Add Contents of Package, Mix, Repeat…

I normally try not to get too swept up in the “creativity crisis” debate, but I read a couple of articles this weekend that got me thinking.

The first was an interview of Paul Lee, president of EA’s worldwide studios. In it, Paul is asked: Open-world gaming seems to be one of the buzz phrases of this E3 … But is there any sense that gamers really want that? His response: I think open-world elements of a game, where you’re not moving and reloading … is really compelling … And I think consumers are going to expect and demand that in this generation of machines.

Strange to hear EA’s prez of worldwide studios answer a question about market demand with what sounds like pure speculation, rather than actual market research. But actually, a surprising number of important decisions at the world’s top publisher get made based on intuition. (I can’t say with 100% certainty that this decision was similarly made, but I wouldn’t be surprised at all.) Regardless, Paul’s response nicely illustrates the pack mentality plaguing publishers today. “Open world” is selling, so let’s sell open world! Never mind that open world games are extremely costly to develop…

The second article was an interview of THQ CEO Brian Farrell. The article notes: THQ has been investing heavily in recent years on developing games based on its own content … Earlier this year, it released The Outfit, a World War II fighting game … And the company has other titles in the works, including Saint’s Row, which is in the cops-and-gangsters genre, and Frontline: Fuel of War, another combat game … Reviews of The Outfit were tepid, and the title wasn’t a big seller.

No juicy quotes from Brian, but the intro was good enough for me. Another World War II game. Another gangster game. This is THQ’s great attempt at original IP development? People accuse the Sony Playstation people of being overly “me too”, but Sony’s no worse than a fair percentage of the industry.

I’m not suggesting that publishers should focus exclusively on creating new genres and/or play styles. I’m not even suggesting that you shouldn’t try to ride a big (established) wave from time to time (or forever, if you happen to be the maker of Madden…) But let’s not kid ourselves; another predictable open world, WW2 shooter, or gangster game is not what the industry needs to reverse consumer apathy. It needs more of what companies like Nintendo are dishing up: original, interesting games that don’t necessarily cost $20M to make and $60 to buy!

How about doing some market testing (i.e. focus groups) around interesting, original game prototypes, rather than simply pouring millions into tired old genres which may or may not sputter out any minute now? Or using digital distribution to test some more daring concepts (if the retailers won’t support them … though I find it hard to believe that EA can’t convince retailers to try just about anything.) Or even creating a wholly-owned “indie” studio that is focused exclusively on exploring whacky new game concepts, with reasonable budgetary limitations of course.

Another thought: has any large publisher tried enabling every employee (from QA on up) to propose game concepts on an internal website, and enabling employees to rank each others’ concepts? Might be a mess, but might work, and wouldn’t cost much to test out. It works for music, news, and every other form of content on the web… why not promising game ideas? Wisdom of Crowds strikes again! (And yes, yes, I know that there’s a huge chasm between “idea” and “execution” — this doesn’t mean that the original idea isn’t important.)

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