This is the second of a two part posting on innovation and how it applies to the game industry. This first post will discuss the nature of innovation. The second post focuses on innovation within the gaming industry.
Innovation in the Gaming Industry
When looking in at the gaming industry from the outside, game development is remarkable successful at innovating. With the challenges we face in the gaming industry, especially with crunches, most developers tend to forget that as an industry we are very good at innovating which can be the primary challenge for many large, well established businesses. We have flatter organizational structures which means we have less management overhead with seniors and team leads playing a larger role in the organization and the direction of games, which are central to the performance of our industry. Not only the organization, but the team structures are often much flatter than traditional businesses, with very few levels of hierarchy separating team members from each other allowing for better collaboration and openness between colleagues. The effect of removing red tape helps empower individuals and teams to respond to change in their environment and within the game vision, encouraging new ideas and a willingness to embrace risk. Of course with the increasing size of the industry, its projects and team sizes, maintaining flatter hierarchies and low overhead are increasingly challenging. As any business grows, hierarchies grow and overhead increases which means more red tape, more difficulty responding to change and less innovation. But many companies single biggest problem they are trying to solve is how to become more innovative.
Clearly lacking resources, the innovative executive rides the collaborative efforts of his lessers into greener pastures.
Another key aspect of innovation in the gaming industry is the lack of resources. You read that correctly. We often lack the resources, time, money, tools, etc to do things exactly how we would like. The gaming industry is well known for time deadlines, difficult crunches and expansive, crushing levels of project scope. So how can the industry also be well known and being highly innovative? The answer is precisely because we lack resource that we must innovate. If we had everything we needed to do the job in a perfect world, we wouldn’t have to look at different ideas or approaches to solving problems. What we are left with is what we have to work with, and we need results. Fast. As a result we pull in our coworkers, put our heads down and do what we can with what we have, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. One of the best examples I can personally think of is a project I worked on that needed to demonstrate a core mechanic to a new publisher that had previously been considered a relatively unimportant part of the game vision. Failure to meet the prospective publisher’s requirements to demonstrate this mechanic meant a canceled project and a lot of unemployed developers. We had two weeks to get the job done. The project, in its previous four years, had failed to ever prove out this mechanic and we had two weeks. We managed to hack together the mechanic by sheer determination through broken tools, half implemented code and all the digital duct tape and superglue we could beg, borrow or steal. The end result was the most impressive mechanic in the game to date. I was blown away that the guys working on the mechanic were able to accomplish what they did. We gave them their goal; we made sure the team had the necessary skillsets and we let them loose. The best thing we ever did was put them together, point them at the goal, remove the red tape and let them figure out how to make things work. A lack of resources spurs innovation, not the abundance of resources. This is a key reason why the gaming industry retains its level of innovation.
Essentially as an industry we are trying to preserve the innovative and creativity in the face of larger projects, enterprise level business models and the endless press for greater profits. As the industry and its businesses grow we just have to make sure to keep overhead low and maintain responsiveness to change. In contrast, many large organizations are trying to become innovative, trying to respond faster to change and remove hierarchy and red tape to enable more agility not only at a strategic level, but also at the organizational level with teams working on products and services. It’s strange to think that the gaming industry, which is relatively immature and often disregarded as “for the kids”, has succeeded at such a critical and essential strategic goal many large businesses fail miserably at.
Ironically, a copping method for many industries is to buy smaller, more innovative companies and bring them under the corporate umbrella, absorbing their products and services in hopes that their innovation will continue as a part of the purchasing company. Unfortunately this has proven to be a difficult process, as the process of bringing the newly acquired company into the fold often kills the innovation that made the business so valuable. Now the predominant strategy is to acquire innovative companies to produce a city-state model. Now once you acquire the innovative company you do as little as possible to interfere with the day to day running of the company, leaving them to operate as they previously did while bringing them under the parent organizations control financially. Several large publishers have also become famous, or perhaps infamous, within the gaming industry for their acquisition of innovation and successful studios in an effort to bring not just their innovation, but their IPs under a larger corporate umbrella.
However, we’re also seeing the opposite occur with experienced developers leaving larger employers to join smaller developers or go indie, to embrace innovative ideas and gain a measure of independence and freedom to do truly original work. Most large titles today are franchises that have worked very hard to establish themselves and their fan base, removing risk systematically so the next large scale production can maintain their massive budget. The downside for the consumer is this has led to a glut of sequels and genre clones that do not really true innovate in any meaningful sense, but simply iterate on the previous title in the franchise. As a result, innovation stagnates and there is a renewed call not just for new IPs, but for genres that are chronically underrepresented in the industry and more engaging experiences than the status quo.
With the impending generation of consoles, a constant stream of new mobile devices and the prospect of virtual reality gaming in the living room we are, as an industry, on the verge of impressive innovations. Some are certainly incremental, with potentially a few rare true innovations on the horizon.