There’s a commonly held assumption that if you’re making something to compete in a market, you should know everything there is to know about the competition.
Research is a big part of the early steps of a lot of games development – you’re making a 3rd person action game you say? Best make a big list of everything Resident Evil 5, Gears of War 1 and 2 (and 3!) plus Uncharted and its excellent sequel are doing, then make sure you match them all, else you’re doomed to fail.
Sometimes that’s the right thing to do, there are plenty of reasons to play it safe and we all know what they are. At the same time lack of originality is the death of any creative endeavour, which hopefully anybody reading this will agree is at the heart of what we do when we make games.
Relying on what has gone before is a tremendously limiting point of view, one driven solely by the bottom line, profit and loss, management and production – essentially anyone not invested in the creative side of what we do. I for one believe that the most interesting and important games are made, at least in part, in a vacuum. And so they should be.
Putting your blinkers on at the right time (and, yes, taking them off at the right time) can be a key part of forward thinking and exciting games design.
This way of thinking puts the willies up most numbers-driven people in any industry, but is necessary for the forward-motion required to keep us relevant, exciting and important. Having an idea, and then following through on it for its own sake (rather than the sake of conformity to a marketer’s spread sheet) is the crux of this.
Let me explain that vacuum I mentioned though, as it isn’t a true void of influence, and therefore should be a lot less scary than people initially assume.
The media-rich world we live in makes it nigh-on impossible for influence not to seep into our endeavours. We’ve all played a game or two in our lives and it would be arrogant to assume you’re immune to its influences, both good and bad.
The same happens with any experience we live through. The smell of a favourite food influences us there and then to anticipate eating it, while a near-death experience gives us a new outlook on life. The scale of the experience is irrelevant in the end. Whatever it is it just becomes an influence whether you want it to or not.
So developing in a vacuum does not mean some magical ability to shut out all experience and memory, creating something of unrivalled originality, simply through deprivation. Rather it means we get to focus on what is important.
I’ve mentioned this in a previous article here on Develop Online; we owe it to an idea to see where it takes us of its own volition, and without competing to be heard over everything else. Back to that 3rd person shooter – if a half-formed idea of a new control system has to compete against the obviously polished examples thrown into the mix by the genre leaders, then of course it will lose out: “Make it play with Game A’s controls, just so we have one less thing to worry about”. But this is what kills progression stone dead.
So apply the blinkers to developing a game. While we may keep the influence of other games in the genre (of gameplay or content) to a minimum, we’ll still have all previous experience of games to draw upon subconsciously and this mitigates any real danger in the process.
On the contrary, ignoring what other people are doing will encourage originality, verve and the potential for excitement. In fact ‘ignoring’ suggests being aware of something and purposefully depriving avoiding contact with it, but what I’m talking about is more like being aware and yet being unmoved by its existence.
Don’t avoid news of competing games, or interviews with their creators on what new USP makes their game stand out; just don’t let it affect you. You’re working on your game, and it is its own entity, and deserves your unfettered attention.
In fact, it downright thrives on it.
Games like Flower, Rez and Sleep is Death (among many others) do what they do so successfully because the creators have the confidence (both in themselves, and of their superiors) to do what is right for the game.
To put your blinkers on is to focus one hundred per cent on your own race – not the race that everyone else is engaged in. It pins your attention to a thin strip of time devoted to your creative drive, and nobody else’s matters.
Rez could’ve easily turned into another sci-fi shooter, based on the market trends and the perception that it would be too abstract for the audience of hip young things playing on PS2s at the time of release.
Sleep is Death, a game about story (and essentially a game of story) would’ve likely had a much tighter framework associated to it so that more people could engage in it, and a graphical overhaul added so that more people could relate.
Spare a thought for Flower’s message about nature and freedom, it would’ve more than likely been turned into a twin stick shooter simply through virtue of it being a digital console title. None of these things would’ve been good for the game in question.
It’s not a sure-fire solution to creative woes though. There is a danger and it’d be remiss of me not to mention it; that you miss opportunities. By blinkering yourself, not only do you laser focus yourself but you do so at the expense of situational awareness.
You can’t take back mistakes, and blinkers don’t mean you have to be blind and deaf, just take an almost geriatric stance on changing from your course. Be stubborn, be inflexible, be a pain to anyone who can only suggest changes framed with “like in that other game…”.
It’s also worth mentioning that this technique is best applied when you know your game is inherently more original than the others out there. There’s no point in re-inventing the wheel, but if you are trying to make something that’s going to fly, you’ve not got a lot to learn from them anyway.
So as with most things in life, the secret to success with this particular piece of advice is to be thoughtful in its application. Put those blinkers on, and see what turns up. I guarantee it’ll be interesting, different, and maybe even a little bit poignant.