The Cost of Innovation

The following text is re-posted from Notes for Next Century (n4n100). The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not The New School Game Club or The New School.

Ken Levine

A mastermind with another potential to shine? Or a malicious demon spawn? Sensationalism!

So Irrational Games is essentially shutting down. It’s finally time to say goodbye to the Bioshock franchise. The franchise heralded a new way to design first person shooters and taught us how to take advantage of next gen hardware like no other series. With the creative mind of Ken Levine behind the helm, the series accomplished a fair amount. Levine is now moving forward and leaving Irrational behind him. He and about 15 employees will continue on in a new adventure (still backed by Take Two) that he claims will be more entrepreneurial. What does this mean?

Even a few months ago, Levine stated that he wanted to work on narrative games that were highly replayable and that’s exactly what he’s doing with his significantly smaller team. We all know that mainstream games these days, especially narrative ones, have highly limited replay value. Sure, you can try romancing different characters in Mass Effect or join the opposite faction in Skyrim but I’d a argue that at these points replay is for the completionist—the systems that these narrative games have are ultimately predictable and don’t provide significantly new experiences for players. While the system is too big for you to have explore it all in one go, you kind of get an idea what would happen if you were to go down other branches even if you didn’t decide to pick up the controller again. Things are oftentimes too black and white, which is the reality of making these kinds of branching games since the labor involved is always so great.  I think true replay only exists in the, mostly online, competitive space, or with a pure mechanic focused games (rogues may fall into this area). When you play another round of Counter Strike or League of Legends, it’s not about discovering uncharted areas of the system but instead about mastering the system.  A system that has built a good kind of mastery is being able to express yourself in infinite ways through its mechanics.  Playing Dragon Age: Origins multiple times to romance different characters, to me, is not replay—although choosing different classes and origins did a good job at shuffling the order of the story arcs, so that kind of thing is a good start.  The good kind of mastery from DA:O might be its combat mechanics.  Again, infinitely expressing yourself.  Minecraft rings a similar bell.

One of the biggest gripes for Levine is that he’d spend several years crafting this perfect experience for a player and after 12 hours the player would be done with that experience.  That’s pretty soul crushing.  Thing is, almost every other medium suffers the same exact problem.  You watch the film, you read the book, you do it once and you can’t do it again for a long time otherwise it feels stale—no mastery, no infinite expression.  Sometimes revisiting the same story when you’re older allows you to understand it differently, but these kinds of narrative games are so young and the technology so outdated that it’s hard for us to reach.  Games are the first medium to make narratives infinitely consumable and this is just the beginning.  Wait, let me rephrase.  Games are the first medium to allow its audience to express themselves.  Now it’s a matter of finding out how we can allow them to do it continually with a narrative context.  We’re still grasping to see how to produce these kinds of things.  AAA has always known what their strengths were and it’s in the labor.  Just the amount of people to make something look great, to even create a Bioshock experience, is unfathomable.  Teams of hundreds of people.  Millions of dollars.  But it seems like they’ve been throwing their cash to fight an uphill battle now that the indies have begun take chunks of the industry as their own.

Levine is moving towards this indie model with a dramatically smaller team.  Entrepreneurial, he says.  Come on!  Be straight with us, Ken.  You meant to say ‘indie’.  Thing is, he’s probably still got the cash since Irrational is still going to be backed by Take Two.  Major plus.  But with smaller team means being able to move quickly and spend more time refining and iterating on systems.  It’s the kind of systems like in Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor, where enemies remember what you do to them and therefore react differently, that get me excited.  I said in a previous post that that kind of system was possible due to AAA labor and cash, so what will this kind of game look like on an indie scale?  It could very well be the same kind of game with simpler graphics and tightened gameplay experience.

In fact, I’d argue that Levine’s new Irrational will succeed in this because it’s the tight and fast gameplay experiences of these competitive games that makes them so attractive to play over and over again.  Again, the faster and more varied the feedback loops can be the greater degree and more opportunities for the user to express him or herself.  If you win, you play again to win by a slightly different strategy—a different expression.  If you lose, you’ll play again so you can successfully express yourself.  So in a narrative game you’d play to learn something different?  Play to tell a different story?  This is sounding like playing Wiki-roulette or a good ol’ fashioned game of Dungeons & Dragons (or Jason Rohrer’s Sleep is Death).  Those are exceedingly complex systems.  This is good, though.  Someone who gained their wings in the trenches of AAA, with the suits throwing cash at you, doing something insane like this is the best thing for the games industry.  Any designer that’s on their 3rd sequel needs to quit their jobs and start an indie studio with their core team to do something new and tackle questions like these.  God, I hate sequels so much.

Let’s talk about those people who won’t be a part of Irrational’s second chapter.  It’s terrible that they lost their jobs and it’ll hurt the Boston games scene for a little bit but there’s a silver lining here.  Another studio in Boston opened their doors to those laid off and provided free office space to allow fellow developers get back on their feet while finding other jobs or starting their own indie studios.  Not only do we get Levine freed from his seawater rusted shackles but now we potentially get a swath of other small ventures sprouting too.  Think about the the kind of innovation that can happen with that.  In the next few years, Boston might explode with incredible indie talent.

So, what is the cost of innovation?  It can cost a lot.  It can cost you a lot of broken hearts, broken dreams, sweat, tears, and wads of AAA cash shoved down your pockets but it’s AAA’s belief that these risks are worthy of pursuing to allow Irrational to do what it did that’s exciting.  The cost of innovation is great, but it’s very much worth it.

I am truly excited to hear more about what Levine is doing.  If it’s anyone, it’s probably him that will be able to take us into the next era of narrative experiences.

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