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

Why your game design is generic, and rubbish

Ok, it’s just a theory, but hey, if you don’t come to a guys blog to hear his personal take on things…you are doing it wrong…:D. And to be fair, it’s not just mine, I don’t recall where, but I recall once reading someone make the point that if you could go back in time and remove the movie ‘aliens’ and the book ‘the lord of the rings’, you would basically eradicate modern gaming. Obviously that is a huge generalization, but I think a decent point is being made. I’ve also noticed it in personal experience, I’ve been in a design meeting where the designer has described big sweeping changes to the way the game should look, and it was obvious to absolutely everyone that he saw ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’ the night before.

The problems with that is we have ALL seen Aliens and we have ALL seen The Lord Of the Rings. I’m serious in suggesting 99% of you readers have seen both. You have all seen Star Wars too.

Now there is some decent mileage in saying that you are making a game that appeals to your demographic, and that this is a sensible thing to do, and that yes, lots of people like space monsters, laser guns and orcs. The trouble is, EVERYONE ELSE is doing this too. As a result, you need to bring something else to the table if you are going to compete. The problem is, you are stuck, creatively speaking inside the prison of your own experiences.


Game developers tend to be young, sometimes shy, introverted indoors types who can be a bit obsessive. As a result, they tend towards having knowledge and experience in depth, rather than breadth, and from a game design POV that is stifling. Game design works well (in fact I’d suggest all creativity works well) when you bring multiple influences, hopefully really diverse ones into the mix. Saying you like both Star Wars AND Star Trek does not count. I mean really diverse.

I’d never heard of Ayn Rand before Bioshock. Since then I’ve even bought a book of hers (out of curiosity, don’t hate me, I’ve read The Communist manifesto too, I’m open minded…). I really liked Bioshock (up to a point), and I think the atmosphere and story was what made it great. When I play Bioshock I feel like I’m experiencing ‘Alien’ ‘20,000 leagues under the sea’ and ‘Doom’ combined with a (to me) fairly obscure Russian philosophers writings, with a strong background in art deco. This is why it works. This is why it is cool. This is why Bioshock is not just another corridor shooter or RPG.


Nobody who really does any proper game design thinks they are gods gift to game design. I certainly do not. But sometimes people *do* ask me for advice, and the advice I give is nothing to do with games. If you want to be a better game designer, Read a book you would never normally read. Sit through a movie you would never normally watch, Go somewhere amazing, try something weird. Build up as many experiences as you can. I’ve tried tons, from helicopter/fixed wing flying to horseriding, archery, clay-pigeon shooting, guitar & piano playing, and lost more. I’ve read a fairly bizarre range of books from War & Peace to Chuchill’s War Diaries to Kurt Vonnegut to A.S.Byatt and Naomi Klein.

Kudos (my life sim game) was inspired by a film (Donnie darko…don’t ask), Democracy inspired by a book about cybernetic chimpanzees, GSB by a book about D-Day. It’s probably hard to tell any of those connections, but there are there, and they make a difference.

Don’t stay in the geek bubble, don’t just read science fiction and fantasy, don’t just watch the blockbuster movies. There is a huge range of amazing culture out there that can act as your inspiration, stop sticking to the same few movies.

And yeah…I get the total irony of a guy making ‘Gratuitous Space Battles’ typing this stuff :D

24 thoughts on Why your game design is generic, and rubbish

  1. I find this a mix of very good advice, and some I disagree with.

    The good – I fully agree expanding your range of experience will make you a better designer (as well as a better just about everything else). I also agree we should celebrate games which go outside the box.

    Here’s where I disagree. Some games are meant to innovate. Some are meant to deliver an amazing story. Some are meant to revolutionize a game genre. Some are meant to push the boundaries of video game artwork or technology.

    Some are mean to be good, traditional games.
    And that is just fine.

    So it’s good to encourage people who choose to try something different. But we shouldn’t go so far as to discourage or dissuade a more traditional effort. People have been painting pictures of trees, lakes, and mountains throughout the ages, and they can still be beautiful works of art.

  2. Yup this is very true. I’ve read a book on this at some point, extolling the virtues of cities because its where people with many different skillsets meet each other and thats good for innovation.

