Designers & Fans

Making games is hard. The hours are long. The work is intellectually demanding. The pay is garbage. So if you’re going to make games you need to love games. You really have to have passion. You have to be a super-fan. If you’re going to devote three to five years of your life to the development of a project you just have to be a hugely passionate devotee of the other games in that genre.

But too much passion can be a bad thing. It drives people to overwork, it makes them demand less than they’re worth and it impairs their judgement.

The Danger of Loving Too Much

It’s natural to love the games that we spend many thousands of hours of our lives playing. And when a designer comes to select a project it’s natural to want to make something akin to thing about which we’re so passionate. We want to bring some of that fun and that joy from our free time into our work. “Wouldn’t it be great?” says the designer “if we could make our own fps!?”. I think everyone who’s ever taken a game seriously can understand that impulse.

I think that this impulse is a trap.

“Love is blind” the saying goes and being too much of a fan of something leads to an inability to criticise honestly. When you hold something too close to your heart any criticism someone makes of that thing becomes a tacit criticism of you and your judgement. If you can’t criticise, if you can’t honestly look at genre in which you’re working and identify real, substantial flaws then how can you find room for improvement?

There’s plenty of criticism around of the kind of “band wagon jumping” games that just copy the most popular franchises in a genre. Right now it’s Mobas before that it was MMOs and before that it was FPS’s and Open-world Sandbox games.

I don’t think these derivative works happen out of cynicism. I think more likely the designers just lack the skill to distance themselves from the games that inspired them. The passion that drives them to make these games has overridden their objectivity and they can’t operate as critics. Which means they can’t find flaws and the can’t find the space innovate or evolve the design.

When this happens you end up making a game that’s substantively the same as the one that inspired you and with nothing to differentiate it you tend to find that there’s no room in the marketplace for a game that already exists. (As evidenced by the scores of now shuttered Mobas and MMOs).

Kill your darlings

This is not to suggest that designers should pick a genre about which they’re less passionate for their next project. Instead we should focus on developing the critical skill of being dispassionate and disinterested. Instead of being fans and evangelists looking at the best aspects of the games we love and trying to recreate our favourite moments we should be like scientists or critics.

Calmly, rationally and methodically dismantling the things we’re interested in them to increase our understanding of how they work. And honestly admitting to ourselves when we find mechanics and dynamics that don’t meet our standard of good design.

Too often I see designers twisting themselves into knots trying to argue that black is white and bad is good in order to justify keeping a mechanic that’s strategically shallow, or tedious, or excessively random or that emphasises the wrong kinds of skills. Instead of doing the obvious thing and admitting “Yeah, that’s a bad property of our system and something we’d like to fix.”

Putting my money where my mouth is…

I’d like to start a series where I look at some popular genres and point out some of the big flaws that get glossed over, ignored or given a pass for being “part of the genre” and either point out examples of games that’ve done really well by tackling these problems or suggest my own ideas for how one could approach potentially addressing those issues.

So stay tuned for that…

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