Critical Thinking: The Problem with Formulaic Development

I’ve mused a bit in the past about the creative drain which seems to be grinding mainstream gaming under its heel. I’d like to revisit that discussion from a slightly new angle. See, one of the biggest problems with mainstream gaming – and, I suppose, with any industry – is the inborn tendency in many of the larger organizations to stagnate. That inherent aversion to risks of any sort which lends itself so well to a rigid, formulaic mindset. 

The question I’d like to ask today is simple: why? 

“Formulaic thinking,” writes veteran game designer Tadhg Kelly, “is incredibly common in the games industry. It comes largely from an engineering mindset, which is unsurprising given how closely developing games and software have always been linked. In software, every application builds into a suite of features that users like…to many game makers, it’s similar. Games seem to solve entertainment problems, and game developers provide features to do so. Since all problems boil down to tests and verification, like science, the method should be clear.” 

“So,” he continue, “the strategy becomes about trying to find corners, niches, better problems, or out-solve the competition on existing problems. This is why most games tend to be conservative in their ambition, and why genre-thinking is highly prevalent.”  For those of you unfamiliar with the idea of genre thinking, it’s basically this: a new game releases which can’t really be defined or easily shoehorned into a single genre. Suddenly developers across the board are chittering about how this new genre – for example, the “physics puzzle genre” – is the next big thing, and how they need their games to be a part of that. 

In other words, too many developers are defining themselves based on what the competition is doing. Kelly refers to this process as “iteration, execution, and marketing” – and notes that it almost never works. How many sandbox games have been able to challenge Minecraft? How many copycats have been able to stand up to Angry Birds? 


As a result, much of gaming gets bogged down with sameness, with boring re-hashes of what was popular and cool. See also: cover-based shooters, war games, and MOBAs. We’re coming back around full-circle to the risk-averse culture that’s allowed indie gaming to thrive through Kickstarter.

Granted, a certain degree of structure and logical thought is necessary in any development environment. You need, for example, a process by which you can market, test, and design your game. Where so many developers seem to fail is that they fall into the opinion that structure and process are all it’s about. 

The problem, continues Kelly, is that “iterate-execute-market thinkers don’t tend to make the logical leap and conclude that their approach is wrong. They almost never seem to say to themselves, “maybe the problem is that we were too conservative, too timid, too risk averse.” Instead, they conclude that they just didn’t iterate, execute, and market hard enough.”  In other words, they can’t conceive of the fact that success isn’t just about getting the ‘formula’ of creation right…

It’s about creativity, about risk-taking, and about a willingness to experiment. It’s about being connected to one’s audience; the most successful game designers tend to make games that they would enjoy, titles that they themselves want to play. What others are doing – what the competition is up to – may factor into their decisions to some degree…but it in no way defines them. 

The fact is, until developers stop looking at what their fellows are doing and start asking what they could try; until game development is viewed as a passion rather than purely as a business, formulaic development is here to stay, no matter how ill-suited it is to making a genuinely good game. 

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