The Next Game

Lazy Designer Book 2 (Part 2)
In the previous section we explored how to decide what your next game should be. There are still a few more points for us to consider...

Originality and Complexity

A charge often levied against game developers is that modern games lack originality when compared with titles from five or ten or even longer years ago. Gamers seem to be clamoring for more originality yet sales of sequels and derivative titles continue to increase.

There are many titles released each year that resemble one other (i.e., every second title seems to be a first or third person shooter). Likewise in a genre like RPGs, there's a tendency towards relying on fantasy settings, and often some version or other of Lord of the Rings races and locations.


Easier to Make

It is easier to plan a game based on an existing, successful title, or a setting familiar to many — such as the standard fantasy stereotype. It is easier for a project manager to find team members familiar with the core game concepts and easier for new members to be trained. It is also easier for executives to approve and assess the title (i.e., "oh, this is like that other game... sounds great!").

Easier to Sell

When videogames cost tens of millions of dollars to produce, as they often do now, those funding the game want to reduce risk. And risk is reduced when a game relies upon tried and true mechanics. As judged by the strong sales of games that are not always original, those making these decisions are not wrong. Players tend to buy what they know.

Players relate to human characters in their games. A smaller (but still significant) segment of players relate to stereotyped fantasy characters, such as elves and dwarfs, because they have been exposed to them through movies and books. The more differences between humans and the creatures the player encounters or controls in the game the harder it becomes to create an emotional connection between the player and the game experience. This is a design challenge that is solvable but the more difficult issue is convincing a team internally (or an executive) that it can be done because there are fewer examples of major success.

Being different is a risk.

Less Variety and Less Choice is Cheaper to Make

On platforms with a high expectation for visual fidelity — specifically consoles — it is difficult to push a truly originally title, especially when that originality requires significant and expensive artwork. As well high visual fidelity can come at the cost of gameplay except for the largest of studios which are able to fund larger ranges of animations and dynamic environments.

For example it is cheaper to have a game that uses humans than a made up race. The more unusual the invented race the harder that race is to animate.

On mobile platforms with lower fidelity requirements I tend to find more originality in the titles being produced (though even there you run the risk of being inundated with clones of previously successful gameplay). I think a major reason for this is that the art and animation is cheaper to produce... on iOS and Android devices there is a lot of room for a designer to be creative and unusual with the games they produce.

Additionally as voice-over work becomes expected costs rise the further the design strays from familiar actors. Human voice actors might portray elves and dwarfs and a variety of humanoid aliens but how should aliens from another plane of reality sound? Or more appropriately, for role playing games, is it worth the cost of creating a huge range of 'voice types' or does it make more sense to cut the cast down to just humans? If a designer gives the player the choice to play from a variety of races (i..e, play as elf or dwarf) and the player's character in the game has their own recorded voice then the costs radically increase — the dialog needs to be recorded for a variety of voice types. That's expensive, especially when you consider that those lines will also need to be recorded in other languages when the game is shipped to non-English speaking territories.

What To Do?

Designers, despite these seemingly insurmountable limitations, can keep some elements of the game original. Here are my suggestions.

Change the Platform This is an unlikely solution in a large studio but if developing your own game and you feel you have an original concept then consider producing it on a platform that has cheaper development costs. Does the gameplay work on a mobile device or web app? Does this allow you to introduce a larger range of player choices into your game? Is the trade off worth it for you?

Move the Choice In a traditional role playing game it is expected that the player choose from a variety of classes and races when building their character. However, perhaps due to voice over requirements this might not be feasible. Consider giving the player a larger choice of companions who might accompany them and ensure that these companions feature a range of beings and types. The player might not be able to play a Stone Giant, in your game, but perhaps a Stone Giant might be able to accompany the player for a portion of their journey.

Like Human Animating a wide range of different 'skeletons' (i..e, large creatures, small creatures, multi-limbed creatures) might be too expensive and you may be pressured to remove any choice in player body type. One cheaper way to push back on this and keep some choice is to introduce races that are similar to humans. This is pretty much the solution the Star Trek and Star Wars universes have always used... aliens often being tweaked versions of humans. If handled well, giving the races unique cultures, manners of speaking, and in-game abilities, is satisfying to players.

Approachability Perhaps cost is not a major issue but the design team is worried that making a game with too many unfamiliar concepts will discourage players from buying it. Depending on the exact genre solutions will vary but consider using a graduated approach. This is how Dragon Age: Origins approached their world building... starting with traditional fantasy concepts such as elves and dwarfs and then slowly revealing more unusual creations such as the qunari and brood mothers and the demons.

Hide the Complexity The marketing department needs to be able to sell the game and if you are building a truly bizarre world or storyline they will become (rightly) nervous. The harder it is to describe the game in terms a broad audience will understand the more worried they will be about whether they will be able to land high profile interviews and features and in general, audience interest. One solution to this is to have a rather common world or story but with more unusual elements folded in as the play progresses. This is a double edged sword of course because the more bland your game appears to be the more that will be noticed in previews and early feedback... Dragon Age: Origins suffered from this because the story appears to be another kill the evil horde story but in reality the story is layered with a civil war emerging as the more meaningful story arc.

Originality is possible but it is bounded by the realities of the marketplace and the work environment. I encourage designers to push the envelope of originality but to remain mindful of those boundaries. It is frustrating when you feel like you are working on the same game that dozens of others have already made but instead of being resentful towards that or the opposite — to try too hard to be original, alienating your team or audience — I encourage you to look for ways to make originality more attractive. Is there a scaled down version of your original ideas that might work given the limitations?

Note: A lot has changed since this section was written. The indie game-space has given smaller developers the opportunity to experiment more, which makes for exciting times for gamers!

That said... many of the larger publishers are still playing it safe.
My first novel, "The Pool: Arrival" has excellent reviews already. I'm quite pleased by reader reaction to it! If you check it out please let me know what you thought.

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Finally -- If you are enjoying these excerpts, they come from the second book in the Lazy Designer series, available on Amazon:
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