Iteration — rather than emulation — is the key to game development success
Last year saw the release of two games that were designed to emulate the classic Advance Wars and Final Fantasy Tactics games. These were Wargroove and Fell Seal: Arbiter’s Mark, respectively. I had the chance to play both. And, in both cases, I found that I lost interest in them within less than an hour of playing. At first you may think this is because I had major problems with them, or I disliked the gameplay — in actual fact, it was because both games were just okay. I didn’t think they offered anything new or compelling, outside their attempts to pay homage to their forebears.
The quality of indie games has grown exponentially over the last decade; it’s a point I’ve discussed many times before. These days, when people look at indie games, they’re no longer looking at “bargain bin” titles — rather, they’re seeing amazing games that can easily stand shoulder-to-shoulder with those produced by major studios. Developers like Klei Entertainment, and Kitfox Games — among many others — have consistently produced great games. And I’m not even touching here on the sheer number of unique games being released each year — titles like Dead Cells, Slay the Spire, and Disco Elysium.
This situation has led to a very healthy market for indie games, but it has come at a cost. It used to be the case that developers could produce a fairly basic game, throw it up on Steam, and see some degree of success. But this approach will no longer garner even a passing glance from consumers. It’s worth noting, too, that the games I mentioned at the beginning of this article were not “quick and dirty” projects — it’s clear that in both cases, the respective teams invested a great deal of work to make them. So, why didn’t they work for me?
Iteration, not emulation
One of the easiest — and most common — ways to start a project is to say, “I really want to make X.” That phrase has been the impetus for many indie titles released over the last decade. Platformers, rogue likes, horror, RPGs, and more all began thanks to developers’ passion for a particular genre or type of game. Many indie titles started life as tributes to genres or game series that are either no longer being made (or at least that aren’t being made for PC anymore — again, refer to Wargroove and Fell Seal). There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this, of course. But I have definitely noticed a trend that has turned me off numerous indie games.
In some cases, and for some developers, the goal of their project is to emulate the design and success of another title. It’s obviously the case that if you’re aiming for a specific market, you’ll want your game to be similar in design — but that should be a means to an end, rather than a specific goal in itself.
I’ve seen numerous games that have tried to be “the next” FTL: Faster than Light, Darkest Dungeon, Undertale, and so on. But this raises an important question: why should I play your game when I still have those games?
In order to illustrate this point — and to give you a sense of what good looks like — I’m going to dive into one very popular indie title that was both clearly inspired by other games, but that also struck out to create its own identity.
Stardew Valley is a prime example of indie passion leading to great success. The game was in development for over four years, and has enjoyed several more years of post-release support. It was undeniably inspired by the Harvest Moon series, which was never released on PC (and has long ago disappeared on consoles).
A cursory glance might indicate that the game succeeded simply because its creator went out and recreated Harvest Moon on the PC. But once you dig deeper, it becomes apparent that there’s a lot more going on here.
For starters, Stardew Valley is more open-ended than Harvest Moon. It also contains more systems associated with farming and earning money. The game’s combat system and dungeons are wholly different from Harvest Moon (and are perhaps a closer cousin of Rune Factory). Even the progression curve around levelling up and unlocking new tools and functions works quite differently here than in Harvest Moon.
Stardew Valley’s creator, Eric “Concerned Ape” Barone, was clearly inspired by games he’d played before. But it’s also clear that simply recreating Harvest Moon wasn’t his goal; he wanted to exceed that design, to move beyond it, and expand in new directions.
As you might expect, many folks have also attempted to imitate Stardew Valley. But in most cases, they fail to push beyond Stardew Valley’s design in meaningful ways. I’m still waiting for someone to do more with the idea of crop management and earning money around that, for example — there’s a lot of scope to do more, but this requires both a commitment to building on established designs and a fundamental understanding of why those designs worked. When this doesn’t happen, it’s akin to a student copying someone else’s homework without actually grasping the fundamentals.
Now, before I give you the impression that the only problem here is with indie games, let me point out that the same trend exists in the AAA space as well.
Every year, I play the titles that many consider to be among the best games on offer for consoles — but I end up being disappointed by them in some way. Horizon Zero Dawn, God of War, and Marvel’s Spiderman — all of these titles disappointed me in terms of their design. Granted, they all look spectacular and earned numerous awards, but I get the sense that they all follow the same predictable patterns in terms of their gameplay loop. Instead of making the moment-to-moment gameplay stand out in some new way, there tends to be a greater focus on padding out the experience and investing in macro elements rather than micro.
In many cases, I’m not seeing a real evolution of the basic mechanics — many games still follow a pretty standard formula around side quests, levelling up, and adding a pseudo-RPG layer on top of the action. You may also find that you can often predict the beats of how a game plays out well before those beats are introduced.
Bear in mind: I’m not saying these game are bad. It’s just that, to me, there’s often relatively little innovation occurring within the core mechanics; instead, an elaborate AAA sheen and polish has been applied as an elaborate facade over the top.
As we enter a new decade and waiting the next console cycle, I’m sure that the market will continue to change as it always does. For this reason alone it’s important for developers — especially those beginning their careers in the industry — to rely less on past successes as a defacto starting point for designing new experiences.
Some of the most memorable — and most successful — games we’ve seen over time have forged bold new paths. They might stand out thanks to a unique story, or building something different in terms of gameplay (Untitled Goose Game is a prime example of this). The days where it makes commercial sense to release another Pong or Breakout clone — and expect to see some success — are long gone.
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