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The Fourth Dimension of Game Development


There is nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come.
– Victor Hugo, Histoire d’un Crime

To state the obvious: The game industry is hit-driven. You’ve heard the statistics: Fewer than one in seven games actually turns a profit. But what, exactly, makes a hit? Investors regard the blockbuster game phenomenon with a sort of mystical awe, and part of its very definition seems to be invested in its unpredictability.

Every genre has one, and most have a few. In first-person shooters, we recall the Doom and Quake franchises. The crown jewel in this line, Deus Ex, even if it didn’t pass the crate test, poised itself at the perfect apex of timing and execution, earning itself a permanent place in the pantheon of gaming history. But the well-rendered System Shock is frequently recognized as its direct predecessor – and, by some, even as a better game. The two can be qualitatively compared to some extent, but it is a raw fact that, for their time periods (which could account for differences in construction), the games were light years apart in terms of commercial success.

This phenomenon is hardly restricted to one industry. Some of my fellow children of the ’80s may recall a made-for-TV movie that had all the makings of greatness: The Worst Witch, which, among other things, starred Tim Curry as a flying Dumbledore-like Grand Wizard in a flowing cape. Truly, what more can one ask of cinema? Look it up; this movie was Harry Potter 20 years too early.

Many fantasy fans could also tell you that, despite his only recent blockbuster publicity, George R. R. Martin was at his best with A Game of Thrones, first printed nearly 10 years ago. But these are the good examples. Novels had the good fortune, at least in bygone times, to be backed by publishers that would support a fictional world through its fruition, waiting, as with Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, for that moment when the franchise’s solid quality would catch the wave of public popularity. In games, we more frequently note the counterexamples: games that, despite superb execution and solid marketing, failed to hook the public’s heart in their infancy.

The most recent example of these, Beyond Good and Evil, has been the subject of much discussion throughout the gaming world. Critics loved it; a core group of players worshipped it. There was no marketing failure: Ubisoft flooded all the standard channels with Jade’s lovely mug. So what in the hell happened?

It is, unfortunately, painfully simple: Beyond Good and Evil was the right game at the wrong time.

Bubbles from the Murk
Carl Jung, in his work on analytical psychology, defined what he initially called the “collective unconscious” as basic psychological constructs – including symbols – shared universally between human beings. Ask a series of your average Joes about what a “tree” means to them and you will generally get a consistent answer, because we all, on a certain level, share basic experience. This basic experience influences creativity, both on an individual level and a social one; J. R. R. Tolkien called this “leaf-mould of the mind.”

Douglas E. Winter, in his introduction to Prime Evil, further extends the application of this phenomenon. Winter, who works in horror, asserts that horror is not a genre but an emotion, and as such, the images that influence that emotion shift with the generations. Prior to the sexual revolution, vampires flooded our fear-consciousness, but shortly after, they vanished from the media scene until their recent resurgence, also paralleling a constriction of sexual liberty following the “free love” of the ’70s and the rising specter of AIDS. Fiction, such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers, reflected anti-communist hysteria in the 1950s. In a backlash against the rise of suburbia and conformist dystopia in the U.S., the ’70s saw the rise of the zombie; the ’80s saw what Winters termed a “soulless insanity” in subjects such as Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon. In the wake of a surge in conservativism, zombies are back again, and their reappearance in the collective media scene certainly bears interpretation. The things that we fear – as well as the things that we idolize (pirates, anyone?) – tell a compelling story about what lurks beneath our daily thought.

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When we add technology to this mix, we get an additional layer: I’m sure there’s some psychological interpretation one could derive from the near-simultaneous releases of Pixar’s A Bug’s Life and DreamWorks’ Antz, but more apt was the simple fact that the 3-D technology driving animation at the time lent itself particularly well to the rigid bodies of insect characters.

Games, as they continue to evolve in terms of technology and audience, progress toward a threshold of societal relevance. We, too, pull from the leaf-mould, and looking back on landmark successes in the game industry invites inspection: In Fallout and Deus Ex: Invisible War, we see a recurring post-apocalyptic theme, and it is perhaps not coincidental that in a time of great political and ideological division, the current dominant videogame force is faction-based World of Warcraft. (I play Horde, favoring the peaceable but drastically misunderstood Tauren, and you can make of that what you will.)

Not all games hinge their success on overt or covert societal commentary, and I am certainly not accusing Blizzard of making political statements with bovine humanoids – but when these forces surge in our subconscious, they inevitably surface through our creativity. Even Katamari Damacy breathes an air of resonance: Would its gentle, carefree style have struck us so deeply had the world itself been less in a state of complex turmoil? Because escapism is such a large factor in interactive entertainment, games themselves have the potential to carry this subconscious resonance effect to an even greater degree. The things that we wish to escape into are driven by the currents of our subconscious minds.

Pieces of the Pie
Of course, there are other factors, so let’s get back to the money. A blockbuster hit can’t just be a tirade on the state of society – and in fact, one of the things that all of the blockbusters have in common is that their societal implications are not overt. They are stealthy, sneaking into our minds ninja-like and tapping a tuning fork on our thoughts.

But a game also has to be well-rendered. Deus Ex had plenty of companions in its genre, but none with such excellently honed gameplay and story. In order to climb into the ranks of the pantheon, a game can’t rely on the emergent effect of societal resonance; first and foremost, it has to be well executed, and even after that it has to make it to its audience, which means it has to be well marketed. And these latter two effects are most commonly what game deliverers focus on, since they can more concretely be controlled.

However, even innovative technology isn’t enough on its own. Innovative technology and innovative gameplay might not even be enough. Witness Graffiti Kingdom and its predecessor Magic Pengel: procedural animation and darn fine gameplay shipped in a product a full two years before Will Wright introduced Spore at the 2005 Game Developers Conference. But how many copies did they sell?

Beyond Good and Evil was a brilliant game!” you might say. “Psychonauts was glorious! Isn’t that enough?”

Unfortunately, it isn’t. If a game doesn’t reach commercial success, developers might be proud to have their names in the credits, but a credit isn’t going to put their kids through school. And in terms of the actual games themselves, success in the marketplace is one of the only things that can ensure the survival of an IP or game franchise.

Dancing in the Rain
Timing has a lot to do with the outcome of a rain dance.
– Internet Proverb, “Cowboy Logic”

Another interesting aspect to this phenomenon is its pragmatic acknowledgement through – of all things – piracy management. Spyro 3: Year of the Dragon provides the example that still lives in infamy.

Game piracy is a bigger issue than many gamers would like to admit. It’s hard to get an accurate assessment of exactly what percentage of games are pirated when played, and there are differences in genre, but general consensus puts piracy rates at about 20-30 percent. This represents a large loss, and particularly for the sales-driven game industry, piracy can cripple a title. We could argue over the exact impact piracy has, since certainly the more a game is played the greater its popularity becomes, and this actually drives further sales, but for now, let’s focus on the basics: Game developers are behooved to fight software piracy where they can.

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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