Innovation is one of those things that always seem right, especially in a creative point of view. Why would you not try to find a new and exciting place for games to go? There's a limitless amount of experiences untouched by our beautiful medium, and even more directions you can take with them! A good and unique game will always find an audience, you hear often. It might be hard to make it a good game, but if you believe you can, it's worth it. Right?
In this piece, I want to use a game I was the creative lead for at Abbey Games, namely Renowned Explorers: International Society, to point out some costs attached to innovation. They're all pretty logical, but it's easy to ignore them when you're enthusiastic about your new invention!
Abbey Games created our first game Reus in 2013, which was a huge success. We then went on to create a new project: Renowned Explorers: International Society (RE:IS). The vision of RE:IS was to pick a fun theme (Verne-esque explorers), create an innovative game in a niche (strategy), full of character and with a feeling of global scale. Besides that, we had to keep the technical vision of Abbey Games in mind: using our technological knowledge to create new opportunities.
RE:IS is an strategy adventure game, which you could describe as a mix between Indiana Jones, choose your own adventure, and X-COM:Enemy Unknown. You choose a group of 3 adventurers, all with their unique skills, and go out to find great treasures in order to become the most renowned explorers.
It features three layers of gameplay - tactics, exploration and preparation - which all influence each other. Conflicts are solved through a tactical game, where your abilities can also be verbal actions. We call this Attitude-based gameplay. You can be aggressive by using normal combat, devious by bullying your opponent into submission, or friendly by making friends of them. Your approach will break their will to resist you (spirit) until they are convinced (by feels or force depending on your choice). You can also switch between the approaches with different results and reactions, as they're all tied to the same system (Which Nikhil Murthy picked up and explained better). In short, you can seduce a group of mummies or fight them, all in the same tactical "combat".
(excuse the gif, but it makes explaining the game so much easier)
The exploration is one big choose your adventure, whose events are meant to be a step up from FTL and more frequent than say Pillars of Eternity. The 20 playable characters have their personalities and react differently to situations.
RE:IS was in development for 23 months and made use of an in-house engine that started development 2 months before development of the game started. RE:IS released on September 2nd on Steam, GoG and Humble for about $20.
Reception of gamers has been simply amazing so far. We sit at 93 to 94% on steam and 4 stars on GoG (which I believe to be pushed down because of some launch issues). Reception of critics has been good to amazing. The game is criticized for its difficulty (especially boss fights and lackluster tutorial), repetition, music, and lack of metagame progression. The game is praised for it's unique systems, humor, charm and depth.
After one month of release, RE:IS sold about 11.000 copies, which is a disappointment compared to our investment, the unique theming and the positive responses. 11.000 copies are great, but it's far from breaking even which is required for the health and survivability of the studio. All in all, Abbey Games took a hit and we had to let some people go.
Discoverability does not seem to be the problem: we got about 2M impressions on steam, with a very decent click through rate and number of page visits. We also got a whopping 43.000(+3500 fulfilled) wishlists, almost all gained after launch.
We have put a lot of thought into figuring out what we did wrong. We are aware that many factors contributed to this result. In this article, I want to highlight what I think might have been an important player. One that I partially missed during the past 2 years of development: the price you pay for innovation and deviation.
I want to start off with a disclaimer: some games overcome this step by great marketing, skill or luck. RE:IS had its own share of mistakes made and we're not hiding from that. Despite the low revenue, we will patch the game significantly for at least the coming months. But here I want to talk about the downsides of innovation for RE:IS. The costs of innovation are not unaffordable, but they did hurt RE:IS significantly in my opinion. Also, I firmly believe in RE:IS as a product and Abbey Games has a mission to blow a refreshing wind through your game library! We believe our audience is out there, and we will find it. You can run, but you can't hide!
That said I want to continue to the what I believe are the 4 costs of innovation!
The most obvious cost involved with innovation is production cost. That is, the cost of creating and trying new things. This is fairly obvious. It's something we took time for and planned around. Sadly, making a good guess of those costs is notoriously hard, and risky to build a game on. The attitude gameplay I talked about earlier took more than a year to form, since it had so many challenges and tests, but also so little reference. (Thank you, Sims 4 for saving my hide!) This is the first and foremost reason why innovative games tend to not be excellent, since polishing stuff takes time and money.
A production cost that's easier to miss due to enthusiasm is that new features will fail. RE:IS had 5 important points of innovation:
The attitude system, story-events and three-layered design where received well or amazingly, while the Voronoi grid went largely unnoticed and the engine caused some significant short-term problems. All of them have put a significant strain on the development process. We could have removed 2 or 3 of these features, but it might have been a bit arbitrary which one would have survived. For example, the engine was the first project to start, while the acclaimed attitude system was one of the last to fall in place. With that in mind, it would have been likely that if we would cut down in innovation, one of our best features would be the one that wouldn't have made it.
It's good to keep in mind that 50% or more of your innovations are wild goose chases. That's ok - failing is learning. But failing does cost money.
The second cost of innovation, which I already touched a little before, is vision cost. That two comes in two ways.
