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Staying Creative in a Franchise World: The Darryl Principle
by Ben Serviss on 02/14/13 09:50:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


This article originally appeared on

It’s so easy to bellyache about the lack of innovation in mainstream games, and even easier to praise the constant flow of quirky, experimental indies that try (at varying levels) to innovate with new gameplay wrinkles and ideas. For developers toiling for years in the service of the latest blockbuster, this stance might seem one-sided. But what if I told you that there was a simple way to distill this argument down to its core concept – and the only way to do it was through Canadian sketch comedy? But what if I told you that there was a simple way to distill this argument down to its core concept – and the only way to do it was through Canadian sketch comedy?

There’s one particular bit from The Kids in the Hall, the seminal 90s Canadian comedy troupe, that makes this concept understandable. In the sketch, Darryl, a hopelessly cheesy mook on a blind date, dazes off into a weird daydream of a miniature oompah band playing on a windowsill. He reveals to his confused date that every time he daydreams, it’s always the same thing – oompah band on a windowsill. When she enlightens him about the wonders of, you know, imagining things, what does he do for his very first imaginative daydream? He pictures his date playing triangle with the oompah band.

The premise is absurd but simple, and the parallels are easy to grasp – when you’ve gone for so long with only a limited understanding of what is possible, it’s hard to understand what else is possible, since you have no other frame of reference. So while Darryl’s first active daydream doesn’t venture far from what he knows, just the slightest bit of variety feels like a revelation.

Kids in the Hall - Darryl's Oompah BandWatch the entire sketch on YouTube.

You can see this process in the evolution of any medium. In early film, nobody even thought about moving the camera, since the most direct reference at the time was theater – and since you can’t move a theater audience, who would ever think of moving the camera?

The same goes for the first director to break from convention and shoot scenes out of sequence. Imagine! Filming a scene that happens before a scene that hasn’t even been shot yet! It seems silly now, but early on these basic ideas had to be invented, and it was up to those who could imagine a different reality – who could dream of something other than oompah bands – to pioneer new techniques.

Arguably, we’re at that point now in games, or have been for half a decade – only in hindsight will we be able to chart the evolution. But a sense of pushing the boundaries is becoming more visible. Playing with the concepts of whether games have to be fun (Passage), or if they even have to be identifiable as games (The Endless ForestProteus) rings like efforts to dream a little differently.

An early movie theater
The first cinemas were converted vaudeville theaters, with audiences eager for brand new experiences.

To put it into perspective, the rise of shooters as the dominant mainstream genre reflects a staidness in thought. Even as innovations and evolutions happen in the genre (multiplayer leveling ala Call of Duty; Forge mode in Halo), at the core they’re still working in the same basic structure. Instead of the oompah band, now there’s a metal band, or a bluegrass group, or an orchestra – but even within these variations, the paradigm is still music on the windowsill.

Still, it’s always frightening to branch out into uncharted territory, especially when million-dollar budgets are on the line. For every PortalJourney and Infinity Blade that tries to do something different, there are plenty of titles that try and fail. But the industry is getting wiser at embracing controlled experimentation.

Something we tend to forget is that the games industry isn’t industrial supplies, or pharmaceuticals, or construction equipment – in our business, we can make almost anything we can dream up. For both mainstream studios trying to add exciting mechanics to something familiar and indies imagining radical new modes of interaction, the value of truly expanding our dreams will be returned tenfold in the new experiences we have still yet to conceive.

Ben Serviss is a freelance game designer working in commercial, social, educational and indie games. Follow him on Twitter at @benserviss.

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Robert Boyd
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Really enjoyed the article but I question your use of Infinity Blade as an example of something that "tries to do something different" though. From what I've played of the game, it seemed to be Nintendo's old Punch-Out!! game but with modern graphics, more grinding, and less charm.

Ben Serviss
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Thanks Robert, and good point. I was thinking more of how Infinity Blade tailored its gameplay specifically to take advantage of the iPad's horsepower, display and input methods at a time when nobody had really done that yet and the iPad was still a curiosity to developers.

Robert Boyd
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So it's more of the mentality of "Let's make a big budget iPad game that's tailored to touch controls" rather than the actual design. Okay, I can see that.

Jacob Germany
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"it seemed to be Nintendo's old Punch-Out!!"

In that it's a series of one-on-one duels? Because that's just about where the similarity ends. In an age of rapidly changing game venues and input methods, Infinity Blade was one of the first to really adapt to the tablet space, instead of amounting to an awkward port. How, exactly, is that not worthy of the praise of "different" or "innovative"?

Seems like a bigger jump than the incremental innovation in many other game-spaces.

Joseph Elliott
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This is a great article, because it's both insightful and thought provoking, and because The Kids in the Hall rules so hard.

You're absolutely right about first person shooters. It's incredible that when the only genre requirements are the camera perspective and the ability to point a gun that so many of them look, feel and play so similarly.

RPGs, both of the western and Japanese variety, also tend to be big offenders of this. Xenoblade Chronicles was praised for being something of a breakthrough in JRPG design, but it's just a slew of incremental improvements that felt as inevitable as they did refreshing. Hardly paradigm changing stuff.

I'm a fan of all mentioned genres, and the incremental evolution is always welcomed, but the disparity between original, boundary pushing design in the indie and AAA space is remarkable. But it's worth noting that video games are hardly unique in this regard. Isn't the same true in just about all creative mediums?

Tom Franklin
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"Isn't the same true in just about all creative mediums?"

I think this is an interesting question to ponder; Let us do so in the context of something the article mentions, i.e. the revolutionization of film production through techniques such as moving the camera and shooting scenes out of sequence.

