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Meretzky Lets Loose On Stagnant Creativity
Meretzky Lets Loose On Stagnant Creativity Exclusive
August 22, 2008 | By Mathew Kumar, Leigh Alexander

August 22, 2008 | By Mathew Kumar, Leigh Alexander
More: Console/PC, Exclusive

Designer and industry veteran Steve Meretzky broke precious ground in the 1980s, heading up Infocom's Planetfall, Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, and other classic titles known for innovation.

While the modern game industry heralds its broadening audiences, Meretzky now feels that the industry's actually narrowing its focus on teen and young adult males, and innovation is suffering.

"I believe the problem is institutional -- that individually, almost everyone in the industry would rather do something very original than something imitative, but the huge budgets and corporate decision-making structures push us into the same narrow alleys," says Meretzky, talking recently at a Gamasutra-attended talk at GCDC in Leipzig.

Meretsky says he likes to play a lot of board games because of the sheer diversity of roles available -- from Medieval French kings through power station managers, time travelers, paranormal investigators, cow exploders, and more.

Meanwhile, in video games recently, he's played "A Dwarven warrior, a WWII soldier, a Dwarven warrior, a WWII soldier, a Dwarven warrior... well, you get it."

"So why do we seem to keep making the same few games over and over and over again?" Meretzky asks. "Innovation is what has got us from Pong to Rock Band, it's true, so we have had a lot of innovation, but have we had enough innovation lately?"

Meretzky points to profit/loss figures and sales data stacked highly in favor of the Wii -- "one of the few shining lights of innovation in the past few years" -- to demonstrate why creativity is not only good, but vital to the health of the industry.

"You could argue the Wii is a technical innovation, not a creative innovation -- I'd argue it was a marriage of the two," he says.

Portal, says Meretzky, is an example of a "pure creative innovation," though time will tell if it's birthed a new genre on its own.

Such innovation, Meretzky says, is essential to helping the game industry avoid "a repeat of what happened to the comic industry," wherein industry standards eventually meant that superhero comics were the only sort being produced -- thereby creating a feedback loop where the only people who read comics were people who liked superheroes.

Broadening games beyond a self-referential state can also help the industry avoid censorship by elevating itself to a diverse art form on par with other media. As a bonus, the "Christmas table discussion" will no longer be full of careful explanations for family members on what the game developer's job entails.

"Aren't you tired of going through that conversation over and over again?" says Meretzky.

Finally, "Isn't it just more interesting and fun to work on something new rather than something exactly the same as the last game you produced, or the last ten games?"

"Let's get that fun back, let's get that passion back, it's our industry, let's take it back," Meretzky urges passionately.

"I feel like we're squandering the promise of games. We've been saying for years that it's an art form, but then we as an industry do as much as we can to disprove what we're saying!"

He continues, "I like violent games as much as the next non-psychopathic gamer -- but with the whole range of human experience, is there nothing else, nothing else that we can concentrate on? It would be like if the film industry did nothing but big budget blockbusters! We can do better than this! We should be doing better than this!"

Meretzky acknowledges that meeting publisher expectations in a high-risk environment can create a measure of self-censorship -- but having thrown out all one's best ideas before the pitch meeting is "fucking idiotic."

"Every time we've settled for the easy idea rather than search for the harder innovative idea or every time as a gamer in a store you've reached for the sequel rather than the new game next to it -- everyone is at fault to some extent and shame on us."

Making the shift to a culture that demands technical innovation while "actively [discouraging]" creative innovation won't be an overnight process, says Meretzky, but it needs to happen.

"We need to fight conservative ideas at every point -- from brainstorming to pitch meetings even just when talking to a friend. Be subversive. If you invent a better mousetrap, other developers will see it and they'll use it and the innovation will spread until it's the standard. And be an evangelist."

And the picture's not so grim, he adds, pointing to the independent game industry and user-generated content on sites like Kongregate as sources of future promise.

"Already a million flowers are starting to bloom and genetic mutation just has to occur. I know my talk has been a little pessimistic, but personally I'm very optimistic. The games industry as we know it may go away, but games aren't going to. The best is yet to come."

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the problem is too many non creatives in the industry who run it, people who have leeched on, for ever 1 creative person there are 5 non creatives. Like Producers who are keen to add the words "creative" in front of their title because they aren't creative at all. It seems that for some reason when a person who is an armchair designer but can't script an event then they become a producer...

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Creativity IS coming from many self-funded games. The risk goes to those who are crazy enough to put there hard earned cash where their mouth is. I see lots of complainers, but where are your games? They are super risky, and take balls of steal to step out and make. Brutal Legend is a game I have pasted all over my wall because I can't wait to play it--and may be on the chopping block-- but creativity and originality can be like garlic and holy water to publishers that want to make a buck. If your printing cash with some of the biggest IPs in the world, why would you not want to make something unique and great. End of day, some biz guy is calling the shots where cash is king. The trick is "How to get all those snot nosed kids shooting stuff that act like Bevis and Butthead to play something that took intelligence and creativity to really make? NO, let's keep printing cash and letting the government educate good social minds that fit into society for fast food chains that will buy more copies of Halo. A good classical education will create educated buyers, wanting better games. I think the problem starts before walking--oh, but you have to pay

for the good education. Less buyers.

