Sunday, November 30, 2008

No, Don't Shake It!

After my last post, I realized that it sounds like I'm saying that it would be a good idea for an IP such as Final Fantasy or Gears of War to come out with a bizarre new style of game instead of a normal sequel.

I'm definitely not suggesting that! Those IPs are not built to support that kind of variation. If you came out with Gears of War the RPG, it would probably be considered a very awkward move.

If IPs like these do come out with games from outside their previous style, they tend to be fairly conservative and standard. Chances are very high that the Halo RTS will not have any amazing new dynamics in it: it'll basically feel similar to most other RTS on the market. I don't mean boring - I just mean that the mechanics will be very similar to those things that RTS fans expect.

When I wonder if it's possible to have an IP that lets you experiment with very new and unusual games as sequels, I'm not talking about any existing IPs. I'm talking about whether you can come up with an IP that would allow that.

It would need to have a specific set of attributes. For example, it would need to be diverse enough to allow for a variety of gameplay styles. Halo is better at this than Final Fantasy, because Halo concentrated on developing its non-gameplay aspects across multiple games, while Final Fantasy always develops new non-gameplay aspects. This means that Halo can abandon their typical play style and still feel like Halo so long as they keep those assets in play.

I don't think Halo is a really great example, though, because the Halo universe is very confined. It's not just a matter of how many different styles of games it can support, but also how many different styles of... narrative, for lack of a better word. You'll never get a Halo game that is about falling to your darker urges, like in Star Wars. It's just not supported by the nature of the game, and if you published such a game, it would be heralded as "a new direction for the Halo franchise". It would be hard to do an adventurous game (whether an adventure or an open-worldish RPG) because the IP is completely militarized: the lives and adventures outside of the military are not part of the Halo IP, even though they obviously must exist in a technical sense. Again, you could make a Halo the Adventure game, but it would feel very un-Halolike.

So the question is...

Can you imagine an IP and an approach that would allow you to develop radically different games from sequel to sequel without ever losing the "feel" of the IP?


Brog said...

The closest existing thing to this I think of happens when the developers themselves are the "IP".

For examples, look at developers like Introversion or cactus - they have distinctive personal styles, but they produce radically different games in them. Each Introversion game definitely feels like an Introversion game, but because they're not explicitly sequels, they can explore a wider space of possibilities.

Craig Perko said...

I was kind of dodging around that idea because it's not exactly what I want. It's not bad for someone to have a distinct and interesting style, but there's no way they could produce a significant number of high-quality games with their style: the more abstractly they manage the team (to pump out games faster), the less the game will feel like them.

To have a defining "feel" in your IP is important, I think, because it keeps the team all working in more or less the same direction even if the creator isn't directly managing it. As an example, you can tell when Roddenberry stopped working on Star Trek, but Star Trek survived for quite a long time despite that, and it was very recognizably Star Trek.

The slow drift into pointless crap began then, of course. An IP would need to be very carefully constructed to avoid that drift, if possible.

Edwin said...

Perhaps it's possible to reuse an IP by exploring different sides of the same story or setting. For example, a game set in the middle of WW2 has multitude possibilities beyond simply being on the front lines killing Germans. How about playing as a medic in episode 2, and then as a POW organizing an escape in episode 3?

Mory said...

If you keep focusing on one gameplay mechanic, you can jump between totally different kinds of games and no one will notice. For instance, some people don't seem to notice that Portal keeps switching between three fundamentally different kinds of gameplay (puzzle game, action game, movement game), because it holds onto the device of the portal gun. As long as you're controlling it the same way, it feels the same.

A game creator could use that principle for making sequels. Come up with some creative way of controlling a game, and make a movement game with it. For the sequel, you hold onto the way you're controlling, but moving is never the challenge- solving puzzles with the movement is. (Like a puzzle platformer.) The second sequel introduces enemies, and all the gameplay is hiding and fighting them but from the same interface as the first two games. The third sequel introduces a semi-abstract story (The first three had none.) so that it can be an RPG, though it will never leave the original interface that the series started with. (Battles could be something like Knights of the Old Republic, but where each ability represents a complicated use of the movement which you figured out in games two or three.) Then you make a fifth game which directly continues and wraps up the story, in a style similar to Zelda or GTA- still only using the original interface, combine several different kinds of gameplay on top of lots of exploring. And then the sixth and final game, which goes back to basics by being a game of pure abstract exploration using the original movement.

I bet you many people wouldn't even notice that you were switching art forms. The professional reviews would say stuff like "This feels fresh, even though it's the same as the last game.". So you get a game series with a distinctive identity, with six totally different kinds of games in it. I think that answers your question.

And by the way- Voyager is not pointless crap.

Craig Perko said...

