I tend to only talk about game development in general, system mechanics, or on occasion content generation. This time, for a change I thought I’d cleanse a bit.
If you look at the industry as a whole, some game companies develop completely new titles that will eventually shape the landscape of gaming through indie titles. However, the vast majority of companies are in it to make a buck. Don’t get me wrong. Games are far from the lowest risk investment. No company I’ve dealt with lacks a passion for games. However, at the end of the day, most want to take home the dough.
When we make games, we make them for a target market. The developers were the target market for most of the games I’ve made so the team intuitively knew what to build. Sometimes you need to build a game where you understand that market but aren’t part of it. Children’s games are a great example of this. I personally don’t have a love for fantasy RPGs. However, of the 5 fantasy RPGs I’ve built, 3 of them won game of the year awards (one of which I was the only designer) and all of them sold extremely well.
I’ve spent a lot of time figuring out what a target market loves and what direction the markets are headed. I’ve also tried to be rock solid on the process of design to allow me to craft experiences in a game. It can be difficult to make a game where you don’t personally have the passion. We’ve all hit times where inspiration lacked and I’m here to come clean about a few different things I did long enough ago I’m sure the statute of limitations has run out on. Here are four examples of many tricks I’ve used to get my work done, and done well, even when inspiration was waning.
Crime Scene: Unit selection screen
Task: Generate names and history for all game units
I needed to come up with unit names for the game very quickly. I went through and created names that reflected real world nomenclature with regional variants. I submitted my names and was told that they lacked the extreme machismo they were looking for. I needed to come up with new names, by the next day. That night I was joking around with my girlfriend about the funniest, most ridiculously macho names I could think up when one sounded like something they would name a vibrator. Eureka! I got a giant list of names of phallic toys. It turned out to be perfect. I gave every unit in that game a name based on a real world vibrator. Their reaction? They thought the names were perfect.
Get examples from other markets that epitomize what you’re going for. Look at the rhythm of it and let it flow.
Crime Scene: Console game
Task: Write background story
I had some ideas to write a bit of an edgy story for a game. I developed a full three act story with sub plots, twists, multiple story lines and more. Management saw major drafts come through and liked it. Somewhere along the line they decided they wanted a child’s cartoon level story instead. I talked it through with them and made an argument for keeping it the way it was. They really wanted the other style so I told them I’d be happy to write the new one for them. Wanting to keep it intentionally rough I avoided research and based the story on my recollection of a childhood cartoon and a b-rated movie from the 70s. Total time I spent on it was 20 minutes. They loved the new story. When the game came out it sold a ton of copies and got glowing reviews. The only ding against it was cartoonish story. I’m not actually sure if the good story would have sold more copies.
The lesson here is merge recollections of the referenced pop-culture to fake a style if you know it well enough. Multiple sources and the telephone game will keep you with something original. If you don’t know it well enough do your research to understand what, exactly, makes it tick and then create the new idea without direct references.
Note: The goal for the previous two tricks is to get into the target market in the same way an actor gets into their role. Anthony Hopkins, as far as we know, isn’t a cannibalistic murderer but he was in the film. Get to that place and you’ll be able to make a game that speaks to any market. The biggest surprise is how much joy you can get from finding the right tactic to get what you need.
Crime Scene: RPG bar
Task: Create several random NPCs
Some RPGs stylistically choose to attempt to make the world feel richer by giving every NPC in the game a name. If you’re working on one of those games you can spend a lot of time naming. I’ve spend real time laboring over making solid meaningful NPC names but the third guy on the right that’s just set dressing only needs to fit in. I don’t remember where I learned this one but if you are dealing with a general fantasy RPG you can randomly pick 3 consonants and 2 vowels, shuffle them to see the possibilities and pick one. The name you get is perfectly capable of blending in the background without standing out.
Insignificant fluff is insignificant fluff. Making an item overly interesting that is only set dressing will either draw attention from the player or it will highlight there isn’t anything else to the character making it more difficult to discern what is actually important in the area.
Note: Usually it is better to leave fluff characters unnamed for gameplay simplicity. A sea of names can add personality and a depth in the right titles though.
Crime Scene: Game pitch
Task: Brainstorm and submit several game ideas
I’ve been in seemingly countless green light meetings and done the song and dance of the pitch. The first ever meeting I was in was a real eye-opener. However, before you can have a pitch meeting you need to come up with the list of pitches. I was asked to write as many different game pitch ideas as I could. I wrote out 13 different ideas and didn’t like the number so instead of taking a weak one off, I added one extra idea onto the list. It was an idea I really disliked but it got me off of 13. I’m not superstitions, but details matter and 13 is unsettling for some so why stick with it. I sent off the ideas and of course the one idea I chucked on the pile got picked. I ran it thought the paces and it almost got built. Fortunately, another opportunity arose and the game got put on the backburner.
Several years later I was joking about it with one of my leads and they got interested in it asking if they could pitch it. I couldn’t believe it. I thought I was telling a fun story but instead my stupid idea rose back up from the ashes. It started to make me question myself. Maybe I couldn’t see the value of my own idea. He wanted to pitch it and he knew I was part of the green light committee. Could it actually be compelling? He almost got the title green lit. No, I didn’t kill it. I let him take his fair shot at it. Turns out my instincts weren’t askew (whew).
The rule of thumb here is only ever pitch games you believe in. They don’t have to be games you play but you should be able to get behind them since you’ll be involved with making it. Worst case scenario is if you do pitch it, the game just won’t die. Obviously don’t bother asking what my idea was; it goes to the grave with me.
So what skeletons are you willing to reveal?
Matt Yaney is heading up a new department at SRS Labs where he drives development of exciting new applications. Matt has spent the last 16 years creating more than 40 different games for 989 Studios, Verant, SOE, Mumbo Jumbo, and Skyworks. Matt’s love and experience have helped him to create great games like EverQuest , Hero’s Call, Field Commander, Untold Legends, Goaaal! and many more! He’s always interested in opportunities to share his experience with others.
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