Game Design, Programming and running a one-man games business…

Theory: The best game designers have little fun playing games

Here is a theory, tell me what you think. I’m sure it’s rough around the edges.

The best games are made by people who feel ‘compelled’ to make a certain type of game. Invariably, this is because that sort of game does not already exist. If the perfect game (to that designer’s eye) already existed, they would

a) Waste a lot of their free time playing it

b) Not perceive there is a market for another game like that, and not feel as motivated or driven to make it.

If this theory is true, it follows that the designers that are churning out consistently original or refreshing stuff, are amongst the most frustrated and miserable game-players. They are constantly living in a gaming world populated by other people ‘doing it wrong’.

Now that theory is a bit arbitrary, and I am well aware of the fact that I’m just trying to rationalise my own opinions and convince myself that the fact that I find 90%+ of modern games to be rubbish is because I am perceiving flaws others do not. The other option is that I’m going off games, which I’m pretty certain is not true, judging by my huge addiction to Anno 2070 (dammit I WILL get enough fruity drinks to get that next level of eco inhabitant!!!!), or that I have unusual taste in games (quite likely).

Any other game designers out there who feel let down/ dissapointed / depressed by most modern games? I have maybe 20 games in my steam account (I admit, I tend to buy retail or direct from developer so that’s only a snapshot) whereas I know many people have 100+ 200+ games. I find most games to be unappealing, at any price. I judge games more by the time required, than the asking price. I’m not saying other games are *bad*, just that they do not appeal to me. Maybe the designer in me has just evolved to constantly find fault in games?

17 thoughts on Theory: The best game designers have little fun playing games

  1. I’ve been meaning to write something about this for quite a while.

    Stuff like Skyrim absolutely does not appeal to me, and I’m sure that if I could play back the past five years, 90% of the time I spent playing games was playing my own games. And that’s not just debugging. I play my completed games too. And I think of ways to improve or sequel-ize them. For me, creating the game is my game. The challenge doesn’t lie in the game itself but in creating a game. Creating a game is a similar process to completing a deep story-based quest, with a beginning, middle, end, triumphs and pitfalls. That’s my game.

  2. I think the games industry hit a point about 10 years ago where there was a fundamental shift of focus on how to design games. Before then it was about designing fun, enagaging games with simple mechanics and graphics, which would give you hundreds of hours of gameplay.

    Now, the main consideration seems to be return on investment, and the best way to draw in the masses is being graphically superior at the cost of everything else. There have been a few notable exceptions in recent years, but generally it’s all boring corridor shooters with 5-10 hours of gameplay.

    The light at the end of the tunnel for me is the rise of the indy games in the last few years, which is producing the first real creativity and innovation for a long time.

    I got sick of complaining about the games industry and decided to try fixing the problem by developing a game myself. The type of game I’d want to play. It’s only a part time project, but progress has been good so far.

  3. Definitely. I do find creation more satisfying than consumption, that’s part of it, but mostly I’m driven by “I can do better than this”.

  4. I still take wonder in some of the games that are recent. I thoroughly enjoy the time that I spend playing Skyrim and Starcraft presents a wonderful challenge and it feels good to measure my progress as I get better. I like messing around in the world of Minecraft, building whatever comes to mind, and I enjoy the occasional adventure (Mass-Effect) or new mechanic that feels really good (Hammerfall).

    That being said I do find that there are still areas where games fail. Specifically, I find that games that let you explore and learn are seriously lacking. All of these so-called educational games are just branded fantasies, instead of genuine exploration driven learning. Computer “games” are a perfect medium for this type of experience. True directed interactive media that can be more exciting and challenging than the real world, or allow us to explore areas not as accessible to us in life, such as ancient times or microscopic scales.

    However the general feel of “I can do better than this” is what drives all of my desire to code in general.

  5. The game I’m building is one other companies haven’t made in 10 years. They have tried – but they’ve failed. I used to play this game endlessly with my friends.

    Today I pretty much exclusively play “game of the year” editions because I just don’t have the time to play anything that isn’t the best of the best.

    Steam is nice because I can get the game of the year of 2010 for < $5 on sale. I don't care so much about playing the latest games anymore. And funding my own game has made me kind of cheap – at least temporarily.

  6. Looking at the playtime for my Steam library of games, I noticed something interesting. The closer my play time gets to 20-hours, the greater the chance I will stop playing that particular game, usually for good. There is only game in my Steam library that I played for over 20-hours, and that was Civilization V. Skyrim sits idle at 20-hours. However, I have played every game in my Steam Library for at least an hour.

    Thinking about this a bit more, it means I continue to play a certain game until I begin to feel detachment – or the feeling that the game begins to feel and play the same. When I start-up a new game, it feels fresh (Even if the mechanics or gameplay are the same as something before) so I play it for a few hours. But once the game begins to feel the same, it gets dropped.

    In fact, the only games that I played for more than 15 hours (Excluding Skyrim), are strategy games. Shogun 2 I played for 19 hours, Civilization V I played for 145 hours, Empire: Total war I have played for 16 hours, AI War I have played for 18. Going by the above, this means that I play Strategy games longer because it continues to feel fresh, to play differently for a longer period of time – even if the underlying mechanics are the same.

