I only listed titles of games that I’ve heard of and usually played. If you can feed me more confirmation bias and/or counterevidence, post a comment! (It won’t show up immediately since I have to approve comments, so don’t panic when nothing appears.)
Ever since OUYA I’ve become something of a Kickstarter addict, backing 21 other projects. I believe that, no matter how much I give to others, it will all ultimately come back to benefit me too. Call it karma or call it reaping what you sow, but I’m interested in building a world where dreams come true. Who wouldn’t want to live in such a world?
This question is why I’m interested in Kickstarter-critical articles. Usually negative articles are written by people who think that Kickstarter is meant for investors or customers rather than people who support an idea, but a recent Rock Paper Shotgun post comments on the “peril” of Kickstarter nostalgia, saying that many Kickstarter mega-projects like Double Fine Adventure, Project Eternity, and especially Old-School Role-Playing Game are making crowdfunded fortunes with sales pitches about not innovating. I can think of several responses, but I’ll pick three.
1: Originality is understood by playing, seeing, or knowing about the game, not by explanations in the written or spoken word.
I’ve been taking notes of game sales pitches on sites like Kickstarter and Steam Greenlight. Below are just a few cases of game creators’ first one or two sentences of description; I could easily post twice as many.
I like all three of these games, but not because of their promotional writeups.
8-Bit Night, a retro platform game with a unique twist.
Abandon Quest is an unconventional open world tactical role-playing game set in the magical pop-up book of Corderia.
Akaneiro: Demon Hunters is a unique free to play Action-RPG adventure presented within a vivid and expressive hand-painted world.
Aril is a unique action packed multiplayer strategy game for pc & mac.
Bean’s Quest is a gorgeous 2D platformer with a twist!
GravBlocks is a “twist” on a classic puzzle game formula.
A fast paced 2D sidescrolling runner with a unique hat based health system, [H]atland[A]dventures delivers a unique, fast and beautiful glance into the world of the truly extreme hat collector.
Perplex Beats is a rhythmic puzzle game with a twist.
Project Giana is a challenging fast-paced platformer with a twist. (Note: this was the tentative title for what’s now Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams.)
[Rhythm Destruction is a] unique action packed experience inspired by classic shooters and infused with addictive rhythm gameplay.
Wow. Who knew there was such staggering originality in the indie game and crowdfunded game scenes? …but that’s not truly what’s going on. These are the results of a powerful temptation to invoke the idea of innovation and all the warm fuzzies that come with it. It’s so strong that the Hatland Adventures creators called their game unique twice in the same sentence—but I’m in no place to knock anyone. I’ve fallen into the trap myself, mentioning innovation as a positive in and of itself even in a post that was explicitly about how innovation is immaterial compared to having your own vision. The problem: no one can credibly promote their own originality by calling attention to it. And no one needs to! Take that Rhythm Destruction line and remove one word:
Rhythm Destruction is an action packed experience inspired by classic shooters and infused with addictive rhythm gameplay.
Space shooters meet rhythm games, huh? That’s pretty interesting. I daresay it sounds unique!—and there’s the rub. When you’re innovative, you don’t need to say so.
2: Real innovation is almost legendary.
Super Mario Galaxy is hailed as one of the most innovative games ever made; Super Mario Galaxy owes a lot to Raphael the Raven from Yoshi’s Island. Nintendo already had the idea of running and jumping around small spheres in space twelve years earlier; SMG simply fleshed it out to its ultimate conclusion in a full game. Mega Man 5 had gravity-flipping in 1992, long before indie darling (and one of my personal favorites) VVVVVV; Metal Storm had it a year earlier than even MM5. For that matter, M.C. Kids, a licensed NES game using McDonalds characters, had sections of walking on the ceiling. 2002’s Blinx had time manipulation before Braid, but so did 1990’s Catrap. Braid evolved the idea with elements like objects that are immune to rewinding time, but that’s just it—it was an evolution, not a revolution. The core idea had existed for almost twenty years.
