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The Importance of "One New Thing"

Success criteria come in all shapes and sizes. This time, I talk about the need to offer players something unique, something they haven’t experienced before.

Last time I posted something here, I talked about the first thing I think about when the word “success” comes to mind – empowering players to tell their own stories and create their own unique experiences through play. That basically sums up the Immersive Simulation genre – and “Player Powered” - for me.

This week is a little different. It’s more personal and maybe even less generalizable, even to people working in the Imm Sim genre. That said, if you buy what I’m saying, what follows can apply to any game, in any genre. Or you’ll just think I’m crazy. You may be right. In any event, here’s my second success criterion – One New Thing.

One New Thing

A critical success criterion for me is whether I’ve delivered something new - one thing no one on the planet has ever seen or done before in a game. If you’re just copying what others have already done, why bother? We haven’t come close to doing or being everything games can do or be.

If you look at games today, you see a lot of games that look and feel just like other games - sometimes like other old games, just with prettier pictures. Now, I’m not naming names, but even some of the best-selling games in the world feel like retreads.

That’s not good enough. We’re too young a medium to assume games are a solved problem, that we’ve explored everything do-able in a game. We have to keep searching for the unique and wonderful in our medium.

Looking back at Deus Ex, a game I worked on over 20 years ago, the team and I certainly tried to do things that, frankly, a lot of people thought we were crazy to try. You have no idea how many times I heard, “Why don’t you just make a shooter?” or “How many people are really going to sneak? Why are you spending time and money on that?” Needless to say, that was incredibly frustrating.

What a lot of people then, and a lot of people today, didn’t quite get was that, at some level the most important thing we did was mash up the RPG, Shooter and Stealth genres. Doing that, we figured would result in something that felt – and would really be - new and unique, something that wasn’t as predictable or as coercive as a pure genre-game would be. Letting players decide what their preferred genre was, and supporting them in that sort of play, seemed like a powerful idea.

At the time, I thought that mashup approach was the most mainstream idea imaginable. I mean, if you’re playing a shooter and you’re not good enough, your only option is to stop playing. Ditto for stealth – if you can’t sneak, you can’t play. In Deus Ex, and other Immersive Sims, if shooting is too hard for you (for example), try sneaking. If sneaking is too hard for you, try something else. Allowing players to try different playstyles would keep them playing instead of throwing their keyboard or controller across the room. It kind of worked, at least I think it did. Lots of people commented, and still comment, on how the game “tunes itself” to the kind of experience you wanted to have.

Another thing that set Deus Ex apart – another new thing - was the idea of a simulation-driven, “Problems Not Puzzles” approach. We wanted to take the idea of Shared Authorship further than anyone had ever done before. We wanted players solving problems the way they wanted to not the way the team and I wanted them to. That ensured that each player could create his or her own unique story and experience.

Those were really the most important things Deus Ex did that were new and different – combining things in new ways and giving players a level of empowerment, which if I can brag on the Deus Ex team, no one had seen before. Let me give you another example. Disney Epic Mickey had One New Thing, too.

That one new thing was our core Paint and Thinner mechanic. We let players decide when or even if they wanted to Paint or Erase things in the world. We created a dynamic world where you could not only destroy things (something a few other games had done before), but also restore them, something no other game I could think of had done. And the consequences for your choice really made a difference in how your game played out.

So, give players one new thing. I don’t care if you’re making a My Little Pony game. You can come up with something. Players will thank you and you’ll be advancing the state of our art a bit.

That’s it for this week. Next up – Walking in Someone Else’s Shoes.

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