Innovation, evolution, and adaptation

 Posted by (Visited 24301 times)  Game talk
Jan 092006
 

I’ve seen a lot of folks argue against changing certain elements of how virtual worlds are made today on the grounds that the medium has evolved into a genre, on the grounds that because there’s now a strong trend of making these worlds in a particular way, that we should go with the flow. There have been comments made here on the blog, for example, saying,

Some irreversible choices have already been made. The people who are growing this genre are making interesting choices within the parameters of the genre. You, I submit, are not because you are too busy wondering “what if we had gone with silicon-based life instead?” That moment has come and gone. New irreversible choices are being made right now, and if you want to have any input in them you need to accept the ones that have been made in the past.

If there’s one thing that people often have trouble grasping, it’s that evolution isn’t about progress, it’s about adaptation. It is about maximizing survival under given conditions.

Progress is a cherished myth. Mind you, I’m not saying that all progress is illusory. But it’s certainly true that we tend to apply it to many areas within which it doesn’t necessarily have meaning. In those areas, “progress” is essentially a value judgement.

For example, we might speak of longer human lifespans as having signified progress compared to the terrible short lifespans of the past. And yet, we have ample evidence that in many earlier cultures, lifespans were actually quite comparable to today (even the Bible speaks of “three score years and ten” — my own result on the linked test predicts 82.5 years unless I lose a quick twenty pounds). We also have ample evidence that a full yet shorter life may be more desirable than a long and empty one. Our choice to call longer lifespans “progress” is dependent on both a value choice and on selective memory.

It also means that writing off the silicon-based lifeforms can be a terrible mistake, because someday we might find ourselves as their prey, should conditions change. Given the number of iPods hanging from ears, phones at belts, and computer screens hovering before our eyes, I’d say silicon-based entities are making a strong play for at least parasitic status.

The nature of evolution

What evolution is really about, rather than progress, is adaptation to conditions. Should our world stop requiring higher level cognitive function (which would, of course, involve some sort of truly massive catastrophe), then we might well evolve to have vestigial brains. We would instead evolve other characteristics that helped us to survive. I think few of us would term this “progress” for the human race.

The evolution of virtual worlds has not been a story of progress; rather, it’s been noted for years now that it’s largely a story of recapitulation. Lessons learned once have to be learned over and over again; many of the games we play today have direct antecedents in text designs. Depending on the value judgements you could make, it could be stated that there has instead been regression, rather than progress. Consider, for example, that by the mid-90’s the following well-established sorts of persistent virtual worlds existed:

  • Games of collection
  • Games of hacking and slashing
  • Games of nothing but questing
  • Team based PvP games
  • Free for all PvP games
  • Hub-and-instance worlds that embedded games ranging from flight sims to battle mechs
  • Roleplay-enforced worlds both with and without combat systems
  • Pure chat spaces
  • Educational spaces
  • Collaborative writing spaces
  • Virtual meeting places for professional interests
  • User-created worlds
  • Procedurally created worlds
  • Worlds intended for programming practice
  • Worlds that were basically game shows
  • Immersive recreations of favorite fictional worlds
  • Non-Euclidean worlds
  • Simulations of historical periods
  • Simulations of real world physics
  • Simulations of large-scale populations

Many of these have proved to be “evolutionary dead ends,” which merely means that they did not (yet) justify the expenditure of thousands to millions of dollars to recreate them in the days of graphical dominance. Is abandonment of perfectly viable (and indeed, audience-satisfying) design paradigms “progress”? Yes, if you make a certain value judgement. No, if what you value is in fact the direction that many claim the commercial virtual world industry is heading: endless nichification.

If in fact, that is where the market pressures lead us, then we will certainly see the demise of the big games such as those I have made, such as the current market leader. Market pressures are ineluctable forces, the equivalent of the changes in climate that lead to evolution and extinction.

A few analogies to other industries

A recent GameSpot article discussing innovation in the game market opened with Edward Murrow’s classic statement on television:

This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box.

Television has evolved dramatically over its relatively short history. It’s evolved notably over just the last twenty years, some forms calcifying into staid dogma (such as the three-camera sitcom) and others changing quite radically, such as the evolution of the police drama from Dragnet to Hill Street Blues (which defined most of our modern conventions of the TV drama) and thence to the 24s and Law & Orders of today. Almost all of the pressures that shaped this trajectory were commercial.

While we may point at, say, The Shield and Battlestar Galactica and compare them to Dragnet and, well, Battlestar Galactica, and say that there is clear evidence of progress, we must also acknowledge the presence of Johnny Knoxville and Growing Up Gotti. What has occurred overall is adaptation, and we’ll see yet more as channels continue to proliferate and nichify.

The game industry is frequently compared to the movie business, even though they don’t have much in common in most ways. It’s worth examining the ways in which the movies have adapted to market realities.

The economic equation in Hollywood is driven not by box office, but by home video sales and international markets. International markets require iconic, easily localized films, not ones with complex dialogue or content that is too culturally specific. Home video sales require movies that folks with disposable income will buy and collect. Even though the box office take isn’t the most significant figure to the movie studios, it’s pretty important to the movie theaters — and they need concession money, which means they need their popcorn and sodas to sell. And they sell primarily to teenage males, primarily over the summer when teenagers have a peak of disposable income and time.

Given this, most of Hollywood is an adaptation to that market. It’s a wonder we get to see anything but movies with big explosions. But in point of fact, there are other forces that Hollywood must adapt to — internal ones. They need to keep their brands — er, stars and name directors — happy. These folks are happy to make money, but they also are in the arts to do stuff for themselves. So the studios will literally write off gigantic productions for the sake of the relationship. This force is not yet real in the gaming world.

In point of fact, we can see uncomfortable echoes of the narrowing of genres within the spread of virtual worlds offerings in the narrowing of genres found today on the shelf of the typical video store. It’s treated as a rarity to see a biopic, or a musical, or a serious documentary. Are these genres less worthwhile? Or is it perhaps just that the successes of Ray, Chicago, Super Size Me were unforeseen by the industry to a large degree? All of those genres have been written off at one time or another, just as Westerns are less than popular today, yet enjoyed a minor Renaissance in the days of Unforgiven and Dances with Wolves.

Video games have had their own loss of genres. The 2d shoot-’em-up is largely a cult genre today, akin to the noir, perhaps. The wargaming, vehicle sim (excepting high-performance race cars), and classic adventure game have seen serious declines in fortunes, though adventure games are now enjoying something of a comeback. In the early 80s there was an explosion of game designs, and today, each of those game designs could be considered sufficient to found a genre. By contrast, today we make games in only a very few genres, and the thing preventing those others from finding shelf space is purely a matter of costs, not of viability as games.

It isn’t only the entertainment products that adapt to the marketplace. The players also change in response to the entertainment products, and the marketplace as a whole. Darniaq rightly points out that real-money trades, or RMTs, are an adaptation on the part of players to the situations provided them in current virtual worlds. Were nothing persistent in these worlds, then there would be no RMTs.

