I've heard variations on the sentiment: "The least valuable commodity in the games industry is ideas," "ideas are a dime a dozen," or "ideas are like assholes..." But I think this is a fallacy. People who believe the above are thinking of video game ideas wrongly. The kind of ideas that have no worth, and maybe the kind most common, start out such as: "You're a space marine, and an evil galactic corporation has taken control of your homeworld..." or "I've got a great idea for this game that's like GTA, but in feudal Japan..." They're narrative or setting ideas, vague framing concepts for the artifice that props up a game. But they're not ideas for a game. When we look at the popular landscape of video games, we see derivative mechanics and stale dynamics. We don't see new ideas for what a game can be or how a familiar genre can be approached in a unique way, and when we do see a spark of something new that works, it gets copied and rehashed by half a dozen minor studios without ideas of their own. So I disagree with the aforementioned "truisms." I think one of the most valuable commodities in the games industry today is truly unique and feasible ideas for new gameplay mechanics.

The example here is the newly released Portal. It's a compact "big game" the history of which is fairly well-known now: Narbacular Drop was the senior project of a group of students at Digipen video game college. It was a first-person perspective game wherein the player was required to solve puzzle rooms by placing and rearranging pairs of interconnected portals on surfaces at their choosing, allowing them to pass otherwise insurmountable obstacles. Valve saw the team's work and brought them on internally to continue developing their game concept into a full product. What we come away with is an extremely polished, cohesive, and advanced version of Narbacular Drop, in the form of Portal. And I'm confident in saying that the three or four hours I spent completing Portal (and two or so more playing it again with Developer Commentary turned on) were some of the very best hours of gaming I've ever experienced.

The point is this: the Narbacular Drop team was adopted into Valve because of the idea they came up with, not for a setting or story (which were ditched from the original version) but for a truly new mechanical concept, one which they were able to demonstrate was novel, feasible, and led to a wide range of engaging gameplay dynamics, and was therefore worth building a big game around. The key to this entire saga was the idea itself behind the point-to-point portal mechanic, and its application to a familiar framework, the first-person perspective action game. Embracing and investing in these kinds of ideas is the only way that big games will be able to overcome the widespread rut of killing a thousand grunts in slightly different ways. And as Portal proves, when an experienced, skilled and dedicated crew of developers pushes a novel gameplay concept to its fullest potential, the results can be absolutely astonishing-- a big game literally unlike we've ever played before.

I think I'm in love with Portal a little bit. It shows how things can be done right.


JC Barnett said...

I think you've taken the comments too literally. Ideas are the cheapest part of game development, absolutely, but not neccesarily the least important.
The Portal guys got lucky. Portal is only what it is now bcause Valve had the foresight / balls / temerity to put a budget and professional development team on it.
Ideas are useless if you haven't got the technical wherewithal to make it a reality. A fantastically crafted game with a bad design (idea) is as frustraing as a great idea which is badly executed.
And between the two, an idea only takes a flash of inspiration and a notepad, but the realisation takes months of sweat, blood, money, hardware, know-how and persistance.
In that respect ideas ARE the lowest common coin.
Nabacular Drop looked (and imho played) *terrible*, but it was just enouh to show the potential of the idea. With technical support it has turned into Portal.

I think us devs mostly harp on about it to protect ourselves from outsiders who "could do it better" or who "have a great idea for a game". It's a way of saying "well, thanks, that's great. But we have plenty of ideas of our own."
That's why no publisher will fund you if you come to them with only a great idea.

Steve gaynor said...

I'll agree that "everyone's got ideas" is used as a tool for deflecting people who think they have nothing but good ideas, and can't back them up. But it has a tendency to infect internal development, which is destructive. It's also easily overcome by people having, say, lots of money or a producer role. Suddenly their baseless ideas gain a lot of "value."

I just feel like the medium would benefit from studios investing more in the conception and exploration of the useful kind of idea, instead of dismissively throwing the baby out with the bathwater. If anything, Valve was the lucky party in the Portal deal: lucky that they discovered and fostered a team with something new to say. If all the Orange Box had done was rehash Team Fortress and Half-Life 2, I know wouldn't have been interested.