What is Divergent Game Design?

What is Divergent Game Design?

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2016 seems to be the year of remakes and remasters. From old movies made new to spiritual successor video games that throwback to a bygone age, with all the new advances in technology over the past few decades, you can hardly blame media producers for wanting to revisit old concepts and see what they’d be like if they were made in the modern era. It’s the latter, however, that we want to talk about and give it a name, which we feel would be helpful for future discussions on the matter: divergent game design.




What is Divergent Game Design?

Simply put, divergent game design is when two or more developers take inspiration from a common source and interpret that source material differently, by comparison. With that in mind, divergent games — between themselves — are not a part of the same franchise.

What is Divergent Game Design?

UFO Defense | (Source: Abandonware DOS)

For example, let’s take a look at the original X-COM franchise. X-COM: UFO Defense (or, in some markets, UFO: Enemy Unknown), a turn-based sci-fi strategy game where humanity staved off an alien invasion, was made by Mythos Games and MicroProse back in the ’90s. Nowadays, Firaxis has picked up the franchise’s torch with recent releases such as XCOM: Enemy UnknownEnemy Within, and XCOM 2. While all three of these modern games succeed UFO Defense, their style and aesthetic has changed drastically given new rendering technology and customization options; though the turn-based combat remains, it’s 3D and cinematic, what with all the crazy camera angles when you peg an extraterrestrial in the cranium with a well-placed shot.

Though the newer games are still fantastic homages to the X-COM of old, that didn’t stop another developer from putting their own spin on the game. I’m talking about none other than Goldhawk Interactive and their “off-brand” Xenonauts released two years ago. Where UFO Defense‘s storyline took place in the then-near-future of 1998, Xenonauts reimagines an alternate alien-riddled reality in the late ’70s. While preserving gameplay mechanics like a real-time strategic map to manage numerous bases (the newer XCOM games focus on a single main base, by comparison), Goldhawk has added other features to remain competitive with other games of this decade, such as a directional cover system, friendly NPCs, and alternative victory conditions for combat missions.

What is Divergent Game Design?

XCOM 2

Moreover, in order to avoid copyright infringement, Goldhawk incorporated its own unique story elements (having xenonauts instead of XCOM operatives and taking place during the Cold War as opposed to the near future) though fans of the original UFO Defense recognize the game as a spiritual successor. And given its 2D presentation and similar handling to the original, aesthetically Xenonauts might be a closer representation than the newer XCOMs. But what makes this divergent game design? First, let’s define each of these games and how they relate to one another to fit the model.

What is Divergent Game Design?

Xenonauts | (Source: Goldhawk Interactive)

In order to best illustrate this model of development, think of major noble houses in Europe, each with their own “main” branch and secondary “cadet” branches. XCOM: Enemy UnknownEnemy Within, and XCOM 2 are directly descended from X-COM: UFO Defense; they bear the name and Firaxis now owns the franchise outright. This is what we’ll call the “source lineage,” or otherwise the canon successors.

Goldhawk’s Xenonauts, however, are a gaming cadet branch descended from UFO Defense. It is not a part of the XCOM franchise, though it bears a lot of similarities in design and aesthetic and is made by a different developer than the legal franchise holder. This is a “divergent lineage,” or otherwise as it’s more popularly called, the spiritual successor. What’s more interesting is that Goldhawk announced a Xenonauts 2 last fall, meaning this divergent lineage will now have its own successor, a second generation to add to its line.

If one were to chart out a family tree for these games, it’d look a little like this:

What is Divergent Game Design?

Blue represents the source lineage; green represents the divergent lineage

Now the House of X-COM isn’t the only example of divergent game design that readily comes to mind (though it is one of the more complex lines out there, at present). The original RollerCoaster Tycoon (Chris Sawyer Productions/Hasbro Interactive) has its own canon lineage carried on in RollerCoaster Tycoon 3 and RollerCoaster Tycoon World (Frontier Developments/Nvizzio Creations and Atari) with a divergent lineage in the form of Parkitect by Texel Raptor. And the original Harvest Moon games (now Story of Seasons by Marvelous InteractiveNintendo) have found a spiritual successor in ConcernedApe‘s Stardew Valley (published by Chucklefish Games).

There’s even a three-pronged lineage from Total Annihilation (Cavedog Entertainment) with recent successors such as Uber Entertainment‘s Planetary Annihilation and Chris Taylor‘s Supreme Commander. It’s important to note that Taylor also worked on Total Annihilation back in the day, though since the two games aren’t a part of the same franchise, it still counts as a divergent lineage. In fact, it isn’t unheard of for different projects to share some of the same talent. I’m looking at you, early Fallouts and Wasteland.

