Keith Burgun

Thoughts on Game Design

Clone Plus One: How Smart Design Saves Money

Usually my blog talks about game design, but today I’m talking about game development.  Specifically, I want to say something to people who are trying to start up a small project or team.

Essentially what I want to argue is that you save tons of money by innovating and following some basic advice regarding what kind of a system to make.

I know that a lot of developers – people responsible for making indie games – do not necessarily specialize in game design as a discipline.  Indeed, game design is sadly seen as one of those “how hard could it be?” disciplines (similar to writing), where the barrier of entry is rather low.  Most developers are primarily programmers, artists, or even business/mangement-types.

This article is largely for those people, and other people who are new to game design.  Essentially, game design is your plan, and by working smarter, which I will explain, you can save yourself from having to work way, way harder.

 

Insane Content Needs

While I’m designing AURO and EMPIRE, I also have a couple of dayjobs that help pay the bills.  One of those dayjobs is doing freelance artwork.  While doing this job, I have this similar experience over and over again, of developers wanting to create these massive scope projects.  Goes a bit something like this:

Guy: “Hi there!  I saw your site and I’d love to hire you.  Can you tell me how much your pixel art would cost?”

Me:  “Sure.  Tell me about your game, what you need, and I’ll give you an estimate”

Guy: “Ok!  So it’s an RPG, exactly like Final Fantasy, except the main character is a time traveler/80′s hair metal guy/solid chocolate rooster.  Anyway, I need 33 fully animated characters.  Each should have the following animations:  Walk, Run, Attack, Low attack, Cast spell, Cast Godly spell(can’t be the same as cast spell), Tumble, Dive (for diving out of the way of a projectile), Dive (like off of a diving board), Dive (for diving INTO the path of a projectile in the “protect the President” mission), Hurt, Hurt (emotionally), Death.  Also I might need a dozen or so frames of each character riding on the back of a giant solid chocolate rooster.

Me: “Alright, so that comes to $446,000, and the project should be done around November of 2016.”

Obviously this is not the kind of investment that most indies are in a position to be able to make.  So what they’ll often do is try to find someone who will agree to do the job for peanuts / nothing at all – usually, someone who has no idea how much work they’re agreeing to do, like a high school student or something.  Often a person like this will disappear at some point, and they’ll have to be replaced.

The outcome is you’re often left with a game that not only has low-quality art, but has art from many different artists, and no art direction, so it’s like a huge collage-like mess by the time you’re done with it.

That is, if you even finish it.  As we all know, most indie projects never reach completion, and an insane scope is absolutely part of the reason for that.

But here’s the thing:  if you’re doing what most designers/developers do, you generally can’t just reduce your scope.  Because who’s going to buy a Clone Minus One?  Only by innovating can you achieve a truly reasonable scope.

 

Cheapness Requires Innovation

Most developers these days making doing one of the following things: a Dual Stick Shooter (i.e. Geometry Wars), a Puzzle Platformer (i.e. Fez), an Endless Runner, Tower Defense, a JRPG, etc.  Most people believe these to be “genres” and feel that they are operating inside a genre.

Well, one problem is that actually, Endless Runner isn’t really a genre.  Neither is Tower Defense, and neither is JRPG.  In actuality, these are each, more or less complete game designs.  For example, I will describe the complete rules to Tower Bonanza!, a hypothetical game I just made up.

Top down grid with a windy road that goes from point A to point B.  Monsters stream out from point A, and if they reach point B, you lose health, and if you reach 0 health, you lose.  You can put down towers alongside the road, which will kill monsters as they attempt to walk by.  Killing monsters gives you money, which can be used to purchase more towers.  There are several different kinds of towers, some that just deal damage, some that do area of effect damage, some that slow, etc.  There’s a sequence of levels, each harder than the last, that you have to beat.

This description fits 99% of “Tower Defense” games.  There’s very, very little difference between each one in terms of the actual gameplay mechanisms.

 

I’ve never seen this one before, but I bet you I’m already pretty great at it.

 

So this means that if you’re going to make a successful Tower Defense game, you actually have to “out-do” the other guys somehow.  Usually, this means you have to have more content (although sometimes, better production can do it – although that costs nearly as much as more content anyway).

