This seems like a pretty simple question: What games should students play?
There are some games like Grim Fandango, World of Warcraft, and Ico that are discussed in articles and at conferences all the time. In order to learn to make games, a student sometimes needs to actually play them -- but are there games that should top every student's list, games that do certain things well or everything well? Should students play terrible games just to see what not to do?
It seems a great question to ask at the peak of video game season.
All Work and No Games
Dear All Work,
Absolutely. Students of game development -- not to mention professional game developers themselves -- have to play games. All the pros I've ever talked to about this topic have agreed that developers (I'll use the word developers in this column to mean students, professionals, and aspiring developers alike) need to play as many games as possible in as many genres as possible.
It's important to play both critically acclaimed games and games that are overlooked by the media. It's important to play games that you know you will enjoy and that you think you specifically will not enjoy. It's important to play games that reviewers score a 9 out of 10, as well as those that are rated at the very bottom.
Why? It's important to know what's out there.
It's important to know what's out there, first of all, because of the way developers talk about games and game ideas. While the world of video game development certainly does have some specialized language, the vocabulary is not all that extensive. Developers tend to talk about games and game ideas by referencing existing games, both what the new thing will be like and not like.
Second, it's important to know what's out there so as to not replicate an existing game without knowing it. On the other hand, sometimes it's useful to reinvent a good idea that was executed poorly in the past -- but you still have to know what that idea is and why it failed the first time around.
Third, as you implied, developers play games to know what works and what doesn't. For the same reason, developers write (and hopefully read) postmortems of other game development projects. Why would any developer choose to learn something the hard way (the hard way is expensive and can make you go gray early) when they have the option to learn from the mistakes and successes of others instead?
One really helpful hint: You don't need to play games to completion to learn from them. It's perfectly acceptable, if not down right common, to have some kind of subscription rental account for video games so you can try all the major titles that are released on disc. Just fiddle with them long enough to get a sense of what the player does and anything else that stands out, both good and bad. You should also play the demo or free trial period for online games, casual titles, and the like. Done in this manner, you could easily spend less than 15 minutes a day a few times a week familiarizing yourself with all the major releases in a month.
Top Games Developers Should Play
While there's no way to make a truly canonical list of all games that all developers should have played in their lifetimes, I did want to pull together some suggestions from a few experts out there.
Games programming expert Lee Winder (technical manager at Blitz Arcade, part of Blitz Games Studio in the U.K., and unabashed Nintendo fan-boy) categorized his suggestions, not by genre, but by the reason one should play them. For example, he named Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario 64, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time,andPuzzleQuest as "games that show how solid and fun entire games can be."
Final Fantasy VII topped his list for purposes of story and character development. Beyond Good and Evil and Mirror's Edge are games that are under-rated but should be played, says Winder. And last but not least, a terrible game that students and aspiring developers should play to see why things just sometimes don't work: Daikatana.
David Sushil, who teaches game and simulation programming at DeVry, says to play the "oldest games possible," namely go and chess, and think about why they have such longevity. It's also notable, he says, that these games have mechanics that are accessible immediately. "Their mechanics are also incredibly simple to utilize, as opposed to modern video games, which can often require a dozen different controller buttons to operate. Of all the games created in the past 30 or 40 years, I would say only a handful have the chance to survive as long as chess or go. Sudoku, Tetris, and Bejeweled are a few examples."
He adds, "My advice is to take 50 bucks to your local hobby store and pick out a few obscure card or board games, ones you've never heard of before. You'd be surprised how many fantastic games are out there! My students and I have been playing a game called Incan Gold, which they discovered at a recent conference. It incorporates some classic game theory games, and the entertaining result feels kind of like a multiplayer version of [television game show] Deal or No Deal."
Sushil rounds out his list with these video games, which he thinks are largely overlooked:
Psychonauts, for its wonderful level designs and outrageous sense of humor.
Okami, for its seamless blend of function and form - recreating a sumi-e watercolor painting in a game where painting is a primary mechanic (brilliant!).
Pocketful of Stars by Ferry Halimm another Flash game that shows us how games can (and should) be beautiful works of art.
Game designer and occasional writer for this site, James Portnow, had a few suggestions specifically for designers, starting with playing "classic board games and arcade games, games that can be reduced to a few simple rules": Settlers of Catan, Magic: The Gathering, the card game Texas Hold 'em, Dungeons & Dragons, go, chess, Missile Command, Galaga, Tetris, and Pac-man. He adds to this list Rogue, any multi-user dungeon (MUD), Wolfenstien/Doom 1, Herzog Zwei, Super Mario Bros. 3, and Chrono Trigger.
Jill Duffy is editor-in-chief of GameCareerGuide.com, senior contributing editor of Game Developer magazine, and content manager of the Game Career Seminar series of live events. Send her your questions about game development careers and education at email@example.com.