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Here's an idea

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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 cliche 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.
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Good entry, the Sloper reference made me laugh. So on with the comments...

Personally I get tired of wading thru post after post regarding new MMORPGs and FPS ideas. I ignore them because responding only makes it worse. If someone is really interested, they'll hopefully spend more time reading and learning than trying to force their half thought out game design on everyone else. Most of them would be better off just trying to write a short story about their concept than a game. That is, if any of them could articulate anything in a format that anyone could understand. I figure the education system is either getting really bad (was it ever good?) or half the posts are from 12-year olds.

That's more of a rant than a comment and probably a bit harsh since I have plenty of posts that can be ripped on as well. On the one hand though, I understand your point about new blood, innovation, etc. I'm hoping more for that guy with a good idea that's really lazy so I can implement it myself [grin]

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Well, from what I've seen in the forums, when someone presents a new idea and is able to spell it out correctly, most people are fairly supportive :)

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Yeah, but then the forums are not where the real decisions get made. Often positive feedback is given on the assumption that you're going to go away and code it. How can we improve the path to get from idea to implementation, so that ideas that truly are good are given the ability to shine? Perhaps it's about providing better tools (eg. game-making software), perhaps it's about teaching people to refine their ideas into full system designs, and perhaps it's both of those and more besides.

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Well, it's pretty easy to write off today's work as 'unadulterated trash', but the simple fact is this: in the 80s, it was easy to innovate because nothing had been done yet. 1-man games were the rule, not the exception. Everything they churned out was new, because video games were new. And even a large portion of that was rubbish as well. Now? Innovation gives way to economics. When even medium-scale games require entire teams of people (who need paychecks), it's pretty easy to take the path of least resistance by following up with a sequel to a proven hit. Innovating in such an environment becomes a far greater challenge than it was back in the 80s.

From a statistical view, the odds of being able to execute a true innovation only decrease over time. If you consider the set of all possible gameplay experiences, that set is finite because human experience, at it's foundation, is finite and limited. Games are abstractions of human experience, and as each facet of that experience is explored, the set of remaining unexplored possibilities diminish. As a consequence, those tiny gems of true innovation become lost in a sea of old ideas.

Finally, human beings are creatures of habit. Just take a look around and see how many people settle into comfortable routines and live their lives blissfully unaware and uncaring of what other lifestyles there may be. The same is true of gamers. I, for one, enjoy a particular subset of games and actively seek games of a similar nature out. It's because they are what I enjoy, what I am comfortable with. Every now and then I might step outside my comfort zone and try something different; but usually I return, finding only disappointment or boredom. When I hear people write off the games that I enjoy as 'trash' I pretty much tend to shut out anything further they may have to say; such categorical characterizations demonstrate arrogance and bitterness to me.

It's so easy to stand on a soapbox and preach about innovation; but the execution is an entirely different bag of horse guts.

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I dont know how or why you claim its crap, its taking a proven concept and improving it, refining it, perfecting it. Gears of War, God of War II, Xenosaga, Lost Planet, Mario galaxy are great games, maybe they are not original but have good gameplay which is the most important part of a game. I will take another well made 'clone' game over an experiment any day.

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A very belated response to the last poster (who will probably never see this; oh well).

Refinement is a useful and important aspect of improving the art. But it is possible to improve and refine a concept while attempting to introduce something new. Refining a concept without introducing something new is intellectually lazy and gives us very little. People are entitled to enjoy these reskins of old classics, but should we be stuck with the same types of gameplay forever, because our creativity ran dry? This was never a diatribe against sequels - indeed, if something is great but flawed, it would be a crying shame to not give it another go - but against our industry being saturated by sequels and clones to the point where creativity and innovation is drowned out.

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