Indie Concepts and XBLA

(I’m currently in Shanghai and having a blast. Haven’t had time to write something about my experiences yet, so here’s an unrelated article I wrote a few weeks ago but never got around to posting…)

Since I joined XBLA, I’ve refrained from writing about my job because most of what I do is considered highly confidential. In addition, there’s been so much to absorb (intellectually, organizationally, and creatively) that I’m still digesting most of it. But I think there’s one thing I can share that you all might find interesting.

Five months ago, I wasn’t sure what kinds of content developers might be pitching to Microsoft. My assumption was that many pitches (if not most) would involve content that traditional publishers generally shy away from. Experimental gameplay, completely original IP… that sort of thing.

And happily, we’re definitely seeing pitches along those lines. However, many independent developers are also proposing rather traditional concepts as well. (Their take on the standard FPS, platformer, racing title, etc.) In other words, evolutionary games — not revolutionary games.

What I’ve found is that many developers are simply hoping to “make that game they’ve always dreamed of making”, which (as with every art form) is often inspired by great experiences from the past. Game designers, it would seem, are not all that different from painters, novel writers, film directors, and TV producers. Many simply wish to stand on the shoulders of giants… and perhaps that’s not such a bad thing.

Maybe the game development community (and I include myself here) has been somewhat unfair in its near-universal criticism of big publishers. Don’t get me wrong — I think several notable publishers swung way too far in the “licensed-IP” and “tried-and-true design” direction for a while. (At least one major publisher has publicly admitted as much.) But let’s face it… publishers aren’t behind anywhere near 100% of the indie-proposed, self-funded, “traditional” concepts that we’ve been pitched here at XBLA.

Let me look at this subject from a different perspective. Is anybody angry that HBO produced The Sopranos (“so clearly a gangster flick rip-off?”) No — because The Sopranos is not actually a rip-off. It’s an enjoyable revisioning of a classic concept: one with undeniable artistic and business value. That’s worth remembering, even as we continue to seek out and celebrate truly revolutionary innovations in the video game industry.

3 responses to “Indie Concepts and XBLA

  1. In other words, evolutionary games — not revolutionary games.

    In other words, incremental innovation — not radical innovation. Although radical innovation is often sought as the answer 42, the prize placed high into the heavens upon a pedestal of light, there’s nothing “wrong” with incremental innovation when the innovation process is continously incremental. Innovations historically transition from A to B to C before reaching radically different Z. After all, leaping from A to Z in a single bound may bypass the audience and demand would be too low for the radical innovation to succeed. In my opinion, the success of some radical innovations is a result of sophisticated marketing, or said another way, helping consumers bridge the gap between two seemingly unrelated points on the value curve.

  2. David,
    I just discovered your blog. Thanks for sharing.
    I make XBLA games and I love it.
    One thing you seem to put aside is that creativity is also technical.
    Yes, I tend to propose classical gameplay, but the first time we at Load Inc. tried to make a 3D HDTV game in 50M, we had to be, hem, VERY creative.
    We should definitely meet in SF and share a couple of thoughts and a drink (no, a thought and a couple of drinks!).
    Cheers,
    Denis.

    ps: Morgan, play more Zuma & think less :-)

  3. David,

    Having sent a few prototypes the way of XBLA I can say that I personally wanted to test the waters a bit with some games which were not completely revolutionary in terms of gameplay. If you have an idea/prototype which you feel is very unique as a designer you become just a bit more protective of it. Considering XBLA’s youth and Microsoft’s new found love of the “indie” I don’t think it’s too strange that you haven’t seen all the innovation developers could muster just yet. Once XBLA has established some “street cred” with indie developers (well underway) you’ll probably see more revolution and less evolution.

    With large publishers there’s too much money at stake to be revolutionary and with indies there’s too much pride to lay it all on the line initially. I’d like to draw a parallel to the simple physics concepts of potential and kinetic energy. Large publishers already have the ball rolling meanwhile the indie is standing at the top of a relatively large hill with their boulder(s) pondering the best direction to push for the longest ride. From the indie perspective that dream of executing a revolutionary game from conception to completion in an ideal fashion is just as valuable as $30 million to a large publisher, it’s their driving force.

    If an indie sends their greatest potential project over the hill first and they botch it even in the least, what’s there to look forward to? I think you’ll see more revolutionary projects being built and pitched once developers have personally gone a few rounds with XBLA and are confident in the stability of the platform overall.

    Of course, what designer created their most revolutionary title early on? Perhaps it has nothing to do with potential energy, the platform’s stability, or “street cred”. Maybe, it’s merely indicative of the design capabilities a typical indie wields as they leave the starting gate. There’s also something to be said for your comparison to The Sopranos. Some people don’t want to change the world, they just want to make it more fun!

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