RMTing has been little more than a by-product of people being impatient in a game designed to mete out rewards over a period of Time. People could stop buying, and close the market, but the market exists for the same reason all markets exist: there is a Need.

This Need is not an intrinsic one. People do not get born craving possession of virtual swords; rather, RMT is an adaptation to the particular stimuli and circumstances provided by virtual worlds as they are currently incarnated — it is, therefore, “a natural evolution” for online worlds by the lights of those who see current worlds as progress. Should a virtual world be designed with no items and fingerprint authentication for logging in, it will have far less RMT than today’s worlds. Would that be progress? Perhaps, perhaps not.

Genres, adaptation, and learning

Games in particular have a notable problem with refinement. The direction of evolution and adaptation tends to be only in one direction: complication.

Consider the fate of poetry in the Western World. Recently, Poetry magazine received a grant for $175 million, which seems an extraordinary figure, until you realize that the entire bequest is on par with the budget of one of the blockbuster Hollywood movies in a given summer. As Dana Gioia, head of the National Endowment for the Arts, and a damn good poet himself, has observed,

Decades of public and private funding have created a large professional class for the production and reception of new poetry comprising legions of teachers, graduate students, editors, publishers, and administrators. Based mostly in universities, these groups have gradually become the primary audience for contemporary verse. Consequently, the energy of American poetry, which was once directed outward, is now increasingly focused inward. Reputations are made and rewards distributed within the poetry subculture. To adapt Russell Jacoby’s definition of contemporary academic renown from The Last Intellectuals, a “famous” poet now means someone famous only to other poets. But there are enough poets to make that local fame relatively meaningful. Not long ago, “only poets read poetry” was meant as damning criticism. Now it is a proven marketing strategy.

During this time, did poetry in fact lose its grip upon human life? Of course not. In the span of fifty years, it and its marching companions of jazz, orchestral music, and painting marched towards an audience of the elite. And yet, there are song lyrics galore being memorized by teenage girls in their bedrooms. There are raps being performed on street corners. Hallmark still prints verses in its cards, and anthologies of comforting religious verse march out of bookstores in pious rows. Smooth jazz fills our elevators even if no one listens to the children of bebop, movie soundtracks have retreated to the Romantics rather than pick up with Charles Ives or much less Stockhausen, and there’s no shortage of pretty watercolor landscapes to hang on hotel rooms, even if nobody understands why attacking a urinal with a hammer is art (or indeed why the urinal was art in the first place). Verse found a different adaptation, and the main trunk followed instead a course that is known to lead to problems: it grew increasingly formalist, increasingly complex, increasingly self-referential, insular, and demanding.

The same might be said of FPS game developers, also a startlingly inward-looking culture. And there’s something awfully true about the declaration “only wargame designers play wargames.” The thing about genres is that they tend to breed priesthoods, and once a threshold of complexity is passed, soon only the priests can play. Is Advance Wars: Dual Strike the smooth jazz of wargaming?

We see ample evidence of this trend in the modern virtual world. Here’s a medium where the dream is elegant and simple. No one was ever seduced into virtual world play with jargon — they were captured by the dream of a Place that was Elsewhere. “Be someone else, somewhere you can’t be, and do things you couldn’t do, with your friends.” That’s the core appeal. And yet today we can write editorials pondering the inaccessibility of the way we speak about these games:

I was LFG for a while, so I went to Gusgen to fight Wights for a chest key drop, so the next time my RSE time comes up, I can just find a treasure chest and get the pants for my WHM. Then I went to Pashow, leveled my NPC a bit and managed to raise my staff skill, in addition to making about 34k from some nice drops. I finally got a party, which was a sorta-Manaburn that worked out well (we had a NIN and DRK for some reason), got about 5k XP using an Empress Band, called it a night, and then found a Morion Tathlum in my delivery box- was an Xmas present from a friend in my Shell.

Indeed, words to conjure dreams of metaverses with.

What we’re looking at here is the problem with praxis. A place where learning colludes with habit.

In poetry, the genre was the form, and the content was carried by that form. In games, the mechanics are the form and the content; the “content” is something else layered on top for those times we wish to have more of an interactive narrative experience. The mechanics are left to change very little, in the name of accessibility, whilst we forget that the modern game isanything but accessible to those who are not gamers in the first place. The burgeoning evidence thereof rests in the wild popularity of so-called “casual games” on the web, which are anything but casual to the hardcore aficionados.

The fact is that the disdain for “casual games” arises not out of the level of investment they require as their moniker implies; rather, we look down on them because they are simple in mechanics. We’re being elitist and saying that it’s not good music unless it has a complex time signature, not real art unless it makes an arch comment on society, not real poetry unless it reflecting sound poetry.

The longer games go on demanding player knowledge of every game prior in their genre, the more likely they are to end up where poetry did.

“We will only understand what we have already understood.” – Lyn Hejinian (one of those contemporary poets you haven’t read).

Markets, Bose-Einstein condensates, and monopolies

In the end, the reason this is then troubling is because it effectively caps the market. As fans of the medium, we may be choking it to death with our own fandom. Oh, we can’t see that right now, when WoW is on top of the world, but once upon a time flight sims were on top of the world too, and wargames were top sellers. Building only on what has come before leads to genre nichification because it excludes newer players from the genre, demanding higher and higher levels of skill and sophistication for mere entry.

Gamespot dug deeper into the innovation question, and got Neil Young at EA to say,

EA cross-referenced Metacritic review scores for the top 30 games of the last three years to spot trends, and they found that the best-rated games all had “1-3 meaningful innovative features that strike at the heart of gameplay.”

This would be the rating being done by hardcore gamers in hardcore publications for hardcore gamers, talking about features that are completely invisible to ordinary people.

In his fascinating series of posts on game genres, DanC at Lost Garden describes the factors that lead to the death of a genre. He concludes that genres die when their template is defined, when the outline of the mechanics is established and a single “genre-king” game emerges that summarizes and defines the potential of the genre. The market is then taken over by the craftsmen: people who master every aspect of this template and create incremental changes on it. Perhaps told to manage 1-3 innovations per title, one imagines.

But unfortunately, this is not what retains users for the genre. In the terms of A Theory of Fun, it is because these games do not offer the player the chance to continue learning. The dressing is seen through, and something repetitive begins to surface. These may be very well-crafted games, mind you; but they are crafted to a rococo level of embellishment, and only appeal in the end to the true fan of the minutiae of the genre.

The truest craftsmen amongst them rarely make a comeback. They succeeded because they were polishers, not innovators. They fade into obscurity, unable to escape the rigid lessons learned during their long ascension to mastery of a faded genre.

– DanC, Lost Garden

In terms of network effects, we can see this as a preferential attachment network. When new nodes join the network, they have a preference to join the node that lots of other nodes have chosen, which leads to a classic power law distribution (and in fact, the populations of virtual worlds exhibit exactly this distribution).

If there is the ability to switch, the natural tendency is towards monopoly. And in fact, if you observe the soul-crushing dominance of CounterStrike among FPS players, you’ll see that it has not only been the #1 online FPS for years now, but that it holds an uncomfortably large market share.

