"Many characteristics of a small, motivated group facilitate the production of high-quality games."In this reprint from the April 1997 issue of Game Developer magazine, Civilization designer Sid Meier cuts through the hype of technical innovation to get at what players really enjoy.
The computer gaming industry is undergoing a revolution! This mantra has been used to promote dozens of technical innovations that have promised to radically alter the experience of playing a computer game. From virtual reality headware to interactive movies, CD-ROM, and DVD, our industry has spawned almost as many buzzwords as products over the past few years. Along with the new technologies came a headlong rush to expand development teams, gobble up Hollywood talent, and sink millions of dollars into the latest bells and the loudest whistles. The exponential growth in computing power and storage space has attracted media attention and spurred growth in the market, but the fundamental qualities that make a good game have remained unchanged and elusive. Consumers still flock to buy original, addictive, and fun games, leaving many flashy products with million-dollar budgets languishing in the $9.99 bin. These costly failures demonstrate that the consumer does not desire a cinematic experience, but rather a quality gaming experience.
The real changes are occurring in the computer gaming industry -- not in the nature of the games themselves. Increasingly, the industry is splitting into two groups: the large publishers, who handle sales, marketing, and distribution, and the small producers who provide the publisher's content. Consider the top five products of 1996: WarCraft II
, Duke Nukem 3D
, Civilization II
, and Command & Conquer
. With the exception of Civilization II
, all were produced by small, primarily independent developers. The prime example of this new trend is id Software, which showed that eight or ten people working apart from the large, established companies could turn the industry on its head with wonderfully designed games. No longer is it considered necessary or even desirable to have a cast of thou- sands working on a single product.
This system of small developers working with large publishers is evolving because it makes sense from both a creative and a business perspective. Many characteristics of a small, motivated group facilitate the production of high-quality games. Development of a game is enhanced by a close-knit, intimate environment where the group shares a vision and has the flexibility and control to fully implement that vision. Members can communicate easily, promoting a free flow of ideas, and the team is able to respond quickly to market trends -- minimizing missteps and shortening development cycles. The marketing, sales, suffocating bureaucracy, and high overhead costs are left to the large publishers, allowing the developers a tight focus on playability and fun.
However, the greatest advantage of the small producer is in its insulation from the quarterly fiscal pressures faced by larger publishers. Such separation allows for the organic evolution of a game, where ideas are tried and implemented based on how well they enhance the gameplay. Prototyping is the most important ingredient in a successful development cycle. But prototyping is difficult to schedule and it cannot be shortened to make the numbers come out properly in a spread-sheet cell. We have all seen projects released before they were ready, not because the designers thought they were complete or the playtesters could not find any more bugs, but because the company had a responsibility to its shareholders that conflicted with the interests of its customers. By breaking the link -- separating the process of game creation from the business of selling a product -- the whole industry moves forward.
The large publishers have an inherent advantage in that they are insulated from the "make-or-break" syndrome experienced by smaller companies. For a company like Microsoft, no single missed game would ruin revenue projections or send it's stock into a tumble. Consequently, the company can allow its external developers more time for the all-important prototyping and play balancing that truly differentiate a quality product from shallow hype.
For producers of computer games, the divergence of the industry is encouraging and even heartwarming. Now is the time to pursue a designer's dream: when large publishers desire quality content and actively seek independent groups that demonstrate both a vision and a plan. For those whose business is the creation of worlds, development is returning to the heady days of the mid-1980s, when a few people with a garage and a vision really could revolutionize the computer gaming industry.