars: Empire at War (license), Age of Empires III (sequel), Civilization IV (sequel), The Sims 2: Nightlife (expansion/sequel), Guild Wars: Factions (sequel), Zoo Tycoon 2 (sequel).
How about the PS2: Madden NFL 07 (the mother of all sequels/license), Kingdom Hearts II (sequel), Guitar Hero, Final Fantasy XII (the father of all sequels), NCAA Football 07 (sequel/license), Guitar Hero II (sequel), MLB 06: The Show (license/sequel), Scarface: The World is Yours (license), LEGO Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy (double license/sequel), Fight Night Round 3 (sequel).
XBox 360: Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter (license/sequel), Madden NFL 07 (sequel/license), Gears of War, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (sequel), Fight Night Round 3 (sequel), Saints Row, Dead Rising, NCAA Football 07 (sequel/license), Call of Duty 3 (sequel), Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Double Agent (sequel/license).
Come on guys... this isn't just unfortunate, it's embarrassing.
And every time we tell a newbie that ideas are currently worth nothing, we are helping to perpetuate that lack of worth. This in turn perpetuates the crap above, where gamers scramble over each other to get their hands on Halo 3, a sequel to a sequel set in a cliché setting and a highly derivative genre. (And it wouldn't be surprising if even the Bungie guys, although proud of their work, were quite aware of just how little they are giving to the world by delivering yet more of the same when they are capable of so much more, thus setting the stage for them parting ways with Microsoft.) This is surely part of why Nolan Bushnell, responsible for so much innovation in games during the 80s, considers modern games 'unadulterated trash'.
Is there a better way?
Well, I'm certainly not arguing that every newbie with a 'k3wl g4me 1dea' should be taken seriously and have their work published. But on the other hand, the highly trained human factories who churned out the cloned dross above are certainly not going to be producing much of real worth either. Perhaps someone needs to be going through these external ideas and looking for the diamond in the rough? If, as we often see on the forums, an idea is just another RPG with their own particular permutation of the typical elements, then sure, toss it out. But if their idea is the next Guitar Hero, or Tetris, or Civilization, or Donkey Kong, or Elite, or... hell, anything that doesn't have an ordinal number as a suffix and a pre-existing property as a prefix - then shouldn't there be someone who can step in and deliver that to us?
Let's be fair, game design is not about merely coming up with a cool idea and selling it to someone else - it's about systems, as designer Raph Koster points out in a recent blog entry. Games are active and the design must manage the flow of the players and the non-players through the game space. This is not usually something you can adequately predict before building any prototypes. But does that mean the original idea is worthless? A good script can be rewritten as a screenplay, often rewritten several times before it can be shot as a film. But it doesn't mean the original script was worthless. Sometimes the original writer might be retained for some duration while the script is worked into something usable, and other times it might just be purchased from them. There can be overlap and cooperation between the person who holds an overall vision, and the person or people who buy into that vision but who better understand the systems they're working with.
Sure, many people who write for films find themselves rejected time and time again, and 99% of the submissions are probably useless, but does that mean that we should discount the other 1% (or 0.1%, or 10%) out of hand, in favour of trying to produce the same old software, relying on branding and licenses to carry it in the market? Is it perhaps worth investing in trying to cultivate new ideas? Or do we continue to rely on the ideas grown in-house, which don't seem to be delivering the goods?
There have been plenty of great game ideas out in the independent sphere, things like Braid, Immortal Defense, Virtual Villagers, Democracy. Sure, as with most games, they owe much to their predecessors, but they do not just update the graphics, or add a couple of extra weapons, or add a replay feature, or tack on yet another multiplayer mode. They bring significant new twists to the gameplay and presentation, to give us a new way of seeing games. Some make us think, not just in the "work out this puzzle" sort of way, but in the "ponder the human condition" sort of way. Why can't we expect a typical game to do this? When will a mainstream game have the same emotional impact as a game like Photopia?
I'm pretty sure I don't have all the answers to the problem. But I refuse to believe that "the market" dictates that people only want sequels and licenses. As with film and books, something new and special quickly carves its own niche if it's good enough. All we have to do is give it a decent chance and not bury it under the sequels and licenses which should be the bottom layer of our industry, not the top layer. We need to encourage interesting ideas and interesting takes on old ideas, and much of that is not going to come from within.