But there’s another factor here. Power law distributions that exhibit strong monopolistic tendencies also tend to stop growing in total area. In other words, the more dominant the principal product in a segment is, the less likely that said market will continue to grow. The analogy used in some books on networks is a Bose-Einstein condensate, that state of matter wherein every atom has the same quantum state — and there’s no energy.

Genres need diversity in order to expand. Or, phrased another way, a medium needs to not fall into genre if it wants to evolve or adapt. Perfect market adaptation to a niche is also death. The reason why companies need to chase innovation is because otherwise, they are not pursuing a growth strategy. This is at the heart of the “blue ocean” metaphor that has recently become a popular meme in game development circles. The blue ocean is supposed to be the possible market space opened up by a game that is not a clone of a template. The red ocean is the one filled with the blood of game cloners who followed the template and got chewed up by all the other sharks out to make a buck.

In the end, I’m rooting for the silicon-based lifeforms. I’m saying that indeed, we do need to decide consciously to take roads not taken, in defiance of current practice. Yes, many of those choices may well be bad, and many of them may well not pan out. But if evolution were solely about adapting perfectly to an existing niche, we’d never have grown legs and crawled out of the water. It’s also about periodic beneficial mutation that opens up new horizons, perhaps not even the ones we were aiming for.

We can take some comfort in knowing that we do not only adapt to the ecological niche; the niche also adapts to us. I’ll say it bluntly: some virtual world will come along that will make all the current ones look like amoebas, and it isn’t going to be because it has more levels, more classes, more races, and more three-letter-acronyms. It’s going to be a disruptive innovation, out of left field, and it’ll make the current market quiver in its boots the way dinosaurs quivered when they saw the first puny mammal.

Remember what Murrow said:

This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box.

So, let’s determine. Enough of the defeatist talk, and enough of the satisficing design that says “what we have is enough, and players like it, and why are you discarding the whole praxis?” Markets change. Audiences change. Today’s top predator is tomorrow’s museum exhibit. This is not all there is, this is not all there can be, and we should not fear talking about what might have been and can still come to pass.

  48 Responses to “Innovation, evolution, and adaptation”

  1. Now I feel guilty for just having posted elsewhere that WoW is my current favorite game.

    Well said Mr. Koster.

    Sadly it seems that the social bonds that make these games so compelling are increasingly binding me to the stagnant mainstream.

  2. No, no, there’s nothing wrong with really liking the currently popular games. Just don’t let it blind you to the potential beyond that.

    I suspect that playing Puzzle Pirates, Second Life, Eve, and A Tale in the Desert will just make you more of a fan of what online worlds can be.

  3. Vargen —

    Social bonds can be collectively moved. If you read Clay Shirky’s “The Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy” (here), and note the anecdote on wanting to leave a party. The point I’m making is that a mass migration can happen if all the right circumstances are in place. You’ll have no problem (via social bonds, anyways) jumping over to the up-and-coming if all your friends think it’s cool and try it out, too.

    Raph —

    The problem with all of this is the same one cool merchants have: how do you predict what the future is like?

    The easy answer is the one the smalltimers adopt: we don’t know, we don’t care, we make what we like and if it works, awesome. That’s the one I work under, because I don’t have a corporation breathing down my neck. But for anything to have corporate backing is going to need to predict the market trend, and that’s rather hard.

  4. I’d say Raph just predicted the market trend; the same market trend that has hit many markets in entertainment and beyond. Dinosaurs were very successful, dinosaurs did almost everything, but when condidtions changed, all that adaptation was dead wieght, dragging them to the bottom. Specialization does produce spectacular successes, but they all end the same way. Good to see Raph has a solid understanding of the implications of evolution. But Raph, can you sell it to the money?

  5. […] https://www.raphkoster.com/?p=245I’ve seen a lot of folks argue against changing certain elements of how virtual worlds are made today on the grounds that the medium has evolved into a genre, on the grounds that because there’s now a strong trend of making these worlds in a particular way, that we should go with the flow. There have been comments made here on the blog, for example, saying, Some irreversible choices have already been made. The people who are growing this genre are making interesting choices within the parameters of the genre. You, I submit, are not because you are too busy wondering “what if we had gone with silicon-based life instead?” That moment has come and gone. New irreversible choices are being made right now, and if you want to have any input in them you need to accept the ones that have been made in the past. […]

  6. For coarse this is correct. All that is being described here is another tragity of the commons. To mix all the metaphores:
    There is a small ocean filled with gold at the bottom, and all the little fishies swimming around picking up the bits of gold. As time goes by, there are ever more little fishes picking up the bits until it seems there’s hardly any a fish can find. When infact, there is just as much gold as ever, just more fish.

    Well, your fins have grown strong from all that swimming, and maybe there is another ocean, an even bigger one!, over that short stretch of dry land. All you have to do is get up on your fins and walk there.

    No problem says the one of the big fish to other big fish… “You go first”.

    The answer of coarse, is that all the little fishes should pool their gold and fund research to find that next ocean.

    All the fish smile and are happy. The End.

  7. Did you intend that essay to get that long, or did you just sort of get started writing, and get a major case of brainflow? It sounds like things you’ve been chewing on for a while, and finally had to get all out on the page.

    Even as active as I am with MMOGS, the acronyms drive me bats — not for immersion reasons (though that’s a valid complaint) — but because they can be opaque even to regular players. I walk into Ironforge, and some of the higher level raid recruitment talk is just alphabet soup to me. I’m thinking, “Buh. What the heck dungeon is that? I have no idea!” As many hours as I’ve put into that game, I shouldn’t feel so stupid.

    I’m generally opposed to looking down our noses at casual games, and the people who play them. I think we should embrace casual games, and refer to the people who play them as “gamers.” If every lawmaker who had ever played a casual game understood that he, too, was a gamer, he might think twice about listening to those who would demonize us, and try to paint us as some kind of antisocial, maladjusted fringe group.

    I read the article about genre death, and I find myself puzzling over how Civilization fits into this formula. One could argue that with Civilization, Master of Magic, and Master of Orion, Microprose was arguably the genre leader for turn-based world domination strategy games. And Microprose did die. However, the Civilization did not, in spite of only incremental changes in the last three editions. I would argue this may be due to a few of factors: 1.) Firaxis spaces out the new versions sufficiently that it doesn’t produce buyer weariness (the way that annual sports game releases have the potential to). 2.) Players who have long since moved on to other games from the last Civilization release quite readily become re-addicted to any new Civilization release. Unlike most things in life, you know the high might actually be as good as you remember it. 3.) In general, new Civilization releases manage to be satisfying to long-time players without making the learning curve steeper for new players.

    Anyway, Civilization aside, I think that a lot of people are on the innovate-or-die page now. The question (as we’re all painfully aware) is not whether there’s a will to innovate on the part of the developers, but whether it exists in those with the money to make it happen.

    If television has taught us anything, it’s that most money-people will beat every dead horse they can find, and leave no shark unjumped.

  8. Don’t forget “Worlds that are a supplement to some form of in-person game” (for instance, used to allow day-to-day interaction and play amongst a LARP community) — something which the ARG crowd should probably keep in mind.

