Or: How to be the woman in the red dress
Were you listening to me, Neo? Or were you looking at the woman in the red dress?”
Game development is a risky business. Putting a creative work out there for the world to see makes you vulnerable. It exposes us to critique, ridicule, or, worst of all, apathy. Games are a saturated market and while it creates an embarrassment of riches for players, it makes the business of games very difficult. As daunting as this situation is, it’s also part what makes being a game developer worth it. The challenge of bringing a creative project to life can be one of the most fulfilling accomplishments, especially when the effort has personal meaning beyond just the final result. So then, if we’re going to embark on this terrifying journey, we need to be prepared.
In a recent episode of Vertical Slice, Derek and I tackled the topic of designing within the context of a saturated market. In this piece we will explore traits that make a game stand out in the crowd. All readers who make it to the end of this piece will be rewarded with a link to the episode, which contains a more thoughtful look at the topic (on Derek’s part at least). Don’t cheat by skipping to the end, otherwise your screen will catch fire and explode. As the saying goes, good things come to those who adhere to all instructions they read on the internet.
Make it for yourself
What do Cuphead, Stardew Valley, and Night In the Woods have in common? That’s right, they all have animals. Every good game has animals in it. Now that you have this strong thematic foundation to anchor your project, stop reading this post and get to work!
In addition to animals, there might be one or two other things that will help your game concept. The advice to make a game for yourself isn’t actually about making a game for yourself. In order to stand out, you must make a game that has a unique personality. Your personality is unique… so then, only you can make a game that… you can make.
Okay, time to get off this caffeine train and cut over to chamomile before I get stuck in a loop. Now for some examples of being unique — feel free to borrow heavily from these ideas. In the case of Cuphead, this passion for classic cartoons created an aesthetic that was both familiar, but also REALLY, REALLY, WEIRD. It’s that blend of familiarity and newness that makes a product appealing. The familiar elements make us feel safe, while the new elements spark our curiosity. That’s great for those guys, you say, but you don’t have a passion for creepy old cartoon art, so how is this going to help you? Night in the Woods focuses on writing and explores topics of mental health, something you don’t experience often in games (well, besides the recovery program you participate in after extended voice chat sessions on Call of Duty). Stardew Valley is a curious example in that it is a love letter to a game that was already made. 50 times. However by going back to the roots of the Harvest Moon franchise, Stardew was able to breathe life into the genre, even as it borrowed heavily from the structure and mechanics of the series. This is good news for those of us who are not talented writers contemplating mental health or have eclectic tastes in art.
So identify something that you love deeply and explore that space for inspiration. The result will be something that is fresh, interesting, and causes people to say “whoa, what’s that!?”
Do one thing right
That’s it, just one. For you overachievers who think you can do two things right, don’t say I didn’t warn you. Art is a frequent focus for how you can make your game stand out, and it’s true that a visually striking aesthetic can cause people to take notice. However, it doesn’t count as the one thing you need to do right. That may make me a liar and cheat because that means I’m requiring you to do two things right, but it’s too late and there’s nothing to be done about that now.
The first thing people mention when they talk about Monument Valley is the art, but the one thing Monument Valley does right is the puzzle design. The entire game is built around puzzles inspired by the mind breaking art of MC Escher. The gameplay is simplistic, the story and characters are minimal, but what makes the game so charming is the cohesive experience of solving interesting puzzles, at just the right difficulty level, in a beautiful setting. As I think about whether the game would be as impactful without the art style, I’ve concluded that I am indeed a liar and this is an example of doing two things right.
To help recover my reputation, let’s discuss a game that only did one thing right. Super Meat Boy definitely wins no awards for art. In fact, the theme of the game is strange bordering on slightly disturbing. So yeah, gameplay is king and it is the only thing that matters in game development. Well, either that or… you can be successful by doing one thing right.
In conclusion, look for inspiration in things you love and do just one thing right. Also, go find a great artist on artstation.
Okay, time to get that chamomile tea. As promised, a link to the recent episode of Vertical Slice where Derek and I engage in a much more thoughtful discussion than this post. Subscribe wherever podcasts are sold, and if you meet any aspiring game devs at your local coffee shop working on making a mobile battle royale moba roguelike platformer with rpg elements, direct them here or the podcast in hopes that we can recover their soul before it’s too late.
Good night, and good luck.
To read more of my thoughts on game design and development, follow me @cccobb, and tune in to the podcast I host with Derek Lyons on the art and science of game development @verticalslicefm. Comments, feedback, and likes are greatly appreciated!