(Lack of) Creativity in the Games Industry

A little while ago GMort at the House of Paincakes blogged about the edition cycle of table top wargames.  This sent me spiralling off on a tangent in the comments section (as I am wont to do) about the lack of creativity in modern game design, and games design companies that are content to find new, easy ways to extend the life of their flagship games for years – or even decades – rather than, you know . . . do their job and design new games.

We all know that this is an issue in the video games industry, particularly the so-called ‘hardcore’ market where annualised franchises are the order of the day.  It’s also an issue where tabletop games are concerned.  The latter industry seems to reflect it’s younger sibling in this regard.

I was really, really pleased to read this piece today by Gabe Newell, managing director of Valve and my new hero.  It restores my faith that there are still actual creatives striving to actually create in the wasteland of sequels and undead husks that is modern gaming.

You know who is to blame though.  It’s us.  Every time one of us buys a game with a numeral after the name, or the latest edition of Warhammer, gaming gets a little bit more bland.

Discussion welcomed as always,

James

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14 thoughts on “(Lack of) Creativity in the Games Industry

  1. The Warlock says:

    I’m not too sure if that article is 100% legit, some of the people commenting certainly think not. However, I’d like to politely disagree with you with the blame solely being on us the consumers. The companies are under no obligation to develop Super star mario black craft ops bros XXVI when they could be using that time to develop something astounding. 🙂

    Flagship games should have a ‘living’ set of rules/game, with adjustments on an ‘as-needed’ basis. That’ll tie in with balance and DLC and people don’t have to worry about the rules/game equivalent becoming obsolete within a few months. Unfortunately people have this misguided mentality that a game is only good insofar as new content is being continually pumped out. That’s where I’ll agree with you on your statement- the moment we get people who want disneyesque sequels galore, that’s when innovation and exploration go off to an abandoned corner to die.

    The best part of the games industry is that most cool stuff coming out is from the indy side of things. These are the people doing stuff cause they have a vision: They want to tell this story, show you this land, chronicle an adventure and they are damn well going to do it! The moment bottom lines and profit margins and units sold takes control, we just get repeat after repeat after repeat until the company stagnates and fades away.

    In closing f*** call of duty.

    • beat ronin says:

      Hey Warlock, disagree away! I’ve found that making quick blanket statements like the ones I made are the best way to get discussion going.

      You’re right I think, it isn’t solely the fault of consumers. Maybe I should say it’s ultimately the fault of consumers, but as you say the companies don’t have to respond to demand the way they do, and some of them don’t. Indie games are often great, and it’s exciting to see this undercurrent of little developers challenging the big fish. The same thing is happening with the self-publishing and e-book revolution in regards to large traditional publishing companies.

      I guess what I find sad is that the large studios, with the money and talent resources to really make something great beyond the capacity of most indies, squander it and take the easy way out. They spend huge amounts of money on tie-ins and media saturation that they could be using to pay ideas people. Every time I used Spotify in the week that GTA V was released it kept being interrupted by ads for it. In the past I liked GTA as much as the next gamer. But now I just can’t summon the interest to care.

      Normally I get horribly embarrassed and a bit angry when an internet hoax takes me in, but if that article isn’t real I don’t care so much this time: as far as I’m concerned it’s a great article and if he didn’t write it … well, he should have 😉

  2. SinSynn says:

    Sigh.
    Well now, this is worthy of a bit of discussion, because I usually think that version one of anything is usually limited, or imperfect, or whatever. The ‘sequel,’ or version 2, generally tidies up things, adds some stuff, etc.
    And by the time part 3 rolls around, maybe we’ve got something we love and we look forward to the next iteration.
    I’m at work. I’ll hit you up when I get home.
    Be eezy.

    • beat ronin says:

      Hey Sinsynn, thanks for commenting. You gave me some good food for thought just in your quick response there.

