Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Absolutely No One Knows How to Make Games


Over the last decade, I've watched countless GDC lectures and interviews. I've read loads of development blogs and dissected other developers methodologies. The primary lesson I've learned through all of this can be summed up in a single phrase: Absolutely no one knows how to make games.

Games often take years to make. That's years of daily influences, most of which go entirely unnoticed. Years of actions taken, opportunities missed and unwitting influences. However, there is a tendency among developers, William and I included, to preach anecdotal evidence as gospel. As if a handful of principles were responsible for a game's success or failure.

Satoru Iwata (former CEO of Nintendo) -
"Above all, video games are meant to just be one thing: fun for everyone"

Jonathan Blow (creator of Braid and The Witness) -
"Everybody expects this fun thing out of all games... Maybe we ought to have different categorizations."

Tommy Refenes (programmer for Super Meat Boy) -
"The things I've sacrificed are social. You kind of have to give up something to have something great."

Frank Lantz (Director of the NYU Game Center) -
"If you're sitting in a box watching a power point, instead of sitting under a tree, talking to your friends. You're doing it wrong."

 I could go on for days. These developers contradict each others approaches but have each found success with their own methodologies. In an attempt to educate, they have all voiced their personal design theories, which is great. However, few design theories are universally correct, so we should all explore until we find personal ideals.
This extends into individual mechanics. Marios jump feels weighted, pulling you down to the ground with a thud.

Meat Boy is notably less restricted by gravity, making long floaty leaps.

Ori's jump is somewhere in the middle. Comparatively shorter than Meat Boy's but with a comfortable hang time.

Though drastically different, all of these games feel great to play because they offer unique perspectives on platforming. Not to say there aren't widely applicable rules. For example, each of these games characters begin moving downward the moment the jump key is released. This helps provide intricate control of the character while in air.

To be clear, your game very well may be shit. I don't want to give the impression that personal preference absolves you from critique. As developers, we play our games more than likely any other player ever will. As masters of the experience, it's easy to get blinded to its flaws. Players take our abstract ideas of gameplay and demonstrate how it functions realistically. 

In conclusion, filter through other developers' theories to find what, in practice, works for you. Let players be your grindstone, helping smooth the flaws in your constructed vision. Also, I'm not ignorant to the irony of this post. As I've advised in regards to other developers, take everything I say with a grain of salt, or don't. Look, I don't know how to make games. 

(My next post will be about my actual game)
William's Comment: 
I agree with the majority of what Gabe is saying in this post.  Games are both products and art forms.  They're both subjective and have target audiences.  I think the most off-base quote is Satoru Iwata's that a game should have universal appeal, since the medium itself isn't even universal and that's just a ridiculous and lofty, unobtainable goal.  But, just about everything that somebody says about game design can be true as long as it is not taken as gospel
A while back I wrote a review for GameMaker: Studio on Steam and it somehow ended up sticking around on the store page for it forever, exposing people to the fact that I have 15,000+ hours (that's over a year) spent in GameMaker.  Tons of people would start adding me on Steam looking for information and help on making games.  I tend to give most people who add me a chance, and try to be helpful when I have time. 
There are three videos that just about every single person would direct me to in order to prove to me that they are well versed in game design: "Juice it or lose it" a talk by Martin Jonasson & Petri Purho"The art of screenshake" by Jan Willem Nijman of Vlambeer, and Arin Hanson's seminal "Sequelitis - Mega Man Classic vs. Mega Man X"
These are wonderful videos to get you excited for game development at least, and at most put you in the mindset of crafting a coherent and fun experience.  These budding devs who added me were using buzzwords that they grabbed from these videos to use as mud patches over glaring flaws in their games.  I would point out to them that their controls stick, and their responses would be, "oh I'll make the game juicier.  Have you seen the Martin Jonasson and Petri-" 

Yes, I've seen the video.  Adding more effects would do nothing to alleviate sticking controls, and the person's game at that point was already a mess of particles and effects that made the game window as confusing as navigating a burning fireworks factory.

Too much juice! TOO MUCH JUICE!
And that's not even touching on how many people came to me with direct ripoffs of the Mega Man X intro stage because their takeaway from Arin Hanson's video was that the way to make a great game is to do exactly what Mega Man X did. 
Look, I guess what I'm trying to say is that designing games is a lot like designing movies.  David Lynch created a seminal masterpiece with Eraserhead.
But everybody who has tried to capture what made Eraserhead great in a bottle for their own films have come across as derivative and shitty student films.  It's great to learn from the greats, but what you should be learning is their passion, reasoning, and technique- the style and what parts of their reasoning or technique you agree with are up to you, and that's what's going to be your voice.  If there were only a handful of "right" ways to do it, then there would only be a handful of good games and films and everybody else would have already given up.
And, uh, that's not the case. 

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