  9. Tess, nothing here is all that new, except some of the analogies. But a lot is stuff I’ve only said verbally. Plus, I got prompted by that quote to start thinking about it again. Then I sat down and wrote it over the course of a few hours…

    Civ is a genre-king. There are no other Civ-style games, really. It’s not that Civ itself won’t sell, it’s that nobody else can plausibly make a run at that market. The genre is dead in the sense that it won’t see major growth. It has cousins, mind you, that do fine.

  10. Michael, on the subject of market trends:

    I think you have to be careful to separate the trends in what businesses are doing, vs. the trends in what customers want (but possibly can’t get). Moreover, the lack of exhibited demand doesn’t equate to an actual lack of demand. This is especially true in emerging markets, which MMOGs certainly count as.

    You also have to recognize that in the entertainment industry, people will probably consume something. If your ideal MMO doesn’t exist, but you’ve found a game that’s reasonable amounts of fun, you’ll end up playing that. Otherwise, you’ll be watching television, going to a movie, knitting, etc.

    That’s why surveying customers on what they want can be dangerous, and why studying what potential customers actually do can provide critical information.

    The genre gaming consumers have highly refined tastes, and asking them what they want is fairly useful if you’re interested in making incremental, iterative improvements. To go beyond that, you have to think about lifestyle and needs. This is something that Nintendo seems to be doing pretty well with the Revolution, for instance.

  11. Tess said: “If television has taught us anything, it’s that most money-people will beat every dead horse they can find, and leave no shark unjumped.”

    This is very close to what I was told by an NBC television executive in the ’70s. I think he used the term ‘guys in Izod shirts’. We did part of a million dollar automated set for a day time game show, supposedly new and ground breaking stuff. They couldn’t get the host they wanted and ended up with John Davidson. We got six shows in the can and it ran six weeks before it was canceled.

    Many little fishies died to bring you this new ocean.

  12. I don´t know if evolution is the right metaphor to use here, as evolution is generally undirected and only dictated by its environment. Opposed to that, game evolution is both influenced by the market but also creates a market through directed innovation. Something like controlled and directed mutation to stick to your image.

  13. […] Another lengthy screed.https://www.raphkoster.com/?p=245I figured the jaded folks ought to join in. I was thinking of some of you when I wrote it! […]

  14. I don´t know if evolution is the right metaphor to use here, as evolution is generally undirected and only dictated by its environment.

    I’m not sure evolution needs to be defined so strictly — I’d say the metaphor works even if it is slightly different than the biological model. Different entities in the market have different roles: publishers, designers, retailers, consumers. You can think of them as variations on different sorts of predators/foragers/scavengers/etc. They are all dependendent on each other. It’s not as though a devlopment team can change the market alone just by creating a new, innovative title. Publishers take the title, spin it out to retailers and consumers must then choose to purchase it. Unless that happens, the good idea doesn’t get cash which is roughly equivalent to success in reproduction. If a new genre receives cash it will reproduce new titles within it.

    It just happens that it is an environment comprised only of agents.

    Evolution is fundamentally about hill-climbing. Adapting to conditions over time to improve one’s lot. The market is the way it is mostly because of the nature of the consumer-publisher-developer relationship. We are all just climbing hills, seeking whatever will get us the biggest return next. Consumers look for games that they want, but tend to stay with what they know. Publishers find products to sell, but try to reduce risk and control as many aspects of the market as possible. Developers want to make games that they think are fun, but have to make a living, and seek to balance those priorities as well as they can. Over time, hopefully, consumers find better games, publishers make more money and open up new markets, and developers make better livings and games that they think are fun.

    Desire to play something that is known, to back less risky products and to maintain a steay income, on the parts of the consumer, the publishers and the developers respectively, can lead to, as indicated in the article, nichification and dead ends.

    To me this is made most clear simply by saying that, in climbing our hills, we tend to get stuck in local maxima. We find one spot that is comfortable and where any movement would, at least momentarily, decrease our returns. For the consumer this might mean that we leave games that we are used to, that we purchase games through outlets that are unfamiliar to us cutting out certain retailers, etc. For the producer this may mean backing riskier products. For the development team this may mean trying to self-fund or work in a different genre than the one you have expertise in.

    Which requires longer-term thinking which is in the end, very difficult. Consumers are unorganized and reliant on hype-ridden media for their information. Publishers are entrenched and beholden to shareholders. Developers have to feed their families. And in turn we can all blame each other. Consumers are stupid, slaves to hype who spend their money in all the wrong ways. Publishers are greedy corporate hacks who don’t care about games and kill innovation whenever possible. Developers are narcissistic and lack business savvy — they either build games that only they like or sell out.

    And there needs to be give from one or another group in order to get ourselves out of the ruts of our local maxima and start on to new territory. Someone or actually quite a few someones need to be willing to be temporarily uncomfortable or lose money to try and adapt the market. Here, yes, we are trying to direct the evolution. But I’d argue that we are trying to direct biological evolution as well, that we can’t help but do that.

  15. Perhaps the next step in evolution will be better tools for building persistent worlds. It might be the ‘sex’ which is needed. That is, sexual reproduction is what kicked evolution into high gear, as the rate of mutation and recombination accelerated incredibly. (Then came the move onto land, a much more dynamic and varied environment than the sea).

    Most worldbuilding tools now are like the old Micronauts toys (Gods, I’m dating myself…). You had a lot of ‘interchangeable parts’, but they were pretty large and specialized. You could pretty much build, well, other Micronauts with them. Those which have a great deal of flexibility also require considerable skill to use — call them the equivalent of a pile of wood, a hammer, and a saw. What is needed is an intermediate set, something like lego — a lot of very generic bricks which can be easily and quickly snapped together, combined with kits which can make complex and detailed structures (like the Star Wars lego kits) — but which can still be disassembled.

    You won’t get massive creativity when millions of dollars need to be invested in what might be a flop. You’ll get “It’s like X and Y, but with Z!”. Only when the tools are out among the masses will you see a real spread of ideas, cross-fertilization, and niche expansion.

  16. I agree that developers will not change a whole market just by creating a new title. But somewhere it has to begin. The first MMO, the first RTS game, the first strategy game. I didn´t also meant to say that evolution is completely wrong used here and I agree that it works if it is altered.

    I think, what we see is evolution to a point where a genre is not able to extend any further. As evolution always tries to reach higher complexity, one could say that maximum complexity is achieved in a genre to a point where more complexity would decrease fun. At this point we don´t see any improvements to a genre any more, only variations of already invented systems. As you see, I totally agree with you to this point (I just repeated what you sayed with different words 🙂 ) and I also don´t think that the big studios will move in a way that momentarily decreases their income. They can still survive by creating said variations of already invented systems.

    Originators of such innovations (mutations) will therefore not be the big studios. It will be the people who feel pressure. And I am sure, these exist. Either by loosing money, by starting out new or because they create this pressure for themselfes- because of their own perception of being creative people. These people break the circle of no-invention and will create a completely new niche they can inhabit and grow. This is the difference between evolution and game design. If game designers cannot survive in their current niche any more (or if the pressure gets too high) they are able to create new niches to survive. They don´t have to die 🙂

  17. Some random thoughts:

    1) Evolution works based on random chance, and (except with a lot of luck) will only ever find local minimas/maximas. Design works based on understanding of fundamental principles.