In other words, if you’re cloning something, you have no way of standing out except by being “bigger”. Being Clone Plus One.  I mean, why would someone buy a straight up clone, even if you’ve re-themed it and scooted the deckchairs about a bit?  Your game has to be better somehow, and most people have the wrong idea that more is better.

This arms race of content isn’t remotely new, or unique to indies.  Since the beginning, the value of videogames has always been directly tied to the level of technological power associated with a given game.  I remember games in the SNES and N64 era bragging about how many megabytes (or megabit maybe, for some reason) their games took up on the cartridge.  This was because even in the 1990s, we were doing a lot of clone plus one.  More is Better both matches up with the technological spectacle attribute of videogame culture, and plus, it’s extremely easy to understand.

But with today’s hardware and audience – an audience who isn’t necessarily so concerned about technology – we have the best opportunity yet to escape this horrible, self-destructive loop.  So let’s do it!

 

How To Innovate

The question of “how to innovate” is obviously not going to be fully answered here, because it’s actually an incredibly complex question.  What I can do is give you some guidelines for creating something new.

  • Fill A Need:  No matter what you do, make sure that what you’re doing is filling some need.  I’ll get more into specifics on what I mean in further bullet points, but for now it suffices to say that you’re asking your audience to give you some of their precious time.  In exchange for this, you should be fulfilling some need in them that no one else has fulfilled.
    And “well this is Super Mario Bros., but you play as Robocop” is not an example of something that people might need.  People don’t need to see Robocop in Mario’s place.  They don’t need gimmicks.  They need interesting gameplay that forces them to think creatively against new kinds of challenges.
  • Fix A Genre Problem:  If you were thinking of operating in a genre, try to identify some common problems of that genre.  For example, if we’re talking about Tower Defense, you might observe that a lot of times, there’s simply one correct way to place your towers, but a session might take a really long time to deliver feedback to you about that.  So you might find on “Wave 37″ that you actually lost back around Wave 3, and now you have to do it all over again.
    This was just an example, by the way.  If you don’t agree with that problem specifically, then find another one.  If you can’t think of any problems with Tower Defense games, if you think they’re pretty much perfect as they are, then why on earth would you go about making one?  There is no need for you to fill.
  • Holistic Design:  This is the hardest one, but holistic design involves the conjuration of some very abstract gameplay ideas, and then later finding a theme to support it.  Think about ideas like “secret information bidding game”, or “physics-based ball-control game”.  Maybe there’s an idea for a game where two players both start horribly in debt in some way, and by taking actions go even further into debt.  Maybe there’s a three player game where one player’s identity is secret.  Maybe there’s a game that’s about pushing balls towards each other or creating favorable shapes of lines on a table.
    Often, holistic design can start out as a genre work, develop into “fixing a genre problem”, and then transition into a holistic design.  Actually, this is precisely what happened on AURO, which was originally going to be a Roguelike game.
  • Don’t Start with Theme:  Starting with the theme is almost always the cause for someone creating a generic thing that did not need to get made.  By thinking along thematic lines, developers tend to be vastly less critical of their own system.
  • Study Boardgames:  I can’t stress enough how important it is for digital game designers to be studying the largely European “Designer Boardgames” movement of the last 20 years.  Go to boardgamegeek.com, and try to get acquainted with as many of the top 500 games as you possibly can.  Many of these are holistic, new and interesting designs.  Observe what a “genre” looks like in the world of boardgames, to see why the genres of digital games are really just “games”.
  • Embrace Limitations:  Remember that ultimately, games are constructed out of “limitations” which we call “rules”.  People tend to erroneously think of good games as having “lots of freedom”.  What that usually means is that it has a ton of special rules – special actions, spells, whatever.  But this is one of those cases where less is more.  Read my article on elegance here.
  • Ignore the AAA Arms-Race Propaganda!  Your game being long isn’t a merit, any more than a book or movie being long is.  Read my article on ideal game lengths for more information about that.

If you follow these bits of advice, and create something that the world needs, then your costs for development should be somewhat low.  If you create something interesting that people haven’t seen before, then you may find that it actually requires a relatively small amount of content.