The first is that innovation can cause the vision to escalate, increasing the production cost even furter. This is not because the innovation itself is expensive or hard to make, but because of the impact it has on the vision of the game. For example, the three-layered design started out pretty simple. You did an adventure in layer 1, you solved conflicts in layer 2, and you made strategic decisions in layer 3. However, once it was in place and it became important, it needed more support to work correctly. The UI got a new iteration, layer 1 had to gain new goals and features to stay relevant, etc. Every step of innovation had a chance to disrupt vision, which could require more innovation and had a higher cost. In the end we solved it by toning down the 3 layered design significantly, because we saw this was a goal we could not fully reach and because we were confident that other parts of the game would shine brighter.
Second is that you lose the ability to make top-level decisions based on other games. You can see this happening in RE:IS when you look at difficulty. At one point, the game was going to look like a rogue-like since that's where the innovative fun was bringing us. But the game was not built as a rogue-like in core. For example, I could not point to a game like Binding of Isaac and say: this kind of trial&error gameplay is what we're going for, so difficulty is important. It puts the game in a dangerous limbo where we had to decide the vision of the game based on sparse playtests results instead of standing on the shoulder of giants. The result is logical: the game was too hard for many people who otherwise had a great time with the game, while rogue-like fans were turned off by the lack of a strong metagame. We fixed the first problem with difficulty levels as fast as we could, but some of the damage was already done.
While I believe we successfully avoided most pitfalls of Sid Meier's "Covert Action Rule", innovation pushed RE:IS into a state where it was no longer obvious what kind of game it would be. The mechanics were not fighting within the game, but they were fighting for vision and resources in development.
An innovative mechanic has to find its place in the game and can truly shake up the vision. It makes the question "What is important?" a lot harder to answer.
The above costs can both be high, but they are peanuts compared to the next two. One huge cost of innovation is the cost of reference for the reviewer. This means the reviewer does not have a base to judge the game on.
We humans are comparing animals. We often base our judgment of value on that of our neighbor. Innovative games, which are entertainment and don't have a production use, can fall victim to this. If your game is "Civilization, but better" it's easy to compare it with Civilization. If your game if "Civilization, but different", it's still like Civilization and you can still make a decent comparison. But if it's all kind of games and ideas mixed? Then it starts to become pretty hard.
To add more troubles, humans are also loss-aversive. That means that if a comparison is made after all, it is easier to spot things that are not there anymore. An example is RE:IS for example, is the lack of a heavy meta-game. Reviewers that compare RE:IS with rogue-likes seem to have a great time with the game, but at one point they can start to expect a heavy meta-game with unlocks like in Rogue Legacy or Binding of Isaac. It's weird to see RE:IS with hundreds of unique events with multiple endings and 20 wildly different characters being penalized for not having enough content because we didn't lock it behind doors. But it's seldomly what is there what counts: it's what is perceived that counts.
We had people applaud us for the great charm, atmosphere and humor. Yet, we do not get the points like a Sam & Max game. People focus on the innovative part of the tactical combat, but not everyone has the same commitment to see it as a hard to master tactical game since its atmosphere is light. Some say it's a roguelike. Others say it's too difficult. It has some rogue-lite randomness that you can often control, but some might think it's too random and punishing. I've read some frustrating reviews in which the text surely suggests an 8 to 9, with close to no criticism, only to get a (potentially yellow metacritic) score of 7.
And can I blame them? Of course not! Even I don't know how to compare it! You lose some ability to stand out as great, simply because it's harder to see what good or bad means in this context. A reviewer might be compelled to pick certain aspects and put it up to a contender you were not trying to fight. This unclear comparison can cost you dear points. To make the drama complete, an innovative game is very dependant on reviews for a buy because potential customers have a hard time figuring out if they should buy it themselves (which is the next point).
Innovation can leave a reviewer in an akward place. Don't expect them to find a frame for all the new stuff you're putting in your game.
The final cost is a double-edged sword, the marketing and communication cost of innovation. While innovation can drive your marketing, your innovation can also hurt it by making it harder to understand the game. There is not a single screenshot that succeeded in communicating our new ideas, and it took three trailers to have one that made people say: Oooh, that's what it's about.
While most don't like defining their game in therms of other games, this familiarity with other games is a fantastic tool for communicating a game. With this familiarity you also inherit known concepts which makes the game easier to learn, one of the other problems RE:IS had. Unclear communication might even stop a player from buying the game since he/she simply has a too vague of an idea of it. Many players seemed interested in RE:IS - 43.000 wishlists stand as a testimony to that - but only a few actually bought the game.
So to recap, with RE:IS we found 4 distinctive, important costs of innovation in games:
All these costs can be worth it. One good and well-marketed innovation can be a very worthwhile investment. But ignoring the costs would be foolish. With RE:IS, a pretty successful indie studio failed to make some of these points work at launch. We tried to do more innovation than we could pay for. And I believe we're not alone. Experimentation, even if it's good, has a price.
Think well about how much innovation your game can actually afford.