      As I said in the discussion on GMort’s post, I tend to give studios a free pass for roughly the first three editions/iterations of a game. As you said, they could still be refining and finding their feet. After that, it’s all downhill normally I reckon.

      Here’s what I think though: it’s exciting when something you used to like comes back, re-imagined and fresh. No denying it. Think of the Nolan Batman reboot. Or the latest Tomb Raider game. But in order for that to happen it has to go away first. Games in general just don’t go away long enough these days to allow for that re-freshment to truly be fresh. And this means the big studios with all their resources never get a chance to make anything new.

      We might even end up with a situation where big studios buy up indie games that are brilliant ideas like movie studios buy book rights, and sit on them to prevent competition. That’s what I’d do if I was a money-collecting robot. Guess it’s a good thing I’m not hey?

      That’s what I think anyway. Looking forward to hearing your other thoughts if you get time to drop back in 🙂

  3. SinSynn says:

    I think there’s varying levels of ‘milking’ something.
    Warlock points out Call of Duty, and that’s an excellent example- pretty much the last 4 CoD games could’ve been released as DLC’s or expansions. Making each iteration a separate, 60 dollar game is just taking advantage of your customer base.
    THAT’S milking it.

    Releasing a revised rulebook every 5 or 6 years? I don’t see that as abusive. I suppose the question would be ‘Is it necessary?’
    And the answer would likely be ‘mostly, no, but we’ll do it anyway cuz why not?’

    I think there’s a difference between Transformers 3 (please- don’t get me started. No Megan Fox? I’LL F*CKING KILL MICHEAL BAY) and a new version of yer favorite tabletop game. There’s a difference between crap churned out by the machine, and something revisited with love.
    I’ll tell you straight up that there are a handful of things upon this earth that I will run out the door to be a part of every time they come around- a new Underworld movie with Kate Beckinsale in it, and a new Infinity book (I still hafta buy the Human Sphere, which I’ll do JUST FOR THE FLUFF) are two of ’em, but there’s others.

    I kinda feel like I can recognize the difference between shlock that the machine pushes out the door simply to capitalize on an unexpected wave of popularity, and a follow-up that’s crafted with the intent of improvement or continuation.

    The thing is- and this is especially true with video games- a lotta times the developers create new IP’s with limited time and budget. No one wants to invest in an untested, unknown IP, so the folks with the money will dish out JUST ENOUGH to get it out there, which means the devs will hafta cut stuffs, or omit stuffs, to make it in time and under budget.
    You and I both know that prolly 90% of this stuffs will sink beneath the waves, but every once in a while they hit big. This is why I tend to think ‘part 2’s’ are the best in a series- part 1 had a limited budget, but with part 2 the devs can throw in all that stuff they COULDN’T do with part 1, which means part 2 will have all the ‘oooh’s and aaah’s’ we, the fans, can hope for.
    …And then they screw it all up in part 3, and later on we inevitably hit that ‘jumping the shark’ moment.
    Sigh.

    Still, I think with tabletop games there’s nothing wrong with giving the fans ‘more of the same, just different’ IF (and that’s a big if) it’s done right. More fluff, new units, a lil’ tightening and polishing, expanding on ideas and concepts…
    And, not for nuthin,’ Mr. Pessimistic, but we’re smack dab in the middle of a very interesting time in our lil’ niche hobby thingy. There’s a LOT of cool new stuffs coming out. I watched a demo of some sorta gladiator skirmish game not too long ago (Arena Rex, I think?), and I was literally BLOWN AWAY by the interesting mechanics these cats came up with.
    Sure- it’s 28mm skirmish, which has been done before, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the game is derivative at all, it’s just using a common scale we’re all familiar with. Sometimes I think companies do this just so us consumers will feel comfortable upon initial inspection.
    Cuz really- they could very well make that gladiator game in any scale they’d like, so why use 28mm?
    Well, cuz gamers have lil’ pea brains that will revolt against anything that’s different, maybe?
    I dunno, but I always think there’s a method to the madness.

