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Console games desperately need reinvention - Riccitiello

Unity CEO laments lack of innovation, calls events of current console generation "depressing"

The latest round of console wars has been a bit disappointing for Unity CEO John Riccitiello. In a discussion at the GamesBeat Summit yesterday, Riccitiello gave a post-mortem on the first year and change of the current generation.

"It's one of the more depressing stories of the last couple years," Riccitiello said. "There was a clash of ideas that really separated Sony and Microsoft in this generation... The clash of ideas was simply this. They actually had very similar architectures that they were trying to bring to the table, but Microsoft focused on the entertainment marketplace."

Riccitiello suggested that focus was evident in every aspect of Microsoft's original vision, from its insistence on Kinect (despite the gamer segment's apathy for the device) to its original stance on DRM and emphasis on creating an entertainment ecosystem. The Xbox One, he said, was intended to be bigger than games, to be a mainstream cultural force on par with Apple or Google. Sony, on the other hand, just wanted to make a good game system.

"I think it was a little bit like a game of pool," Ricitiello said. "Microsoft was focused on the shot after the one they needed to make... but they missed the first shot and they didn't get another shot at it. Sony worried about the shot they needed to make, which was [to] win the hearts and minds of the gamers. They did a better job of execution with that. Frankly, the broad scope of entertainment may be a bigger idea, but not with an unfocused execution... Sony nailed it. They paid respect, more respect, to our community than the other guys."

Another aspect of the console industry Riccitiello took exception to was a general lack of innovation.

"Console desperately needs re-invention in terms of some of the game mechanics," Riccitiello said. "We play the same game literally since 1997, the advent of 3D gaming. So many of the mechanics are exactly the same. There is some innovation - the Titanfall guys did a really nice job. I don't think the game mechanics of BioShock Infinite are that innovative, but my God that's a beautiful world. I wanted to live there. But there's not enough innovation."

That's not to say the problem is specific to console games. Riccitiello also lambasted the state of the mobile scene where the top of the charts are dominated by games built on the skeletons of previous hits. While he lauded the execution of some of those hits in polishing those ideas, he also called it demoralizing to see how common that is in game development. In the mobile space, specifically, he said the industry has "barely scratched the surface of the opportunity."

"There is too much 'I want to make that game, but I want to make it a little more this way or a little more that way,'" Riccitiello said. "Or 'Hey, maybe I can have five candies connect instead of three.' That just doesn't feel like enough."

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Latest comments (10)

Darren Adams Managing Director, ChaosTrend2 years ago
One word...... "Indie".....
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James Coote Independent Game Developer 2 years ago
Indies aren't some panacea to lack of innovation across the board in game development. Most tend to stick fairly rigidly to existing themes and genres, and definitely don't have the resources or will to innovate in terms of business practices. The really out-there stuff is few and far between and certainly not commercial. A lot of what gets classed as "innovative" feels more like incremental evolution, rather than anything truly revolutionary. Or seem more the product of the sheer weight of numbers meaning someone eventually stumbles over something a bit different, versus conscious effort to think outside the box.

The pressures on indies are huge, but creativity is not key for differentiating games in the marketplace (for AAA development as well). It's not financially rewarded, yet is incredibly risky, so it just doesn't happen.

When it comes to consoles, there are so many indies out there now looking to stand out from the crowd, we're drifting back towards platform holders picking and choosing what fits with their existing core-audience.
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Darren Adams Managing Director, ChaosTrend2 years ago
The pressures on indies are huge, but creativity is not key for differentiating games in the marketplace
I can't believe a self titled independent developer can say that with a straight face.

Of course being creative and trying something different is risky, hell getting up in the morning and going to work in the games industry full stop is risky, but people still do it. Many of the best games to come out in recent years (IMO) have been indie titles that dared to do something different and as far as I know they have done very well for the developers.

Sure, indies are not going to bring in the same revenues as established franchises and bloated hyped up titles, but to bring any kind of change you need these people taking risks. So I disagree and say creativity is exactly what will differentiate your product from the crowd.
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James Coote Independent Game Developer 2 years ago
Visibility is king, so yes, highlighting the creativity of the developers in their implementation of the game can be one element of a well executed marketing strategy. But other factors I'd say are more important when analysing why a game was successful or not.

