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Friday, September 15, 2006

Take Asia [Part 1]

In The Importance of Risk in Basic Game Design, James Portnow eloquently theorizes on the value of binary 'win/lose' scenarios within games, elaborating on why reward must be accompanied by risk-taking to provide truly interactive entertainment for the player. Although the right honourable Portnow writes of risk in the 'frog-navigating-busy-road' sense, I'd like to take a different approach and consider some of the risks developers can take in game design.

Let's start with the simple, indisputable stuff and work our way to greater levels of abstraction. By and large, the games industry lives and dies by its profits, so the term 'risk' to a developer, publisher, stockholder... whomever... means asking 'Will this game sell enough copies to feed my seven wives?'. The answer is invariably to either develop a game based on the Harry Potter license or, unfortunately, risk loosing some of those wives. The truth is that a game licensed on a successful property bares lower financial risk to the parties involved in its development and distribution.

[I'll take a small aside to note that a significant portion of video game sales can be attributed to either 'dormant' or 'occasional' gamers or to non-gamers buying a present for their gaming relative/friend etc.]

Generally, a risk arises when a new, unconventional gameplay mechanic is developed either as an addition to, or re-working of, established gaming staples, or as an attempt to spawn a new genre brought about by developers placing a previously unseen feature as the pivotal aspect of the gameplay. An example of the former would be Prey's portals and nausea-inducing gravitational quirks; Human Head Studios developed these features to supplement the standard FPS at a risk to their financial stability, the risk being increased development time, greater cost, and no certainty that the new feature would improve upon the FPS formula. Bullfrog's Syndicate would be an example of the latter; the 'living' city becomes the game, and the squad based shooter takes a step backward. Bullfrog took the greater risk, the possibility of developing a product ridiculed by the community and ignored by the retailers.

A risk we occasionally see developers take is in placing their chosen gameplay element before all other usual crowd-pleasing factors. Introversion's entire repertoire consists of outstandingly entertaining, badly selling games. The risk of putting gameplay before graphics is that CD/DVD cases do not convey game design genius very well. Punters are likely to choose Flashy GraphX Shooter IX over Darwinia because... well, they don't know better, bless 'em.

This piece has gone on way longer than my usual blabberings, so I'll end it here. I know I've missed quite a bit of potential developer risk taking such as ARGs and new distribution methods. I'll get round to writing Part 2 another time... and if you think I've missed anything else then make a comment and I'll mention that too.


DarKDruG said...

when are you coming back to planetside ya jarhead? we miss ya. Good article, i agree that too many game devs are more concerned about profit/sales than trying to please the public.

DuBBle said...

hi druggie m8! i miss you guys too, be on the forums later :D

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