    Honestly, I think the vast majority of the new and new-ish games I see are quite clever and interesting in one way or another, and the primary culprit of ‘lack of creativity’ in our hobby can be attributed to one company…and I don’t even hafta name that company, do I?

    • beat ronin says:

      @Sinsynn:

      No I suppose you don’t 😀 That’s a bunch of excellent points, dude. I guess what it boils down to is that I don’t like the way the more successful companies in gaming – and let’s be honest, pretty much every other area – behave. I agree totally that the new smaller studios are making great stuff. What gets me down, as I said to Warlock, is the apparent pattern that the more successful a company is, the less they make use of their greater resources to actually create good new games.

      It’s just tired old free-market bullshit “the more money we make the better it’ll be for (insert industry here) in terms of advancement.” That just isn’t true for creative industries, as looking at pretty much any large company in those industries proves. The more successful they get monetarily, the more sacrifices are made creatively. It’s a simple observable fact, at least from where I’m sitting. Maybe I’m just more quickly bored by the familiar than most people (actually, that’s true come to think of it…) and when it comes down to it this is my blog, so you’re going to get my personal opinion. Which may or may not seem fair to you *shrug*

      I was talking more about video games in this little post, but if you want to talk about tabletop games then here it is: I’m afraid that when a company makes something good, and reaches a certain level of commercial success, they’ll start endlessly cycling editions and spinning it out forever because that’s just what you do. As you said above, “we’ll do it anyway cuz why not?” Well, how about because it’s boring and bad for creativity? Why isn’t that a good enough reason when weighed against easy profits? But now we’re getting into my beef with pretty much all of western capitalism in it’s present form, so best not go there.

      I have been a bit negative lately haven’t I? :/ I try to avoid complaining about my life online but to be honest with you I’ve been having serious doubts about my current work, and I was recently offered an exciting opportunity (in the games industry as it happens) which I have since heard nothing more about. Trying to work out the best way to make sure I am happy and continue to feed my family in the process is a bit of a downer.

  4. The Warlock says:

    Hmm, I probably responded with a blanket statement myself. Of course, sometimes we need a sequel- the 2 to come through and iron stuff out. I can understand that, provided it’s not a rehash which seems to be most of the popular games these days. However continually pushing stuff through the machine and seeing what comes out the other end does destroy a game ‘franchise’. Not sure if I mentioned it somewhere before, but at work (no-one tell my boss, kay?) there’s a whole heap of old 80’s and 90’s SNES roms hidden on the computers that sometimes get played during a boring Saturday overnight when there’s nothing to do. The sheer craziness of some of them is amazing 🙂 beast wrestling, mafia dinos, the original mario+zelda+mega-man. Playing some of them is like a window into what vid gaming was and could be again.

    Also James/Beat Ronin (whatever you prefer) Corporations do that all the time, it’s called ‘patent trolling’. The big guys buy patents for things that don’t exist, on a “could happen” or “we could if we wanted too” basis. That way, whenever a poor li’l indy actually does the hard yards the corps swoop in with suing, etc and take away the item, despite them not actually inventing it. Every sapling needs a shot at the sun 😀

    Steps are being taken these days to minimise that and hopefully one day it won’t happen. 🙂 But the electric car, c’mon fuel cartels, c’mon already!

    @ Sin: You sir, need to go to the top of a mountain and become a wise sage. Preferably one that answers the questions to life’s mysteries after the questioner beats you in a game of FoW or Infinity 😛 Oh and you’re not affected by the US public service thingy are you? :/ It sounds deadly serious with the lay offs and closing of many services.

  5. beat ronin says:

    Actually you guys got me thinking. All of my worries about this sort of thing disappear if I consider the gaming market-place as a whole ecosystem instead of a bunch of individual competitors.

