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About this Author
Andrew Phelps Andrew Phelps is an assistant professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology, in Rochester, NY. He is the founding faculty member of the Game Programming Concentration within the Department of Information Technology and his work in games programming education has been featured in The New York Times, CNN.com, USA Today, National Public Radio, and other publications. Email: amp-at-it.rit.edu
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September 14, 2004

The Games Industry Needs B-Sides

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Posted by Andrew Phelps

So I had a brainstorm in the shower. Yes, the shower. It's the only place you can think anymore with a 7-month old tearing through your sock drawer. I was thinking about the claims, made every year, that the games industry is "dead in terms of innovation". That there aren't any new game mechanics, that every game that is a success today is just a game that we've already made with better graphics or one strange new feature. The folks that make those claims would look at DOOM3 and say "It's DOOM with a journal and a flashlight. Whoop-dee-doo." I had recently read a bunch of stuff like this in old GDC proceedings because I was going to use it to challenge my programming class .(Their next assignment is to build an arcade game- and I am trying to promote original thinking instead of getting Space_Invaders_013467).

So I had been thinking about that, and then it hit me: The Games Industry Needs B-Sides. For those of you who never got your music on a grooved vinyl disc, allow me to explain . A "B-Side" was the flip side of an album, the side that you didn't buy it for. On the "A-Side" were all the hits that were on the radio, the sonds that people bought the album for. The B-Side was usually the wierd experimental stuff that the band gave you as 'extra' - you might like it as a hit, you might not. It was yours for the taking, whatever.

I think there is an interesting opportunity here: stick some "B-Side" experimental games on the DVD with the big title. Little Flash games, or student games, or Internet games that haven't taken off yet. Don't advertise them on the box, sell the "big game" just like always. But some folks might try the little thing that comes with it - and that little thing is the place where game designers can be totally off the wall because it *doesn't matter* if its successful: it isn't being independantly sold, and it's probably either cheaply made or it is the kind of thing folks do in their basements for the love of the craft. No, they won't have the glitz and glamor of the "big game". Anyone ever compare the recording quality of the "A-Side" songs (mixed, perfected, pitched, etc.) with the "B-Side" (live studio riffs, and not much else)?

I wouldn't mind an extra freebie game on the disc when I go buy Final Fantasy 22, in fact if I knew it let more people experiement "outside the box" I would specifically look for that version.

I have an idea what the critics are going to say: "no one makes games cheaply anymore" (but the freeware tools are really coming along!). "No one has the resources for experimental development" (bull honkey, just look at how many people enter the Independant Games Festical on shoestring budgets and student work...) and (my least favorite) "the big games companies make the best games because they have all the good game designers" (what a total farce).

If the industry wanted this, they could easily do it out of the profit margins of the larger titles. Easily. So if the industry really believes itself about the lack of innovation that it touts at GDC every year, put your money where your mouth is, and offer some incentive for experimental throw-away games. The way you innovate is make 20 totally different different games and find the one (or parts of some) that works. No one in the art world has every really had a different model.

Comments (11) | Category:


COMMENTS

1. Gerard Whyte on September 14, 2004 6:38 PM writes...

An interesting idea. Yes, actually must remember this one.

Anybody who says "no one makes games cheaply anymore" needs to do a search on Google! If anything I think more people are doing it these days or at the very least are attempting to do it. A lot of teams create finished products, some are good, some are bad, a bit like commercial products. In my own particular genre of interest, the adventure game, there is a thriving community of independent and underground developers who are busily working away on their own games. Each month brings a handful of really good new titles that I believe rival "big company" games in the entertainment they provide.

Perhaps the adventure game community is slightly different from the rest of the game development community in that at one stage there was no new games coming out, so the fans fought to keep the games they loved alive by creating their own.

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2. Sean Smith on September 14, 2004 8:34 PM writes...

"the big games companies make the best games because they have all the good game designers"

Even if this chestnut was true, you could then make the further argument that the Big Game Company who wanted to get a leg up on its competitors in attracting the best design talent would offer the time and resources for these people to indulge their B-side jones.

My guess is that the first one who does it will see a shift in the power balance of design talent.

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3. Chris Reuter on September 22, 2004 10:47 PM writes...

My first thought is that "B-side" is the wrong metaphore. B-sides
come about because of the way the recording process works. Typically,
a band records a lot of tracks, then picks the ten best to put on the
album. The B-side is one of the leftovers. It's already been paid
for so you may as well release it.

Big games are more like movies. A movie is a monolithic piece of
content that a huge number of people work on for a year or two. They
are all focused on doing this one thing and the leftovers (deleted
scenes) don't make any sense outside of the main work's context.
Yeah, they usually include deleted scenes on the DVD release of a
movie and you could presumably do something similar with a game but I
don't think the result is going to be particularly innovative.
(Besides, game publishers DON'T want their developers going off and
wasting time on some little side project while they're under industry
time pressure.)

I agree that the industry should be investing a little money into
making small, risky games but it doesn't fit the whole "heroic effort"
development model. There has to be some way to make creating small
games part of the process of creating the Big Game.

What might work is for the publisher to commission a bunch of small,
cheap games and then pick one or two to expand into a Big Game. They
can then do market research on the little games to get a better idea
of which are likely to be successful. That leads to a greater return
on investment, which makes solid business sense. The better of the
leftovers can go onto the final DVD as a bonus.

So yeah, you're right. Games need B-sides.

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4. porc on September 25, 2004 10:09 PM writes...