It’s easy enough to give you something you’ve never seen before; it’s near impossible to give the game industry something it’s never seen before. If a developer claims to have a fully new idea, it’s likely that the developer simply doesn’t know about the games that have already done it, but nothing is wrong with that. On the contrary, that’s the way it should be; a game developer benefits from playing and learning from hundreds of games, but building an encyclopedic knowledge of gaming is best left to journalists and fans. I can’t begin to imagine the mental energy needed to study every known gameplay mechanic and invent something that’s never once been used. The amount of mental energy needed to sweat the similar stuff is so high that I’d be concerned the developer didn’t have any brain juice left for making a good game.
Game quality is denominated in fun and developers need to think and plan accordingly—not to ask themselves if a feature would be groundbreaking, if it’s never been done before, or even if it’s at least been rarely done before, but only if it would interest the player.
None of this is yet a counterpoint to the RPS article, though. People have no need to promote their own originality or strive for it, but that’s not the same as saying that they should make appeals based on their lack of originality—so let’s get cracking on why it’s perfectly great to do just that.
3: Innovation isn’t the spice of life.
If you have a Pixiv account, I recommend clicking on this for full size.
I’ll list some dead horses that gamers beat with the “same old stuff” stick: Call of Duty, Madden, JRPGs, first-person shooters, anything with zombies, and bald space marines. In any decently-sized gaming community you can hear comments like “enough with the zombies” or “JRPGs are all the same thing” or “oh, look, another Call of Gun Warfare: Modern Duty clone.” They trumpet that the real creativity comes from indie developers—but what creativity are they talking about? Did Geometry Wars break new ground? Did Super Meat Boy?
Many people say “creativity” when they mean “variety.” It’s a counter-culture dissatisfied with the mainstream. The appeal of giving a JRPG’s main hero an axe isn’t that it’s innovative, but that it’s not a sword. The allure of a brutally-difficult game isn’t that it’s innovative, but that it’s not easy. The excitement of a new point-and-click adventure game isn’t that it’s innovative, but that it’s the one game of its genre in a thousand.
The industry has tilted toward open worlds and sandboxes where a player can do anything and everything in a virtual space, but players want developers on our real planet to do anything and everything as well, making games that cater to every taste. What good is an open world if people don’t sprawl in every direction?
At the time I type this, there’s a possibility that the Voyager 1 spacecraft has exited our solar system. This would be momentous, phenomenal, and everything good. At this point in human history, it’s literally one-of-a-kind.
A video game has no need to be Voyager 1. It’s enough to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, although that’s been done before. It’s enough to dive 20,000 feet in a submarine; it’s enough to dive 10,000 feet in a submarine. Doing something rare is worth celebrating in and of itself.
In a blog that I’d like to be a fortress of positivity, this is a hard post to write. Steam Greenlight launched yesterday, a service that allows the Steam community to vote up or down on whether any submitted game or game concept should be released for digital distribution. Since Greenlight is in its infancy, I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt and assume that most early kinks will be worked out—like the fact that no one knows whether a thumbs down is a “neutral” vote or subtracts someone else’s thumbs up, the lack of a neutral vote if the thumbs down isn’t one, the inability to sort games by title, the joke game submissions, the potential for abuse from game developers being able to delete any comment, the already-in-effect abuse from troll commenters, and the randomized order of presenting games to vote on. (Regarding the randomization, you could move through three pages of games and see the same one pop up three times because they’re unsorted.) After all of that gets necessary improvements and revisions, we’re left with the core idea: check out hundreds of games and decide whether they’re worth your time.
Click for full size, but you get the gist.
