What The Gaming Industry Can Teach Us About Creativity
During the past few years, many articles have outlined the huge untapped marketing opportunity in gaming. Advertising professionals attempting to grow their client’s businesses have upskilled themselves, learning about e-sports, twitch streaming and Fortnite.
But while we’ve been busy learning about this new industry, we’ve not stopped to ask what we can learn from it.
The gaming industry, which is expected to rake in $152bn globally in 2019, is now bigger than the film and music industries combined. With Felix Kjellberg, aka the gamer and YouTube vlogger known as PewDiePie coming in at number 1 on The Times’ list of the UK’s top 100 influencers, gaming is now a huge part of our culture.
In short: it’s here to stay.
Gaming also has a lot in common with advertising. Both industries are driven by a combination of commerce and creativity; the question “is this art?” perpetually hangs over both.
So: what can we learn from our companions in the gaming world about creativity?
Creativity is a holistic endeavour
In the gaming world, every member of the development team has creative responsibility, as even the most technical aspects of game design demand a high level of creativity. Coding, for example, is not something most people would consider a creative exercise. But it’s a language like any other, and in the gaming world, the coding is as creative as the design.
Take, for example, the horses in Red Dead Redemption 2. While the designers have creative remit to design the horses in a way that reflects the game’s aspiration towards hyperrealism, the developers coding the game are equally responsible for building the physics that determines how that horse moves in the game world. As Phil Hooker, Rockstar North’s technical director explains: “It’s a collaboration between code and animation, and that code is involved and creative.”
Dr Dave Ranyard, CEO Dream Reality Interactive explains that the way development teams are structured has changed to incorporate a belief in holistic creativity.
“The early days of video game development were fairly autocratic, however one thing I love about the industry now is the opportunity to empower teams at every level. We often structure developers into smaller strike teams focussed on specific levels or features. People often assume that oblique jobs like coding cannot hold any creativity, but nothing is further from the truth. Creative buy-in and empowerment can lead to amazing results. It takes trust and honesty but in my experience, the results are worth it.”
While many games are often more lauded for their ultra-polished graphics than the physics of their gameplay, classic games were built off the creativity of their physical gameplay. The 8bit design of Pacman may be the thing that keeps it relevant today, but its design made it popular in the first place. Equally, for Sonic the Hedgehog, gamers fell in love with him as much for his “spin dash” high-speed running style as they did for his cobalt blue hair and Michael Jackson-inspired boots.
Writing code for game mechanics is meticulous and tedious. But it’s also highly creative and an important part of the collaborative, creative process involved in game design.
Conservative thinking isn’t safe, it’s risky
With titles such as Prince of Persia and Watch Dogs, game developers Ubisoft is one of the most prolific and successful today.
However, in recent years, the developer has faced a backlash from fans who accuse them of recycling old game maps and following an uninspiring ‘formula’ across their portfolio. This criticism came to a head when it was revealed that Ubisoft had taken large chunks of the game map for ‘Far Cry 4’ and used them in the supposedly new ‘Far Cry Primal’ game.
In contrast, the majority of the most successful games released in recent years all involved huge risks. The breakout successes of titles such as Little Big Planet and Minecraft saw them turn the traditional developer/creator dynamic on its head. Rather than developers taking sole responsibility for the creation of a game world and linear story mode, players can now play an active role in creating the worlds they play in, with a less linear, more dynamic world to create their own narratives.
Dr. Dave Raynard explains what developers like these were up against at the time: “I remember when Minecraft was presented as a niche game in a corporate meeting I was at, simply because it was too “out there”.
The Last of Us was just as innovative and risky in its own way. Its slow pacing and focus on character development was a step change and a sign of maturation for the games industry at the time, but it has now become the norm. Equally, Rockstar, the developers of Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption series have gone against the grain in the scale of their productions. While many developers are trying to maximise their profitability by ‘sweating the assets’ of their most loved franchises with cheap to produce downloadable content, Rockstar spend 7 or 8 years at a time lavishly developing their franchise games.
In gaming, just as it is the case in many other industries, creative risk taking pays off and conservative decision making is a finite resource. As Raynard explains, “Playing it safe can probably keep you in employment, but taking risks is where the big hits come from”.
Hire creative intelligence. The rest can be taught
The gaming industry has grown massively in the last 20 years. So much so, that there aren’t enough trained experts to service it.
This has led to experts from other fields – but with the right skill sets – moving over into gaming. However, often, such people are not gamers themselves and, while they may have the relevant skills, their lack of insight can frustrate other developers.
For this reason, the CEO of games publisher Massive Entertainment said he would “rather employ a passionate gamer with less technical skill, than a highly technical person with less knowledge about games”. This is done so that creative decision-making would be made from a gamer’s point of view. The reason being is that decision was exciting to the individual doing the job, there is a good chance that it would be exciting to a paying gamer.
Media Molecule has taken this idea even further. After the release of Little Big Planet, the Surrey-based games developer decided to look at its own gamer community to find new blood. As a game set up to allow players to create their own worlds, Little Big Planet gave Media Molecule the opportunity to observe the creative potential of those who play it. Media Molecule used that opportunity to find gamers who they felt saw the world in the same way.
Off the back of this strategy, Media Molecule hired four people, many of whom – including John Beech, a former builder – possess none of the hard skills required for a career in games design. But what they lacked in technical skills, they more than made up for in creative ability. Media Molecule saw in their creations a skill that is far more difficult to teach.
Creativity now drives the hiring process for many games studios, coming before experience or even technical skill.
Advertising should do the same thing.