Again, what makes a divergent game is that the spiritual successors draw heavily from their major source inspiration and stand on their own as full, legal games. I mention this because there is one important caveat to divergent game design perfectly exhibited by Pokemon Uranium, the fan-made Pokemon game that got shuttered quickly by Nintendo.

While Pokemon Uranium is arguably a divergent lineage from the other Pokemon games we’ve grown to know and love on each successive generation of Gameboy, the game was too close to its source material to exist in its own right as a standalone game. Due to the explicit use of copyright materials, Nintendo, who owns the intellectual property rights, had the game and any mirrors to download it pulled. The developers would have been more successful using the Pokemon games as an inspiration for their own game rather than — for lack of better terms — trying to commandeer the franchise themselves without any license to the IP. That isn’t to say Uranium isn’t a quality game. Just, frankly, an illegally developed one. Certainly, all art and innovation is just recycling and recombination of tried-and-true concepts (see any of the above titles I listed), but there’s a difference between innovation and thievery. Unfortunately, Uranium took too much from its source to be recognized as innovative.

But What About Mods?

Now given the current gaming environment — both from consumer and developer standpoints — the Internet has made access to third-party mods even easier. This goes doubly so for developers who release their software development kits and openly encourage their coding-inclined gamers to taken ownership and tweak it to their liking.

With that in mind, modding is only partially divergent. Where the above examples all highlight full games that belong to different franchises, mods are a lot closer to their source material, even relying on the source code to even exist. Official expansions and DLC operate on the same principle, again (most of the time) relying on the game they’re expanding upon to even work. Really, third-party mods are just unofficial expansion packs generated by the community, making official expansions sometimes moot or, from a functionalist standpoint, examples of what players can do with new objects and scripts once they get their hands on the code to make their own mods.

Sometimes larger mods (more appropriately termed “overhauls”) add a huge amount of content and balances, often fixing glaring issues so common with a lot of AAA launches (*cough* Total War: Rome II *cough*). On the topic of Total War overhauls, Radious and DarthMod are both great examples of mods that tweak and flesh out their vanilla counterparts. They might add new units, effects, custom gameplay values (making buildings cost less or more, speeding up or slowing down research speeds, and otherwise adjusting unit stats), really whatever the modders want. Either way, the mod designers directly reinterpret and rebalance the game to their liking, much to the joy of the community-at-large when they feel the original designers dropped the ball.

Going back to our initial example of the X-COM line by comparison, Xenonauts is an indirect interpretation of the source material, taking inspiration from it and then creating a new universe, lore, and its own environment/aesthetic. That said, it isn’t reliant on any XCOM game to run or exist. It simply is.

Why is Divergent Game Design Important?

By now you might be thinking, “Why is he yammering on about this divergent game design nonsense?” Well, mainly because I’ve been feeling like, while how we play and make video games has changed over the past 20 years, how we talk about them hasn’t. Moreover, with a rampant lack of media and journalistic ethics (the coverage of the 2016 U.S. election is one major example, though you don’t need me to tell you about the issues specific to our industry, given GamerGate and scarring of that debacle on being able to trust media outlets), I’ve been trying to be a counter-friction to that machine. In order to tackle these issues, however, we need to look at our beloved work- and pastime with a different lens. By coining terms like “divergent game design,” hopefully we’ll find a uniform way to discuss new phenomena like this rather than throwing around several terms for the same thing.

In terms of why this term (and the practice it represents) is important, I have found four main reasons:

A growing need for a common term

Like I just said, in this age of information, words are becoming just as valuable as any physical product. With that in mind, by finding common terms to fill a demand — especially with the increasingly popular phenomenon of remaking games — we can better discuss and analyze this practice. In fact, divergent game design can be a matter of life and death for some game studios: Pillars of Eternity, a modern throwback to the classic RPG Baldur’s Gate, was a crowdsourced product that saved Obsidian Entertainment from almost-certain failure. Where established publishers weren’t willing to take the project on, it was from the power of the people and their faith in these developers that gave them one last chance. Now, they went on to produce two DLCs for Pillars of Eternity as well as a new game called Tyranny set to release next month, helped along through publication with Paradox Interactive.

Moreover, the practice of divergent game design also lowers the barrier of entry for indie developers, allowing them to market their own projects. While Stardew Valley wasn’t crowdsourced, it was its nostalgia and attachment to an endearing franchise that helped sweep gamers off their feet and jettison it to the top of Steam’s most active (and most purchased) games around the time of its release. Instead of taking on a completely new realm and trying to compete with the big boys right away, developers like this stick with what they know and love, reimagining it in their own image. What some might condemn as cheap, I personally would equate with an efficient use of one’s budget. By contrast, all too often some crowdsourced or Early Access games squander the good faith of their early backers, finding themselves in pre-release purgatory.

But that’s a different problem we’ll discuss another day.

