The Pros and Cons of Safe Video Games
Designing outside the box
Recently, I played through Yooka-Laylee. It is a game that was pitched, designed, and executed as a throwback to ’90s 3D platforming classics. Although the game wasn’t bad, it felt generic — it didn’t do anything remarkable to stand out in terms of design. This led me to thinking about how hit-driven game development has apparently become, and how “playing it safe” with game design is perhaps becoming a riskier approach.
Breaking into the mainstream
The last decade of games has stood out as a time where video games really broke through the pop culture bubble, and emerged as experiences that had a cultural impact well beyond the medium itself. Franchises like Grand Theft Auto, Uncharted, and Metal Gear Solid pushed triple-A game creators further towards elaborate, cinematic experiences.
Many elements of game design gradually became more standardized, enabling developers to increase their focus on storytelling or to challenge emerging gameplay conventions in order to differentiate their games (Super Mario Galaxy by Nintendo and Portal by Valve are two good examples).
Of course, these trends didn’t appear in a vacuum; games have become increasingly expensive to produce. Only the largest triple-A developers have been able to absorb these costs while continuing to push the boundaries of cinematic game experiences (Red Dead Redemption 2 may very well prove to break records for game development costs, once those figures have been revealed).
Assassin’s Creed Origins and Odyssey, as well as Horizon Zero Dawn are also examples of triple-A titles with huge budgets that absolutely push the boundaries in terms of visual fidelity and polish. But I think this begs an important question: with all that money being pumped into triple-A releases, why are so many triple-A titles largely the same?
Triple-A arms race
Attempting to answer that question really takes us right to the heart of the industry’s focus on major hits. With each console cycle, we tend to see trends that push developers to emphasize a particular design or style. We’ve seen the “eras” ranging from the mascot platformer, the open world sandbox, survival horror, first-person shooter, choose-your-own-path RPG, and now it looks like we’re in the middle of the Battle Royale phase.
I’ve talked about this before, but major studios like to work with established genres and brands due to the safety net they provide in the market. Why develop an unproven design when you can at least try to guarantee some sales with a big multiplayer shooter, or an open world game, etc…
There is an X-factor here though: studios try to put a unique spin on their respective titles in order to create that differentiation factor. This might be a unique aesthetic quirk, or it might be some addition or unique element from a gameplay point of view. Of course, if you aren’t a fan of whatever’s hot right at the moment, then these kinds of releases might hold no value to you.
When triple-A games just aren’t delivering — especially in terms of innovation — it’s up to indie games to deliver, and they’ve most certainly done this. Over the last eight years or so, some of the most touching, innovative and unique games I’ve ever played have been born from the indie development scene.
The indie games market has survived in large part thanks to a focus on unique experiences rather than refined iterations based on major trends. When I play a game sent to me by an indie developer, I know not to expect triple-A graphics and that there might be some bugs to contend with.
That said, what’s interesting about indie development is the way the indie space has grown radically over the past decade. Much of this growth, I think, has been related to increased availability of tools and technologies for indie developers to work with. Thanks to engines like Unity and Unreal, it is possible for smaller teams to shoot for higher production values in their games while still crafting a unique experience. Some of the more popular indie teams have resumes that rival their triple-A counterparts in terms of quality and critical reception.
It’s fair to say that the bar for quality and production value is always being raised ever higher, which potentially puts everyone in an awkward position.
What about the middle?
Right now, as you’re reading this, there are most likely at least 20 games being released across every available platform. I’ve spent some time in the past discussing the problem of discoverability, especially for indie games — the inability to stand out with so much activity and noise surrounding each game release.
In this environment, the reality can be counter-intuitive. Where it can be tempting to jump on the bandwagon and follow current trends, the extremely over-saturated indie publishing and distribution environment can mean that safe experiences run a high risk of simply never being noticed.
It’s also worth considering timing in general. Yooka-Laylee, for example, was released in the same year as Super Mario Odyssey and A Hat in Time. These were both unique, refreshing experiences in their own ways: as I mentioned at the outset, Yooka-Laylee’s inability to stand out — its overall flatness and strict commitment to old-school mascot-based 3D platforming — meant that, when compared to other platforms released in the same year, it really struggled to garner more positive attention.
Another example is an upcoming game called Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. It’s a game that many metroidvania fans are looking forward to. I thought early game footage looked okay, but not amazing. I’m hoping that Bloodstained is going to be a great experience, but I wonder if its relative “safeness” will stop it from truly standing out enough in the current market.
Dime a dozen
As I sit here typing this, I am keenly aware of having over 1,500 games in my Steam library, several hundred on GOG (Good Old Games), and a few hundred more physical retail releases. Obviously, I’m not your average game consumer, but with each passing day it becomes more and more difficult to focus on a single title…let alone 20.
These days, I find myself not caring so much about the Call of Duties, Assassin’s Creeds, Battlefields, or any other major triple-A franchise that follows a largely similar formula for each release. In the past, outright bad games were quickly forgotten in light of other better games that fought for our attention — now, I feel we’re seeing average or “simply good” games suffering the same fate.
Chasing the dream game
I’ve discussed this idea so many times before: the indie space has grown tremendously thanks to developers’ ability to work on their dream games. I have spoken to indie developers over the years who were more than happy to spend a good three years or more working on a single title if it means they can produce their one-of-a-kind game.
There’s a real challenge — and tension — here between creating something completely unique and also creating something that is “marketable”. On the more unique end of the spectrum, we’ve seen game journalists and YouTubers/streamers playing wacky, innovative titles and garnering big followings as a result — all it can take is one big influencer to notice your game and it might take off. On the other hand, it might not; I’ve spent a great deal of time discussing the risks of doubling down and putting everything into a single title.
Just because something is unique doesn’t mean it’s going to sell — I know it really looks like I’m contradicting myself here. But I think it’s about achieving a tricky balance: games that are too similar to everything else won’t stand out, and games that are too unique or difficult to understand risk not being accessible to consumers.
Of course, what ultimately matters is whether or not your game is fun to play. You might build on an existing idea and find ways to improve it, or to simply deliver an experience that is polished, compelling, and a lot of fun to play. Alternatively, you might create something bizarre and avant-garde that might be worth playing because there’s a great, addictive gameplay loop at its core.
No matter what you do, it can be tough to stand out in an ever more crowded field. At least figuring out where your game fits — or, perhaps more accurately, what core value it offers — is an important first step.