Ryan FitzGerald
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I certainly understand the sentiment and frustration regarding a lack of innovation. The pessimistic "there's not more creativity" argument hits the ground running because we see the symptoms of this every week when Hollywood issues yet another movie that might as well be called "Guns, Trucks & Aliens 4 -- the Retribution."

But insofar as the games industry is going, I don't think the sky is falling like many people think. I think there's far more innovation going on than most people think but now you have to look for it because the only people with the megaphones and ad budgets are the developers that need to shell out big bucks to recoup the expense of the latest photorealitic shooter.

To say, "there's no more innovation" is a little like saying, "there are no more pioneers living in log houses." The frontier has moved and so has the touch line for innovation. Innovation was easy 20 years ago because *nothing* had yet been done! But now as the age of the average gamer is in his/her mid-30s, we're seeing slow demand for greater emotional range. We're seeing a demand for stronger narrative resonance. We're seeing convergence projects break the fourth wall with game components.

I agree that we need to *continually* sound the call for innovation if the industry wants to evolve but we must temper this call with (a) recognition that innovation and brilliance does not always pay off financially and this is an industry with an economy and (b) we need to have patience for evolution instead of a demand for revolution.

Ryan FitzGerald

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(quote) Meanwhile, in video games recently, he's played "A Dwarven warrior, a WWII soldier, a Dwarven warrior, a WWII soldier, a Dwarven warrior... well, you get it." (end quote)

It sounds like the games he's choosing to play. :) I've got Wedding Dash (PC) and Rocket Slime (DS) sitting on my desk right now. No Dwarves or WWII there. I play a ton of rhythm games, more than is healthy, but that's my fault. I know I could pick up a rail shooter any time I wanted.

Mr. Meretzky is a nice guy and he's right in this case. So I shouldn't pick on him.

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First and foremost people need to care about what they make. The enemy of good games isn't the lack of creativity or leaps in innovation. The enemy of good games is apathy both on the development and business side of things.

When you don't give a crap about what you are making or selling then it shows in the quality of the game and how its marketed.

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I don't know if anyone else feels this, but I kind of feel that working on a shooter or role-playing game is a real drag. I mean, everything has been done a million times and over.

Working on original, innovative material, though, is the most fun you can have in this industry. It's creative liberation. Everything has to be completely new and so you actually feel like you're "creating" and not just regurgitating genres.

Anyways, it feels like the only way innovation can really happen now is with independent devs, and then getting picked up by "quality" devs (i.e. Portal).

Carlo Delallana
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"I don't know if anyone else feels this, but I kind of feel that working on a shooter or role-playing game is a real drag. I mean, everything has been done a million times and over. "

Just because something has been done a million times over doesn't mean you can't innovate. Again, it goes back to actually caring about what you are doing as opposed to thinking of it as just another game you need to do to get you closer to your dream project.

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"Just because something has been done a million times over doesn't mean you can't innovate."

I certainly think innovation can happen in any genre or setting. And in my book, innovation always plays second to execution. One must care about improving function and playability before anything else.

Still, there is no denying the creative mind-melding that can happen on a team that is making something completely new. It's a must-have experience. It's just unfortunate that it almost always ends up with the project being canned or changed.

I mean, with most games you usually start with what has been done. Most high concepts can pretty much boil down to "game A meets game B". Any innovations that happen are usually small and more so just improvements to the formula.

But with something new, it's like a blank slate. Yes, this is scary and keeps us up at night. But it's also creatively exhilarating.

Bradley Lusenhop
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Basically the industry needs better writers. I'd play SNES still if people were weaving great stories.

Micah Wright
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Blaming videogame writers for the faults of the gaming industry is like blaming the key grip because Lethal Weapon 4 wasn't any good. Writers are the people with the least influence on what gets made. If you don't like the choice of Dwarfen Warrior/WWII soldier/Space Marines games out there, then blame the lead designers and their bosses. There are fantastic game writers working today... but even the best of them are being forced to write Space Marines games because stupid jerks in ties with MBAs and Marketing degrees think that only Space Marines games will sell, and that the writing doesn't matter. And, naturally, every time you buy a horribly written Space Marines game like Gears of War, you reinforce that idea of theirs. Game writers are almost never asked their input about which games get made, they're simply told to write dialog that will make bad, derivative games better.

Duncan McPherson
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@ Micah W.:

Actually, your argument would be more correct if you compared a game writer to the author of a screenplay. Both put their babies in the care of dingos.

Also, the jerks with the MBAs and ties don't just -think- those games will sell, they -know- those games will sell. They know the market is guaranteed to buy a certain quantity, and they know how to manipulate that market. It's the safest way to churn a profit, and businesses center on turning a profit.

Sure, every now and again you can have a "Spore" or a "Guitar Hero," and to sign and properly market something like that takes vision. Even then, the success of those titles -- until they generate their 50th sequel -- is quickly forgotten. People remember the remarkable failures of brilliant, creative titles like "Psychonauts." Again, it was the lack of vision is marketing and promoting that product that led to its sales failure. What do the suits see, though? What is the reality they manage? They manage the reality of sales and the net ROI.

