Scary Risk in Game Development

There are two kinds of risk in life and game development: Rational Risk and Scary Risk.

Rational Risk is where you can measure the likelihood of disaster and reasonably predict a successful outcome. To be sure, there is genuine danger but you can rationally consider the risk versus the rewards. Race car driving, sky diving and marriage would fall into this category. But then there's risk where you can barely begin to calculate the dangers involved - or if you can, the numbers or potential upside don't add up. Included in this category are liposuction at unlicensed border town clinics, throwing your drink in Mike Tyson's face and and unprotected sex with Courtney Love. These are what you would call Scary Risks.

And beware the game project with Scary Risk.

With a lot of game projects, young designers tend to want to invent entirely new game systems from scratch. Why propose a tried and true approach when you can brainstorm an idea that's never been done before? The wheel is boring and has been done to death - why not be innovative and try the hexagoneel? The thing is, there's often a reason a radically innovative solution hasn't been done before. Or, more likely, it has been done before much to the chagrin of those that tried it. Trying something new is inherently riskier than doing something that has been proven to work in the past. And the more risks you take, the more likely you're doing to run into catastrophic ruin, the kind of disaster you don't recover from well.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have business-minded executives. They are typically risk-averse in a way that verges on hypochondria. It's the reason you see sequels in movies, books and games or new games that are adaptations of properties from other media - you lower your risk by working with existing properties (or at least, that's the theory). It's reason you get mantras like "nobody ever got fired for buying IBM...or Microsoft...or Oracle...or whatever". Don't develop an engine when you can license Unreal. Don't invest in infrastructure when you can utilize the cloud. Don't create your own technology when you can engage a middleware vendor. But the problem with that approach is that it's extremely difficult to stand out from the crowd and score a true home run in the market when you are just another commodity, exactly the same as everybody else.

So the between the eternal tension of product development safety and potential disaster lies the danger zone we call risk. Learning to measure and live with an appropriate amount of risk is crucial to success in the game industry. Risk is like jalapeƱos - the right amount gives life spice, too much brings tears. So it's good to be able to intelligently map out your risks.

Remember that old adage "fast, cheap or good - you can choose two"? Well, with risk there are three types on a game project: content, technology or organization.

Content risk in games represents your game itself and its systems. This includes things like the IP, as well as the game systems. If you've got an innovative and experimental new game system idea, it's probably best to try it in context of an existing franchise (though there's no guarantee there). Proposing a new IP isn't quite so risky if you have a track record of a delivering games with solid technology which is why Bioware is now in a position to role out games like Mass Effect and Dragon Age after building a reputation on Star Wars and Dungeons and Dragons. Or, if you're Blizzard, you can significantly reduce your risk by avoiding out-and-out innovation in favor of nuanced iteration and refinement.

Technology is all that magical code that exists under the hood and makes the games go - and it's an area that can frighteningly risky. Developers find platforms like the iPhone or the Wii appealing because they aren't very risky from a technology standpoint. Being the first generation of games on a new console - that's a recipe for pain while producing a title three years into the life cycle is safe as kittens. Technology risk is also one of the reasons you so many MMOs crash and burn. A client plus a server plus a network layer plus a honking database and a billing and CS backend - well, that my friend is a lot of different points where your risks can bite you on the, er, backend.

Finally, organization is a combination of the personnel, their experience working together as a team, as well as the processes they use as a team. Again, if you want to moderate risk on a project, go with a proven team. Take the guys who made Medal of Honor a hit and fund them to create a new promising war-themed franchise (but here's a hint - don't alienate them, since odds are they'll just go form yet another studio and create another franchise).

If you're smart, you'll look to balance risks - take a risk in one area while playing it safe in another. You can risk a new game feature if you've got a solid team. Push the technology envelope but do it with an established game genre and feature set.

So what about that start-up made up of people who've never worked together but are developing radical new technologies to deliver a unique gaming experience no one has ever had before?

Well, if by some miracle they succeed, there's a good chance you'll all be zillionaires. But in the meantime, you might want to stock up on crash helmets and anti-depressants.

- Sean Dugan learned long ago to wear protective gear when attending certain development meetings.

Photo by Shayan via Creative Commons License


  1. Even gameplay innovation *that works* seems especially risky. I've been wracking my brain trying to think of games that were both innovative in terms of gameplay and very financially successful, and I can't think of (m)any. Perhaps it's just a failure of memory and/or knowledge, but companies that follow the Blizzard method that you mention, of iteration and refinement, seems to hold sway at the top of the sales charts. Sequels are the perfect example, since usually they can only be minor variations of pre-existing designs (which probably weren't all that innovative to begin with) to avoid alienating fans of the franchise.

    I was talking to an MMO-server engineer recently about his attempts to find work. He mentioned that there was a certain point in interviews with first-time MMO developers were things would tend to go badly. Let me make clear: he has successfully created stable, financially viable server architecture for at least one long-running MMO, so he knows of which he speaks. At some point in the interview, however, the would-be employer would say, "we're planning on using approach X," or "we're going to build our sever using technology X," and he would respond with, "no one has successfully made an MMO server technology with that approach, you're going to have these problems, and I would do it this way, instead." At which point they would thank him for his time and never call him again. To those developers, working with something that was familiar seemed safest, even if it wasn't well suited for the task at hand, and they really, really didn't want to hear that it was risky in any way.

    I know that avoidance, not of risk, but the recognition of risk, has been the downfall of a number of companies. (Using MMO-middleware seems a good example; it's seen as being "safe" even though the middleware developers haven't made an MMO either, and there's no guarantee the middleware will even work.) It seems like there's not a lot of recognition of risk in the industry, in some ways; I hear people talking about "reducing risk," but usually in a way that simply replaces one sort of risk with another. Using Unreal, for example, may reduce risk in one way, but if you're using it to make something it's not designed to be used for, let's say an RTS, there's a whole new set of risks that comes with the decision that wouldn't be there if you developed an engine from scratch. I wonder if, ironically, an ever-increasing fear of risk is reducing the risk assessment abilities of developers? Or has the industry never been terribly good at it?

  2. I would like to add that innovations for the sake of innovations are the most risky thing ever.
    From my experience, I can say that when you have a purpose to be innovative and try inventing something because of this purpose - you increase your risks many times. But when your purpose is to just make a good game and you are looking for the best technology, gameplay, IP for it (even using old and proved ones)- you may be quite surprised when at an end you find that you've created something innovative.
    What I wan tto say is that besides risks evaluation you need to be wise when you decide if you need this or that innovation THAT much to make a good game or you are just trying to tell the world how creative you are