    You need to understand “why” things work in current games, and then use the “why” to produce new ideas. As has already been discussed here, why do levels work? Why do games have races and classes? Why is the treadmill effective?

    2) As I’ve posted before, you need to be able to cheaply prototype ideas.

    Text muds are the cheapest prototyping tools, but text is fairly distantly removed from graphics. Some of the emerging VW toolkits like Keneava (sp?) might work, although I suspect in their drive to make it easy to make a VW, they’ve also made it difficult to make a unique VW. (Do they, for example, allow you to prototype an insect VW where characters can walk on the ceiling?)

    3) Whatever the next revolutionary (not evolutionary) VW innovation is, you can be guaranteed that 50%-75% of the current MMORPG players WON’T like it. They like MMORPGs the way they are, or they wouldn’t be playing them. It’s the people that don’t like MMORPGs (as they are) that will take to the new ideas. Therefore, asking MMORPG players what they want won’t get you very far, except for the usual: more races, more classes, more levels, bigger world, etc.

    http://www.mXac.com.au/drt

  18. Evolution works based on random chance, and (except with a lot of luck) will only ever find local minimas/maximas. Design works based on understanding of fundamental principles.

    Not sure why you guys are hung up on this.

    Evolution, conceptually, is just about making lots of changes to instances of something and seeing how they perform in the current environment, then weeding out those that are less effective. Which is basically the design process as implemented across lots of designers. The direction in evolution is the process of weeding out solutions which aren’t successful. And in biological evolution the introduction of sex as a way to shake up genes was a further important step towards directing the evolutionary process and isn’t terribly random from the perspective of the two entities having sex. Discussing things on blogs could be just one way of introducing “sex” to our design processes — performing a crossover of ideas instead of genes. Occasionally great ideas will be born and along the way we’ll have a lot of failures.

    I’d also like to know what the “fundamental principles” of design are. Is there a secret brotherhood which teaches how to create a novel and innovative game that isn’t complete crap in only 12 steps? I think most designers come to the table with pretty strong prejudices and take their ideas from an inevitably finite set. Sounds a lot like a pile of genes to me. Yes, with time, you can expand this set, but generally that happens from…well…waiting for a “chance” of inspiration, trying it out, and seeing whether it works or not. And in the end, what really matters is whether your audience enjoys it or not, which isn’t fundamental anyway, as tastes change. I think Raph is absolutely correct when he says that “progress” here is only relative to the values of those doing the judging.

    Whatever the next revolutionary (not evolutionary) VW innovation is, you can be guaranteed that 50%-75% of the current MMORPG players WON’T like it.

    Which is already being said (by me with respect to minima/maxima and Raph with respect to genres that dead end). Evolution is about climbing hills. Eventually you get to the top of a hill and you think things look pretty grand. There may be a far larger hill across that valley, but you’re too short-sighted to see it. Generally it takes a change in the environment around you to shake you out of that position and those who are the agents of evolutionary change very rarely enjoy its immediate consequences.

  19. Tess, nothing here is all that new, except some of the analogies. But a lot is stuff I’ve only said verbally. Plus, I got prompted by that quote to start thinking about it again. Then I sat down and wrote it over the course of a few hours…

    Ah, I was just curious. I found myself amazed about what a large chunk of writing it was, and how it was sufficiently detailed and well-thought-out to be a proper essay, rather than merely a blog entry.

    I agree that Civilization is the genre-leader for what it is. I’m just amazed that while it may have killed off a genre, it hasn’t seemed to ultimately do any harm to itself (as was the case in many of the examples you cited).

    It has cousins, mind you, that do fine.

    In some respects, it’s a good thing that Master of Magic never had a sequel, and that the Master of Orion sequels were so painfully broken. We have since had Age of Wonders, Galactic Civilizations, and countless other games carrying the torch.

  20. St gabe wrote:

    I’d also like to know what the “fundamental principles” of design are. Is there a secret brotherhood which teaches how to create a novel and innovative game that isn’t complete crap in only 12 steps

    Here’s an example using rockets…

    You can produce a new rocket (for the mars mission, for example) by taking a prexisting design, making it slightly larger, shooting it off towards mars and seeing if it has enough fuel to make it. If that fails, make it larger, the nose cone pointier, etc., and retry… that’s evolution.

    Or, you can understand the physics of rockets (aerodynamics, gravity, chemistry, material science), calculate how much power, fuel, etc. you’ll need, and have a much better chance of the rocket making it to mars… that’s design.

    What Raph talked about at GDC 05, game atoms, is about understanding and notating the “physics” behind games. Music theory is an equivalent “physics” for music. Literature has equivalent “rules”, although I admit they’re much mushier than aerodynamics.

    I wrote: Whatever the next revolutionary (not evolutionary) VW innovation is, you can be guaranteed that 50%-75% of the current MMORPG players WON’T like it.

    Which is already being said (by me with respect to minima/maxima and Raph with respect to genres that dead end). Evolution is about climbing hills. Eventually you get to the top of a hill and you think things look pretty grand. There may be a far larger hill across that valley, but you’re too short-sighted to see it.

    Assuming I read your response correctly, that’s not what I was saying.

    I was saying that when you come up with a revolutionary VW, your current VW players are (for the most part) going to boo-hoo your new idea and keep playing what they’re playing now. It’s not necessarily that they can’t see the benefits of the new design (which could be the case), but that they like the world the way it is because of X, Y, and Z, and your new design probably won’t do X, Y, and/or Z as well because it has made a tradeoff to do A, B, and C better than the old design. You have to find a new market of players for your revolutionary VW.

    My interpretation of what Raph was saying is that if you don’t innovate, you will quickly/eventually find all the people in the world who like X, Y, and Z. They will all be using your product, or one like it. The market will stop growing, and gradually turn into a monopoly. It will also become elitist because people who like XYZ will keep asking for even more XYZ, gradually scaring off people only looking for a little X, Y, or Z.

  21. Well, VW/MMORPGs are a relationship with a player. However, while the genre has clear leaders by certain measures, there’s no single measure that defines the proper road to success. For two reasons (in my opinion):

    1) Every company is different. Andrew Tepper can afford to pay the bills just as Blizzard can. The business is scaled to the needs of the identified playerbase.

    2) Every game is different. It is not a foregone conclusion players will jump from ATiTD to WoW to SWG to Shadowbane to Second Life to Eve. Such a broad variety of experiences belies the loose definition of a “genre”.

    The relationship between VW and player is intrinsic to the uniqueness that is these games though, and continues to allow the introduction of brand new experiences. If you want to compete with Blizzard, you’ll need to be as large as EA to go up against their parent company. But if you want to exist in the Game space, your players could be different enough from theirs for a viable co-existence.

