The recent discourse surrounding The Last of Us 2 has once again shown one of the uglier sides of game development and discourse: the idol worship surrounding games. Right now, you can go to any major site and find reviews, interviews, and discussions, praising the heck out of The Last of Us 2. I’ve seen this before and troubling romanticism surrounding game developers.
For today, we’re going to take some of the wind out of those sails and discuss the importance of humility as a developer.
Living the Dream:
The game industry is a field that attracts very passionate and creative people — it is not someone’s back up job. That passion has lead to amazing games being made, and sadly people being exploited for it.
The romanticism of game development continues to this day, and major sites and journalists have not helped matters at all. In a previous post, we discussed why there is no such thing as the perfect videogame, but that hasn’t stopped people from declaring whatever new darling to be the game that all other titles will be judged on.
For developers, there is obviously a strong sense of satisfaction that comes with a game not just succeeding, but becoming a major name in the industry. In the past five years, the discourse and admiration of the best games has grown: turning successful studios (and their developers) into stars.
However, when you combine stardom, passion, and power, you often end up with a nasty cocktail of elitism.
The last few weeks have been a humbling moment for the game industry and game journalism. Multiple sites, creators, journalists, and developers have been outed for at minimum bad behavior, and at worse, career-ending incidents.
The “messiah complex” is certainly real, and the game industry sadly seems to cultivate this behavior. From people covering games to content creators, and unfortunately developers, there have been many examples of someone thinking they are always right and that they should never be questioned. The implications of recent reveal still haven’t fully reverberated yet, and we’re only halfway done 2020.
It’s easy to think that the only people who get this way are at major studios, but this same mindset can be seen at the indie level as well. There have been stories over the years of people who cannot take any criticism about their game: saying it’s the consumer’s fault that they’re having problems. Or they will only accept positive feedback and will tune out anything else.
Being a successful game designer is about knowing when to listen to others and to accept one undeniable fact: your videogame sucks.
Why Your Videogame Sucks
I’ve said this many times before and it is as poignant now more than ever: there is no such thing as the perfect videogame. The very best games are designed around a core gameplay loop intended for a specific market. Developers have been chasing the myth of the perfect game for years now, and no matter what game journalists and content creators say, there will never be one.
Great game design is about making your game as approachable as you can, but that doesn’t mean everyone is going to like it. Part of the problem with the discourse surrounding games is that criticism is still not widely accepted as a profession: Either it’s drowned out by all the praise or it gets lumped in with the baseless attacks. I have played many games people have said “are the best,” to only find structural problems with their core gameplay loops.
Videogames are not fixed entities or products: there is no set standard for what should be in a game. There are always elements that can be refined or improved; even in the best videogames released. As a developer, especially someone starting out, there are many ways you can, unfortunately, sink your game’s chances for success that you don’t know about.
In an earlier piece, I spoke about how indie developers are still making beginner mistakes when it comes to their titles. Part of growing as a game designer is realizing that not everyone is going to like your game, and being able to accept criticism. The millisecond you attach a price tag to your “work of art”, it becomes a product that can be reviewed and critiqued.
This is why I keep harping on playtesting and accepting feedback from everyone who plays your game. Someone who says “this game sucks” gives you the same information as someone saying “this is the best game ever.” Listening to why someone may not like a game can give you inspiration for making quality of life improvements that everyone playing can benefit from. With the Last of Us 2, one area that is not under criticism is the number of quality of life and accessibility features to allow everyone to enjoy the game at their own pace.
You may think that this is only a problem for new developers, but I have played games from established veterans who start their own indie studio to find basic problems with their structure and UI that developers with less experience avoid. If the thought of someone telling you your game sucks is too much, keep in mind that consumers are going to be saying things a 1,000 times worse. If you can’t handle that level of criticism and complaints, then you are going to need someone that can run the PR side.
After reading all this, you may think that the best route is to enact all feedback given to you, but it’s not that simple.
Knowing When to Hold
Part of being a good game designer is accepting feedback and criticism and working to improve but also understanding when to hold onto your ideas. In the past, we’ve spoken about the number of soft skills that are required to succeed, and project management is a big one.
When developing a game, you need to understand the scope of your work and what you’re able to achieve. Just as you can fail by not listening to everyone, you can easily sink by trying to please everyone. At the end of the day, the design of a game is up to the designer(s), not the consumers. At the heart of your game should be the core gameplay loop, once set, that is the foundation for all other aspects and decisions about your game.
Every decision, design elements, and part of your game should be filtered through the core gameplay. If someone doesn’t like your core gameplay and wants to change it, ultimately, they might not be part of your intended consumer base. There are ways to win people over using UI and UX design, but that is beyond the scope of this piece.
Keeping a Level Head
The game industry is full of amazingly talented people and unique works at all levels. However, creating a videogame does not entitle you to belittle, threaten, harass, or worse, to people you meet. There is a deeper discussion to be had about the psychology of people in the game industry that I am definitely not qualified to give.
Remember this, the industry is small when it comes to people knowing one another, and as we’ve learned lately, eventually your dirty laundry will come out.
If you enjoyed my post, consider joining the Game-Wisdom discord channel open to everyone.