The question then becomes, did the creativity in movie development end there, or has it ended since? Does there come a point when a medium has reached the apex of what it may be, creatively, and forever after must exist within the constraints that are inherent to it? Is IMAX 3D a creative leap forward? Or is the only space left to explore in movies now presentation and production values, because movies are what they are?

A great movie rarely does things differently, from a technical or creative perspective, than lesser movies. What makes them great is the experience they provide, the emotions they invoke, the believability of the actors and the sense of immersion that draws the audience in.

Are games all that different? Are they not bound by the finite set of human experiences? While we are still learning in many ways to "move the camera" as developers, where could the medium go that it hasn't already? Are we not at the apex now, save for technical improvements?

I believe the evolution of film may have followed a linear path, the x-axis being creative achievement, the y-axis being technical. Our evolution may be different. I believe we have more of an exponential path, where we may reach our creative apex before we approach the pinnacle of technical achievement. If we had holo-deck technology now, would it provide any more meaningful experiences, creatively? Or would they simply be more compelling due to the technical successes?

Carlo Delallana
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I'm crushing your head!! I'm crushing your head!!

that would make for a nice toy on the iPad

Lewis Wakeford
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I think in our case it will also follow a linear path, or rather, a zig-zaggy one that averages out to linear. We often hear people say games are naturally limited as a medium because they are essentially physical simulations, and so are often based entirely around action. This occurs because physics is pretty easy to simulate, compared to say... social interaction. But what happens when AI technology reaches the point that you could make a functional game based mostly around dialogue with NPCs (without just being a well disguised choose-your-own-adventure book)? As we get more and more raw computing power to play with, I think new possibilities are going to open up.

Joseph Elliott
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Tom Franklin: Video games haven't maxed out technologically yet, nor will they for a long time (if ever), but I think we're really only at the beginning of what they can do and say creatively. There are so many themes yet to be tackled, so many experiences completely unimaginable to us now. Last year was most one of the most exciting years for new, interesting experiences in gaming that I've ever experienced.

Film may never experiment artistically at the same incredible rate as it did in the 50's-70's, but there's still plenty left to try. Video games have barely made it into the age of the talkies. Even when tackling the same themes that have been explored in film, theater and literature for centuries, every new generation and culture offers a unique lens to even the most basic and universal of human experiences. Such is the nature of all artistic exploration.

Technological advances (and science in general) can be compared to a set of stairs. Advancement breeds advancement, stacked on top of each other forever. In art, everybody is finding the same truths over and over again, but from a different generational perspective, and through the lens of a different medium. Nobody will make literature or film any more "true" than already exists, but there will always be new perspectives on those truths.

I think there are technological advancements, which are easy to understand, and advancements in technique/form, but there are no advancements in "truth" when it comes to art. Does that make sense, or am I just talking out my ass? Certainly there have been plenty of technological advancements since Seven Samurai, and plenty of new cinematic techniques mastered, but even though the film is over half a century old, it's a near perfect work of art. I'd argue something similar about Shadow of the Colossus.

Carlo Delallana: I've got that on a shirt. Even in Toronto, it's remarkable how many people miss the reference.

Alan Youngblood
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Part of the trouble lies in how one defines innovation vs iteration. I define these as such: innovation is doing something that adds value and is relevant to a current audience (most often when they don't know that they want/need it); whereas iteration is doing something that was known to add value in the past to a known audience (occasionally regardless of whether that audience currently exists or cares).

In FPSs: Wolfenstien 3D/Doom were innovative. Halo (the first one) was innovative. Counter-strike was innovative. L4D was innovative. Few others in the genre have been. It's difficult for one to create an entry to a known genre and be innovative rather than iterative.

So don't get me wrong, there's lots of great iteration that makes for great experiences that are well worth it. I'm playing through System Shock 2 now. It's the "prequel," if you will, to Bioshock. Both are phenomenal games, but at their core both are very similar. Playing Bioshock in HD with smooth animations and stylin' Art-deco world, certainly adds value to the core of the experience.

The majority of the market will be iterative at any given time. But that should leave plenty of room for developers and investors (ahem, are you listening?) to focus on innovation too. If innovation is not constant in a market, after a while the market gets blind-sided by disruptive innovation.

Hopefully works like this article will help the industry mature a bit and accept both sides of the coin: innovation and iteration. Both are necessary for a healthy industry. Gamers want both quirky innovations like Katamari Damacy and tried-and-true iterations like Bioshock Infinite.

Tyler Shogren
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I'm pretty sure Plato beat The Kids in the Hall to the punch on this one (

Andrew Lavigne
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I think it's worth recalling that Scott's Alien and Cameron's Aliens are both fantastic films, despite being part of a franchise; many comic artists like Frank Miller and Alan Moore have turned out fantastic stories using franchise/canon-laden characters, like Moore on his amazing Swamp-Thing run, written just as part of their job to turn in a comic script once a month to keep decades old franchises going.

Sometimes constraints can really free artists to work outside of their boxes and struggle against the system - more so than if they're given free reign to do what they want.

Making a franchise sequel while still making a unique game can be a challenge like that: look at Far Cry. #1 is a pretty linear action game, #2 is a very serious Apocalypse Now riff set in an open world, #3 continues the open world but turns the tone to balls-to-the-wall absurdism.

Or, as you said, Call of Duty, which started out very similar to Medal of Honor, turned into its own more "realistic" take with #2, and then transformed our entire generation of gaming with Modern Warfare's cover shooting, "realistic" campaign (it's easy to take for granted now, but the nuke death and your squad dying at the end was utterly shocking at the time), current day setting (World War II shooters as a trend officially died in 2007), and experience system in multiplayer.