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Look To The Stars - Creativity and GameJams

Gamejams (including internal competitions) are increasingly forming an essential part of the creative mix for game development. Oscar argues that vision is vital to make the most of these experiences. (adapted from a blog entry for Nordic GameJam 2014)

One of the joys of my role at Applifier and still doing independent consulting work is that I get to talk to and learn from lots of different developers and one of the trends I've seen is how important the role of gamejams and hackathons have become in helping us learn which of our ideas might be gems and which are just lumps of coal.

I was asked to write a piece recently for the blog of Nordic GameJam and I think the comments I made have a wider significance than just for those who are starting out so I thought I would revisit the article here, with a few changes of course.

Let the stars guide you

Kicking off new ideas can be the most exciting time for any developer but it’s important to get your head around why you are doing it.  I love Game Jams because they create a perfect mix of concentrated effort and people allowing you to realise you ideas without any preconceptions or even an expectation that what you create has to be any good.

The freedom to explore combined with the constraints of time and resource focus the mind like nothing else; but even though this creates a force of nature in most developers it’s wasted if you don’t have vision. Every game studio should (in my opinion) fit some free self-directed time into their development plans. It helps provide a break of perspective and allows your team to rediscover their inner talent. Its a hugely rewarding and often reminds teams of the reason they decided on working in games rather than finance (where they can still potentially earn significantly more money). The one stipulation is that you should encourage team members to step out of their comfort zone; if only to get a different perspective.

You Got To Have Vision

Most of the time we get involved with this kind of free development there is no intention to make anything of the results. That's fine, however, it doesn't hurt to give yourself a target; indeed it helps if as part of the starting conditions you have an idea or question to frame your efforts. Something we often call (in hindsight at least) a Vision.

Vision isn’t an obvious thing. It’s a little like someone trying to give direction to Neverland in J M Barrie’s classic Peter Pan.  It’s the second star to the left and straight home till morning. In this era of GPS thats even more ambiguous a set of directions than it must have been in Barrie’s time. However, this idea that the stars can guide our way has a primal value.  When we create a vision it is a distant unreachable goal used only to allow us to make decisions.  Each iteration or step takes us closer to that goal; but the star itself is never really the destination.   

That might sound a bit fluffy, but a vision is more than just the idea for a game mechanic, more than the comparisons with other games you have played.  It’s about what emotions we want to create in our players as well as what we have to say about those reactions. OK that probably seems a little worthy or profound, but even with trivial light entertainment we are communicating something.  Tetris seems to have nothing to say but beneath the simplicity is a game you cannot win (well apparently in some versions you eventually save the Kremlin from destruction from space). The game continues to send waves of endless misshapen pieces at you and unless you can make solid lines with them you eventually are overcome. Each line you complete provides a temporary release and of course points.  However, in the end you don’t survive; you measure how long you succeeded. And no, before you say it, I’m not reading too much into a pretty basic puzzle game.

Make It Matter

A common theme amongst the best designers I know is their desire to create specific emotions through gameplay.  They may often use other game experiences as a shorthand way to communicate this but beneath that coded language is a desire not to just recreate a game they love; but to create something new which inspires the same emotions they felt when they first played those games.  It is in this way we can build on the familiar and create something which is our own; not a clone.  Clones are derivative clichés which add nothing to the language of gameplay. Truly creative works usually steal from experiences we already understand and can comprehend and then ‘Plus’ them.  Horrid word I know but ‘Plussing’ is a great creative technique which allows us to look at what we like about a concept critically and explore how we can improve it. Disney and Pixar use this regularly in their productions. Think about the games you want to make and how your experience, personality and ascetic values can make it unique.

