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  • Ten Survival Tips for Aspiring Game Development Students

    [05.13.10]
    - Michael Prinke

  • 3 - Think like a designer, not a fan.

    Being that you like video games enough to want to spend your life with them, there's probably one company, one series of games, or even one game designer whose style you particularly dig. Simply put, you worship them like gods among game designers.

    Stop it. Stop it right now. They aren't gods. They're people. They make mistakes, they don't know everything, their answers are not always perfect, and they certainly don't have every possible answer to every problem. They're not smarter than you are, just way more experienced and generally more mature. For that reason you should respect them, but under no circumstances should you elevate them to the level of abject worship.

    I realize that this can seem really contradictory. You're going to see a right and a wrong way to make a game no matter what, it will be colored by the games that you enjoy playing, and you'll likely just naturally want to make similar projects to the companies whose work you like best and who you would like to work for; in fact, demonstrating a propensity for that sort of material can help you get work with them.

    Even so, placing too much faith in someone is dangerous. It makes you blind to their flaws and overly accepting of their successes, which also makes you blind to the reasons behind their successes. People generally have a poor, imprecise, superficial concept of what it is they enjoy without a good deal of analysis and introspection, and developer worship further boils down this oversimplification into a one-word phrase, be it "Nintendo," "Square Enix," "Blizzard,""Valve," or what have you.

    Maybe it's even simpler than that; maybe it's just single games; "Half-Life" or "Final Fantasy," but the point still stands. Their work becomes your vision of perfection, but it isn't really your vision, is it? It's theirs, distorted through a subjective filter in your brain that biases your idea of why their product is successful to your preferences and limited experience.

    This is called "confirmation bias" and is a well-documented psychological effect. Your design process stops being actual, purposeful, original design that shows a knowledge of gameplay elements and mechanics and becomes more just running down a list of features that you think are supposed to be in every game based on what you know about your favorite titles. If that's what designing a game entailed, then companies wouldn't need you to make a game, they could just hire a thirteen-year-old.

    This is one of those reasons you should avoid referencing other peoples' games when you're talking about your own. For instance, "Diablo-style RPG" is one of those phrases that's kind of caught on as a holy grail of gaming thanks to reviewers' perpetuation of this phrase, but it's just a really quick shortcut to describe a game to someone else who doesn't know anything about game design. As a developer yourself you ought to have more sophisticated ways to talk about your ideas than simple, offhand, referential dialog. You should be able to break things down into smaller parts and be able to play with elements of the games that you like, looking at pieces of games with the same level of scrutiny as a reviewer affords to an entire game.

    It's not enough to understand what you like about Bioshock; any fifteen-year-old can talk about the atmosphere of the game and the dialogue, but they can't figure out what makes those work or why it's engaging to play. You need to understand why you like it. Pick apart the Plasmid system in great detail -- on its own, in relation to guns, in relation to Tonics, in relation to the game's AI, in relation to the game's story and how exactly Plasmids support it in subtext, and from every other angle humanly possible.

    Pick apart the game's economy, dissecting the exact role of vending machines and the game's crafting system and how they make players think about money as a resource with respect to every other system. Do this with every game that you can find the time to, and be as critical as possible -- especially if you like it. If you like a game, you should be interested in knowing why it's good and seeing it made even better as opposed to simply ignoring its flaws.

    Just as being overly accepting of something is unprofessional, so is being overly dismissive, and even when games seem derivative at face value and even when they're from genres or series that you don't generally like, you will find that there are very, very precious few professionally produced games that have absolutely nothing of value to teach. If you don't like a game, that's no excuse for not understanding the appeal in it or finding features that it implements well in addition to the things that set you off about it. As a matter of principle you should, in fact, be able to understand what it is that does set you off about it in as great a detail as you can understand what you love about another game. Finally, your analysis of both should stand on its own objectively. Depending on references to outside games in either case is just lazy.

    It's like my 3D modeling professor tells me: as of the moment you start deciding that you want to make games, you aren't a fan any more. You are a professional. Hold yourself to that standard.

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