  7. I think that the “games are art” way of thinking is damaging games!
    Modern games aren’t fun because designers aren’t really interested in making games… they are interested in making pieces of art! This industry went from “story in a game is like story in a porn movie” to products that don’t contain any of the elements that used to make a game fun i.e. levels, treasures, hard-to-defeat bosses, etc. Maybe a good in-between…

  8. I always wondered about the gaming habits of people like Will Wright, Peter Molyneux, and Sid Meier. I wonder if they play thier own games much, outside of development and testing.

    People who like games like anno games or civilization (myself included) tend to be detail oriented “systems” people and can get unhappy when they see even a small design flaw. Thanks for mentioning anno 2070, I did not even know that was released.

  9. Not exactly the same, but the biggest thing that inspires me to write is that no one is making exactly the novels that I want to read. There are some that come close (Fleet of Worlds, Building Harliquin’s Moon, Songs of Distant Earth, The Lost Fleet series), but the closer they come, the more the little choices that I’d have done differently start to bother me.

  10. I think its more the feeling of saturation and good old memories.

    Like with music:

    We tend to discount temporary music, the older we get, and
    give a bonus to music from our teenage years / early 20s.

    Thus the love of many gamedev for 80s and 90s style graphics.
    Although they do use many modern improvements in the games interfaces.

    When I see a jewel like the old Gothic1, and cry inside seeing how the
    sequels got worser and worser.
    Pushing out mechanics like free climbing and overpowered enemies when entering a place to early,
    but taking more modern Elements as from WoW and console RPGs.

    But showing Gothic1 to a 16 year old, he might think “what a buggy crap”.

    The gameindustry is at a saturation point, where the excpected revenues cant
    cover the increasing costs anymore, so only few big players remain left.
    In the 90s you could make a Racing game with 5 people, now you need 30 o more to cover the market and systems
    and remain competative.


    I personally often get kicked out of a games athmosphere / imergance when I see somehing
    I would have made differently. This is the doom of the gamedeveloper.

    But I think this applies to others like filmmakers, actors and authors too.
    Its harder to enjoy a work, when you constantly analyse it.

  11. I can see where you are coming from. Though I have this horrible compulsion to buy games, especially ones on sale. Its funny because I’m otherwise rather frugal…

    Anywho, looking at my steam library the number one played game is Mount and Blade: Warband (which incidentally I’ve never played unmodded). Its a tough game to get into, but it is unlike any other game I’ve played…

    But I do like some of “those games” like Skyrim (pretty fun game TBH) and BF3. You know whats funny though… In the last couple weeks I spent 20 hours playing DoomRL… 20 hours… Most of my steam games don’t get that much love. I’ve also spent at least 30-40 hours on ToME ( Simple but very fun games with a subtle complexity.

  12. You are fundamentally correct. I think disappointed gamers ultimately know the games that they are playing are bad/stagnant/the same.

    I’m a big stickler for interactivity so when games step back and take the player out of the game, reduce the amount of stuff you can do in the game like in MMO’s for instance. It turns me off the game completely.

    There’s a reason why action games like super mario and classic turn based decision games like civilization 1 are still compelling to this day. They focus on player skill as a gameplay mechanic and interesting decisions and stuff to do in the game.

    Modern games have gotten away from this by focusing too much on complex graphics and getting the graphics to all ‘look correct’ is expensive and time consuming. You can get more interactivity and interesting decisions out of a game by not trying to bite off more then you can chew.

    Right now the AAA game industry is in a funk – they are in need of an industrial revolution in terms of automated content generation. Paying artists to make high detail animated models and special fx is just too expensive, they can’t make content high quality enough fast enough. So there is going to have to be a revolution in tools and automating creativity to some extent, especially for more boring static objects in the game world.

    We have a lot of computational power but no one has put it to good use generating art assets just yet, getting the theories and algorithms behind it is going to take time.

  13. I’ve been feeling the same but I don’t know if you can generalize.

    There is one game that was a refreshing breath of wow, Demon’s Soul and Dark Souls. I’m still amazed at how much intense I can get about those games just because they made 1. progression just perfectly right (more in Dark Souls than in Demon’s Soul) 2. loosing is part of the game 3. YOU HAVE TO FOCUS.

    That frustration you’re talking about I’ve felt it a lot because of lack of those 3 points, the 3rd being related to immersion that is lacking a lot in current games.

    I just want to make those games nobody is currently seems even trying to imagine, but me. That’s my main source of will-power to build games, actually.

  14. I was reading a book called Theory of Fun, where the author was saying, games are are about teaching some concept. When you get bored of playing a game, its because you have learned all that the game has to teach.

  15. I don’t think that a good game developer will waste his time in playing an existing game, instead of it he would look for a new game with improved features to make the game playing much better for the gamers.

  16. i thouroughly enjoy playing games-but I can only play them for small bouts of time before I end up killing them and loading up my own.

    The two games that I played in 1 sitting are Deadspace 2, and Bioshock. While they weren’t perfect by a long shot, I loved the world that the developers created, and I took to heart many of the impressions that were made on me during those experiences.

    While AAA titles aren’t the epitome of the art form that is computer games, to discount them as ‘mainstream therefore crap’ isn’t necessarily wise. They are obviously doing SOMETHING right, or they wouldn’t have sold in the multiple of millions. If you can strip those games down, and figure out WHY they have that appeal, and can apply it to your own development, you will more tha likely have a more successful game. But the only way to do that is to play them.

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