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Game Development as Competitive Make Believe

A veteran game developer reflects on the similarities of game development and make-believe.

Michael Fitch, Blogger

April 6, 2023

8 Min Read

Video game design is a strange job. There’s a lot that can be said about how to do game design; a lifetime could be spent learning how to do game design well; but at its heart, game design involves making something new, bringing something into existence that didn’t exist before. I want to argue, for a moment, that game design is a professional version of make-believe.

Game designers have to be able to understand the game they’re building before it has been built. Brian Upton (design lead on Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon) used to be particularly good at taking a paper design and turning it into a full, hands-on experience in his head; he would play the game virtually in his imagination and then provide feedback on the experience. That’s an extreme case, but every game designer is in the business of inventing things. Even the most comps-driven of designers is making new experiences, new variants on proven themes; the most simulationist game is still an abstraction; the most historical is still interpretive.

There are many flavors of make-believe; I’ve played a myriad of them with my kid over the last several years. Video game design is a very particular flavor – the kind of make-believe we create is interactive. It leaves space for the player. In fact, it needs the player; it can’t fully come to life without the interaction. In this sense, video game design and TTRPG are cousins – the GM doesn’t have a game without the players. Many of the best designers that I’ve known have been GM’s at some point – creating the opportunity of the experience for your players is a common dynamic.

What’s different is that the game designer doesn’t have to be present, while the GM does. No disrespect to GM’s – that form of interactive entertainment has been practiced and polished for hundreds of thousands of years – storytellers, shamans, friends shooting the shit, signifying in the kitchen, savoring the hunt around the fire – TTRPG is a particular flavor of make-believe, but interactive storytelling has been around since before we have records.

Similarly, solo games pre-date recorded history. There’s nothing particularly original about playing Solitaire by yourself or challenging yourself to skim that stone one more skip. But, what video games brought to the table was the ability to play interactive make-believe without the other people being present. It’s limited, of course. That is both its appeal (it is more finite, knowable, controllable, masterable than the chaotic world around us) and its limit (it is not human, dynamic, infinite).

Game development is the meta. If playing games is interactive make believe with machines, game development is interactive make believe with the people who make the machines capable of convincingly playing interactive make believe. We invent projects, businesses, labels. We create communities that never existed before. We bring entire markets into being. We imagine futures that no one has ever experienced, then work together strategically, collaboratively, to make them reality.

That’s where the competitive part comes in. There is a vast group of people who would love to make a living playing make-believe. Take Hollywood, for example; or any industry where the creativity of individuals is recognized and celebrated – music, television, social media influencing, writing – all of these share a common problem with game development. The number of people who want to do this work exceeds the available number of positions where people can be financially sustainable by not just a little bit, but by orders of magnitude. For every entry-level game design role, there are hundreds of applicants; the same is true, I am sure, for every casting call, every audition, every submission channel at a major book publisher.

So, there is a supply and demand problem. Everyone can play make-believe. No matter where you are, you have the necessary materials. But, to play make-believe professionally, to get paid for it, means having to compete with everyone else who also wants to get paid. If you want to make a living playing make-believe, you’re going to have to enter the competitive arena.

And again, game development is the meta. Games are the most profitable sector of every internet giant. Apple brings in more than 75% of the revenue on the app store from games. Tencent posts more than $3B a year in profits (not revenue – profits) just from its games operations. Games are constantly being chased with VC money because it’s one of the few industries where 5X and 10X and larger outcomes aren’t just possible, they’re somewhat common.

So, if you want to make games – big games, games that matter, games that everyone will play – you’re competing in an incredibly rich and diverse market. It’s not enough to be able to play make-believe; you’ve got to be able to enable others to play; you’ve got to be better at enabling others to play than all of the other people who want your job; and you’ve got to be better at enabling others to play across multiple disciplines given multiple dimensions of constraints that simultaneously cut across the problem space than all of the other people who are practicing this art in the industry currently as well as getting lucky more than once and having a solid team around you to actually get something to market.

And then it’s competitive in a whole different way. Because, as a game designer, you’ve created the possibilities of experience, but the players get to decide what really happens. One of the first things any practicing game designer learns is that theory goes out the window as soon as you have real players. As a game designer, you’re done when you hand the game off to the players (not really in our live-ops, data-monitored reality, but in episodes the pattern holds) and whatever happens next is your responsibility, but no longer in your control.

But. It all starts with imagining that point of contact. Before there is ever a game; before there is a player; there is a game designer, playing make-believe: what if you could be a space marine on Mars, what if you could design a city, what if you could develop entire civilizations? What would that look like? How would you interact with it? What would you care about? How would you develop it? What would keep you interested?

So, I want to argue that at its heart, game design is a particularly arcane form of competitive make-believe. While we take ourselves incredibly seriously (and we do make billions of dollars), the hard kernel at the heart of the game industry is grown up kids who refuse to stop playing. It’s not easy. As Frank Lantz said, “Games are operas made of bridges”. They exist at the intersection of technical complexity, player agency, and emotion-driven entertainment.

Which is where Ai comes into the picture. The promise is that it levels the field – anyone can be an artist, using Stable Diffusion; anyone can be a writer using ChatGPT; the AI can turn your expressed desires into concrete images, specific words. It’s make-believe on steroids; it’s being able to externalize your imagination. It’s like playing make-believe in the real world.

So, here’s the thing. We’ve already got competitive make-believe. It exists in a variety of flavors, as described above. And AI will definitely have its impact, don’t get me wrong – this is the year of breakthrough for large language models. But, ultimately, it’s not going to make it any easier to play make-believe competitively.

Everyone has access to the same tools. Everyone has access to the same marketplace. You may be able to produce something for 10% of the cost, but you still have to find an audience that cares. You still have to find other people and entertain them. The fundamental problem has never been being able to produce content – it’s being able to produce content that people actually care about.

The market is already saturated. There are more games produced every year on each of several major platforms (Apple’s App Store, Android’s, Steam) than any human being could possibly play. Being able to push more content isn’t going to help you stand out. Being able to push more content isn’t going to help you to reach more people; in fact, it’s going to make it harder. Discoverability is already the prime threat to existence for almost all indie projects, and flooding the market with more content isn’t going to make that any easier.

There is no doubt that AI will change how we work, how we develop games. We are masters of leveraging the tools we can find to make previously-impossible things happen. It’s what we do. Game development is also, fundamentally, a collaborative sport. The people who think that AI is going to make game development easier because you’ll need fewer people just haven’t seen the rest of the problem space yet.

Remember, we’re already at the meta of competitive make-believe. The other people aren’t the problem; they’re the opportunity, and anyone who thinks mechanical logic can substitute for human creativity is going to find out the hard way what the limits are. AI prompters are the “idea guys” of the hype wave – they think all that’s really important is having the right ideas. Game devs learned a long time ago not to put up with that kind of nonsense. There are better ways to play make-believe.

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