Quite often we see interviews and articles that stress the importance of small indie studios and how they are the pioneers of innovation. I disagree, or rather, I don’t think it has to be that way.
Large corporations should not be leaning on the shoulders of small and unstable indie developers. This top-heavy approach of waiting for innovation is exactly what has crippled the film industry and is the blueprint that has paved the road for games with sequels, remakes, and reboots. Those indie teams do not have the resources to often innovate in a way that scales to the AAA experience which makes this approach kind of pointless. I think innovation has it’s place in both sectors, but in different ways.
Indie developers have proven that gameplay is something that anyone can innovate in. You don’t need millions of dollars to come up with a new way to experience a game or be challenged in new ways. You don’t need a giant marketing blitz to invent game mechanics that just feel intuitive and rewarding. For all of this whimsical design however, we can expect the development process to be much in the same flavor. There is less pressure to develop by specific deadlines or meet the expectations of executives who may not play video games or understand what you are trying to accomplish.
On the rich-and-famous side of the tracks we have the AAA developers. They have the manpower and the resources to do great things… as long as it’s on the schedule. Shackled by risk-adverse executive order, waterfall Gantt charts, and the mandate to ship in time for the holiday window are the exact opposite of free willed innovation but it is a perfect recipe for high production. Often times those stuffy charts and tiers of management are exactly what you need to heard a room full of cats err I mean developers into sharing one vision. Much like the movie industry, these developers function through a common language of rinse and repeat. “We want to have epic moments that don’t take control away from the player,” might be a phrase you would hear, followed by examples in other popular titles such as God of War or even Half-life.
There is nothing wrong with saying, “I want our game to play just like ___ but within our ___ universe,” because the end result will almost definitely turn out different, unless you had access to that code. Those complex gameplay problems will be solved differently and the assets created will animate differently, and hopefully better than what we’ve seen before. These are the places where AAA can shine, by refining an experience that they fully intended to duplicate. It is not a far stretch to see the similarities in atmosphere between Doom 3 and Dead Space, but a tighter focus on story and production for Dead Space created an entirely different experience.
The breakdown starts to happen when you have AAA studios looking for AAA innovation from small developers. It’s hard to imagine how much you can scale a game like Cut the Rope or Fruit Ninja. I would probably not enjoy slashing away ninja stars (fruit) in my next Ninja Gaiden experience, or cutting the wire (rope) to hack into a door in Deus Ex. My fear is that these kinds of bottom-up inspirations may result in an experience that lessens the AAA games.
Many indie games find inspiration from their lack of financial stability and their games are a reflection of that. We experience these games and appreciate the marvel of their efforts but I think that it is unsafe, as an industry, to idly wait for an accidental success from the next unnamed Indie developer. For the AAA developers out there, let your production values drive you to the next step of AAA innovation. Let those baby steps push you in directions that you have not yet explored. Why not refine your amazing production value and envision a hybrid of Half-life meets Ninja Gaiden in the Dead Space universe? Heck, I would play that game! And there would still be a place for the smaller experiences as well.