Game Development: To Iterate or to Innovate?

To iterate or to innovate? This is a question that has come up often during our game brainstorming sessions here at the BlackCherry studio. Many a-times we have sat around thinking about new game ideas and projects, and many a-times we end up getting into a discussion about the merits of either designing and putting out a truly revolutionary game, or developing and evolving a game based on an already successful game mechanic.

The arguments tend to always be the same.

First of all, there is no doubt that innovation in video game design is a great objective. Coming up with something new and exciting in an industry that can seem over-saturated with like-products is definitely a way to go in search of a hit. Think of awesome games like Portal, Fez, Scribblenauts. All successful games that can be seen as innovative departures from traditional video game mechanics.

But developers could also potentially innovate themselves right out of the market. Coming up with something ‘too’ radically different or innovative might in fact end up being a disappointment to gamers because it’s just too different. As Michael from I Hate MMORPGs insightfully pointed out to me once: “(M)ost gamers don’t want different”. In fact, in a post last month he makes a good observation that “(p)rofitability and innovation have a negligible correlation”. Though the author is writing here about “big money MMORPGs”, the same principle can be applied to most video game genres.

Considering all this, I guess you could say that the reason why game developers might not want to stray too far from the mainstream is because tried and tested models are successful for a reason: People love playing those kinds of games and will continue to do so. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? Therefore, even though developers have the potential to create something no one has ever even thought of before, how can they be assured that this idea will be well received by a gaming public that loves traditional types of games? Why spend six months, a year, two years, working on something that is a huge financial risk?

On the other hand, if you take something that’s been done already, play around with it a little, change some graphics and animations, change the story, change the characters, etc., but essentially keep the core game mechanic intact, you might actually improve your chances of producing a hit. Take, for example, Trucks and Skulls Nitro (2010) or Coco Loco (2012)Deservedly two very fun games in their own right. Also, both very much like one of the most popular games for the mobile platform: Angry Birds (2009), but with unique touches of their own.

Trucks and Skulls Lite

Coco Loco

Now, both Trucks and Coco are extremely fun mobile games that are based on launching something across a screen to destroy structures protecting enemy-type characters. In fact, I enjoy Trucks more than Angry Birds. I dunno, maybe it’s just that I like trucks and skulls more than I do birds and pigs. So I guess it ends up being a personal taste and individual preference type of thing. But ultimately, all three of these games are the same kind of physics puzzler, and the core game mechanic, despite the differing gameplays, is highly entertaining, no matter which one you’re playing. Therefore, although each has its own quirky dynamic, Trucks and Coco are essentially iterations of Angry Birds.

Angry Birds

And, to be perfectly fair, you might even say Angry Birds isn’t all that innovative when you take a look at Crush the Castle, which came out six months earlier. In fact, I couldn’t say with certainty that Crush the Castle isn’t an iteration of some game I’m not familiar with.

Crush the Castle

(NOTE: TANGENT: To be honest, I don’t believe that Trucks, Coco, Angry Birds or Crush the Castle were necessarily created with the intention of imitating some other previous game(s). It seems that sometimes in this industry, as in many industries, like-games or products are created in total isolation from each other. As John Mark, our CEO/Prez, has pointed out before: you’ve got to get the game out even before you have the idea figured out. Quite a challenge, to say the least. But very true.)

So where does this leave us? Should developers be trying to innovate more, or continue providing more and more iterations of tried and tested games? There is nothing wrong with iterations. In light of Tetris Holding’s recent success in the breach of copyright case against Mino creators Xio, writer Tom Francis points out that without the ability for developers to legally draw from other games’ game mechanics, “games would no longer be allowed to learn from each other”. An excellent point indeed.

Ultimately, the question of innovation vs iteration really shouldn’t matter to developers. What matters is one single element: Make the game fun. It doesn’t matter if it’s something that looks and feels like something else, it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t look like anything else at all, all that really matters is that people play it and think, “This is awesome. So awesome that I’ll play it again. And again. And again.”  Providing a compelling game experience should always be the priority of any developer. If it happens to be like something that’s been made before, great. If it’s nothing like anything before, that’s great too. It doesn’t really matter, so long as gamers, whether hardcore or casual, love playing it. Again. And again. And again.

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