    By this I mean yeah, it might make a certain sense financially for big companies to play it safe and just produce the same old stuff (although I still think they would be even more successful if they were willing to take risks and get inventive), but that has the positive effect of leaving the field open for indie developers who aren’t hamstrung by the same concerns.

    Taken as a whole, there are same-old-same-old games for people who like to feel comfortable, and new and interesting games for people who prefer to see things they may not have seen before. It’s just a bit of a shame that the boring undead games are the ones with most of the resources behind them. I certainly don’t think that’s unavoidable, but it is the way it is.

  6. Von says:

    Hmm.

    Chiming in for a second here; I think the ‘undead’ game might not be as bad as all that, provided that it can be preserved rather than endlessly, ineptly ‘revitalised’. Consider something that’s gone on for bleedin’ ages, like WFB; there’s definitely a point (most people would seem to consider it either third or sixth edition) where the game was fine as it was, the available options were playing nicely together, and it could have gone on more or less indefinitely with perhaps the occasional revamp of the core system to incorporate the ‘everyone plays it that way anyway’ conventions. Equivalent, if you like, to stapling a few bits back onto the zombie every few years, re-inserting the wires that stop its legs falling off.

    The problem comes when you insist on sawing its limbs off, giving it crab claws and blasting lightning through it; what you get is a smell of burnt fish and some weird-looking twitchy thing that doesn’t even know if it -has- legs any more. I don’t mind games trundling gleefully on forever provided they don’t start being changed for change’s sake, just to ‘stimulate’ the market for new product.

    Obviously Nerd Emporium (to make up a company on the spot) has to keep meeting its costs and paying its staff, even if it’s a bloke in a shed somewhere in Newark; that creosote doesn’t pay for itself and presumably the shed is in a garden of a house that needs the mortgage paid. The trick, maybe, lies in Nerd Emporium pacing itself, throwing out new stuff every now and then – stuff that has a finite lifespan in terms of sales, but that’ll pay the bills for six months, say, and after that can be left ticking along, occasionally making a sale and demanding a quick brush-up and update, but essentially not being the core focus of the business any more.

    Is this making any sort of sense?

    • beat ronin says:

      @Von, Yes! That totally makes sense, and thank you for putting it so constructively and clearly, which is something I don’t seem to be able to do for some reason.

      In a way this kind of relates to the topic of my post about painting miniatures and the creative danger zone. So many creative works these days I think are simply overworked, and quite frankly begin to suck. Maybe it’s the eternal dialogue that the internet enables; maybe something else. But for whatever reason there seems to be a feeling in the air that creative works are never really finished. George Lucas demonstrated this clearly when he went back and changed Star Wars. Before that I remember a movie buff friend of mine raging (in uh… it would have been 1999 or 2000?) that the old DVDs of Apocalypse Now had been removed from shelves because Coppola had released his Director’s Cut and it was the way he’d always wanted it and he couldn’t countenance the idea of people seeing his “flawed” original theatrical release any more. My friend was angry because he claimed that the movie had a seminal place in pop culture and once artworks are released to the public they no longer belong solely to the creator. I agreed with him then and I still do.

      But more than that, if something’s never finished then a whole bunch of effort that could be going in to making new things is instead going in to maintaining the zombies.

      Eh. I don’t have all (or maybe even any of) the answers. But I have a bunch of questions that I think should be raised.

      Why does the idea that a game is finished cause people to lose interest?

      Why do creators think it’s OK to just make one thing, forever? Where’s the sense of completion, and a job well done? Something huge is changing I think, or has changed already. Instead of creative works we are being offered extended creative processes, and asked to pay for them.

      And this is where what Sinsynn just said comes in…

  7. SinSynn says:

    Okay, I’m back from the bathroom and…where were we?
    Oh, hi Uncle Von…who I’m pretty sure I’m older than, so I have no idea why I call him Uncle but it just seems to fit…and I may be older but we definitely know who’s smarter and more mature. Lolz. Hence the ‘Uncle.’
    Anywho.