I’ve rated 190 games so far. Just 403 to go. Just… 403… to go…
In college, I had a brief stint as an editor on the university’s literary magazine, where we all sifted through submitted fiction and non-fiction stories to accept or reject them for publication. Paid positions for the role aren’t terribly common in the world, but it’s the perfect place for a sadist to try to land a job since it revolves around crushing the dream of a good 95% of people who get in touch. The saying “don’t judge a book by its cover” asks the reader not to judge a written story by a promotional picture and that’s fine; the saying “don’t judge a book by its first page,” if it existed, would be laughed at by almost any editor. Out of a misplaced sense of obligation, I read each story that I received in full and I can say that 2 out of every 175 stories that started off poorly-written got better further in. It’s all too often possible to judge a work of fiction by its first paragraph or even its first sentence. Just ask this guy.
Steam Greenlight is a perfect analogy to that process of digging through rough to find diamond. It’s a fine heap of garbage much like the ones cobbled together by Sho Minamimoto in The World Ends With You, but without the hilarious over-the-top mathematical ranting. If the idea behind the OUYA can be considered a demonstration of the highest potential of “the indies”—the opportunity to bring not only games into the market, but full systems—then Steam Greenlight is a reality check about how so many can’t put together anything that rubs up against “passable.” With Greenlight still in its new car smell phase, I rated almost 200 games out of sheer tenacity and to say that 15% of them came across as worthwhile for fans of their genre would be an overstatement.
The kid in The Sixth Sense saw dead people. I see dead games. They’re the mediocrity littering Greenlight, created by people who lack either the pride or the courage to make better experiences. They’re the programmers who can’t draw but don’t bother to find artists, the designers who can barely code but don’t bother to find programmers, and the artists who can’t structure a game’s progression but don’t bother to find designers. They’re the developers who defend their games on the basis of hard work instead of high quality. They’re the developers who try to do everything themselves when they don’t have the all-around talent of guys like Pixel (Cave Story) or ZUN (Touhou), yet also won’t reach out to others who can provide the talent, time, or money to take their game to the next level.
Let it never be said that I won’t try any kind of game. When the dust, smoke, and brimstone clears, some genres become my go-to favorites and others become my personal plague, but everything gets a fair spin. After more than twenty years of playing, though, Cherry Tree High Comedy Club has become the first game I’ve played that uses the dating sim style of gameplay—and it’s taken me so long because almost no one releases anything in this genre. CTHCC has no dating, but every other element is there: Cherry Tree High Comedy Club revolves around time management.
Our heroine Miley, seeking to recruit members for her startup comedy club, can perform three of the following actions each day: chatting up potential recruits to become better friends, learning about a variety of topics to become more effective at those chats, and earning money so that she can pay to learn about those topics. It’s a simple cycle, but the game dresses the activities up in different contexts; Miley can learn by watching movies, reading magazines, watching TV, visiting exhibits, or occasionally participating in the topic of choice—playing games makes her a more knowledgeable gamer while eating at a cafe makes her more knowledgeable about cooking.
And it’s all similar stuff. I treated the Grand List of Role-Playing Game Clichés like an unchecklist when I spent my time paper-plotting my dream RPGs at the age of sixteen: anything I thought up that I found on the List needed to hit the cutting room floor. Years later, I discovered TVTropes—and if I had treated that like an unchecklist, no game on the planet would remain.
I’ve heard an academic theory that, from a satellite view of screenwriting and literature, they only offer two types of stories: a hero takes a journey or a stranger comes to town. “Hero” is shorthand for “main character”, but I won’t break that saying down further because I don’t devote my time to movies and novels. I devote my time to something far more interesting and this is my theory:
Video games only offer two types of gameplay: Mario and Pokémon. Either circumstances control the hero or the hero controls circumstances. Either a big bad dragon rolls into town and captures a princess, ruining the hero’s peaceful life, or the hero has had enough with peace and sets out to challenge the world and be the very best—like no one ever was. Dragon Quest vs. Etrian Odyssey. Mega Man vs. Street Fighter. Castlevania vs. Monster Hunter. Tetris vs. any sports game ever made.
The best-selling video game franchises epitomize the basic building blocks of any title in the industry: the two possible goals and roles of the player.