When the previews of your latest AAA game hit the net, it hurts you to see a comment that the game is “just more of the same”.
It is not true, you think. It cannot be true. Our game has a unique gameplay hook. Our visual style is original, and no one else has our tech. You shake your head, angry at yet another Internet troll, and you move on. Big mistake.
When you design AAA games for an AAA studio, it’s easy to live in a bubble. Famous journalists from the biggest gaming magazines do interviews with you. You and hundreds of thousands of gamers watch your face on YouTube. Your game is advertised on a national TV.
I am a rock star.
You work hard and give it your best. Every day you make dozens of decisions. The color of the heroine’s hair. Branches of the skill tree. Enemy variants.
Every day the game grows.
You think you see everything. How each element of the game affects another. You see the entire structure. You got it under control.
The game is better and better each day.
You track what the competition is doing. Despite your busy schedule and long hours, you still play a lot of games. You know what’s in store for the future. You see the trends. You have an inside info on the next-gen.
You are a creative mind, eager to learn, working hard, making a big game. You’re doing everything you should be doing. Right?
You just can’t see it.
It’s natural. It’s expected. Your comfort zone is a very warm and happy place, and your scumbag brain does everything it can to protect it.
What you can’t see is that the Internet troll was right. That your game has been done already, a hundred times before. There is always an equivalent of it, done twenty years ago. Yes, maybe only in monochrome and maybe with a crappy skill tree and maybe there was only one enemy type. Still, it already exists.
In other words, your precious AAA game commits the worst sin a piece of entertainment can commit.
So fucking what?
So fucking that’s why we sell less and less AAA games each year.
And now you look for excuses. Stop it. This conversation is not about misdirected marketing campaigns, bad economy or the rise of mobile. We are talking about you. About how well you understand your craft.
Let’s try something here. Think of that AAA game you are making right now.
And would the game still be fun if people played it in god mode? If yes, then why don’t you allow for such mode to be one of the difficulty options? Is it to make the game better or is it to hide the fact it’s not very long, really?
Would people love your game even if the visuals sucked? Catch 22 is an excellent book even in Comic Sans, and Unforgiven is a fantastic movie even on a small black and white TV in a cheap roadside motel. How about your game? Are your fancy graphics an extra layer, or a crutch?
After watching all 144 hours of Buffy, how much of it would you cut off to make it even better? Is it more percent than the percent of forgettable, meaningless padding in your game?
Would your game still be fun if you removed all violence from it? Would it even exist? Is it too easy to name three direct competitors to your game? Is the game’s story better than the story in your favorite book or a movie?
Okay, that last one was a low blow. Consider it my whim to have at least one guaranteed win here.
The point is, you’re not quite as good as you think you are, and the game you’re making is nothing special. But we can try to change that.
Whatever you say, buddy.
There are two ways to win a round in Tekken. One is to learn all the moves, train hard every day and fight many different opponents. The other is to button mash.
There are two ways in which you can innovate and invent. One, just like the button mashing in Tekken, comes from the lack of knowledge. Someone does not know something cannot be done, so they do it.
Sadly, that way is not for you. You know too much already. You’re already too good at the game to button mash. You’re actually so comfortable with the game, that you’re not learning anything anymore.
Still, we can fix it with a simple reboot of your AAA brain.
You need to start clean. You need to start questioning everything you’ve learned about games so far. No sacred cows. Nothing is untouchable.
Can I start by questioning the quality level of this advice?
That would actually be perfect. Go you. We’re already making progress. Also, for example, open yourself up to the world of indie games.
Indie games? That’s it? That’s all you got?
No, but it’s a good first step.
Look, I play a lot of indie games.
See? That’s what I mean. You hear, but you don’t listen. I didn’t say “play indie games”, I said “open yourself up” to them.
Let’s be honest (see how that’s a recurring theme?) here for a moment. You look down on indie games. You think most of them are crap, and those that are good are merely fun little distractions. You play them, but then you go back to bigger, better things.
Indie games are like kids to you. They can say something smart every now and then, but then at best that’s just amusing. No reason to re-evaluate your life.
But tell me one thing. You consider yourself to be creative and open-minded, right?
Have you ever, and I mean ever, done anything as creative as Stanley Parable?
Have you ever questioned the very core of what’s expected in your game like Amnesia did with the removal of combat?
Has any of your games touched people the way To the Moon does?
Then start listening.
Listen to gamers evangelizing a small mod they just played not because they’re pretentious pricks, but because they found something special there, something that does not exist anywhere else.
Wonder why some indie games make more money than your games even though they don’t look as pretty.
Investigate why millions of people can be good at an indie game even though this game does not feature a tutorial you put so much faith and so many resources into.
Or, to put it in one sentence, start noticing how indie games can be more interesting and engaging than anything you do just because they question things that you consider unquestionable.
Indie games can surprise people. Your games do not. You have a magic marker and all you do with it is paint dicks on a wall.
Change that. Reboot your AAA brain and make better games.
It’s not easy. I know you still don’t believe me. You think I’m exaggerating.
You are exaggerating. There is a lot of incredible AAA games and a lot of rubbish indie games.
The thing is, however, that a bad AAA game is bad in all the obvious ways, and a bad indie game can still be inspiring.
Look, we could go on like this forever. Because there is a catch.
The catch is that you will understand the benefits of rebooting your AAA brain only after you do it. You cannot explain it to someone who’s not a father what it feels like to be one. You can throw “unconditional love” and “life forever changed” at them, and they will say they get it. But they don’t. And they will only see that after they become fathers themselves.
Trust me, I’ve been there. I realized how much I needed the reboot only after it actually happened.
Come on. What do you have to lose? If I’m right, everyone wins. If I’m wrong, well, then at least we’ll both learn that everyone should control the amount of Red Bull they drink in a day.
You know you’re talking to yourself, right?
I know. This isn’t some universal “one size fits all” blog post. All I can guarantee is that this post fits me. Yes, I talk to myself here. Let’s consider this a recording of my inner dialogue. Hopefully someone will find it useful.
I question that.
Great. That’s the whole point.