I’m speaking at X Media Lab next week, and this is the talk I was going to give. Instead, I’ve opted for something completely different – because I’m changeable like that.
This piece is aimed at traditional media producers who are looking to make the move into making games, of one sort or another. The games industry of today is incredibly exciting, and it needs people of all stripes to help build incredible and inspiring content. Here are some guidelines before you dive into the new world!
Rule Zero : Games are not movies.
I went to SeaWorld not that long ago, and they had a ride called Bermuda Triangle. In a lot of ways, it felt like someone who really wanted to make a movie had been put in charge of building a ride. There was a whole bunch of narrative, and backstory as you floated through a series of caves filled with amazing set pieces. Visually gorgeous as you see all the missing spitfires and other elements that have gotten lost in the Triangle. The big problem (aside from meeting aliens around the next corner) is that the ride is no fun. It’s supposed to end with a race against time as the whole cave system collapses and you barely escape. It’s not thrilling, or exciting, or compelling. On the other hand Seaworld also has a ride called Jet Rescue which is supposed to be about rescuing animals on JetSkis. You sit down, there’s a brief bit of video from the head of marine stuff, and then the acceleration blows your face off and you rocket around a track getting flipped nearly upside down.
Jet Rescue is a much better ride, because its primary focus is on being a good ride. Rides aren’t movies, and a good movie doesn’t necessarily make a good game. The same is true (incredibly true) of games. You can fill a game with beautiful set pieces and backstory and aliens … and it can still be a terrible game. On the other hand, blocks falling from the sky can be incredibly addictive. Why do the blocks fall in Tetris? Who knows? Who cares?
Rule 1 : Play Games
You need to play games, if you want to make them. I’ve seen a lot of game projects arise, for one reason or another, from people who say sometime like this :
“I want to make a game. I don’t play them, because they’re such a degenerate waste of time, but I know how to make a really good one.”
The funny thing about this is that I hear it a lot. If you said the same thing to a film director, they’d laugh at you, and with good reason. To really understand the artform, you need to engage with it. Play games a lot, learn about what you enjoy, and take notes. By the way, watching your kids play games doesn’t count. Games are about what you do, first and foremost. What you watch and listen to comes in second place, and if that’s all you understand then you still don’t get it. It’s the same as reading the novelisations of great movies and being convinced you understand the film anyway.
It’s important enough to say it again. Games are about what you do. GTA is about driving and shooting. Tetris is about putting blocks in place. Pac-Man is about avoiding ghosts and eating dots. Call of Duty is about shooting and ducking into cover. Each of these games may have a whole bunch more stuff going on, but they’re games because of what you do in them.
Rule Two : Interaction comes first. Way first.
There are a huge number of reasons to be excited about games. I’m excited about games, incredibly so. If you’re thinking about transmedia, then I presume you’re excited about games. So it’s all good, right?
Except in many cases that’s not really the case. There’s a lot of people who want to do transmedia because they feel like they should, or because it makes it easier to tell stories, or because they read something on a blog. Games are about interaction, not about narrative in the conventional sense. If you don’t have an interaction you’re excited about, you don’t have a game. If the core of your excitement is the story you want to tell, make a movie. Write a book! A story is not a game idea, even if you think it might be. It’s a theme for a game, and that’s a completely different thing. Come back to games when you have something to offer games – which means you need to consider the actions the player can take, and the implications of those actions.
Rule Three : Narrative is context for action.
One of the great opportunities for narrative in games is as context for action. Action with context is substantially more meaningful than action without. Thus, if you’re considering getting into games from a traditional media background, odds are you’re probably a pretty experienced good storyteller, and that’s a skill you can definitely bring to bear here.
I always use GTA as the example here. Almost every mission in GTA in about driving or shooting. Sometimes shooting then driving, or driving then shooting then driving some more. However, because each mission is arranged in interesting ways and is given context by the greater narrative, people continue to play through tens of hours of the same sorts of mechanics. Narrative gives action context and that can be a great boon.
Rule Four : Gameplay is a loop, not a line.
A good gameplay loop (and a nice litmus test for whether you’ve got the game bit or the narrative bit in mind), is whether it has an in built ability to renew and refresh itself. Driving along the road in a driving game against the same five cars is fun for a bit, but once you let me upgrade and add to my car, and progressively increase the challenge of the tracks and the skills of the driver, you’ve got a game. The core mechanic (driving) let me compete (races) where success rewards me (cash) which I can use to gain additional skills and abilities (upgrade) so that I can (driving) better and win new (races) and get more (cash) and (upgrade) and (driving) and on and on.
Rule Five : There are more ways to play Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
Not everyone will find the above gameplay loop compelling. Different things motivate different people at different times. If you want to build a mass market game, you need to develop a broadly appealing suite of options that engage different people in different ways.
The world of games includes everything from WiiFit (a game about getting stronger and thinner each day) to Facebook (a game about having a lot of friends and “liking” the things they do). Interactivity is a broad church, with plenty of space for everything from the Call of Duty and World of Warcraft end of the table through to games that can teach, or touch, or inspire. Different games take different approaches, and appeal to different people, and you can learn a lot by looking into what’s out there.
Rule Six : Build and Test, Build and Test
How do you learn about these different players and play styles, the masses of niches that make up your market? Watch them play games. Not just your games, but any old games. But your games too. Please make sure that you watch people play your games. Resist the urge to explain things to them, or help them. Whenever you open your mouth to help someone through your game, your game just lost. You won’t be there to help when the game goes out to the public, so you need to ensure that it can speak for itself. Fix those things and try again, until people can flow through your experience as seamlessly as possible. There are a million ways to entice and seduce people into learning the way your game operates, and you’ll only learn them by watching what people do. You need to understand what your game does well, and encourage people to do that.
Rule Seven : Who is your player, and what do you want to do to them?
Games are capable of providing an enormous range of emotion and experience, yet most commercial games stick to a relatively narrow niche. Action, suspense and the satisfaction of collecting shiny things. In order to really craft a great experience for people, you need to begin with a goal in mind. Understand what it is you want to do, and you’ll be well placed to achieve it.
Rule Eight : Don’t trust anyone who tries to make rules.
Game designers can’t resist making rules. It’s what we do. As true as that is, the whole world of games is barely nascent medium. There are no hard and fast rules, nor are there any guarantees for success. All of the rules I’ve listed are guidelines at best, ways to check that you’ve thought about what you want to build and considered the ways you can make that a success. If you want to throw them away, throw them away!
The only important thing, in the end, is to be passionate about games. As a new medium, there’s an incredible amount of trail yet to be blazed, and that’s incredibly exciting. Any rule made today could be irrelevant tomorrow, and the opportunities are endless. Make games. Build rules. Watch people play. Make new games. Bring something new into the world. Now there’s a gameplay loop I can believe in!