The importance of recombination for innovation and creativity

“There’s no such thing as original,” is a popular saying among creatives. Indeed, everything new is simply a new application or concept of something old. A flashlight, for example, is nothing more than an electric torch used to illuminate darkness; the vehicle might be different, but the effect is much the same. You can even focus the heat from the light to produce fire if you MacGyver it enough.

So too does this saying remain true with gaming. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Innovation and creativity — and those who do it most effectively — are just executing tried-and-true principles in a new way, playing around and recombining these principles until something fresh and fantastic emerges. A lot of Fallout 4‘s design, when one analyzes the game, is cannibalized from a bunch of  different sources, influenced by successful Fallout 3 mods as well as other games.

Settlement building is heavily reminiscent from the Real-Time Settlers (RTS) mod from Fallout 3 and New Vegas. The crafting system is beefed up from the one Bethesda introduced in Skyrim, making all kinds of junk usable for upgrading your equipment rather than specific materials you’d find and refine. To address gripes surrounding Fallout 3‘s gun mechanics, they even got some of Destiny‘s FPS team to help rework how guns and combat handle, making Fallout 4 feel a lot more smooth and organic compared to the clunkiness of its successors.

Going back yet again to XCOM, Firaxis openly admits to collaboration with its modding community in order to make XCOM 2‘s base game even better. They also used these modders to consult on how to better make their software development kit available, emphasizing personal ownership and the ease of making and sharing mods. Paradox Interactive has also been working on making modding as simple as possible, namely in their recent games Stellaris and Hearts of Iron IV.

Regardless of industry, it’s the sharing of ideas instead of stark competition or trying to snuff out third-party modders (you know the companies who fear their communities can outproduce them that you don’t need me to name them) that’ll push progress forward. After all, if the point is making an entertaining product that people will love, who better than the code-literate gamers to work with?

The rise of the sandbox and customized experiences

Though this point admittedly is a side tangent from divergent game design, it’s still one of the reasons why the term is important. Where the current trend in games seems to be a customized experience for players (colloquially termed as sandboxes, such as most of Bethesda’s titular RPG franchises like The Elder Scrolls and Fallout since its acquisition), the term of divergent game design recognizes a similar customization trend on the developer side, using common source material as a base.

Yup. With the Internet, everyone seems to share everything. Capitalizing on this phenomenon would (and seems to be proving to) be the smart decision for everyone.

Mapping the “gaming genome”

Finally, divergent game design will help bring order to the chaos that surrounds “the gaming genome.” Whenever I search for this term, any site that attempts to take on the project of mapping games by genre, creator, and a slew of other factors is either short-lived or DOA. In their defense, gamers have notoriously short attention spans. Honestly, if you’ve managed to get this far in my rant today, I commend you for it.

Still, by noting instances of divergence, one can better track trends within the industry as well as compare creative and artistic qualities between two or more teams. Using the source lineage as a sort of control, you can then compare the aesthetic, gameplay, and other factors and their variations of a single common concept. In other words, do you prefer Xenonauts or XCOM: Enemy Unknown and why? Moreover, your own preference reflects upon the abilities of the developers in question; certainly if Goldhawk makes a better game, in your opinion, to Firaxis, you’ll be more inclined to buy from the former.

Divergent game design also allows us to track the relationships between people, from major developers, to indie teams and modders, as well as designers who’ve worked for various companies and projects. If you really want to find games that you enjoy, it’s important to know the names and faces of those who work on them.

For instance, I personally am always pleased with things from Brian Fargo (Interplay and InExile Entertainment) and Chris Avellone (Interplay and Obsidian Entertainment), but that’s because I’m a big ol’ classic Fallout fanboy. Ken Levine (Irrational Games), Feargus Urquhart (Obsidian Entertainment), and Sid Meier (Firaxis) are also big inspirations and favorite designers/developers of mine. Plus, my own father Steve Magestro (Rebel Interactive) who was active in the ’80s and ’90s was a major influence on my love of video games, in essence indirectly prompting the formation of this site, given that shared interest and influence.

Of course, everyone has their own favorite companies and franchises, but when discussing games and their design, it’s always important to note the people behind them. With divergent game design, it encourages us to focus then on these talented individuals and what they bring to the table rather than just looking at and reviewing an end product as a commodity to be sold. By shifting this analytical focus in such a way to map these relationships, one can better create new games as well as find pre-existing games they might like with greater accuracy.

Knowledge is power, after all.

About author

Anthony Magestro

Anthony "Tony" Magestro--or known on the field of battle as Metzge--is an avid writer, gamer, and entrepreneur. When he's not writing, gaming, or entrepreneuring, he enjoys cooking, trippy movies, and trying to be awesome to varying degrees of success. Feel free to check out his LinkedIn page, especially if you need freelance help with content writing or digital marketing. Or just like to network, that's fine too.