Stop Arguing About What Makes a Better Game

Dec 30, 2012

…and go make your better game.

Every indie developer that I know – and I’ve had the good fortune to meet quite a few of these folks – has a wildly different answer to the question, “what makes a good videogame.” They generally have an answer, it’s not as though the question leaves developers with nothing to say. My point is that actually saying it doesn’t do much good. The argument usually sounds quite a lot like the game that they last built or are currently building. As it should.

In purely technical challenges, the questions we deal with are often convergent. In other words, in terms of algorithm or implementation, there are answerable questions about which pathfinding or collision detection routine makes the most sense for a particular application, or at least the pros and cons can be objectively outlined and weighed.

Technical matters exist in other art forms, as well. A painter’s opinion isn’t what makes a particular material of canvas or paint last, an architect’s opinion isn’t what determines a structure’s ability to withstand an earthquake, and a musician’s opinion can’t override room acoustics or material realities in instrument construction.

However in matters of taste, one painter arguing that other painters ought to mimic her own style and purpose would result in a less interesting gallery for the rest of us. Architects and musicians likewise would deprive the world of much needed variety if they spent their energy trying to tell others to do exactly as they personally would do, especially if this were done instead of actually doing it themselves. They could certainly still be aware of one another, be inspired by one another’s work, even borrow and remix parts.

Though perhaps the best reason to be acquainted with one another’s work is to avoid wasting precious time simply recreating someone else’s work, while mistakenly thinking that doing so is trailblazing. We need to know what else is out there not just to learn from it, but also to recognize and reduce redundancy, to not misuse our lives exploring beaten paths. (For people new to making videogames, cloning can be helpful as a form of detailed study or to get initial momentum, but that’s neither who nor what’s being addressed here.)

The only meaningful yield of the individual’s deeply-felt arguments about game design is the actual game designed.

Some people will like it, some people will hate it, some people may feel like it’s the game they’ve dreamed about but didn’t know how to make, and the overwhelming majority of the population (even if your game is Zelda, Angry Birds, or FarmVille) flat out won’t really care one way or the other. It’s a matter of taste. Even the most popular or critically acclaimed work in any medium is met with infinitely more indifference than with appreciation, or at best in the absolute peak of pop cultural products, iconic recognition without real understanding.

If you’re doing a commercial project, sure, you’ve got to worry about what’s going to sell, and that’s a different battle than what I’m talking about here. If you’re a hobbyist, I still say embrace the hobbyness, do something strange that beginners can’t and professionals won’t.

Someone that doesn’t like driving games still won’t care about the “best” driving game ever created, by any metric or definition of best. The same is true for puzzle games, shooter games, platformer games, and though I suppose it goes without saying, the whole vast and infinite sea of games without clear genres which suffer, unlike their cousins in clear categories, on account of having a far harder time being found by people that can know before playing that they want to play what it is. You could make exactly the game you mean to make, totally love the outcome, and the person you would’ve otherwise argued about it with still may not be into it at all.

Of course, since the brain is not an emulator, arguments about what makes games better are even more silly. In argument form, as opposed to videogame form, there’s too much information left unspecified. Even if it were all somehow conveyed exactly, the mind would derail managing it all within the first second of execution. In my mind I can fool myself into feeling like any videogame concept is appealing, equally well regardless of whether in reality it’s my least or favorite game. If brains could be trusted with juggling all the details in real-time, and if language could do justice to explaining those details, we wouldn’t be throwing so much time into programming and creating assets.

Make the game your argument leads to, to get the argument out of your system, so that you can come up with another argument, informed or changed somehow by how the last project came out. Then make a game out of that new argument, and repeat. It’s barely meaningful to ask whether an argument about taste (not an estimation of “the most popular taste” or “fitting the taste of vocal critics” – but actual, individual taste) is right or wrong, but you can be sure that nothing will make the argument more clearly and loudly, in a way unmistakable to those within or interested in our domain, than actually making a videogame out of it.

This entry was inspired by the quote “Complain about the way other people make software by making software,” from Andre Torrez, which I found in Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon

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