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Dev Blog (or How to Make a Game) Part 1: Misconceptions [Gamer By Design]

This here is gonna be one of my most spontaneous blog articles. I’ve been thinking about doing a how-to of games, but didn’t know where to start. Then today I got inspired by a lot of facebook traffic about marketing-driven games vs indie games and the creative process. This traffic was all spurned by a really well written article by Josh here that I felt went great as a companion to my first article in the series “Why you should love/hate Apple.

The indirect benefits/drawbacks of the Apple model had me thinking that a great place to start is the “common misconceptions” of what happens when you make a game. Stuff that’s not obvious from the outside. A lot of time it is also the dirty work. The un-fun stuff.

So You’re Gonna Make a WHOLE game?

You film dudes are gonna here something familiar. “Everyone’s a director.”  That’s the film saying, right?  Well in games, everyone is a designer.

Here are all the people who think they are better designers than the best designers:

  • Programmers
  • Pimple faced 17 year olds
  • That kid fresh out of school in his first design job
  • The dude bagging groceries at the store
  • Dogs
  • Cats
  • Single-Celled Organisms
  • Aliens that are spying on us and pirating our games from another galaxy

So that’s everyone right?  If you’re gonna be a designer, you have to really learn to accept that. The misconception is that designers make game ideas, characters and stories.

Well some of that is true. We do that stuff. The misconception is that outsiders, even people in the game industry who haven’t designed an entire game, think that’s all we do. If that were the case, then yes, it would be all kitties and happiness and GREAT GAME IDEAS.

In real life, game design is less Lara Croft models, and more excel charts. Shrug.

Here are other things we do:

  • Make huge complicated Excel charts for weeks that detail mechanics of games. Lots of numbers.
  • Write large sets of documents called ‘Specs’ that serve as designs for subsystems.
  • Sketch out interfaces for menus.
  • Meetings, meetings, meetings.
  • Knowing deep down inside what will work and won’t work in a game. Which brings me to:

Experience doesn’t matter, right?

Experience really DOES matter in game design. Not because your ideas get better over time for big, high-level concepts and stories. That stuff is inspiration and it’s part of creativity. Experience matters more when we discuss the CRAFT of the game.

I thought it was gonna revolve around me, and now I gotta lift it?!

In grad school Ernessa and I had a play writing professor, Milan Stitt (I wish he were still with us, he gave great advice), who used to say that playwrights were called playwrights because it’s a craft.  Just like a dude who builds a ship is a shipwright. They aren’t playwriters, they’re playwrights. They build things that require a lot of hard, complicated techniques that arent’ just pie in the sky ideas. Milan was great for teaching the craft, the details, and telling you how hard a professional actually needs to work to write a good play.

Same thing is true for game designers. And that’s the stuff that experience gives you: it allows you to see a big, pretty idea about a game and identify the pitfalls in actually making it, including all the tiny boring things. The things that otherwise, you’d miss, and halfway into the production they’d bite you in the ass, causing you a lot of wasted time!

After years and years of seeing people play your games, you start to make better first guesses. You start to get an idea of what frustrates people, and you build a database in your head of all the bad decision you’ve made or others have made.

That’s why it’s good to listen to people. By hearing tales of where other people messed up, you just got a mental database entry of what not to do without making the mistake yourself.

I didn’t think THAT would happen!

You definitely get really humble when you see people play your game. With our current game Zig Zag Zombie, we are starting beta tests. You know how I said “you make better first guesses” above?  Notice that I said the word better and I said the word guesses. Because I’ve come to beleive that you never make perfect first decisions on the interface of a game. But you try to get the major stuff right, and then you TEST TEST TEST.

The Progression chart for Zig Zag Zombie. A lot of unfun charts make a casual puzzle game phun!

For example, in Zig Zag Zombie, we have a button you press in the game to make the characters launch (if you click on the pictures in that link, you can see screenshots of the level). When we first started testing for usability, someone kept aiming the wrong way in a very easy level. I asked why they were doing that. They said they didn’t try the obvious solution because they thought “the character would collide with the button.”  In my mind, the button looked like a piece of interface, not a part of the game world. But I was not right in my first guess. But by testing early, I was able to make the button disappear when pressed, which solved the problem in just 5 minutes of work.

Ok phew I’m done

So those are a few misconceptions. We could go on forever. But the root of this post is that, if you want to design games, the tiny little boring decisions, the details are what makes it good. I had a post before on how important execution is vs. ideas. I still believe it!  Everyone has ideas, and your ideas are good. I like almost every idea people tell me when I meet them and they say “hey I have a good game idea.”  But how many people are willing to sit alone in the wee hours, not thinking of ideas, but obsessing over tuning, over progression charts in excel, or over whether or not a button should disappear. I think the film guys can chime in, but I’ll venture a guess that they’ll say the same things about film. You gotta do the dirty work.

If you just have ideas, there isn’t a job in games where you just sell the idea for a game. Unless you count “rich dude who pays a bunch of people to make his game.”  But being that dude is a fun job no matter how you spin it. Oh and Ferraris are prob fun too. Goodnight.

As always, give me a holler on twitter @MattUdvari.

Image Credits: cloneofsnake, Svadilfari