Playable Worlds’ lead designer: ‘Our industry does not thrive on ideas’

    
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No screenshots yet, obviously.

Raph Koster’s startup Playable Worlds is working on an MMORPG. A big one. A big one we don’t know much about yet, in spite of all the words the company has spilled on it so far. We’re getting more words this week, though this time, they’re from the game’s lead designer, Greg Costikyan, whose name you’ll likely recall if you’re more of a tabletop gamer. His dev blog, however, is essentially a primer to help regular gamers understand how games get made.

As he puts it, game designers seldom have much freedom when it comes to the basic ideas behind the game. “Most of the time, you will be handed an existing IP (whether that comes from a previous game, a license, or an existing genre) and asked to tweak it slightly,” he laments. “Alas, our industry does not thrive on ideas. It limps on, on clones, brand extension, and tweaks to successful genres.” He winds his way through the many ways studios raise money, the multiple phases of development (hey look, a studio that knows what beta actually means), and building out a full team of devs. There’s more to it, of course, though he’s apparently saving that for another post.

Here’s a final nugget to cap off this post: Costikyan explicitly notes that the studio’s game involves procedurally generated worlds.

Source: Playable Worlds. Thanks, Napyet!
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Greg Costikyan

Zero_1_Zerum: I play a lot more indie games than I do triple-A ones, and have been an advocate for indie games for something like 15 years. I’m working on a big project, but I prize the creativity that indie gaming has brought back to the game industry (and any job description I write says “Indie game experience also okay.”) Just checked, but I’m not wearing my SpiritFairer or Night In the Woods or Firewatch tee tonight, but on some other random day, you might find me so garbed.

Akrtouros: I worked for ten years in free-to-play games, and what you describe is unethical, and I would never work for a company that did that.

Bryan Correl: You’re right, but it’s very rare. I remember Steve Jackson telling me about a fan who pitched him on the idea that became Car Wars, thinking initially “another dweeb pitching me on an idea, it isn’t ideas that matter but the ability to take them to fruition,” and then thinking “actually, that’s a really good idea.”

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Zero_1_Zerum

Ok, here’s a question: do you consider indie games to be separate from AAA games?

Is it more of a spectrum, with inde games that didn’t cost much to produce but are innovative at one end, with expensive and stagnant AAA games at the other?

Or are they almost separate industries, AAA games targeting the mass market, with indie games forming their own small niche industry?

I mean, both COD and walking simulators are technically video games… but, you wouldn’t see a COD walking simulator.

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Zero_1_Zerum

I play a lot of AAA games, but the real innovation takes place in the indie scene. I’ve got quite a few from Humble Indie Bundles. Some of them are so much indie “art”, I’d never play them! But, for sure, you’d never see a big publisher put them out.

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IronSalamander8 .

I still have the wargame; “The Creature That Ate Sheboygan” by Costikyan to this day! Very interesting to read he’s here.

This is why I’ve been playing so many older and indie games these days. There are so many creative people out there and that creativity is smashed by the current AAA industry. I’m perfectly fine with games that have less than bleeding edge graphics and are willing to take a risk. I admit that I hadn’t even paid attention to this studio before, but I’m going to have to now.

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Arktouros

I’ll never forget the words of a friend who was a developer at Turbine when I told him that LOTRO just felt like another WOW clone:

“When someone hands you a big sack of money and tells you to make them a WOW clone you make them a WOW clone.”

Just how things are. It doesn’t have to be like that, but then you’re taking risk that your unique IP and game ideas are going to see mass adoption. As much as us customers clamor for something new and something unique and bold and ambitious in our games we also complain like bloody murder if it isn’t also like the games we know and operate with systems that we’re familiar with.

I found the article’s summary of alpha and beta to be quaint and not at all a take at more modern schemes. Now companies gleefully keep transactions on and are all too happy to sell you access and all the items you can afford despite the systems that would give said things value not even being implemented or designed.

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Bruno Brito

Don’t you think that shoving the market with more WoW clones is also risky for your game? Honest question.

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Jim Bergevin Jr

It’s the safer bet of the two. You have a better chance of the clone lasting long enough for you to make money off of it. Something new and interesting has a greater chance of dying right out if the gate. At least based on a general take of our past history.

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Arktouros

I think the article really does a fantastic job of answering your question at the top and the different kinds of asks game developers get (the whole SHINOLA LEGENDS bit):

Alas, our industry does not thrive on ideas. It limps on, on clones, brand extension, and tweaks to successful genres.

As a designer, I kind of hate this; but as a participant in a commercial medium, I also understand it. If someone is going to invest a lot of money in developing a new game, they want to minimize their risk; and their (often unwarranted) assumption is that by building on a previous game, licensing popular IP, or copying the tropes of a successful genre, they are more likely to make money.