    That is a grossly simplified statement, but I feel it’s important. Digital distribution allows the creation of segments in a genre that have no interaction with other segments. In-store box sales no longer guarantee a success nor strictly define the rules for one, because they are not the sole delivery of new content anymore. And MMORPGs are nothing if they are not the very essence of digital distribution throughout the relationship between gamer and game.

  22. Ah, I was just curious. I found myself amazed about what a large chunk of writing it was, and how it was sufficiently detailed and well-thought-out to be a proper essay, rather than merely a blog entry.

    Heh… those who have followed my postings on game forums know that I write like that pretty much all the time. 🙂

    Seriously, though, it was planned more as an essay. The way I do those is that I collect links and things that seem relevant to a topic, toss them in a draft post, and sometimes make a few notes. Then on the day that it feels like I need a new nice big controversial post, I fashion it into a post in the evening. Sometimes I set it on a timer to release later.

    Currently getting assembled that way: “Do treadmills suck?” and “The Commandments of Online Worlds” (I figured, we had Laws, it was time to go more definitive!) This latter one may actually be too controversial to let out of draft status for a very long time. 🙂

  23. This latter one may actually be too controversial to let out of draft status for a very long time.

    Seriously, I cannot wait for that one. 🙂

  24. You can produce a new rocket (for the mars mission, for example) by taking a prexisting design, making it slightly larger, shooting it off towards mars and seeing if it has enough fuel to make it. If that fails, make it larger, the nose cone pointier, etc., and retry… that’s evolution.

    That’s evolution of a sort certainly, but I’m not convinced it has anything to do with game design. Game design is more like designing fireworks with a goal to please an audience. Yes, you know that if you add more of X it will fly higher or blow up larger. But it is still up to the audience to say how much they enjoyed the results. At best you might determine what a given audience likes at a given time. If game design had fundamental principles that were somehow written into the fabric of the universe then the success of game designs would not change with time. Yet game designs that were a smash hit just years ago may be a flop today.

    We can have certain ideas, theories and posit principles, sure, and even be successful with them for a while. But none of that is “fundamental.” It’s just having a good understanding of current trends and values among the audience of gamers.

  25. It’s not necessarily that they can’t see the benefits of the new design (which could be the case), but that they like the world the way it is because of X, Y, and Z, and your new design probably won’t do X, Y, and/or Z as well because it has made a tradeoff to do A, B, and C better than the old design. You have to find a new market of players for your revolutionary VW.

    I still think this is exactly what I am saying. The path to doing A, B, and C involves climbing down the hill they are on and so they will have a great tendency not to do it even if, in the end, they would enjoy A, B and C more (which IMO most consumers won’t know until they at least try it). And that’s why, instead of trying dramatically innovative titles, publishers look for games that have a few innovations (a few steps up on the hill) over an existing design). Sometimes, through a fluke or through lots of baby steps, a new hill gets discovered. Then people climb that one getting closer and closer to the top, the maxima, and the dead ends that Raph mentions. When someone finds the very peak, they have their genre king.

  26. I’d argue that evolution applies to companies and corporations in more than a metaphorical sense. Large economic endeavors, like large bodied species, need an extensive habitat to flourish. Just as giant dinosaurs needed large areas to forage in, MMO’s need broadly available disposable income and common broadband access to flourish; witness their prevalence in South Korea and their absence in North Korea. I would further note that while evolution is not an inherently directed process, it only needs a source of variation and a source selection pressure to operate. Multiple intentional designs are a source of variation, and there is certainly plenty of selection pressure in the games business. Evolution does not guarantee high quality, only that the more fit are more likely to survive in the current environment. Garbage In, Garbage Out applies to evolution as well.

    From this, I’d point out that large corporations running large games have greater risks of complete failure than smaller groups running smaller games, since they need more resources and therefore a larger and more continuous habitat. In fact, I’d argue that the present state of the game development business is indicative of a situation of high evolutionary stress, with a few generally common survivors, and many non-survivors. This is the time of the cockroach in the world of games. This gives us a weaker choice of games at present, but if we can find a way to make games as ‘cheaply’ in terms of relative investment as we did in the early 1980s, we will probably see a similar blooming of games, just as biological diversity tends to rebound after a period of stress like an extinction. Nature abhors a monoculture.

  27. Evolution and niches

    Raph posted another interesting screed over on his site (https://www.raphkoster.com/?p=245) talking about evolution and how we have to adapt or die as game developers. It’s worth a read, so I recommend heading over there and reading it.
    Of course, I…

  28. Great article – A belated ‘happy new year’ to you.

    I am convinced that something big will come. WoW was a great innovation in the way that it opened the eyes of both gamers and businesses alike, but it is hardly a leap from the niche. Long-time gamers look at WoW and give nods to the various established norms that have been neatly packaged up into a consumer friendly environment.

    The problem is that many of us are becoming… is ‘bored’ the right word? Perhaps ‘jaded’ 🙂 Though we still read fiction with avid anticipation, and long for virtual worlds where we can live out our fantasies, more and more we log on to a ‘new’ MMO and are consciously aware of the mechanics involved – an utter immersion breaker. I believe in complex worlds, but it has to be invisible complexity.

    As part of a large multi-game guild, I see an increasing number of people (myself included) who had for years been loyal devotees to one game or another now flitting around between games, struggling to recapture that ‘engrossed in a good book’ feeling. Perhaps this only applies to long-term gamers who know the mechanics too well…

    Every now and then I have a nice big debate with my (thankfully also MMO addicted) significant other about what the ‘next big thing’ for MMOs will be. We brush over SF/Fantasy/IRL type genres, past economic and social structuring, through various VR interfaces – but we always agree whatever it is will be much more of a fundamental change than that.

    Of course, if I knew the answer, I’d be a rich man 🙂

    The key for me has to be plugging into that storybook feeling. A neverending story. I toy with ideas of neural interfaces that suggest a script of world to your brain and allows you to interpret the world in your own head according to your own imagination – something that the best MUDs and books do all the time, and the graphical MMOs always fail to achieve. In my mind, I remember/picture the lush forests and mountains of the Avalon MUD so much more vividly than any MMO.

    Anyway, I’ve descended into rambling, so enough 🙂

  29. The problem is that many of us are becoming… is ‘bored’ the right word? Perhaps ‘jaded’

    I have trouble judging, to be honest. For one, I am jaded myself, having been playing and making level-and-class hack-n-slash-centered games for so long. For another, many of the players I talk to tend to be on theleading edge of that sentiment too — folks like the regulars at f13, and I imagine, the sort of folks who read this blog.

    As long as three years ago, I was saying that the audience was so jaded and frustrated that we were bound to see some expression of that. I was ahead of the curve by some unknown amount of time — if not completely misassessing the situation.

  30. After my last post, it occurred to me that there are a couple of other concepts from ecology and evolutionary biology which have relevance to game design at the moment; specifically, the ideas of a limiting nutrient and of a key innovation.

