What “Innovative” Means In Games…

A recent keynote presentation with former Uncharted dev Richard Lemarchand had him urge indie gamers to “make experimental games,” even at the risk of failing.

I couldn’t agree more. Indie games are, by nature, both blessed and cursed by having small teams and small budgets to work with. This makes developing large, ambitious games with high quality difficult and entirely dependent on the talent of the team, but also means that making a poor game or making a game that sells poorly isn’t as big of an issue (some indie developers risk their livelihood on their projects doing well, which no one should ever do). This means we can do things that larger companies just can’t afford to do.

Indie games will shape the industry over the next decade. Very few people can argue with this.

But what makes a game “experimental” or “innovative?” Some developers use it as a promotional phrase rather than a mantra. Look on Kickstarter right now and count how many games call themselves “innovative” or “revolutionary.” How many of them actually are? Most indie games call themselves innovative by adding features or simplifying or complicating existing game genres. Some try to combine multiple genres and say it has never been done before.

Frankly, it’s discouraging. Most of these games are not innovative in the slightest. Having a first-person shooter with a brand of rifle never seen in a game that shoots 2 degrees to the right isn’t really new. Another MMORPG that encourages online societies has been done more than once. Perhaps they do improve existing games, perhaps they do add a couple features in ways that haven’t been done. But when describing these “new features” in the game’s description, it doesn’t come through. If a random person can’t tell the difference between your game and someone else’s without sitting down and playing it, then it isn’t innovative enough.

Most indie developers I’ve seen don’t have ideas to work with, and turn to their favourite games to build off of. Sometimes, brilliance can come of it, but that’s rare. How many Minecraft clones, both 2d and 3d have we seen in the last few years? I don’t care if they are actually better or more fun than the original (technically, Minecraft wasn’t the “original,” but I digress). Being innovative doesn’t mean “improving existing games.” It means ignoring all games you’ve seen, and trying something that has NEVER, in ANY WAY, been seen before.

Gameplay isn’t the only thing that can be experimented with. My indie game “James – Journey of Existence” is the first of my games to attempt to be truly unique, not in gameplay but in visuals. Being able to make any 3D game you can think of with literally hand-drawn characters has never been done. The Kickstarter for it (http://kck.st/19wTNSh) will fail, I am certain of it. I’ve gotten a lot of feedback saying how poor it is. But I’ve received even more feedback saying how cool this is, and some people actually get it. I’m not afraid to fail, as there’s no such thing as a complete failure. If a single person’s eyes light up from your idea, and your innovation begets more innovation, then it has been a success. And I will keep that in mind right up to the game’s release.

That’s what Richard Lemarchand was really trying to say. Too many games are just variations of familiar genres. We can do better.

 “In technological evolution,

we must start a revolution,

by putting all we know aside,

and starting from scratch…”