At just over 3 years in, I still feel like I’m very new to the games industry.
It’s not long enough for me to consider myself an authority on any particular aspect of development, but I think I’ve identified a few things that make me a more effective contributor to the work we do at Failbetter Games:
1) Play more games
Playing games is a great way of training yourself to solve problems you’ll encounter when you’re creating. Reverse-engineering a finished element down into the purpose it serves, the challenges it helps overcome and the raw initial idea can help you when you’re next trying to develop something.
I try and have a very tight focus when I study another game. I’ll look at the way the user interface does more than just perform its functional requirement, and examine the way in which it contributes to the overall theme and design of a game. Sometimes it’ll just be a single, brilliant element that stands out and sparks an idea.
Board games or card games are great for examining game design at its most exposed. There’s nothing hidden in a physical game: every random number is there to see, each mechanic spelled out clearly enough that players become as well-versed in it as a video game’s engine has to be.
Sometimes, I just don’t have the time to play something myself, and that’s when I’ll pop on Twitch and watch somebody else play for a bit. While not the same as actually playing a game for yourself, you can still absorb some really useful information about how a game is put together.
You might not come out of a play session with a list of things you learned, but they will be filed away back there somewhere, and the next time you encounter a problem they will be there to draw upon.
2) Don’t just play games
Inspiration comes from lots of different places, and a fresh perspective can be gained from studying other art forms.
I used to do sound design for theatre and I still go and watch a lot of it. While it might not seem immediately relevant to my work, watching and studying how a show is put together is fascinating. I see how the set design, the performances and the writing work with one another and contribute to the whole. It’s the same approach you have to take when balancing game design, aesthetics and narrative to create something cohesive and satisfying for a player. The techniques are different, but the goals are the same.
The books you read, the music you listen to, the artwork you study – they all influence your approach, and the fresh perspective you gain from appreciation of different art forms can help your work stand out and bear the mark of your individuality.
3) Search for the hidden cost
If something seems like the cheap or easy option, you should dig a little deeper, because it just means the cost is hidden.
In the past I’ve chosen plugins or frameworks for a project that seem like they will save us time or prevent us from having to do deep, engine-level work when all we want is to be able to perform a few simple tasks. Sometimes, this works fantastically well. Game engines like Unity 3D make development some much faster than it would otherwise be.
At some point, you’ll struggle to accomplish some of the things you want, because you were spared having to learn those fine-grained details. Trivial things can become impossible, and you have to go back to square one.
The same goes for building content tools for your game. It’s a long and complex process, and it can seem like you’re saving yourself weeks of time by not making any.
The cost is, every time you want to create, edit, or even just check something in your game, it may take you much longer than it would if you’d made that initial time investment. Every mistake becomes more costly, and every opportunity to make a change risks being overlooked because it would simply take too long.
4) Listen to feedback (but be careful what you do with it)
It’s really easy to dismiss feedback both from within your own team and from your player community when it appears that someone hasn’t understood the whole problem. It is key to remember that while they may not know exactly what you’re trying to achieve, they do know that there is something up with some part of it. They’re like a patient – they might not be able to diagnose that they have a strangulated hernia, but they can certainly tell you when their stomach hurts.
Don’t just dismiss something somebody has said because they misunderstood or suggested the wrong way to fix it, because they’re still giving you valuable information about your work. It’s still up to you to identify the cause of the problem, ask the right questions and listen openly. Doing so could lead you to a change that results in a huge improvement to your game.
5) Know when to ask for help
Admitting that you need help is hard, especially when it’s something you enjoy and take pride in being good at. However, when we work on something we love, we’re inclined to be ambitious and push ourselves too hard. If you feel like what you are working on is beyond you, either because you don’t know enough about it or just that the sheer scale of it is overwhelming, you should speak up.
No one will think less of you. On the contrary, they will respect you for acknowledging your own limitations and allowing others to muck in and possibly turn around a bad situation. Struggling with a burden you can’t carry makes you miserable and it can have a really bad impact on projects. There is no shame in asking for help if you need it. It’s the smart thing to do, and working smarter is far better than working harder.