    Limiting nutrients became a major topic in ecology in the days before the Clean Water Act, when many bodies of water in the US began to experience eutrophication, where algal blooms wiped out all other life because fertilizer runoff and/or sewage effluents provided an excess of a previously limiting nutrient like nitrogen or phosphorous. From what I hear developers saying in various contexts, it seems obvious that the limiting nutrient in making games in general, and triple A games in particular, is money. You can make some games somewhat cheaply, but generally, being in the front row means big budgets.

    The idea of the key innovation is common in evolutionary biology and paleontology, and refers to a change that opens up a major new niche or set of niches. Aerobic metabolisms, the ability to live on land, and flight are commonly mentioned examples of key innovations.

    Unsurprisingly, given the assumption that the limiting factor in making games is the cost of making games, the key innovation that game design needs is a way to make games cheaper. This is one of the potentially revolutionary aspects of Will Wright’s idea behind Spore, essentially sharing out the cost of content creation with the players, so I’m hardly delivering a startling revelation here.

    Nonetheless, I think it is worth noting that the key innovation that could release a real burst of creativity, variation, and adaptation is reducing the investment needed to produce games. This basically economic change seems to me to be the most important requirement for generally advancing games as an artform, and unleashing an evolutionary radiation of game designs.

  31. Thus has been the battle-cry of the Player Created Content folk for years 🙂

    Unfortunately, there’s not only the cost to make the games, but the cost to support them as well, and the way some companies work over others. Some want centralization, pure control over the entire experience. Others take a hands-off view, releasing their engines and letting players have at it. Right now, the difference is partly linked to the genres themselves, which includes the relative costs to make the games, and to support them. FPS games can be modded because the end user is doing all of the work, including hosting. RPGs can to, and are (and even go slightly MMO after a fashion as evidenced by NWN quilt worlds, though they’re not that many). But MMORPGs require so much cross-discipline involvement, it’s hard to know just what could be offloaded to player creation.

    Guild Wars may be the first to try. Their game is specifically built to allow it, so it’s just a question of business decisions.

    Sphere seems to promise being the first to be built from the ground up with player creation/direction in mind. But while I respect the endeavor and have faith in the creator, this industry has conditioned me out of blind faith. 🙂 As high concept, I need to see it in action, with at least hundreds of concurrent users doing it.

    As long as three years ago, I was saying that the audience was so jaded and frustrated that we were bound to see some expression of that.

    As I just said over in the mirror of this topic, I believe that is part of the problem with innovation. One’s outlook on the industry is definitely, though certainly not exclusively, affected by when they entered it and how. This also affects such things as themes, gender/age bias, and style. Delivering games for yesterday’s players can work from a business perspective, but it doesn’t move everything forward based on the learnings of old.

    But again, it’s because of how each company has to operate. Seems to be a part of nature to. Evolution is a slow process within the sphere of what is being evolved, and innovation, for good or bad, is stymied not by concept, but by the limitations of delivery.

  32. The cost issue is where this connects with the “Future of content” post. (Yes, I have a semi-coherent worldview)…

    It may literally be that because of the costs, radical innovation will not come from the game industry today as we know it, but rather will come after things like digital distribution have been fully absorbed.

  33. On an evolutionary note:
    – There are 2 species of elephants in the world.
    – There are hundreds of species of rats/mice.
    – There are a million (or was it 100K?) species of beatles.

    Smaller families (right term?) tend to have more varieties. They stay small until a catastrophy (like a meteor impact) disrupts things, and causes the large species to go extinct. Some of the small species then grow in size to replace the extinct larger creatures.

    There is more biomass in the small species than in the large ones… at least in the case of animals. I don’t know about plants.

    As far as user-created content, specifically for spore: Spore’s content designer makes it very simple to create new creatures, items, etc. This has two flaws:

    1) The variety of content than can be created is limited compared to what a more complex content generator would allow. However, a more complex content generator would stymie most users, defeating the point of the “generate your own content sub-game” in spore.

    2) Spore’s content generation is so easy and fast to use, that if the Spore team wanted to, it could hire a few content generator people and have them produce more content (in terms of creatures and objects) than any normal player would care about.

    => Spore’s content generation is fun for players (good), but I don’t see it as a cost savings.

    Content generation in general: The more complex the tools, the more variety it can create. Of course C++ is the most flexible content generator tool, but also the most complex. Most of the current MMORPG-creation toolkits are very easy to use, but result in MMORPGs that are essentially the same.

  34. (ahem) Have any of you looked at the “other game industry” lately? Boardgames are in a Renaissance. Beyond Monopoly(TM), it is alive with independent companies, creative games both casual and hardcore and real ongoing innovation in gameplay and subject matter for all forms of games. Spend some time at Funagain Games web site or checkout Cheapass for tight, clever games, not to mention the Roger Corman (who was or is the money-makingest producer of all times in terms of ROI) of boardgames, Steve Jackson.

    If anyone questions the depth of casual games, consider Go or Chess or Bridge. Rules that can be understood and written on one page yet thousands of pages of strategy guides, analyses, and even novels and films, and millions of players over the years.

    … by the way, I would argue that “The Sims” is really the child that inherited the mantle of Civilization and ran away with the genre…

    Rock on Raph, we have met the enemy and he is us. If the computer game industry can tap into the energy and creativity of the independent traditional game industry, none of us will get any work done.

  35. […] Raph Koster has posted a lengthy missive about what innovation means within the Massive genre. Raph characterizes innovation and adaptation as entropic effects in the videogame industry, draining the energy from a niche as it codifies to meet market demands. Darniaq elaborates on the ideas presented at Raph’s site. He goes into what critique has traditionally meant (or not) to MMOGs, and other aspects of what makes the genre unique. […]

  36. The current boardgame scene rocks, I agree. Over the last year or two, it resulted in inspiring me to design several boardgames. A couple came out really well — maybe I’ll post one here.

    Looking at modern boardgame design was alot of the homework behind the book…

  37. I agree. While some are direct imports from the really rockin’ seen that persists in Germany (the annual show in Essen is like our E3), this market is the sort of low-barrier-of-entry we’re discussing in the other thread. Sure distribution’s a problem, but Cheapass is a good example of one way to do it.

    This highlights cultural differences, but it also serves up notice to anyone who thinks boardgames (and card games) are dead.

  38. After reading this article, which I agree with wholeheartedly, my question still remains. How does a team/studio/company get funding for this kind of innovation? At GDC 2003, I had a conversation with a few mmo designers about our funding situation. The design is not hack and slash centric and it doesn’t have a DnD, Star Trek, LotR license behind it. I postulated that the reason the genre was producing clone after clone is because the game industry as a whole has not figured out how to systemically fund innovation. I cited Procter and Gamble as an example of how to build your company knowing full well that some of the endeavors you take on will fail. Currently, every game always has the fate of the company/investors riding on it eliminating risk taking as a viable option.

    To me the core of getting an alternative design to market centers on funding. If the industry as a whole doesn’t figure out how to fund general innovation (not further nichifying(word?) with 1-3 “innovative” complex features) then I believe the MMO market will be doomed to continue to bring us DikuMUD experiences in the mainstream as the article suggests.