The risk is that you just keep on adding new ideas; bolting on concepts which really don’t work together.  That’s fine as long as you don’t let your creativity stop there. Once you have a sense of what you like then think about simplification. Antoine de Saint-Exupery was right when he said “A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” 

Who Are You Making It For

Deciding what to keep and what to throw away is tough as we never want to kill our darlings (William Faulkner). For me this is where product marketing and in particularly the use of a vision statement becomes so useful.  Marketing in its essence is about “Identifying & Satisfying Consumer Needs” (that’s a kind of vision statement by the way). I know most people think it’s just about the money... that’s sales.  Properly trained Marketing people (in theory at least) are about delivering value... money is just how we keep score. Designers who focus on their players needs and how to deliver them delight will succeed far more often than those who just do it for their own art. At best a designer caught saying this really mean they don’t understand players or at worst that they don’t care about them (which for me is as bad as those who just want to make a fast buck). Making a game because you want to play it is also often a terrible reason; but I have to remind myself that Designers who say this are usually hiding a natural reserve; not wanting to brag about their design ambitions.

Staying True To Yourself

There is a risk in talking about design in terms of a vision rather than in terms of the player experience.  Both should go hand in hand with the Vision informing the direction of the game; but the gameplay has to lead the experience itself. Games have to be fun. They have to allow players to act (I would argue if players can only follow your pre-defined patterns it’s not really a game but that’s an argument for another time) and if they can act they will want to share those moment with others. How will you allow them to share that with others? How will your gameplay look to their friends? is the mechanic attractive/repeatable/fun? 

Creating Magical Moments

Games which are successful largely have a core repeatable mechanic, a repeatable context which provides a sense of purpose and progression and importantly a 'negative space' around the parts of the game we create which is where the wider social interactions (or metagame) can happen. Getting all this right in a short game jam is almost impossible.  But if we have a vision and we focus on how that allows us to prioritise the most fun and allow ourselves to build the smallest possible, most awesome slice of that experience then we can see amazing results. 

Where we can let’s use both playing and marketing data but never let that decide our approach or resort to trying to infantilize players when we can’t distinguish from the lowest common denominator.  Bringing our own identity and ambition into a game design makes it stand out; allows us to disrupt expectations and that is what having a vision is all about.  Bland and timid designs will disappear in this hugely competitive market. Have something to say and perhaps the audience will listen. 

Second Star To The Left

So if you are going into a game jam or participating in an internal 'free-development' day and you want to get the best value from it think about why you want to make games and how you can contribute to the language of gameplay. Then let that inform your own unique vision and direct your decisions. Think about the mechanic and how that delivers on your ideas. Think about the context in which that mechanic plays and how that gives a sense of purpose and progression. Each feature you would like to make can then be assessed based on how much it contributes to your vision; allowing us to rank them in an absolute order item by item. Forget vague priority bands, there can only be one number 1 priorty! It will soon become obvious what matters and how you will be able to deliver the best you can in the time available. 

The objective is to create a small, horizontal slice of the experience. Something we can play and test the hypothesis that the game will be fun. If that works and gains attention, then we can decide if we want to pick it up and run with it; expanding and iterating as we go along.

You don’t have to be profound with your vision, but you do need to have something to say if you want to be heard... 

...and can only fit so much into one gamejam. 

 

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Oscar Clark is a Consultant and Evangelist for Everyplay, the free SDK that records and shares your favourite moments of play. Find out more at developer.everyplay.com. He is also author of “Games As A Service: How Free To Play Design Can Make Better Games” published by Focal Press (www.routledge.com/u/oscarclark). 

 

If you are attending GDC come along to the Games As A Service speaker session at 12:30 on 20th March in West Hall Room 2014 and find out more about how Free To Play Design Can Make Better Games.  Oscar will be joined by Tadhg Kelly, Free To Play Advisor for Ouya and Author of What Games Are; Imre Jele, Creator In Chief for Bossa Studios; Andrew Cheung, Product Lead at Storm8; Griffen Parry, CEO Gamesparks; and Peter Warman, CEO Newzoo.

 

To follow Oscar on Twitter check out @Athanateus  

 

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