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Well. There are a few things we can learn from this: A)… - Blather, Rinse, Repeat
February 9th, 2007
08:45 am

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Well. There are a few things we can learn from this:

A) Somebody's engine can push a lot of particles. Too many, perhaps.

B) I'm prepared to announce the death of the shoot-em-up format.

The first one is obvious, the second one might be controversial amongst the right crowd.

I kinda like the shoot-em-up game; some of my favorite games in the arcades were Scramble, R-Type, and Raiden. The game pictured above is "Mushihimesama Futari", not one I'm familiar with, but an obvious successor to Raiden. Fly around the screen, shooting stuff, and at the end of the level (perhaps in the middle, too), there are "bosses" that take a lot of shooting to defeat, and they force you into a contorted geometric dance to avoid their barrage of bullets. (Not that this is at all realistic - the boss doesn't have logic for figuring out how to target the player's ship, the boss just has patterns, much like an automated sprinkler system.)

Like so many creative endeavors, game design is largely a derivative process. People take existing ideas, add something new (sometimes), and sell the result. M.Futari looks like it has a technological improvement over Raiden (drawing enough projectiles to fill the screen - a lot of systems would have difficulty doing that), but the achievement seems hollow. Perhaps, if I had played the game to experience it for myself, or if I could comprehend Japanese to listen to the voice sound effects, I might appreciate that M.Futari is substantially richer than Raiden in some way. Perhaps. Instead, I'm going to guess that if you evaluate it qualitatively, it's no better than Raiden.

I doubt that somebody in a conference room said "Their game has 50 particles on the screen at a time, and I think I can get 500 particles to work. That will make our game 10 times as much fun, and ten times better, and we'll make ten times as much money, and we'll be able to retire ten times each!" I especially don't believe the bit about retiring. But I do believe that the game design process is one driven by commercial concerns - this is, after all, a business, and the creations have to find their way to a receptive marketplace. Recycling existing designs with incremental quantitative improvements is a reliable way to reach an existing market - so long as that market hasn't bored of the format.

To combat that "format fatigue", and to differentiate themselves from more formulaic competition, games occasionally innovate. But it's good to recognize that this isn't purely for artistic motives - it's still commercial.

And none of this is unique to electronic game development - the same is true for movies, for television programs, for books, even for retail oil paintings. It's easier to convince a retailer (theatre owner, gallery owner) that your ouvre will sell if they've just sold a substantially similar object. That isn't the only reason we have so many formulaic designs, but it's a pretty powerful reason.

And, for me at least, it's a pretty strong reason to graze around the fringes of media - independent games, limited-run movies, experimental what have you. There are still lazy designers, but you don't have the financially conservative forces of the company mandating "safe" choices.

Your homework, if you've got this far, is to consume something creative over the weekend. That can be watching a movie, reading a short story, whatever you can manage. Extra credit for something outside of whatever constitutes "mainstream", extra extra if it's outside your comfort zone. Reflect on the creative process, and how it is balanced with the bottom line of the business that brought that art to you.

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From:ginsu
Date:February 9th, 2007 06:22 pm (UTC)
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. Fly around the screen, shooting stuff, and at the end of the level (perhaps in the middle, too), there are "bosses" that take a lot of shooting to defeat, and they force you into a contorted geometric dance to avoid their barrage of bullets.

I was instantly reminded of the end sequence from Gorf, the circa 1982 arcade game.

And, for me at least, it's a pretty strong reason to graze around the fringes of media - independent games, limited-run movies, experimental what have you.

Especially because innovation is often rewarded. Probably bears considering that the two most successful PC games of all time were (1) a relatively low-budget HyperCard stack and (2) a very commercially dubious, non-confrontational project suggested by the creator's experience rebuilding his life after a fire.
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From:tsmaster
Date:February 9th, 2007 08:13 pm (UTC)
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These two are certainly commercially successful, but they both strike me as mediocre in terms of innovative game development.

I'm perhaps holding Myst to a different standard than other games, because it came out at the wrong time - I was very focused on clever software at the time, and it had none, just lavishly rendered, barely animated, bitmaps. And then a bunch of people bought CD-ROM drives and SVGA screens, and Myst catapulted to - in my estimation at the time - undeserved acclaim.

