Note: This article is targeted mostly toward newer developers, but also applies to a fair slice of the established industry (this article appeared in a different form in the Game Career Guide).
This is a weird and controversial subject, but I believe that in order to make something good, you have to have taste. “Good” taste, “bad” taste, it doesn't matter; you've got to like certain things—and know why you like them—in order to make something that other people are going to like or dislike. Otherwise, they'll just pass you by.
I get a lot of folks asking what I think of their games, and… I never know what to say when the thing is just a flavorless mishmash of other games. If all I can tell from your game is that you played Mario once, why am I going to be engaged? But if you make a platformer about a skeleton who is late for a business meeting, I start to feel something about the game, and about you. And that all comes down to having taste, and pursuing it.
To have taste, you have to be able to think about thinking. You have to know not only that you like things, but why you like those things. You've got to be able to be self-critical. This does not mean you should be self-deprecating! I see lots of folks talk about how all real artists are down on themselves and think their creativity is forfeit, but that is wrong-headed. You can think you're pretty much alright, as long as you're never complacent. Hot Topic goths being down on themselves don't necessarily make good artists. But nondestructive self-analyzers often do.
So really, it's about analyzing why you like the things you like. Let's say you're in your late 20s. You like Symphony of the Night because you grew up in the 1990s, and your older sibling passed it down to you. It feels like it was the best game ever and nobody ever made anything else like it, but really it was your best game ever, because of where you were in that time, what happened to you, what your life was like, and how this game slotted into it. You have to analyze that, not just accept the idea that “games were better back then.”
For example, I showed a bunch of folks a screenshot of a game I'm working on. Folks who were a bit older said it looked like a Persona game. Younger folks said it reminded them immediately of Mega Man Battle Network. The important thing is not the particular reference but that you understand what it is about the image that resonates with you. What was it about that time that was meaningful, and elicited that excited response?
An upcoming title from Necrosoft Games.
Mega Man Battle Network.
Really, our image is just an isometric school scene. It's not related particularly to any of those other games. But when you've invested time and energy into playing something like Persona II or Mega Man Battle Network, it sticks with you, and you start looking for more things like it. This is worth analyzing. In our case, we knew what we were making, and made something that looked like a realized world. Your brain makes the rest of the connections by itself.
Here are some exercises to help cultivate your self-criticism. They may seem stupid, but they may get you thinking.
1) Write three sentences about why you like your top ten songs or albums. What was going on in your life when you heard them? Why did they resonate with you? Do they resonate the same way now?
2) Watch a movie your friend likes but which you don't (or the reverse). Talk about your feelings while being respectful of the other person's views. Force yourself to break down why it doesn't work for one of you but does for the other.
3) Go into a thrift store and find three things you like. You don't have to buy them, just find some interesting things that appeal to you. What makes them interesting? Who do you think owned these things? Why did they give them away?
Here's a tougher one, but valuable if you can swing it. If you travel to another city, another state, or another country, try staying in a friend's house, not in a hotel, Airbnb, or anything that isolates you from the way people live in that place. Next, avoid tourist hot spots and instead head to a specific restaurant, a thrift store, your friend's favorite bar, or somewhere else that's very local. Have a hard time getting there, see where it leads you. Don't take the easy road, walk when you can (being mindful of your safety, of course!). You'll learn a lot about people, including yourself.
How do you apply this to games? It comes naturally, once you're in the business of self-analysis. Why should this character be blue? It could be red! Is there a reason for this person to be a man? What if it were a woman? What if they had a dog? What are people you know who have dogs like? How would they react in this situation?
When you are practiced in self-analysis, these questions tend to come with answers built in, and will ultimately make your game a stronger work.
Make choices that matter in your games. Don't do something because it's popular, do something because it means something to you, or to someone on your team, or to your mother, or to your third grade teacher. When you make something for yourself, or for someone you know, it's more likely to resonate with others, because it will be genuine and real.
People respect taste. They crave a connection to it and want to be complimented for having thoughts and feelings. Otherwise, there wouldn't be critics in the world. We wouldn't go on forums to voice our opinion about the latest Resident Evil trailer and how it compares to the historical canon.
Everyone has the capacity for taste. Some folks have an easier time than others, but I believe everyone is capable of identifying what they like and acting on it.
If you make a game infused with your carefully considered thoughts, feelings, hopes, dreams, and taste, your game will be so much more interesting than the next Minecraft clone. There are so many bland and flavorless games in the world! Let's not make many more of them.