    At this point I’m a bit jaded but I’m an optimist who’s been living with the idea of getting an alternative design funded. Let’s say I still haven’t found the silver bullet that makes the folks with the money ignore the $1 Billion success machine that is WoW. “You mean you’re not doing it like they did it?? What are you crazy??”

    Could it be possible that the vocal minority on public forums actually works to force innovation?? That seems a bit idealistic to me but I’ve heard many people cry that its time for change and I’m certainly in a position to want that change to happen. *shrug* Like Raph, I’m a bit jaded that the “Izod shirt” crowd just won’t get it. I’m running in circles at this point. Where does the money come from for innovation?

  39. If you’re talking to the traditional investment community (as opposed to, say, going to a publisher for funding), expect the deal to be evaluated on the same basis that such investors look at a technology start-up. VCs specialize in taking risks, note — but only smart risks.

    If you want VC funding, you need to show that you can create sustainable competitive advantage — not just one great game. You have to show that you can grow, year after year (contrary to most MMOs, which peak and then decline). You have to show that you have a technology team that can reliably deliver all aspects of an MMO — specifically, a technology team that has done it before, or at least production software with demonstrably similar requirements. You have to show you have appropriate management and are willing to take VC advice and people if necessary.

    Note, by the way, that a VC is almost certainly not interested in funding a WoW clone, if you’re a start-up. They’re much more likely to be looking for blue-ocean companies.

    However, from what I can tell, the vast majority of teams that hope to produce commercial MMORPGs are likely unfundable through a VC route. That means virtually all are dependent upon publishers willing to fund something more innovative.

    Interestingly, it seems like at least in Europe, there are a number of companies in small countries that have been successful in landing modest amounts of funding for innovative games, thanks to government-backed programs of one sort or another. We can hope that those games turn out to be commercial successes.

  40. Note, by the way, that a VC is almost certainly not interested in funding a WoW clone, if you’re a start-up. They’re much more likely to be looking for blue-ocean companies.

    However, from what I can tell, the vast majority of teams that hope to produce commercial MMORPGs are likely unfundable through a VC route. That means virtually all are dependent upon publishers willing to fund something more innovative.

    That’s only somewhat true. VC looks for a stellar team with a great idea that could turn out to be a blue-ocean company. You need both, really, but my point wasn’t how do you get a single game funded. How should the approach to funding be structure such that innovation has room to occur. The typical VC fund doesn’t understand games and has no infatuation with its stars like say they would for Hollywood. That lack of undestanding makes them skeptical about any “game” that tries to sell the blue ocean to them. Remember that games are not as legitimate as movies.(see lack of infatuation with stars for a partial explanation) Games are toys that their grandkids play with. In our experience with VC from California, Mass, NY, Kentucky and Ohio the vast majority of VC think this way about the entire game industry. Could be a false assumption on a small statistical set but I don’t believe so. Once you remove the blue ocean all you have left is the red sea and Blizzard has cleaned up there so why invest into shark ridden waters? At least that’s how its looked at. Funny, that before WoW it was looked at the same way. Where did those 4 million new people come from?…

    I’m much more inclined to think that they want to find a WoW clone that has a few “innovative” features. That’s certainly been what it looks like from the investments in Mythic, Turbine, Sigil and the like. If blue-ocean is what VC is after there are far more innovative designs out there than DDO, LotRO, Vanguard, et. al. Not that anny of those are bad games. Their not; their just not blue ocean style games like you’re suggesting.

    However, from what I can tell, the vast majority of teams that hope to produce commercial MMORPGs are likely unfundable through a VC route. That means virtually all are dependent upon publishers willing to fund something more innovative.

    Interestingly, it seems like at least in Europe, there are a number of companies in small countries that have been successful in landing modest amounts of funding for innovative games, thanks to government-backed programs of one sort or another. We can hope that those games turn out to be commercial successes.

    That’s been our experience and the experience of other developers we’ve had discussions with. Let’s hope the ones that did find funding of any level have success that is not written off as minor. As Raph has alluded to, innovation is what inspires growth.

    My concern focuses around how do you get the money to innovate given today’s budgets and what is needed to make investment less risky for the VC/Angel/Publisher. Once I figure that out, then I need to figure out how to sell it along with the game idea.

    There’s always the idea that you could find a sizable amount of money over the next few years and just invest in it yourself but finding millions of dollars is not an easy task no matter where you look.

  41. I work as an industry analyst, so I spend a fair amount of my time with VCs. VCs don’t understand games, so they end up evaluating MMOG companies by comparing them to businesses that they do understand, and by looking at the history of the industry’s successes and failures.

    To date, most of the MMOGs that have had a stable launch have met with reasonable success — it’s a high-margin business, after all. The problem appears to have been getting to a stable launch, with the promised feature set, on time and within budget.

    Most technology ventures have a product within 12 to 18 months of obtaining funding, and a VC can make a reasonably small investment and see whether or not the company turns out to have legs. With a traditional MMORPG, on the other hand, a VC is generally looking at 24 to 48 months before any revenue is generated, and for the vast majority of that time, there’s basically no product.

    This is why I think that shortening cycle times is critical to promoting innovation.

  42. […] Team Less is More Reading: Wikipedia entry on Scientology vs. the Internet: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientology_vs._the_Internet The Church of Scientology’s Response: http://religiousmovements.lib.virginia.edu/nrms/scientology_briefing.html Optional Further Reading: Scientology Homepage: http://www.whatisscientology.org Primary Anti-Scientology Site, Operation Clambake: http://www.xenu.net Team Rockstar assignment – Virtual Economies Tom Loftus, “Virtual worlds wind up in real world’s courts” (Feb. 7, 2005) – http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/6870901/ AP, “Virtual jobs in virtual worlds yield real cash” (Nov. 4, 2005) – http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/9925794/from/RL.1/ Chinese gamer sentenced to life, BBC June 2005. Assignment: Visit eBay and search the auctions for virtual items for sale. Suggested search terms: World of Warcraft, EverQuest, Second Life. Read the description of at least one item. Raph Koster, “Innovation”- https://www.raphkoster.com/?p=245 …on the philosophy of online worlds. […]

  43. Holy cow… the above trackback means that this blog post just landed on the syllabus at Harvard. Or a part of Harvard, anyway.

  44. Holy cow… the above trackback means that this blog post just landed on the syllabus at Harvard. Or a part of Harvard, anyway.

    MBAs, lawyers, and media attention means that big money is involved, and from my experience at Microsoft (pre/post Win95) this means things get less fun.

  45. *gets pin and pops balloon*

    Holocron, its just an old friend of yours doing group work, dont get too excited 😉

  46. Idle observation: genre innovation can produce very interesting results indeed, assuming the introduction of a completely unrelated core element.

    Case in point: “Shoot the Bullet”, the 2D photography shmup.

    http://pooshlmer.com/touhouwiki/index.php/Shoot_the_Bullet:_Gameplay

    The text description is complicated, but the game itself is brilliant.

  47. […] evolution, and adaptationBrilliant stuff.tagged: game, gaming # // posted by Josh @ 11:58 AM    Comments: Post a Comment <<Home […]

  48. […] Raph Koster: Innovation, evolution, and adaptation […]

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