You want something new? You want something innovative? All gamers have a responsibility to actually -buy- the innovative over the derivative. Think that's easy? Then you don't know how people work. We like comfort. We like ease. We like "the usual." Hell, people go to McDonald's to order by number because actually selecting individual items from a spectrum of brown foods is perceived as being too much of a hassle!

We are paralyzed by choice, as consumers. As a result, we make no choice. We go for what we know and we go for what we're told we'll like. We go for the shiny and the sleek. We go for the well-funded and the brand name. Nine times out of ten, we stay in our comfort zone when making a purchase... and I'm being charitable when I say that.

I can't blame the business leaders in this industry. They are doing what they know will turn a profit, and they are human just as we are. Their motivations are simple to read and are honestly no more nefarious than our own.

We creative types (and I -am- one of the creative types in the industry) want to make something unique and epic. Some of us get infuriated when we see a game like "Gears of War," "God of War," or "Bioshock" touted as out-of-the-box masterpieces of creativity. ("Bioshock," as derivative as it is, still has really good writing and strong voice acting, by the by.) Those of us who -have- unique ideas, though, need to ask ourselves how we'd create a market for those ideas. We need to be able to objectively assess the value of our concepts. It takes maturity and courage to do that. Most designers are either beaten down or driven out by the industry long before they can reach that point, which makes the success -- like the Will Wrights -- all the rarer.

Anyhow, I've probably bored and/or infuriated you by this point.

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you make many good points, but I still think there's a bit of rose-tinted glasses. Of course, I'm thinking of "Psychonauts". There's a lot of creativity put in that game, but all the best marketing in the world wouldn't change the fact that the things it focuses on appeal to a small niche of people. The failure was rooted in budgeting and producing that game at the level of AAA, mainstream games. If Woody Allen spends $50m in his next movie he will flop as well.

Also, I don't see either GoW game being hailed for its creativity, but rather for their production values and great execution. They delivered tight, polished and intense experiences. They moved their genres ahead by adding new mechanics and removing fat. Finally, they were showcases for improvements in technology.

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This article IS the problem. Polarized views such as "everything original is good and everything referenced is bad" are killing the good ideas off that aren't super gonzo when creative freedom is allowed. I'm working on an original IP game and we've had shoot-for-the-stars original ideas tossed at it with no reference points given, and they were so poorly referenced that they failed miserably to work in a fun way. It was a complete crapshoot, trial and error is fine if you're blizzard and you can waste 7 years on overpolished turds. But if you want to get original in a realistic time frame, get BETTER at referencing the old. My game design idol is Quintin Tarantino - because he proves that originality can come from purely referenced art. People with bad ideas are the ones that cry all day about lack of originality, and it's because they do trial and error bs without reference and it costs developers everything. Throw together your favorite game from the 80's with one from te 90's and one from this decade and you'll have originality and flavor that probably works. Try to tell an in depth story-based mystery game about a grandpa trying to find his wrist watch at the nursing home and you've just generated 40+ unemployed co-workers.

Innovate +5%, don't shoot for 100% and end up with 0% when testers find out it just happens to be "not fun".

j kelly
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The failure of an innovative game such as Psychonauts is NOT marketing. Viral ads dispute this. Marketing is constantly playing catch up to innovation. GTA comes out, next iteration, 5 GTA clones come out. For Meretzky to advocate innovation is fine, but the business model TODAY will mostly not allow it to happen for a AAA title. It can't. The games he is talking about are from yesteryear, made by one or two people with a shared vision. I'm not saying those days are over, the casual market is HUGE.

But innovative AAA games are too elusive to chase when you have a bottom line to adhere to. Sorry. My free advice for any indie out there is to build on known quantities, with innovation taking the forms of optimization and minor deviations.

john bonachon
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"Let's get that fun back, let's get that passion back, it's our industry, let's take it back,"

I agree 100% with it. In the "old good times" exist only programmers, some executives, other staff and the customers. Now exist executives, vp, secretaries, accounting guys, a lot of lawyer. In fact exist companies in the industries without any programmer!.

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As Duncan said, there is certainly a large audience of people that are spoon fed sequels, remakes, cliches, and recycled gruel. And, sadly, this is what works.

I still think there is reason, though, to innovate. It's true that it is hard to get consumers to break out of their purchasing "comfort zones". But that's only for that certain audience, mostly the hardcore and specific audiences.

With products like Wii, Sims, Guitar Hero, etc. they are trying to appeal to different audiences by aligning to different "comfort zones". People that don't buy video games are instantly attracted to these products because they cross that line and peak their interest in a completely separate area.

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I think Sales and Marketing is to blame for much of the stagnation. At the four publishers I have worked for, their teams came from non-gaming sectors (like packaged goods).

You try to explain the 'cool and innovative' feature and they would say we need bullet points and features like game 'X'.

You would argue that game 'X' has twice the staff and budget of your game, but unless you made their changes they would internally downgrade your title. That is until more than on Executive espoused it publicly.