  3. Oddly enough, it seems that people actually do like the generic. Playing something that is evokes a certain mood pertaining to a certain film creates a comfortable familiarity. People want their FPS to be like Aliens, and their grand RPG to be like LOTR. Things which don’t fit into the standardized themes often come across as novelties. [/hangover_induced_rambling_but_I_know_what_I_meant]

  4. What’s doubly annoying with all the Generic Space Marine games inspired by Aliens is that they completely missed the point of Aliens. The space marines weren’t supposed to be cool, they were only cocky and over-confident to contrast with them ultimately getting their ass handed to them by a primitive enemy. The obvious Vietnam allegory has been completely lost in 99.9% of the games inspired by it. Cameron was saying something with his space marines and it wasn’t “check out these kickass bros!”.

  5. I read in the paper (not online) of some guys making a game based on stories in the bible. It provided very similar arguments – it’s popular work that is detailed enough to provide a setting and many stories one can be inspired.

    I imagine they may need to be rewritten to more accessible form* to make an easy sell as eg. AAA game in some Assassin’s Creed style – just please for the love of God let the game be 3/5 adventure, 1/5 action, 1/5 relations, management and trade – I couldn’t play AC for more than couple hours despite great production values due to the repetitive and tedious manner it plays. Something like Star Control 2 and some RPG’s like Dragon Age: Origins are among the best of examples where there’s quite a bit of variety not only in the story but also the gameplay. I also really enjoyed the ME1 realtime tactical pauseable combat. ME2/3 in comparison not only ruined the combat but everything that was well done in ME1 was done poorly in ME2 and even worse in 3. It’s like the greedy B-team took over. I never even bought any of them because I was waiting for a boxed collectors PC edition of ME1 and then when it didn’t came (they only made one for Xbox, morons) and ME2 sucked well it was easy to not buy them at any discount. When the press gave the sequels 10/10’s despite being obviously worse in every respect I stopped reading the game reviews.

    * No doubt court documents have inspired entertainment regularly but not without making it more accessible among other things

  6. I want to say something about boxed games. (Just incase Mass Effect 4 would turn out excellent)

    If the game is excellent judged by relatively lower median amount of metacritic negative reviews with detailed fact based arguments vs the previous standard in that genre counting only reviews after eg. 2 week to 8 week after release, then I believe making a proper boxed collectors edition after the release can still make sense – it doesn’t matter if it’s later than digital release. Proper means a box that has vivid colors, is sturdy and doesn’t come with thick glossy plastic. If the game has a map, then include a cloth map or print it on back of a t-shirt.

    I noticed the local brick and mortar chains are no longer selling PC games. I don’t think this has so much to do with digital downloads as that the plastic dvd keep cases are a) bad value 2nd hand b) ugly c) who has a dvd drive? I went usb flash/HDD-only in 2002.

  7. Correction to above: I forget what I was thinking when I said median. I mean that the amount needs to be normalized but with all the pre-release shill reviews it’s no good to normalize to total number. If you had to objectively decide after release if the game is excellent by metacritic user reviews, I’d say wait couple months after release and normalize to yellow or red+yellow. Looking at the scores doesn’t really mean anything because users give them too emotionally (eg. give 0 to counter too many 10’s), so median is of no use.

  8. What should EA have done with Mass Effect: Take ME1, read the negative well argued metacritic user reviews. Address those issues in patches and DLC’s. And just do endless amount of DLC’s while letting mod community take care of graphics upgrades and such.

    Instead of doing that, they proceeded to amplify everything that went wrong with ME2 in ME3.

    Contrast this idiotic approach to Crusader Kings II. Endless DLC’s that even though pricy, people still keep buying.

    Back in the days before DLC’s I imagined that DLC would be all about large story expansions, continous story in a grand story arch. Star Control 2 / GTA-like games are excellent vehicles for that. Everyone no matter when they buy it, start the game from the start – there won’t be clusters of new players who started from a sequel and then go to proclaim the game is 10/10 when it’s more like 3/10 after the 7/10 first part, incase of ME1.

    Ok enough ranting for the week.

