Editor's Choice

Editor's Choice
The Fourth Dimension of Game Development

Erin Hoffman | 24 Oct 2006 12:00
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The developers at Insomniac, even after the heavy piracy hit they took with the preceding Spyro 2 - which was cracked in a little over a week - did not realistically aim to prevent piracy entirely; they knew this was impossible. Instead, they set out to delay it. They added "crack protection": key points where the game itself checks for modifications to its code rather than simply checking to see if the game is run from its original disk. This latter technique is simply "copy protection" and is a standard feature on most games, including Spyro 2. This intricate bit of checksum voodoo became known at the time as the most thorough game protection measure ever attempted. In fact, through their efforts the developers even won themselves a bit of by-blow publicity, as discussions on YOTD's adamantine protection flooded game-copying forums.

Despite these elaborate protections, however, ultimately the developers bought themselves just two months. But those two months proved critical, as indeed the first two months of any game's life cycle are critical: 30-50 percent of a game's total revenue typically comes within that window, especially for the games that are released during the holiday season (which comprises a staggering 80 percent of the market each year). When it comes to turning a profit, there has never been a question; timing is everything.

So What do we Do?
One might say, quite understandably, "That's all great, but what do we do with this?"

The answer is - in all likelihood - not much. It is a truism that every overnight success is years in the making. Ingrained ADHD in our media culture would like us to believe otherwise, but track backwards from every blockbuster, and you will find a chain of events spanning years that built it to its cresting point. Therefore, the complexity involved in engineering such a thing is astronomical and peppered with land mines at every turn.

"Trend trackers" in various industries do look at the social fabric and attempt to predict hits, often with success for which they are richly rewarded. One such tracker passed along Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha to Jerry Bruckheimer. Creative folk, generally, don't have much control over their muses - but they do have control over when they allow the muse to take hold. Perhaps the only strategic tactic one might pull from the observation of this phenomenon is one that I know some game developers practice: holding an idea until the time is right. We all have treasured little eggs of the Most Brilliant Game Ever stashed away in the backs of our minds, or in some cases elaborately diagrammed on zealously guarded notebooks. But I wonder how many designers, amateur and otherwise, deliberately wait for a turn in the tide of social consciousness - which might present itself in several forms, some as simple as the off-hand suggestion of a publisher that a certain theme is hot - before hauling them out.

And then, of course, even if you do have the right idea at the right time, a thousand other things can go wrong. This is, after all, game development, the strange alchemy of money, sweat and tears.

However, all of this remains valuable from a contextual standpoint. Games are not, as some might assert, harmful or mindless entertainment; such thoughts are part of a fleeting paranoia that vanishes as soon as its political convenience wanes. As creators and consumers of this media, we too vibrate when the drum of social consciousness is struck. There was a time when we were ready for Diablo; in 2000, the world was ready for The Sims.

The question that remains is: What will we be ready for tomorrow?

Erin Hoffman is a professional game designer, freelance writer, and hobbyist troublemaker. She moderates Gamewatch.org and fights crime on the streets by night.

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