Here’s a Culture Clash column I wrote for the January 2011 edition of the IGDA website. I’m happy with it, but less pleased with the fact that our theme does not allow ~ symbols above an N in post titles. So if you were to read it out loud you’d have to say “pinn-nnnnnnaaaaahhtah,” like Winston Churchill.
Who was a great man. No busting on that dude. Won us WWII!
Still, though, tildes would be nice. Also: this is the last old Culture Clash I’ll publish on Tap’s front page (I’ll post the new ones here); the rest I’ll be back-dating so they’ll appear if you look at older posts or if you visit the Content -> Editorials -> Culture Clash section in the main menu (or just click here). This article is actually older than the previous one here on Tap – The Beauty of a Living Thing – and the rest will be older still. Thus, to prevent confusion, the back-dating. You may also note subtle differences between these (my originals) and the one on IGDA (which they sometimes edit slightly). Either one can be considered Canon. In any case, click to read on!
The Innovation Pinata
By Matthew Sakey
January 5, 2011
Originally published by the International Game Developers Association
“So it is with other games: Dragon Age, most stolid and cheerless of all, has shed its Tolkien skin and emerged with fresh ideas.”
— EDGE 222
Wait. Wai- wha… what? What? Huh? “Shed its Tolkien skin?”
Those parts of Dragon Age that aren’t wholesale theft from George R.R. Martin are Ctrl-H’d swapping of “orcs” and “goblins” for… what are they called? Oh yes, “Darkspawn.”
That is a scary new word, requiring much de-Tolkienized originality of thought to invent.
I could go on for days. No, the mistake Dragon Age made (if it made one at all) is not that it tried to differentiate from Tolkienseque fantasy, but that it tried so hard to do so, it practically circled back on itself. After all, a game like Thief fits the bill of “fantasy” with nary an elf, orc, or dragon to be seen; no one could say it cribbed from Tolkien. Of course even Thief isn’t wholly its own; the insights from Gormenghast are plain enough to see. People make a mistake when synonymizing “innovation” and “inspiration.”
Traditionally we have defined “more innovation in games” as things like “fewer space marines and less Tolkien,” or perhaps “new mechanics and play styles instead of the tried and true FPS/RTS/RPG approach.” Viewed from either of those perspectives, Dragon Age does neither. It’s not a bad game, but the argument that it’s somehow divorced itself from Tolkien’s mythology is absurd. It’s Martin and Tolkien, with some names, letters, and philosophies swapped around. Sure, Bioware went to great effort penning a lengthy and very small-fonted history, a good one too, but generally speaking the ideas of Dragon Age are a rehash, a reshaping, they’re not fresh.
I’m not knocking Dragon Age. If anything I’m knocking EDGE. While we all agree that mainstream games could use more innovation, the last thing we want is for the discussion of innovation in game development to devolve into conversations about how “our games won’t be influenced by Tolkien.” That’s not the only thing innovation’s about.
The question when creating should always be “what is it that we want to do?”
“We want to innovate” isn’t a good answer. Why do you want to innovate? How do you want to innovate? What are you innovating from? What are you innovating toward? What is the goal of your innovation? And how do you think the innovation will be received?
We’re seeing tons of innovation outside of the standard stuff. We may still have too many space marines, but things like social gaming and online services have changed the way we play amongst ourselves. Really, years ago I might have felt a little invaded to realize that everyone on my Steam Friends List knew that I was playing Defense Grid for the eleven thousandth time. And I certainly would have felt guilty ignoring a game invite, text message or Skype call from the same just because I was in the middle of something. So not only is the sociality of gaming innovating, we’re innovating a new kind of etiquette to go along with modern communications.
As for the space marines, game development is schismatic. The developer ecosystem is varied and complex, but for our purposes we can discuss just two: those I call the AAAs and the Super-Indies. Two very different species, each catering to gamers and dealing with innovation differently.
AAA developers make games that often involve space marines. They have publishers and appear on Best Buy shelves. From them you rarely see a lot of innovation: if Guitar Hero was popular they make DJ Hero. If Wii was popular they make Move and Kinect. There is innovation in this space, but it’s often not the kind we usually define as “innovation,” or even the kind we like: control schemes, pricing models, social aspects. As far as traditional, less-Tolkien-fewer-space-marines innovation goes, in most cases AAAs take a single innovation and run with it, often to the point of absurdity. They may not want to, but AAA developers are beholden to corporate overmasters who are risk-averse and believe in doing what’s best for the bottom line. And the bottom line is that this model, while restrictive, is successful.
Super-Indies are something new. Spawned from traditional garage developers, they combine great talent, extraordinary networking, cunning marketing decisions, and the availability of digital distribution to make a living in a space where historically they couldn’t have. Their games are often smaller or simpler than commercial titles, but often much more innovative. A Super-Indie studio may be composed of a single savant doing all the work, or a team spread far flung around the globe. They may have never heard each other’s voices. Super-Indies don’t usually have publishers, define themselves by fiercely by their freedom to create, and produce games like Minecraft, Sleep is Death, AI War, Solium Infernum, Love, Immortal Defense, Revenge of the Titans, Amnesia, and so on. We see a lot of uniqueness in story, in gameplay, in settings, and in mechanics here.
People have complained that there’s not enough innovation in video games since Precambrian times, and they’ll continue to do so long after this civilization has given way to the next. “Innovation” in the traditional sense – moving beyond our tried and true dark fantasies, space operas, and murder simulators – yes, we need more of that. For every Heavy Rain or Child of Eden there are many Modern Warfares, Ukelele Heroes, and GTA clones; many games that supposedly throw off the trammels of Tolkien and change Goblins into Slardrogs. Innovating in this way will lead to wider acceptance of play as an important part of our lives.
But it’s not fair to say there’s no innovation, or even little innovation. It’s just not what we might expect. Everywhere I look I see things I’d never thought to have seen even a few years ago: Steam sales, motion controls, on-demand services, Facebook games, you name it. Yeah, there’s innovation. We’re just not pinning the tail exactly where we thought we were on that Innovation Donkey.
So start looking at it as the Innovation Piñata instead. Flail wildly and sometimes, wonderful, unpredictable things will come out. In school, two people working together is called “cheating,” while in business it’s called “collaboration.” In gaming, we should see “innovation” as more than just “different from Tolkien,” but instead the act of trying and defining all new ways of play, from narratives to business models.
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