  9. I’ll have to add that the DLC’s EA and such have done for AAA games have a big problem: They add a small piece somewhere in the game progression. The DLC’s are essentially paid mods instead of what a new episode is to a tv show. There’s some games that have taken this episodic approach but their offerings tend to be more about zombies and red neck stuff. I’d like to see ST:TNG level production value in weekly game updates. That’s something I don’t think anyone has done to date. I think something like $4 for a hour or two of high production value and writing quality a week would be popular deal. I could see that bringing in couple millions a week. That could afford say 200-400 people working full time at $50-100k/year.

    Something like the bible or various Star Trek & sci-fi stories could be turned to a game where one can build the character in the game by taking different choices. There would 2-3 distinct paths (bit like Indiana Jones 4 game), depending on player choices, some could be more action while others more exploration oriented and another more merchant oriented.

  10. Here’s a game design:
    – galaxy map of unlimited size and zoom levels but not procedurally generated
    – players and events shape the “galaxy” through star creation device
    – go back and forth in time as the map is changed by events.
    – map/data paged in from network
    – players computers form p2p super-nodes&networks that route packets according to dynamic latency map perhaps using stcp or mdpv2
    – massively co-op
    – time travel
    – tactical realtime pauseable combat when in “sub-warp” speeds
    – active/passive FTL-radar operation (submarine-like tactics) for warp-like speeds
    – alien races with problems to solve and alliances to form
    – story: players help alien races and the good guys but end up in some sort of losing battle where more and more players are needed to be recruited to help save the universe: eg. players use time travel to solve the aliens difficult and “too late to solve” problems. this opens some sort of rifts in the space to a capitalist inhabited dimension and to keep the universe perfect and ideal those scumbags need to be blows to pieces.

  11. s/stcp/sctp/

    I have to say I’m not big into time travel. There’s one time travel space game I played where you save alien races (Millennia: Altered destinies) and I’m not sure I’d like it even if the flaws were fixed.

    So perhaps just forget the time travel and make the co-op about first solving alien problems and then during the process of doing that, bad things happen and the bad guys are slowly introduced and eventually you find that your actions enabled the bad guys to come in. Classic MacGyver stuff: He goes helps someone and gets his butt kicked and then must come up with even more clever solutions.

  12. The game could be actually episodic multi-path single player experience first, and then in the last episode when you need to do something epic like create their own star system as part of last mission that also causes a “dimensional mixing” where the multiplayer universe blends into the single player (in the single player story, the location of where player would create their star system would be determined from the server).

    Then, depending on your choices made /path taken in the episodic single player, this causes you to be on one side or another of the massively co-op multiplayer where game devs are the “HQ” which develop the multiplayer story and events with player modders being able to effect change more depending on how advanced they are. Perhaps you’d have to pay for some modding abilities but could in turn sell those mods in a “new” devious capitalist twist “pay to produce”… but instead of real money payments, the better mod tools would become only available through having created simpler mods.

    Perhaps these player made mods to the game would be part of the solution to the alien race problems in the single player – so the single player would teach you to do minor modding. And in the multiplayer one side of players would have no money and shared things and players who ended up in the other dimension would pay for everything and the game devs had HQ in both dimensions directing the fight that started when the first player created their new star system and opened a rift to the other dimension with the players who made opposite choices during single player.

  13. Here’s another design (could be a tiny part of the design above):

    Run “game”, then have

    1) ability to click or tap to draw something

    2) ability to switch layers

    3) each layer has frames that can consist of animation and can be animated as groups and at different speeds

    4) you can pan each layer invidually or as group

    By panning I mean that you can either use mouse to shift the layer or cursor keys to shift or rotate the layer.

    You should be able to rotate and move each layer and varying speeds (all while in background paging the bitmap or other metadata from the server).

    5) each layer and frame is pageable and served from network with local buffering

    “pageable” because this panning should be unlimited in any direction and through the frames in time also – the more you pan and draw, the more disk is

    consumed on the server to allocated the drawn data. Ideally the dimensions of data would be x,y,z,time + triggered animations, allowing to press “play” and have

    animations start triggering in specified time, and each person connected to the server could go to any of the 4 dimensions and create new animations there.

    6) multiple people can connect to the server and make changes to the layers and they are delivered through sctp or similar (tcp replacement for this type of


    I think such example could form a good base to build games on but I am too stupid to implement all that.

    7) Further, you should be able to select a radius from current screen center, then make a linked or deep copy of the drawn stuff and animations inside the radius to “clipboard” and paste this to other locations and translate it in all 4 dimensions.

