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Researching The Next Wave Of Innovation

November 8, 2011 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

[What purpose does R&D serve in the game industry? Gamasutra speaks to Rod Humble and Sony's Richard Marks, in charge of the team that developed PlayStation Move, to find out what pure research can do for games.]

First you come up with a lot of great ideas. Then you talk about them. Then you implement a lot of art and gameplay. And then you go "shit, that kind of sucks" ... and you toss everything out and start all over again.

That's Blizzard Entertainment's version of research and development, according to a talk game design senior VP Rob Pardo gave a few years ago about the developer's keys to success.

Nintendo and Valve are two other companies merciless about cutting games that aren't working, polishing and fixing games that are, and developing titles for a long time in secret until they are ready to be announced -- rather than announcing a game just because it exists.

Indeed, Nintendo president and CEO Satoru Iwata has said that trial and error is the key to creating fun, that sometimes the prototype phase lasts more than two years -- and sometimes the prototypes are scrapped altogether.

Given the three companies' successes, it is surprising how few other game companies do anything like R&D -- let alone pure research into game mechanics. What's dissuading them?

Ron Carmel, co-founder of World of Goo indie developer 2D Boy, believes there are potential benefits to launching just such a program in major studios. In his keynote speech at the Montreal International Games Summit last year, Carmel urged large publishers to use their resources to create small internal teams that would work on groundbreaking games from within.

World of Goo

"We need a medium-sized design studio... something that is larger than a typical indie but has the same propensity for talent density, focus, and risk-taking," said Carmel, formerly an employee of Electronic Arts prior to going independent.

Carmel recommends that a focus on profit be eliminated from the equation.

"Creating this within a major developer doesn't present a problem," he said. "With a budget of $1-2 million, 10 staffers could be hired to work on creatively ambitious and forward-thinking projects."

He likened the idea to the car industry which, alongside its mainstream consumer products, works on concept cars, few of which enter production as regular models.

"The concept car is a marketing expense to build your brand and say, 'Look at all the amazing things we're creating.'"

Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

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Michael Joseph
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I'd like to hear more about real experiences working in R&D from anyone who'd care to share.

What was your experience like?

Did you feel you had enough time to develop an interesting and potentially profitable "new thing" before it was scrapped or postponed?

Did you have any monetary incentives to share your ideas with your company? i.e. Will you still only receive base salary if your ideas are monetized? or Did you feel your best option was to quit and create your own new thing?

Do you think studios are hesitant to do R&D with games because they feel their researchers will quit and form their own studios to release products based on the ideas they've come up with?

Do you think companies feel R&D is more worthwhile when possible creations are likely to be encumbered by patents and so their researchers have little option but to create for them than go off on their own. (i.e. R&D is riskier in gamedev where patents don't completely stymie new ideas)

Jacek Wesolowski
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I used to work at a studio where they didn't really have a job for me, for various reasons. So, the administrative manager (yes, a spreadsheet guy) would come over once in a while, asking to do this or that. He had some quite exciting stuff on his mind. The problem is, R&D of any kind takes time. You need some time to figure it out, and *then* you can start working on something that may actually show any results. We're not necessarily talking about long delays here - a week or two in my case - but the warmup phase is definitely there. Before that warmup was complete, someone would decide they had a better, more urgent use for my time. The result: half a dozen research projects started, nothing finished. It got really frustrating after a while.

So, in a nutshell: a big challenge is that R&D is a long term investment, and most people seem to want immediate results.

Also, I've been privately advocating a reasearch team idea not unlike what Carmel described for four years now. Last time I approached someone with it, I pretty much hit my head against the Not Invented Here issue. Your typical gamedev team, particularly a big one, is not suited for doing R&D in any serious capacity. But they won't let some bunch of smartasses do their R&D for them, either, because then they would feel like they're giving up their agency. I honestly think this challenge can be overcome, i.e. it's possible for an R&D team and a production team to cooperate in such a way that everyone can make a meaningful creative contribution. But there's a certain mentality barrier that will take some work to break down.