I was more getting at the need for indie devs to be self-critical as a community. Comments like your first reply can I think sometimes hinder that process of introspection. I can see plenty of creativity, but its usually in the box. It's interesting character designs within the staid pixel-art style. Or great level design for a platformer with otherwise bog-standard mechanics. Indies have the potential to be the answer, but I don't think they are as things currently stand.
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James Berg Games User Researcher, EA Canada2 years ago
James, I don't see the logic in your viewpoint, so perhaps I'm missing something. Indies consistently come up with more creative, out-of-the-box solutions, by virtue of volume if nothing else. AAA development, by it's very nature, needs to be somewhat risk-averse. Only a few AAA companies can afford to pour millions of dollars into a big risk, while indies can take fail faster and iterate on crazy, creative stuff. Pretty much every highly experimental game I can think (of which there are many) has been indie, or started that way until it hit it big (ie, Minecraft).

If you're only seeing in-the-box creativity in the indie scene, look a bit further afield. Tons of your peers are doing crazy stuff. Most of it is going to fail, due to a lack of exposure, but it's being done.
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James Coote Independent Game Developer 2 years ago
Tons of your peers are doing crazy stuff.
I'm saying no, there are actually very few indies doing crazy, off-the-wall stuff. I do go to a bunch of events and talk to loads of other indies and see a lot of games and prototypes games that never make the light of day. Plus come across even more on the internet.

My observations are that most indies and their games fall into one of two categories: Those with one or both eyes on the commercial side of things, hoping to turn their hobby into a lifestyle business. They're incredibly risk-averse on the creative side because they're so focused on, say, implementing the analytics or making the game as polished as they can to hit that ever increasing quality bar.

And then there's those who just "make what they want," which typically means remaking games from their childhood, but with a different story and cast of characters, or with that extra mechanic or feature that wasn't in the original. People sit down and say "I'm going to make an <RPG/FPS/RTS/insert-genre> only this time, it's going to have XYZ". Only soon as you pick the genre, 90% of design decisions are made for you, and you're just tinkering around the edges with the last 10%. It's difficult to unpick all those assumptions, or start with a blank slate and not subconsciously pull in whole chunks of games because that's just how it is done. (Which is broadly how I interpret what Riccitiello is saying in the original article).

And that's fine! There's nothing wrong on an individual level if mine or others' games are a bit derivative and not terribly original. So long as they're fun to make and play and/or make the indie some money. But I'm saying we need to stop with the parroting of this line about indies being oh so creative and innovative, so we can have a more nuanced debate about the shortcomings of indies as a collective whole.
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Darren Adams Managing Director, ChaosTrend2 years ago
Sorry James, I don't know why you are so adamant to stop people saying indies do creative stuff, seems a bit harsh to me. Of course the world is not black and white and for every break out innovative indie title there are about 1000 failures, I think we all know this.

There are indies who are not really doing anything more than iterating on a well trodden path, but then there are indies who walk along paths not yet trodden. There is nothing wrong with either approach IMO. I just think more risk is needed in consoles if you want fresh games and indies generally have the ability to take those risks for very obvious reasons.

Edited 6 times. Last edit by Darren Adams on 9th May 2015 10:42am

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Shane Sweeney Academic 2 years ago
James while I don't disagree with your observations about the current state of Indie Games I do think you aren't giving the movement enough credit either. Do you recall what it was like before the Indie Game movement?

Greg Costikyan's landmark traveling lecture rallying the world to Indie Games (mostly) encapsulated in this article he wrote in 2005 sums up the industry pretty well. In 10 short years the industry has transformed but I agree it is not perfect, but every year we see entirely new game play genres emerge and we haven't had such a golden age of design since the Atari days.
http://www.escapistmagazine.com/articles/view/video-games/issues/issue_8/50-Death-to-the-Games-Industry-Part-I
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Craig Page El Presidente, Awesome Enterprises2 years ago
Hmmm, I don't know... Everything James wrote seems right. But after reading Shane's link and thinking about it, there ARE a lot of new game genres that exist now that weren't created by AAA studios and publishers. Rogue-likes, runners, retro anything, really anything that starts with an R.
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Al Nelson Producer, Tripwire Interactive2 years ago
So, JR says there is a lack of innovation in games? The guy that gave a greenlight to sequels with 2 digit numbers after the name? The "we miscalculated on digital delivery" guy?

Years ago, I said EA was artificially limiting the games DNA pool by focusing on sequels without reinvesting in cheap, indie-like, green pools of microbial life. I worked for them before and since, between some pretty good indie gigs. I also worked for Sony and they have issues too, but they have worked to get things right in this cycle, just as JR says.

Just like digital, there are some nice, new things happening that are not visible from that altitude, but we're always busy, trying things, experimenting. There are roles for players large and small in the market, we just need to use both sets of strengths. Marketing, production, management and cash flow on one side, innovation, connection to the end users, vision and vigor, on the other.
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