    So, if one person in the server draws some object, you can copy it and start making modifications after you paste it elsewhere, while they can still draw into their own (and if linked – your copy as well) area.

  14. Looks like someone had half of the same idea – but implementation is not suitable to form a base of a game – there’s no ahead of time local buffered paging in 4 dimensions with animations slotted in. Pretty neat still.

    All the features I listed would be needed to build a new massively co-op Star Control game that “virtually builds itself” through community creation.. Or perhaps it would turn into something else but that’s part of the fun.

  15. Maybe the biggest problem is the same as with PG13 movies: The games made today are aimed for a big and broad audience which in the end gives us nothing new or extraordinary.

  16. This is cool. It’s same tech (even *looks* similar) as in my favorite TV show Mission Impossible. Create convincing copies of oil paintings emulating the strokes used to paint them.

    Came across this while I was researching how to do a devious capitalist scheme of making artists even more unemployed and starving.

    I’ve always liked those hand painted almost photo realistic illustrations from early 90s adventure games. I saw some oil paintings selling for $$$ (all sold out btw) that looked a bit too detailed – why would artist bother with that much detail that’s not really necessary to convey the mood? Then I started thinking – what if this is a real photo that’s been made to look like a painting and then printed out? Then I found that all the technology to do just this is already out there.

    So what’s next? Well I’ve always wanted more almost photo realistic hand painted animated adventures games. That’s the next big thing. Shoot a video -> loop video -> run it through the plugin that makes it look like hand drawn -> make it low resolution and then zoom it -> voila -> you have stuff that looks like done in “Mission Impossible” – extremely detailed “hand painted” 2d animation. This is important because the problem with much of 2D hand painted games is that the sceneries can be too static – but if videos are used as source then problem solved!

    Still needs someone like myself with artistic sensibilities to tweak the plugin and capture videos with a sensitivity to aesthetics but much less work than animating hand painted stuff!

  17. ^ Scratch that plan. I just realized that to create a convincing seamless loop probably takes enough seconds that you can’t do a loop because of the sun moving.

    Though perhaps this could be used as a DRM scheme – “we need to serve this game from a video server because it would otherwise have to be shipped on a 8TB HDD to store all these sunset scenes”…

  18. Interesting. I’m going through paintings and “paintings” that I suspect are photoshop work – both which look hand drawn. I’m resizing them as with the intention to see if they could look like something suitable for graphical text adventure background or aside for pure text parser adventure.

    I’m noticing that the ones that are more visibly based on real photos/photoshopping, have a lot more fine detail. When resized to 25-50% and the zoomed 200%, there is a lot of aliasing or something in the ones that look more like photos/photoshops than hand painting. I think this is because of the fine detail they contain.

    So it seems that real hand painted stuff with a lot of detail but not as much as in real photos are the best (and most labour intensive to do no doubt) source.

    Using existing paintings as source won’t make another Machinarium though – animation of environment and characters is where the budget games budget shows.

  19. Oh my god. I’m reading Steam reviews on Machinarium. “Why did I pay money for a flash game?” … Then there’s a dude suggestion to play Bastion instead. Well yeah the gameplay in that looks well polished Diablo-like but how do you suspend disbelief/immerse into something that pops up all sorts of text popups all over the screen “10 XP!!!” etc all the time? And don’t get me started on the horrible looking fights in every game like that where enemies often just flash a bit brighter when hit etc.

  20. Earlier I wrote about importance of (dynamic) music that’s so much forgotten after static cd tracks took over. Couple examples:

    Yd.I watched old episode of MacGyver. Him and Pete were in their house and suddenly the music went all like “something creepy is going to happen” and I was all terrified of what the heck now since nothing else implied anything would happen.. Then Mac just goes to the door and says he’s going now. LOL. Rarely I recall this kind of mismatch between the action and the music in my favorite shows. But it perfectly illustrated how big deal the music is. And that’s why I used to watch scary movies with sound at very low level/off.

    I used to think iMUSE games were the only games where music advanced with state of the battle. I just looked at Mega Lo Mania longplay and noticed, oh right, here too the music changes as the player progresses. There’s maybe 3-4 tracks/theme variation during each map.

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