Publishers (in general) don't want to take risk. They want to publish Doom and Tony Hawk and GTA clones because they know that's what sells. Publishers are not interested in spending dollars to experiment with little student projects. They are inserested in $$ and what makes $$ are movie license games, racing sims, and GTA clones.

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5. James on September 25, 2004 11:57 PM writes...

I like that idea. I know a lot of hobbest would get into it. I mean, if Blizzard made an announcement that they would be having a contest for the best 5 minigames games to be shipped with Warcraft 4, the all the hobbiests would go crazy! I'm really like this idea now. I think I'll email Blizzard a link to this article. :-)

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6. Dustin Sacks on September 27, 2004 1:37 AM writes...

This is a truly awesome idea. I really hope that some game publisher actually starts doing it.

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7. Thomas on September 27, 2004 9:42 AM writes...

First of all I'd like to say that this is a really great idea that could bring some more interesting and experimental games to a broader public. The problem is (i agree with porc) that the industry will need a clearer incentive than the blurry term "innovation" to actually start doing this. I mean an increase on the bottom line because of the inclusion of these b-side games in the box. Is it feasible that an extra experimental-game-gone-cult could actually help the sales of a mainstream game?

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8. Steve Thompson on September 27, 2004 2:24 PM writes...

WOW! Respect++; *Kisses your feet*

This is a wonderful idea. I think it's just what we need to see. It's a possible step in what I think is the evolution of games from, well, games and into artsy creative outputs for developers. I'm not saying all games need to be innovative and artistic, but we can't keep recycling the same rubbish as we recently have been.

Props to you.

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9. Nick on September 27, 2004 3:22 PM writes...

Check out 'Geometary Wars' in Project Gotham Racing 2, it's a pretty sweet and very creative shooter. A good illustration of your point, nice one MS.

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10. Andy on October 5, 2004 10:59 AM writes...

Andy,


excuse me for bothering you via e-mail, but your weblog doesn't take my
comment:
"Your comment could not be submitted due to questionable content: n"


I tried everything, but don't get it to work.


Maybe my comment is interesting to you, so here it is:


When I got "Max Payne" (the first one) I discovered the B-side of this game-CD by a series of incidents. The B-side didn't contain experimental mini-games, as Andy suggests, but a bunch of tools which were used by the game-developer (Remedy in that case), to create the game itself. Those tools were placed on the CD to encourage the fanhood to create mods (and, of course, thereby prolonging Max Payne's lifecycle on the shelves).


Andy wrote: "[...] that little thing is the place where game designers can be totally off the wall because it *doesn't matter* if its successful: it isn't being independantly sold, and it's probably either cheaply made or it is the kind of thing folks do in their basements for the love of the craft.
No, they won't have the glitz and glamor of the "big game". Anyone ever compare the recording quality of the "A-Side" songs (mixed, perfected, pitched, etc.) with the "B-Side" (live studio riffs, and not much else)?"


That sounds to me exactly like a description of game-mods -- with the exception that not the company itself, but members of the game's modding-community make this stuff; indeed "in their basements for the love of the craft". The B-side made me plunge into game-modding head first and soon after I convinced the learned elders of my university that a research-project (I am a cultural anthropologist) on game-modding would be worthwhile (website not up yet, sorry). I dare say that so far I discovered an astounding social network/structure and even a culture of game-modding (no news to you, I guess) which leads to astounding results e.g. in the form of mods and personal careers. But back to the B-side: Since about a year there is a discussion in "my" modding-community, that the ever increasing complexity of game-technology may sooner or later lead to the death of game-modding, as no non-professional will still be able to cope with the required tasks and won't have the amount of time needed to craft satisfactory results. The answer of the community so far is the creation of short pieces -- a kind of short-story genre transposed to computergames. I am aware that those are not exactly the kind of experimental games that Andy envisions, as the mods use an existent engine and can only tamper with it as far as access to it is granted by the developer and/or publisher. On the other hand Max-Payne-modding produced some mods that made the people at Remedy say: "We did not know that this was possible with the engine we wrote!" So, game-modding clearly goes beyond designing new levels and changing character-skins.


James wrote: "[...] if Blizzard made an announcement that they would be having a contest for the best 5 minigames games to be shipped with Warcraft 4, the all the hobbiests would go crazy!"


In the case of Max Payne this already happens in a slightly different form, as Remedy and 3DRealms care very much about the modding-community.
Naturally, mods can't be published on the game CD/DVD (on a second edition perhaps?), but they can be downloaded, and the publisher can hint to the mod-sites, maintain forums, or even host mods for download. In consequence mod-contests are staged by the publisher, and the hobbyists indeed go crazy.
The idea that the professionals who created your favorite game are going to play and review your very own mod already is intriguing. And that lots of people are going to download and play your mod, even more if the professionals' review was positive, is intriguing as well (top MP-mods get download numbers beyond the quarter of a million -- and this in spite of the fact that MP is strictly single-player).


All that leads a little bit astray from Andy's idea, but it is my conviction that the modding-communities are a tremendous resource of creativity and future generations of game-development professionals. And this is fueled by a B-side containing developer-tools.


All the Best,


--alex


- Mailed to me by Alex Knorr - not sure why it wouldn't let him post this, so I am posting it for him... -Andy

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11. Ravyne on October 8, 2004 4:00 PM writes...

I agree totally. I remember the little shooter game that came as a bonus to motoGP, it played the credits while you played. It was a very simple game, basically a geometric space-invaders where the playfield was mapped into different geometric shapes. It would change quickly between short levels so you constantly had to re-adjust to the change. It was alot like wario-ware in that respect. Very fun.

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