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27 Dec 2013

Embracing Restrictions to Innovate

If you are an indie developer (and if you are reading this blog, the chances of this being so is certainly high), you have probably come across an instance in which you wanted to develop an idea for a game, yet you did not have the technical abilities to do so. Perhaps the platform you were developing the game for could not handle the processing power of a particular idea, or perhaps you didn’t have the skills needed to use the idea – use your favorite scenario. Whatever the case, the main point is that you probably have run into an instance (or likely a few) in which you had to deal with a certain restriction that acted as a brick wall and kept your ideas from becoming a reality.

So what did you do? Did you scrap the idea completely, or did you attempt to solve the problem and use the idea regardless of the restriction? Whichever choice you made (and we would certainly be appreciative if you gave us an example in the comments below), you should know that even though restrictions do arise from time to time, ‘working through it’ can pay off. In fact, instead of being wary of restrictions, learn to embrace restrictions as they can lead to innovation. You can even use restrictions in your game to provide a better experience for players overall. The following are a few examples of what can happen when you embrace restrictions as they arise.


Free choice isn’t necessarily better

In my interview with Andy Marsh and Gabe Jones on Game Academy Radio a few weeks ago, we discussed the beauty of restricting the choices of players. In a nutshell, we came to a consensus that in games that offer free choice such as The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, players tend to wait around and obtain the best gear, level up to a certain skill, and so on before they tackle a particular quest. Of course, there is something awesome about being able to traverse the countryside and get into shenanigans on a whim, such as exploring a new cave filled with bandits. Yet again, what is stopping players from not being spontaneous and waiting until they have better gear before tackling the bandit cave?

Marsh and Jones prefer the ideology of restricting player choice and forcing players to think on a whim, and I tend to agree that this idea is usually more interesting. Instead of having true free choice to tackle objectives whenever you wish in Skyrim, it would be much more interesting to tackle certain objectives where players didn’t have a choice in how they could complete the objective. For example, when fighting a dragon in Skyrim, how much more interesting would it be if you could use only one weapon to fight or use a single spell only once? It would make the fight much more interesting, and instead of using every awesome weapon/spell at your disposal, you would have to think about approaching the fight with the dragon in a more tactical sense.

Is freedom of choice better than restrictive choice? Absolutely not, but there is power in both.


Genres can be invented

When you attempt to solve problems despite limitations, awesome things can happen. In fact, sometimes entire genres can be invented by never giving up. Take the original Metal Gear for instance. The game was originally supposed to be a game simply about a soldier shooting enemies and nothing more, yet when only a few enemies were on-screen at once, the game would begin to stop functioning properly. Instead of scrapping the game, Metal Gear creator Hideo Kojima simply changed the goal of the game.

Instead of killing only a few people on-screen at a time, the goal of the game became about avoiding enemies. This made the game much more interesting, in that it didn’t matter how many enemies were on the screen simultaneously – in fact, players would find they preferred to have less enemies on-screen at once, because it gave them a little more breathing room when sneaking from area to area in the game.

Instead of giving up when things didn’t work out for Kojima, he instead created an entirely new genre – no big deal right? If it wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t be anticipating Metal Gear Solid V next year, and we likely wouldn’t know the thrill of playing a game based entirely on stealth. The stealth genre would be nonexistent for years to come until someone else thought of the idea, meaning we may not have other franchises such as Splinter Cell and the like.

And all of this happened because one man failed to give up when he ran into a hardware restriction. Restrictions can force developers to think differently about their game, and although it has been said once before, innovation can result. It’s a beautiful thing.


Be creative in hiding the limits of your game

Just because you have an idea for a game and the platform cannot handle the processing power of the game does not mean you should not pursue the idea (the main point of today’s post). Always be creative with hiding the limitations of the game when running on a platform that is a bit underpowered. For example, if you want to render large 3D environments on iPhone yet the platform will not render them properly, consider scaling back the size of the environments to improve the stability of the game. Alternatively, consider restricting players from seeing and accessing large areas (going back to the ‘power of restriction’ argument previously), yet do your part to provide the feeling that the player is still in a large world.

In short, always be creative when you want to hide the various limitations of your game. Just because an idea doesn’t pan out, that doesn’t mean there are not multiple solutions – and sometimes even better solutions than the original idea – that can be applied to your game. That’s really the takeaway message from today’s post: always strive to think differently when developing you game. Never be afraid to look at problems from different perspectives, because when you do, innovation can result, and everybody enjoys a little innovation from time to time, right?

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