Those are both good ideas! In both cases, the idea is to basically MINIMIZE the IP: to have an IP which is a nugget that can be used to drive any game, any narrative.

I think that would work, although I think that WWII would work better than something like the Portal gun. WWII inherently contains a huge amount of human experience of all kinds, while the portal gun doesn't have any emotional baggage attached, so the games might not feel as grounded.

Either way, though, I can see it working...

James said...

X-Com. More specific than WW2 but about as flexible.

The IP/Theme is resisting and defeating an alien invasion.

The first three games are all a split between a tactical squad combat wargame and a resource management strategic game.

The fourth tried replacing the tactical squad wargame with a flight simulator. Not a bad idea, really, though it could have been better executed. (I'm possibly the only person on the planet who liked Interceptor enough to play it twice....) We could also do an air-breathing flight sim (intercept and down UFOs) and a tank sim (drive one of those tanks, supporting the ground assault missions).

The fifth branched off much further, into a 3rd person action/arcade title. The game itself isn't exactly good but the idea isn't completely out there -- run around, shoot aliens, grab stuff to research, upgrade gear, lather, rinse, repeat.

There was supposed to have been a version using a tactical FPS. I can see a SWAT 3/SWAT 4 model working version well with X-Com's IP.

Now let's go further afield.

The X-Com 4X game: expands the strategic management part of the original game, instead of the tactical combat. Only on Earth? Further afield? Either way works.

The X-Com Puzzle Game: Any bloody puzzle you like, but thematically each puzzle is spun as either Research, Development, and/or Solving Things for Troops In The Field. "Private Snuffy needs to open this door! Figure out the code!"

The X-Com Theme-X Management Game: Manage a single base. Ever tried to keep all those scientists, engineers, and soldiers happy, trained, and productive? Do they have enough bathrooms at this base? And, every so often, the aliens try to storm the place.

The X-Com Lifestyle Game: The Sims meets X-Com. Manage one person's routine at a base. Decorate & personalize your bunk. Pee on your squadmate's gear when they stay in the bathroom too long.

Easy & obvious ports: The X-Com MMORPG. The X-Com (Text)/(Point-N-Click) Adventure. The X-Com Find-the-Hidden-Thingy game. The X-Com Peggle game. The X-Com RTS. The X-Com career management game. The X-Com squad dating game.

The trick isn't so much porting the IP into a new gamestyle.

The tricks are:

1) Doing it *well*. I can concieve of good games in each of these styles, but they'd be easy to screw up. (Heck, X-Com's core concept is easy to screw up, as its wannabe copyspawn attest.)

2) Not pissing off the fanbase when you do. Some in the rabid fanbase from game #1 in your series will vomit slime over anything that deviates. How do you prevent their bile from poisoning your reception? (Part of the answer is: release a fine, well-crafted product, #1 just above. Not necessarily easy.)

Craig Perko said...

James: Yeah, that's well thought-out.

Part of the point here is that you'll still be using largely the same production team from game to game. So the team should be very familiar with the IP and each other, and they should be able to produce decent products even if they're using a different tech base and gameplay system. (Obviously, it might be a good idea to bring specialists in if it seems necessary.)

X-Com has the advantage of being wholly fictional, so it can be stretched and dented without causing any political backlash. It does have a few disadvantages, all the same as the disadvantages of using WWII: it's largely focused on a war, which may make it difficult to make certain kinds of games/narratives.

It has certain secondary themes, such as teams of people working together, government-sponsored projects, and so forth. These do make the setting very specific in terms of the kinds of things you'll see. I'm not sure if that's good (because it has a strong flavor that will resist the changing game styles) or bad (because it's pretty limiting).

Greg Tannahill said...

I was going to make the comment about developer branding, but Brog beat me to it. My example was going to be Team Ico, but whatever works. Suda 51's Grasshopper Studios is another one.

Mory's three-game example, by the way, perfectly describes the SHIFT trilogy of flash games, except that that series never features enemies, and instead introduces a different complication in the second game.

The difficulty is that the unifying theme HAS to be completely abstract - it can't be characters or setting. If you do divergent gameplay with the same IP, you risk losing your existing fanbase when you move to the sequel, without picking up new fans because they didn't enjoy the first one. You're splitting your audience rather than doubling it.

Your unifying theme almost HAS to be a creator, a development team or a style.

Of course, you can just keep making different, individual games without needing to unify them. That seems to have worked in the past.

Craig Perko said...

I'm not sure that's true, but it's hard to say. This is all just thought experiments.

Greg Tannahill said...

Pardon my lengthy posts, by the way. You're asking interesting questions at the moment; if my responses are getting too long for your comments section let me know and I'll do them up as posts for my blog and link to them.

Craig Perko said...

Not at all, it's great!