Doing It Backwards

Psychochild has a great post up, “The Innovation Paradox”, discussing the conundrum of innovating in games. The discussion is great.

A portion of my contribution was:

How much of a game’s development [budget] goes into the […] game-engine and the set of graphics (rather than the arrangement of those graphics and the scripting of the engine to make a game)?

I’m going to make the assumption that, indeed, a very large percentage of a MMORPG budget is consumed by the creation of models/graphics/animations and the development (or customization) of a game engine and set of tools, and that these costs compete for budget and crowd out innovative game-play. Then, after the game’s launch, the developers busy themselves with adding additional game-play features. Examples might include LotRO’s skirmishes or housing (which I admit, are only innovative with respect to the base game).

It seems that high quality visuals are believed to be a MUST HAVE for market launch, and that (relatively) innovative features can be cut now and added later. As Psychochild points out, the studio is constrained by the expectations of the player-community, once a game is launched. Change the game too much and you’ll suffer the wrath of the player-base. The existing process doesn’t seem innovation friendly.

But what if we stood the usual process on its head? Would it be possible for a MMORPG studio (say SOE) to take an existing game engine and set of graphics/models/animations (say SWG) and build a new separate game, replete with novel and innovative features? Then, after launch, if the response is positive, add the visual glitz and upgrade the game engine?

Would re-using a game-engine and models/graphics/animations sufficiently reduce costs and time-to-market to permit multiple innovative variations to be tried? Could a MMORPG built with a re-used game engine and models/graphics/animations gain a sufficient player-base to determine whether it had the potential to be a winner? If a winning game-play design were found, would players stick with the game long enough for engine and visuals to be upgraded?

I don’t think it’s necessarily that far of a stretch. SOE did something akin to this with SWG:NGE … only they forgot to release it as a separate game. We also see something akin to this in the modding community that repurposes existing games to produce variants perhaps more enjoyable than the original.

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