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. "Every player a story-teller" basically sums up the Immersive Simulation genre – and “Player Powered” - for me.
This post is a little different. It’s more personal and maybe 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.
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, at least from the gameplay side of things.
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, I figured (and think the team figured as well) 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 we could think of had done. And the consequences for your choice really made a difference in how your game played out - who liked you and who didn't, who helped you and who wouldn't, what you knew and didn't know...
Now, I'm not saying EVERYTHING in your game has to be new: One is enough on the risk/reward scale. MAYBE try two. Any more than that and even I think you're nuts. But that one is critical.
One way to think about it is to identify (a) the first thing you tell people about your game and (b) the thing you won't compromise on. Knowing what you'll tell and work your tail off to make happen is critical. But so is knowing what you ARE willing to compromise (or, god forbid, cut). To that end, I share something with my team I call the Priority Overview (or, sometimes, the Quality Bar Overview). Here's a bit more detail on the four levels I identify:
The “Innovate” section lists the thing that's most important to the game - the thing (or things) on which you won’t compromise in terms of quality. We’re GOING to get these right, even if the work is exceptionally challenging for any or all disciplines.
The “Improve Upon the State of the Art” section is second in terms of importance to the game and describes areas where you want people to say you're better than your comps. It would take a disaster for you to compromise on or cut anything at this level.
The "Match the State of the Art" is what Michael Fitch, the ace Project Director on the game I'm working on now at OtherSide, calls "table stakes." It's what people just expect from a game of the sort you're working on now.
Finally, there's the most controversial level - the "Don’t Have to Match Comps" or things that are secondary to your game. There are what are commonly described as "nice to haves."
If you think about it, this document is basically a journalism-style "Pyramid" construction or “cut from the bottom” list. In other words, your article communicates the most important parts of the story first with less important information coming after until, at the bottom, editors can simply cut without damaging things. True for journalists, true for game devs.
Note three things:
First, you don’t WANT to cut or compromise on ANY of these things. You want them all, at a very high level of quality.
Second, this is meant as, among other things, a guide to work assignments. For example, if someone is working on a priority 3 task when they could be helping with a priority 1 or 2 task, you're doing something wrong. Barring something the team identifies as a task that must be dealt with right away, it should be all useful hands on deck for the higher priority items.
Third, there’s room for discussion here and for the addition of new elements. The list is pretty solid, but there’s room for change and expansion if compelling arguments can be made. The goal is to make the best game possible and no one has a monopoly on the ideas or features that will make that happen.
So, know where you're willing to compromise, but ALWAYS give players a "priority one" thing - something brand new. If a Mickey Mouse game can do it, so can you. Heck, 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 time. Next success criterion – Walking in Someone Else’s Shoes.