    And yes, Von, I see where yer going with that.
    Nerd Emporium would be well served creating a small handful of flagship systems, and cycle the new releases between them…sound familiar?
    Well, yeah, cuz Spartan totally does that, and Mantic, and others, I’m sure.
    I’m also sure that the Zombie Company didn’t invent the technique, but it seems like a wise strategy for a business that would support it. Like a ‘recurring revenue’ stream.

    Note- I’m sorry, I’m terrible at ‘business discussions.’ The subject does interest me, I just can’t seem to retain anything but the simplest theories, and I prolly get it all wrong anyway.

    And I think maybe this is where things start to go awry, because much like the film and videogame industries, the games we play are created by (hopefully) creative people, and you don’t attempt to make creative people create on a schedule. Not just cuz they’re wacky, and do their best work when genuinely inspired, but because over time I believe you run the risk of your end products becoming formulaic.

    This is one of the things that’s currently got me completely fascinated by Corvus Belli and Infinity.
    Do they plan on just…what?…with Infinity…
    – continue injecting new units into the game until each force has how many? A hundred? More?

    – maybe top off each force at X amount of units, then start…(wait for it)…Adding moar forces! Yay!
    Then you can kill off units from the older armies (or invent fluff to change them) to freshen them up from time to time, maybe?

    – or will Infinity change somehow? I’m not sure if I see an ‘Infinity Wars’ down the road (did Zombie Company invent this trick?), and I worry ’bout what would happen to Infinity if they introduced a new system.

    The problem is that I’m addicted in a whole new way- watching a game develop, live and online. I spent a while watching Infinity prior to actually beginning to play it, lurking on the forums and whatnot…Ah, the time before I started my current job and actually had time for a life…good times, man. Good times.
    Now they’re releasing models monthly, and I think the last rule they added was Fireteam: Haris Lvl. 1, when they released the Odalisques boxset a few months back.
    And oh, how the forums buzzed about the new rule. So amusing.
    ‘Oh, I hate it. It’s OP.’
    ‘I love it it’s da awesome!’
    Sigh…no one had tried it yet. So funny.

    To me, the Infinity business model is the most interesting approach this whole ‘building a game with it’s own stand-alone universe and hopefully create a successful franchise out of it’ thing I’ve seen.

    And yes, I totally blab on and on about Infinity and how cool it is. I love it. Sue me.
    And goddammit I just wrote a post.
    Crap.

    @ Warlock- nah, the whole Government shutdown thing doesn’t affect me directly. I don’t work for ’em.
    It is a matter of great concern, however, because this could have massive financial repercussions for my country.
    Idiots, I friggin’ swear.
    ‘Oh, we’re not gonna get our way. We’re taking our toys and GOING HOME. Waaaah!’
    WE (the people) PAY THESE DOUCHENOZZLES. IS THIS BEHAVIOR IN THE PEOPLE’S BEST INTEREST?
    Sheesh.
    Sorry, gotta make this face: -_-

    • beat ronin says:

      Hey Sinsynn, post away, I always do…

      I’ll let Von respond to most of what you said as it seems to be addressed to him mainly. But I will say I took him to mean Nerd Emporium could just make games as well as they can, and then just . . . make more games, maybe tweaking the past ones every now and if it’s absolutely necessary. Having flagship systems that are updated alternately just seems to me one tiny step away from Zombie Company.

  8. Von says:

    @ James – I think multiple flagships can work if each is focused on for a year, and then alternated out with another. I mean… Blizzard seems to manage perfectly well that way, and despite all the grousing about how they’re losing subscribers to their games and how some servers are running way under capacity, they still have something like seven million active WoW accounts. ‘Not as many as they had’ is still ‘way more than you’d think would be interested’, and once you’ve scraped out a million or so gold-farmers, that’s… enough interested people to warrant the chucking out of a new expansion every couple of years.