It probably deserves more credit than I'm inclined to give it - I've long held that it's the analog of a coffee-table book. Very pretty, but coffee table books rarely have deep plots or carry complex subject matter.


Will Wright is an interesting phenomenon, with two (shooting for three) hits with a long career in the business. I'd love to see more people have the luxury to make games as risky as he has.
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From:ginsu
Date:February 9th, 2007 08:52 pm (UTC)
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I'm perhaps holding Myst to a different standard than other games, because it came out at the wrong time - I was very focused on clever software at the time, and it had none, just lavishly rendered, barely animated, bitmaps. And then a bunch of people bought CD-ROM drives and SVGA screens, and Myst catapulted to - in my estimation at the time - undeserved acclaim.

I agree. But... let me try to phrase my position a little better through analogy.

I'm a guitarist and I listen to a lot of guitarists; by my early teens, I had developed the ability to listen to a song and perceive its technical innovation and competency. The eighties was a time of extraordinary mastery of the guitar, but it was also a time of completely machine-automated music with human vocals pasted on top. The masterful stuff often did not sell, and the machine-automated music often did (and boy, has this trend continued). Now, I never cared much because I never wanted to make a living as a guitarist. But if that had been my goal, I would have paid considerable attention to trends inside the machine-automated stuff.

I think there's something to be learned from a big-picture analysis of hit products even if they seem technically weak. The idea is to think of your favorite stuff as a circle, and the popular stuff as a circle, and treat them like a Venn diagram in which the overlap is your target market. But finding the overlap means thinking like a consumer as well as an engineer.
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From:tsmaster
Date:February 9th, 2007 11:07 pm (UTC)
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Yeah, since scribbling off my first thoughts in this post, I've been turning over a few thoughts, and I expect that I'll continue musing on them this weekend if I don't get distracted by something shiny first:


  • consumer / patron / client / vendor / artist - At various times, I'm at different places in the food chain. I pay my mortgage by (indirectly) entertaining people, and I consider myself very fortunate to do so. I try to turn around and spend some of my disposable income on creative projects that I believe in, but the questions of "how do I make my money", "how do I spend my money" and "how do I spend my time" give not entirely consistent answers. There may not be a problem there, but it's something to think about.

  • learn from success - Certainly, looking at Myst and Harry Potter and The Da Vinci Code gives some guidance of what sells. Will Wright and Kevin Smith have jobs because they have made money for other people, and people are willing to invest in their next project. If you're serious about the business of commercial art, you have to understand the marketplace. Tom Clancy and J. K. Rowling are interesting examples of authors that wrote books that outperformed their initial expectations, an indication that there are unexplored areas of profitability.

  • feedback - They Might Be Giants' experiences with Dial-a-Song are interesting - this is a project they had from their earliest days, where they'd put a snippet of a song (often constrained by the length of their outgoing message tape) on their answering machine, and people would dial in to listen to it. This was very useful to them, as they were able to try out bits of songs on a daily basis and get immediate response - 60 layers of feedback loops might be interesting to them, but when people would hang up on the answering machine a few seconds in, that was useful information that they should pull back a bit.

  • experimental vs hit-driven one of the complaints that I hear from folks in the games industry is how "hit driven" it is. But perhaps this is just the other side of the coin of investing in experimental, risky, ideas. You hope that the idea pays off to recoup your investment. If the industry was less hit-driven, would it be more conservative and less experimental?

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From:ginsu
Date:February 10th, 2007 07:38 am (UTC)
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learn from success

I find this an interesting area because even the people who are determined to exploit it seem to take away the obvious (and problematic) lessons, as opposed to the subtle (and more likely correct) lessons.

Imagine you are a game producer who is determined to play it safe in the market and you are considering MYST and The Sims as examples of what sells. What's the lesson you take away? Is it "do a bit-mapped puzzle adventure in a fantasy setting" or "do a simulation of real people living in their homes from a 3/4 perspective" or is it "do a game that will appeal to women too, thus doubling your potential market" -- ?
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