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Innovative Game Design - The Indie Perspective

Monday, February 21, 2005

In my previous post, I wrote a summary of the Innovative Game Design Symposium I attended last Friday. In this post I will take the information I gathered at the symposium and try to formulate how small indie game developers can contribute to innovating computer games. Although I will mention the names of the speakers at the symposium regularly, you don't have to read the summary to understand this post.

Don't be a game designer

When Chris Crawford said that games are a failure, there was nothing in me that wanted to contradict that statement. Instead, my reaction was: what can I do about it? I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to talk with Chris about this.

The most clear-cut advise Chris could give to 'eager young kids who want to develop games' is: don't. There is no fame in it and there is certainly no fortune in it. You have better career opportunities working at Wal-Mart and writing accounting software for banks is more interesting.

Developing games is hard. We know that, even if we don't always appreciate how hard it really is. But as far as I'm concerned, there is nothing Chris can say that will change my mind about wanting to be a game developer. I know that the list of downsides to the business is shockingly long and that the list of upsides is ridiculously short, but I want to develop games in spite of that. No, I want to develop games because of that.

Everytime someone tells me what's so bad about game development, I say: but that's what's so great about it; I want to confront that problem, I want to brave that hurdle. In a way, the negatives are what keep me going, even moreso than the positives. Somehow I believe Chris must feel the same way, otherwise he wouldn't have worked on Erasmatazz all those years.

Indie is weak

Michaël Samyn and Aureia Harvey developed their game 8, but found out the hard way that the commercial games industry is not looking for innovation. In spite of that, they won't turn to the indie scene for help. Michaël said: indie is weak.

What he means by that is that the indie scene doesn't have a strong foothold, neither commercially, nor artisticly. Michaël and Aureia have looked at publishers like Garage Games, but those publishers can't fund their project, they can't get their game on the shelves in every store. And what indie game developer can truly say he created a work of art? Most of us indies create games that strongly resemble what already exists. At best we find an interesting twist on existing gameplay, but where is our message? What do we have to say? The indie scene is not the place to be if you want to drive creativity forward.

Chris Crawford doesn't think the indie scene will be the place where the innovation comes from either, because indies still think to narrow. The commercial games industry is caught in this tiny circle. The indie scene forms a larger circle around that, but they are still confined to their circle and miss the great opportunities that lie outside of it. If you want to innovate, you should stop thinking in terms of existing games.

What can we do?

Being independent means that you have great freedom to experiment. Aureia Harvey complains that computer game publishers can only think in terms of existing genres and they won't consider a game that doesn't fit their predefined limits. As indie developers, we don't have to deal with this problem. We don't have people telling us what we can and cannot do. We are independent. If we can't do something, it's because of the limitations we put on ourselves.

Ian Bogost put it like this. Experimentation with the digital, interactive medium is nearly free. The medium doesn't need millions of dollars. You shouldn't be thinking: how much money do I need to make this happen. You should ask yourself what you can do with what you have.

Chris told us during his presentation: if you want to design games, you should become an artist. Not a programmer who happens to know something about art; that might make you suitable to take part in game development, but not in game design. You should be an artist who knows how to program; you should approach interactive entertainment from an artistic point of view, using your logical skills as tools instead of goals.

What about the reality?

All this talk of art, innovation and creativity is nice and well, but what's wrong with just creating a traditional game that lots of people love to play? Thomas Warfield did it, David Dobson did it, Steve Pavlina did it, etc. If that's what you want, then that's fine, of course. But is it really what you want or are you just stuck on this side of the barrier?

Sure, we need to pay the rent and buy food, so we can't just sit around thinking about innovating game design all the time. We need to sell some games, too. That's true, but in my opinion this should never become an excuse; it cannot be the reason we don't innovate.

Personally, I don't feel bad about releasing traditional games to start with. I do like to build towards innovative games over time, though. Innovation is not a matter of weeks, it takes many years and hard work. The path I choose is to create games that slowly build towards innovation. It's not the only path, as Chris Crawford clearly shows with his thirteen years of work on Erasmatazz, and he's still going at it. If you want to innovative you will have to find the path that suits you best. Just don't kid yourself into thinking that you are almost there: it's a long road.

Michaël says indie is weak. Chris says indies think too narrow. In my opinion, they are right, but I see no reason why this can't change. The indie scene can become the place for innovative game design, if we let go of our preconceptions and use the freedom we have to experiment. Only then will we be truly independent.

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