Eddie Cameron 9:36 pm on March 27, 2011 Counting comments...

There’s one question that we as devs don’t bother asking, don’t know the answer, or choose to ignore it, “Why should my game be made?”. All of us have a stake in the success and advancement of the industry. All of us have a passion for games, because we’re definitely not in this for the money (as I type this I’m at the glamourous day-job that supports my very un-profitable indie dev career). So why don’t we ask why?

Many mainstream games are aften criticised for being pretty generic. This can partly be blamed on marketing departments, terrified that the game they have to sell won’t have any fancy bullet points. But, no matter how tempting it may be, they can’t take all the blame. It’s easy to lose track of a game’s idea once dev mode kicks in, and finish a game that may be well made, but misses the mark on being something worth remembering. These are our Call of Duties and Medal of Honours (I know they get a lot of shit, but it’s the price of their super-high profile). Both are very well presented, but beyond the obvious “Because it’s fun” or even worse, “Because it sells”, why were these games made? We can do “fun” and we can make profitable games, so why can’t more games prove they can do more?

However, it’s easy for me to pick on the mega-studios, when they are so distant from my one or two man projects. Indie devs need to ask the question too. We don’t have shareholders, and usually no bosses to please so what’s our excuse? Countless flash platformers, if you’re lucky they might have a cute gimmick. What’s the point? Having different spaceship sprites for a top down shooter isn’t enough reason to make it. Even some of the more overt ‘art-games’ (ridiculous term) seem guilty of losing purpose sometime during development, falling into the trap of art-ness without expression.

While working on a game beyond the concept stage, whether as an artist, designer or programmer, we should keep that question in the back of our minds. Not only does this mean that assets/design work will be aware of the game’s goal, but it will give advance warning if the goal needs to evolve along with the game. We don’t need a separate genre and audience for Art games, but we do need to put authorial ‘meaning’ into more games. Simply through the self awareness that comes with questioning ourselves (and a little bit of talent I suppose) we can keep themes/messages/purpose alive through aesthetics and mechanics.

This doesn’t, however, mean that developers need an agenda to force though a game. In fact, this often leads to clumsy political posturing (Homefront/Modern Warfare). But, a rough idea or theme for a game can crystallise over development into something robust and well understood, both by players and the team.

This may all sound pretty vague and waffly, and it is. Kinda. So how do you go about asking why a game should be made? We don’t need a ‘mission statement’ type directive, to be ignored by everyone actually working on a game. So nothing as general (and dull) as “This game will advance the medium and create a positive experience for the player” Instead, let it evolve naturally from the concept. As an example (from the Global Game Jam theme of extinction), say a team wanted to do a game about the death of the dinosaurs. What reasons could the team work for? Maybe the game should educate children about the events, or it should be a satire about pollution, or maybe it should offer the one true 1st person dinosaur simulation. (These ideas are free to any lucky takers!)
This team decides to make a pollution satire. Keeping this in mind, mechanics are developed that revolve around playing dino-president, trying to keep as many creatures alive as possible while the sky dims with dust. Artists paint bleak landscapes of dying life. Coders code. And it was good. At some evaluation point, the team again asks why their game should be made. With the production as it stands, they decide to throw away the dinosaur theme. The new purpose they decide on is “To satirise the current political system by showing a near future enviro-apocolypse” Some assets and mechanics have to be canned, but because all team members had a clear purpose to what they were making, most still fit with the new theme. In time, the team releases a best-seller, makes millions, and saves the world.

So. Why don’t more developers keep such a simple question at the back of their minds? Many may not see the point, they have a rough idea (WWII FPS) or gameplay gimmick (you can BEND TIME) and as long as new stuff fits into that and works, it’s in. Others may ask too far into development, where it simply isn’t feasible to change the game too much. Worse, some may just realise they don’t have an answer anymore with the game they’ve already poured so much time with.

A seemingly simple question can have a rather large affect on a finished game. For those claiming that they already ask why, have a pat on the back, but make sure to listen to the answer throughout development.

Note: This is cross-posted to my personal blog, grapefruitgames.com