    The trouble is, I think Warcraft is beginning to show signs of necrosis around the edges, to continue the zombie analogy. Most of the changes that they’re making to the mechanics of play are basically of the “we built this eight years ago and people’s expectations have moved on and we realise now that this or that was arbitrary and pointless bullshit that made our game a life-killer” variety, but most of the changes they’re making to the world are of the “well, we haven’t had a troll raid this expansion, gotta shoehorn them in somehow” or the “let’s make this zone an extended tribute to… CSI!” varieties.

    (I still wince at the thought of entering Uldum. Poor place. A new race of sentient creatures appears and nobody cares how they got there or what they’re like or what they want because half the zone and the bulk of the creative effort is given over to a sustained and cringeworthy Indiana Jones pastiche – and it’s not like we’re ever gonna see or care about the Tol’vir again after the expansion’s over, so they’re not really fleshed out at all -either-.

    Mists of Pandaria was very much the last chance I was prepared to give them. They surprised me by totally knocking the ball out of the park and making the game a lot more fun to play and the story has been eighty-plus-per-cent… competently executed. Occasionally even -moving-, and -dramatic-, and stuff. They still introduced some new stuff which I feel didn’t get to shine because TROLLS NEED TO BE IN EVERYTHING NOW, and they wrote two of their prominent female characters into the fucking ground to make a man look good, but it’s -still- a definite improvement on the last trainwreck.)

    Diablo III in particular felt fucking pointless. More of the same with prettier graphics and a contrived, rather awkward plot. Still. Warcraft, Starcraft, Diablo; three proprietary universes that they could in theory keep exploring indefinitely. I do wish they’d still space things out with something new in between iterations, though.

  9. Von says:

    @ Sin – my fine upstanding squid-faced compadre, I know -exactly- the fascination you’re going through, ’cause I’ve been watching Privateer Press for about eight years and playing the same ‘how is this going to last’ game for a while now. At the moment it seems to be ‘slow down releases for the Prime Four factions and release a new faction every couple of years, plus release a new Iron Kingdoms board game or card game or something on the side as a refresher’, but even so, the game is starting to creak and groan at the edges and I still don’t know how anyone manages to know what everything does.

    It’s especially awkward given that they said they’d never obsolete any models (they never said they won’t make new stuff that’s flat-out better than old stuff, but they did say they’d never just say ‘you are no longer permitted to field Juggernauts’ or ‘nope Skarre is dead now you can’t use her in games’) or release any rules to which every player didn’t have access (again, limited run -models- yes, but never the ‘you weren’t here for the Kickstarter so you can’t use Elara’ thing).

    In many ways they’re walking the Workshop path: embiggen the kits and tweak the points and introduce new restrictions and quietly encourage larger games and collections. So far I’ve been OK with it because, besides THE EMBIGGENING, I’ve not seen any of it as bad for the game; the points values are broadly more balanced than they used to be, and the ‘no FA: Character units more than once across three tournament lists’ has made the tournament environment more lively, with the old standbys being carefully assigned where they’re needed rather than just chucked in.

    I guess the acid test, now, will be whether or not they release a Mark III variant that strips out three-quarters of the rules on the grounds of ‘streamlining the big games which our players have been struggling to achieve’, and co-incidentally halves the points value for everything so the accepted ‘standard’ points total, the conditioned-and-expected ‘magic number’, suddenly involves twice as much stuff. You know. Like Workshop did with second to third edition 40K. I’ve seen the writing on the wall for a few years now; when a set of ‘experimental’ rules hits No Quarter they tend to find their way into the core before long (Special Forces, damage immunities, Field Promotion and some of the signature rules changes to individual units appeared around the time Prime Remix came out and became the norm in Mark II – I look at 150 point Unbound and narrow my beady eyes, seeing the shape of the future).

    Still. It’s not a bad game. I wouldn’t be working on those Angry Elves if I thought it was.

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