The Biggest Gameplay Innovations Come From Outside The Industry

The rise of the indie developer has coincided with the advent of digital downloads and gateless ecosystems. However, it’s always been true that independent and non-professional development has driven major gameplay shifts over at least the past decade. Here’s a brief list of major innovation brought on by efforts from outside the realm of professional game development:

Counter-Strike (1999)

Although the first Rainbow Six game predates Counter-Strike by at least a year, it was this hobbyist mod for Half-Life that sparked the tactical FPS revolution. Counter-Strike started out as a Half-Life mod created by Minh Le and Jess Cliffe while both were attending university in 1999. By 2000, Counter-Strike became so wildly popular that Valve acquired the game and hired its two creators. Minh Le left Valve to work on his own game while Jess still works there.

Since the creation of Counter-Strike, countless games have borrowed its competitive tactical FPS gameplay. One of the weirder cases being Microsoft’s Shadowrun–turning FASA’s beloved RPG into a cyberpunk Counter-Strike clone. Valve has made a few middling attempts to turn Counter-Strike into a full blown retail product, but has redoubled its efforts with the official sequel.

Not that I have details–but considering how influential Counter-Strike is, it seems like Minh and Jess got a raw deal.

Defense of the Ancients (2003)

Defense of the Ancients started out in 2003 as a free fan-created mod for Warcraft 3. Although the mod changed hands several times, in the end the reclusive “IceFrog” became the game’s star creator/maintainer. Once again, Valve attempted to capitalize on an indie mod sensation by hiring IceFrog in 2009.

DotA isn’t just a game, it’s an industry. DotA even spawned a new acronym–Multiplayer Online Battle Arena or MOBA for short. The genre seems to print money. Riot Games’ f2p DotA inspired RTS, League of Legends, grew so successful that Chinese gaming giant Tencent acquired a majority stake in the company for over $350 million in 2011.

The MOBA wars are just beginning. Valve and Blizzard are fighting over their own “Defense of the Ancients” titled online games. Not to mention many attempts to create MOBAs as digital, mobile, social, and console titles.

Tower Defense (2007)

There have been games stretching as far back as the early ‘80s that used what has come to be called Tower Defense gameplay. Korean mobile games publisher Com2us even trademarked the title “Tower Defense” in 2007. Still, it was Paul Preece’s IGF award-winning Flash game, Desktop Tower Defense, that took the gameplay style mainstream that same year. Since the game’s success, Tower Defense games have flooded the App Store, social networks, and console digital storefronts.

Minecraft (2009)

By now you must be sick of hearing the Minecraft story. Swedish game programmer “Notch” quits his day job working on MMOs at King.com and starts building his own Infiniminer-inspired shareware game involving carving out and building structures in an expansive world of randomly generated cubes wrapped in simple 8-bit textures.

Without any fancy f2p economies or elaborate web portals, Minecraft became a viral hit–so far grossing over $40 million for the developer. Minecraft’s success has created an entire genre of block mining games. Including Terraria–a 2D take on the Minecraft style selling over 200,000 copies via Steam during its release week alone. The Minecraft aesthetic is even leaking into other genres with the Ace of Spades FPS on PC and Brick Force on mobile.

Minecraft is often described as being like Legos. In fact, Lego released their own branded MMO during the timeframe of Minecraft’s release. The game was shut down and Lego recently began selling Minecraft licensed toy bricks. Total victory.

I could go on…Portal…even Canabalt if you want to stretch it. There’s probably more I’m missing.

Indies Created It, Publishers Decorated It

Large publishers and AAA titles seem to advance technical features that nudge gameplay along. GTA’s streaming open worlds, World of Warcraft’s massive persistent online universe, Splinter Cell’s dynamic shadow stealth, and Assassin’s Creed’s fluid climbing and crowd dynamics were all outstanding technical developments that created new twists on existing genres which have become commonplace. (Ok, GTA was more than a nudge) Most of the dramatic indie innovations are purely in gameplay–usually built on top of modest technical foundations.

Companies such as Valve have acquired and successfully worked with the developers of these innovative games. What about a company that can be as influential and disruptive as these independent efforts to start with? Is it even possible?

One thought on “The Biggest Gameplay Innovations Come From Outside The Industry

  1. Pingback: The Best and Worst Gaming Startup Cities « Ralph Barbagallo's Self Indulgent Blog

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