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Bruno Brito

Like, good point, but at the same time, wouldn’t making WoW clones on a industry already bloated with clones go into the same issue of a moba like HoTS? Like, it’s clear that it’s already a bursted bubble and while i get the “safety” of it, is it even that safe? Can we be certain for sure that WoW-clones nowadays will be able to repay themselves the price it took to make them?

Again, honest questions. I feel like any game in this industry will have unstable footing, WoW clone or not.

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Arktouros

Well first, obviously, as he points out himself they have unwarranted assumptions that relying on these things will make money.

However the majority of time when games were getting funded/made as WOW Clones was 10 years ago at this point. It really wasn’t all that clear back then that any bubbles had burst. It wasn’t really till around 2014 and later (ESO) that you stopped seeing any real NA/EU singificant MMO development of new projects and most games at that point were imported from Asian countries (ArcheAge, BDO, Bless, Revelation, etc etc etc) or the beginning of kickstarter/indie MMOs (Albion, Crowfall, Camelot, Elyion, etc).

Even New World started out as basically a massively multiplayer survival game blown up from 20-40 player servers of hundreds of players. When the developers failed to address flaws in their PvP systems they gave up and went back on their PvE development roots towards a standard themepark experience (questing, dungeons, etc). If they tried to sell the project as a themepark PvE from the beginning it probably wouldn’t have ever been approved.

So new WOW clones just don’t get funded anymore basically or really any PvE games. Investors have learned those assumptions are wrong and stopped funding MMO games cause they know they might not get a PvE audience and other kinds of games such as PvP are risky. It’s all risk and no one wants to fund risk when they can go fund mobile titles instead more likely to return profit for them.

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Lazy_Opinion_9755

I’d just like to state that HoTS is nowhere near a clone. It can definitely look that way from the outside but it has drastically different take on moba setup than most others.

– No last hitting
– Shared teammate levels/Shared xp
– Many maps with different mechanics

just wanted to state its not a clone. Could care less that its dying because….its blizzard lol.

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Greaterdivinity

Super good piece. I don’t know why but whenever these kinds of topics come up I always think to Splatoon and Nintendo. In a lot of ways Nintendo is very much a target of criticism in this blog (indirectly), there’s HEAVY use of IP’s to carry games, tons of “the same game, but just a little different” and more that goes on through their titles. Though that’s absolutely in part because there’s huge demand for more Metroid and more Mario and more Zelda.

But I also love them for being the only platform holder that actually tries different things sometimes, and not just with their hardware. I still shoutout to Splatoon for being one of the most innovative/interesting multiplayer shooters that I can think of in the past 2-3 generations of consoles. Never played, but it’s a fantastically interesting concept and take on the shooter genre in a way that seemingly only Nintendo could really do. Then you get bonkers stuff like Labo that’s just the neatest (if impractical) idea of how to expand gaming consoles outside the limits of the hardware itself.

It’s sad, but short of being totally self-funded and having a high tolerance for financial risk, I don’t meaningfully see this changing anytime soon. I feel like “gamers” would really benefit from more of a look behind the curtain, because what many people seem to think “game development” is and what it actually is are often two completely separate, disconnected ideas.

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McGuffn

The least creative of the arts?

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Greaterdivinity

Possibly, but that’s the unfortunate economics of it, especially on AAA levels. A single miss can bankrupt a studio and close it down, a single miss can cause a publisher to close a studio and lay off most of the staff…I know there’s a lot of risk in the movie/music industries as well, but I feel like the consequences of a single miss aren’t usually as drastic as they are in the gaming industry.

When you’re making a $120M bet, you’re gonna be damned sure you’re making as safe a bet as you can so you’ll stick more to what works rather than try new and untested ideas.

Which is lame as hell, because it leaves us with a depressing lack of idea-diversity outside of the indie space.

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Ken from Chicago

See also movies and tv.

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Paragon Lost

As an aside, Greg’s linked article above about how games get made is worth the read.

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Phubarrh

I’m feeling the paranoia, but still I can’t wait to launch a toon.

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Paragon Lost

Lol! Nicely played! 👍😀

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EmberStar

You could try “Kerbal Space Program.” You have a space center, and an infinite supply of little green muppets who *really* want to go to space. So much so that they’ll even let you design the rockets!

“Why is that rocket trying to fly engine first?”

“It’s not a problem, I’ve got this. See? I just flick the engine off, turn it around, and… Oh. It really does want to fly engine first.”

“Seriously, how did you even DO that? Are you in an uncontrolled tumble now?”

“No, this is all part of the plan! Engine off, spin, engine on, spin, engine off and… See? We made it, we’re in space!”

“You have no idea what you did wrong, do you?”

“Not a clue. That’s the third different rocket that’s done that.” OnO

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Paragon Lost

Long time fan of Greg’s dating back to ttrpg work including Star Wars and Paranoia rpgs. I like that he’s a part of Rafe’s team, it bodes well in my opinion for the future of this upcoming mmorpg.