Play Everything: Your First Step to Great Design
This Isn’t Hyperbole
Everyone interested in making video games should strive to play everything. If you are a game design/programming/3D art/animation student and want to grasp as much as possible about the games industry you’ve put your blood, sweat and tears trying to break into; play everything. If you are a seasoned game development veteran with years of experience and are looking for inspiration; play everything.
If you Don’t Have the Time to Play, You Don’t Have the Time (or Tools) to Design
I’m paraphrasing the great Stephen King, who said it about writing, but it carries over quite well to video games (or really any creative field). It’s a simple phrase but it couldn’t be more true: if you want to succeed, you don’t have a choice but to study as many works as you can in the field you are working in.
If you don’t truly invest yourself into understanding what makes great games great (or bad games, well, bad) then you can never hope to attain the highest of highs, or avoid the lowest of lows in your work. If you want to be the best game dev you can be you should live your life with this in the front of you mind: playing is learning, learning is playing.
Don’t Just Play, Try to Understand
There is a big difference between playing a game for the pure enjoyment of exploring the game space, and playing it, enjoying it, but also delving into the nitty gritty of what makes it work (or not work).
Achieving this can be a difficult proposition. We play games to escape, attain, challenge, or create joy for ourselves in some way. Training our brains to examine, dissect and analyze our experience is usually the furthest thing from what we want.
I’ve had conversations with people who don’t want to know how games are made because they feel it will disrupt their entertainment experiences. They are afraid to ‘see behind the curtain’. The logic being that once you know that the Wizard of Oz is just some crazy old dude with an ugly beard and oversized microphone the magic is gone.
As a game maker however, to be able to appreciate a work on a subjective, personal level, but yet be able to analyze its objective merits should only increase your enjoyment. Knowing how difficult it is to create an emotionally engaging story with weighty characters in a medium that at its core hinges on player choice should make games like ‘The Last of Us’ even more impressive.
It’s not Just What you Want
What we enjoy is deeply personal and it’s very difficult to divorce ourselves from our preferences. We judge everything: mechanics, narrative and content in games through our personal lens.
We may say things like “why did they put a fluorescent green gun skin into the game? It ruins immersion”, or “why is there multiplayer in this game? It should be strictly a single player experience”. Sometimes our personal feelings are echoed by many other users. Sometimes they are not. Sometimes it can be controversial: for every fan angered at the price and apparent lack of value for the (in)famous ‘horse armor’ from ‘Oblivion’ there was a fan out there who bought it.
As a game maker you should be striving to understand the impact, weight and value that your decisions have on your entire community of players, not just your personal preferences.
Making all of your decisions with the aim of creating ‘your personal ultimate game’ is not design, it’s just masturbation.
There are Always Reasons
This isn’t to say that every decision made in all games is good. Far from it. Game development is an incredibly challenging, sometimes all consuming endeavor. Mistakes are made on a daily basis. What you should be doing is trying hard to understand the reasons why these decisions were made. Maybe they were made for the wrong reasons, but there was always a reason. Did the devs run out a time? Did their hubris lead them down the wrong path? Having an attitude of trying to understand what those truths might be, shy of getting the decision making devs on the phone, will only help you become a better game dev.
As game makers we tend to play and revere the best games of the genre we are working in. Making and RTS? Play RTS games exclusively. Making a 3rd person shooter? Get all of your ideas from the best 3rd person shooters.
At first glance, this seems logical. The ‘best’ games, both from a critical acclaim standpoint and sales figures, go a long way to establishing a strong base of ideas and ways of implementing things that should obviously work.
While I’m not suggesting that this shouldn’t be the starting practice by any means, the danger here is that we are all just eating at the same burger joint. No matter how many different combinations of toppings you can create, it’s still just a burger. What about apple pie? Or hummus? Or a flan? You run the risk of sticking too close to established norms for your genre if you don’t think outside the box a little bit.
Innovation Comes From new Combinations
Really Matt?? Does it? I know it’s obvious, but you really increase your chances of a new and interesting mechanic that the gaming public never knew they wanted by blending ideas from other genres.
What can mobile games teach us about engagement for our new FPS? What can the focus on tight 3C’s from 3rd person shooters teach us about UI design in our PC turned based strategy title? The more connections we forge in our brains (and in our industry) the more we can grow, change and innovate to create never before seen about experiences.
Don’t be a Fanboy
When you commit to playing only one genre, console, or game you’re only hurting yourself. You’re just limiting the awesome fun and learning you could have by opening yourself up to new experiences. Each time you insult, cast aside or harshly judge a game you are essentially saying that everyone who enjoys it is wrong, or at least misguided. Understanding the richness and diversity of the enjoyment of play is a powerful weapon in your arsenal of design.
Sometimes it can be a money thing. I understand that gaming can be expensive. There are definitely cheaper activities. I’m simply saying that at least being open to it will increase your learning and eventually your creativity in the titles you’re working on.
Play ‘Bad’ Games Too
Almost everything has some redeeming value. Only the worst of the worst games have no good ideas. There’s always something to learn from them. The worst games also teach you valuable lessons about what not to do… sometimes in a much clearer way than good games.
Your References are out of Date: Play New Games
If you’re still talking about how awesome ‘Battlezone’ is you need to refresh your references. Games have moved on since then. This isn’t to say that we can’t learn from our game ancestors. Many classics from yesteryear remain seminal examples of particular genres, mechanics or gameplay. Just remember that not everyone is still playing ‘Zaxxon’ (or was even alive when it came out). Continually check out the latest and greatest titles to get a sense of where the industry is going. You might just get an amazing idea and be ahead of the curve.
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