Strategy Gaming: Part VI -- Where the Genre is Headed You've Come a Long Way, Baby!
By - Mark H. Walker
Predicting the future is always a somewhat risky business. The future is just so darn, well... unpredictable. It's doubly so in the gaming industry. Most gamers have a good idea of what makes a good game, and what they feel might make decent entertainment in the future. Those opinions, however, are subjective -- based on one's own expectations and maybe a handful of conversations with friends. Whether or not those experiences can predict the future successes of a genre is doubtful. And as if that uncertainty wasn't enough, success also hinges on the effectiveness of a game's public relations and marketing team. Develop a solid game, mate it with a stellar public relations campaign and you have a hit. Make a tremendous game, weigh it down with a mediocre public relations effort and you might have a failure. Consequently, this final edition of strategy week won't pretend to have all the answers, but rather one man's opinion of what may shape strategy games to come.
Break the Mirror
The first step in making the bit hit of the future is breaking the mirror that developers use to study themselves. After beginning -- or in some cases even before beginning -- a project, developmental studios usually stuff a couple hundred bucks into an intern's hand and send him to the nearest videogame store to snap up all the games that are similar to the one the studio is developing. A sound move; there is no doubt something to be learned from these other games. Yet by the same token, these games were designed by developmental studios that also bought copies of all the market's similar games. It's incestuous.
To come up with the next big thing, turn-based and real-time developers must think out of the box and look for inspiration not only from similar games in the genre, but elsewhere. One of those elsewheres (sic) is other genres. We've seen a lot of this in the last few years. Both Kohan and Ground Control took turn-based and wargame conventions and incorporated them into a real-time environment. Warlords: Battlecry mixed a strong dose of role-playing with their real-time strategy as did Battle Realms.
But mere cross-genre pollination isn't enough. Strategy developers need to look cross industry. The desktop published strategy and wargame industry is exploding. Many of those games have ideas that have never been tried on a computer. Some boardgame industry designers, such as Richard Berg (90+ games), have more design time spent in their bathrooms than the typical computer game producer will have in their life. Why not tap into that experience?
A last, but unfortunate, word on innovation... I once had a famous designer tell me, "You don't want to be the first game with a new idea. You want to be the second." In other words, innovation takes awhile to catch on. A game with a cool new concept may not sell well. The concept is just too new; the public relations people don't know how to sell it, and gamers don't know what to think of it. But that game will pave the way for future games with the concept. Hence, the next game with the concept could sell damn well.