Of course, this is really just the beginning of game design – there’s all other kinds of stuff you’ve got to worry about, like making your game extremely easy to learn, balancing your game, making it elegant and efficient, and way more.

It’s amazing though how much you can do by simply electing to try to do something new.  By spending just a few hours brainstorming, you could come up with at least an idea.  Ideas don’t cost money, but developing an idea does cost time, and time is money.  But even without excessive development of the idea, if you have an idea, you save money by avoiding the requirement to be Clone Plus One.  Hopefully, you can take some of that saved money and put it towards honing your idea.

Here’s a chart I cooked up which suggests what I think we should be doing with our money.

Feel free to share your own advice about how developers should be spending their money in the comments below.

Posted in: Game Design

  • Paul Spooner

    Oh man. I really agree with what you say here. I’ve gotten almost exactly that same request for a quote (and gave almost exactly the same answer). The client had clearly never completed a project of any kind in their life, or they would have known the magnitude of what they were requesting.

    As you say, the vast majority of “new games” are much closer to game mods than unique mechanical systems. I think the widespread industry practice of hiring modders points strongly to this. But, if you’ve got the money, sure! Hire a bunch of content creators and pay them to make your “grand vision”. If you don’t have the cash though, innovation is the way to go.

    I think your chart could be pushed even further though. If the game is really about the systems, then why not make it wide open to content mods? Spend 90% of your resources building and refining the foundations and then allow the end user to make all the content they like! Sure, the pundits will complain that the “vanilla” game isn’t much to look at, but no one will be paying attention to them because they will be having so much fun tricking out the foundation with whatever they like to build.

    I could be wrong on that one though. I’m not particularly successful as a game designer. The AAA guys do make money, despite the theoretical shortcomings of their approach. I’d guess there’s something to be learned from both parties.

  • Blake Reynolds

    They make money because they have popular I.P.s that they make fortunes off of from the risk and innovation of developers from the early 90s.

    They have the money to put enough distracting “collectables,” mini-games, unlockables, levels, assets, assets assets assets, to distract players from the fact that it’s a quake 2 reskin among THOUSANDS of quake 2 reskins.

    They distract you with the graphics arms-race. We don’t realize how dumb “outdated graphics” actually is. Good art is good art. Bad art is bad art. Wind Waker looks better than most modern 3d games because of good design and awarenenss of the strengths and weaknesses of the gamecube. Street Fighter 3 isn’t “outdated” because it’s 2d. It’s just good art.

    But these AAA companies convince the public of these concepts. The Clone +1 model is ALL they have to keep their massive monolithic flagships afloat.

  • Dasick

    Hmm, I don’t quite agree with your “Don’t Start With a Theme” advice. Real life is full of naturally occurring games, and looking at the way things work in real-life, or imagining how they would work in a ‘what-if’ fantasy setting can be a huge boost in terms of figuring out the main mechanic, supporting mechanics, pitfalls, win conditions, balance etc.

    For example, one of the most infuriating things about “Modern Realistic Military Shooters” is just how unrealistic they are. MRMSes are all about running and gunning, they’re very fast-paced, it’s very easy to die, you can easily make perfect shots etc etc. While in reality, modern infantry combat is actually pretty slow paced. For every 1000 bullets fired, only one hits the target – and it’s not because people are such bad shots, it’s just that suppressive fire and maneuvering is a lot more important than shooting people. Most casualties in war are injuries, and the word ‘decimated’, which is associated with unacceptable, unrecoverable losses, really means ’10% causality rate’. What this results in are battles that are mostly about suppression, flanking, supply lines, and morale, all of these usually being supporting systems while really flat activities like shooting are the main mechanics.

    The big problem with theme is simulating/taking inspiration from the WRONG systems, or trying to cram non-system content (dialogue, characters, movies) into systematic machines. And for some reason, nerds* really love pulpy fiction – superhero comics, all-powerful wizards, B-list action flicks (which I think the MRMSes really are trying to emulate), cheesy and hammy acting etc etc, all things that make for really shitty basis for game mechanics.

    *not to be confused with geeks or dorks

  • http://www.keithburgun.net/ Keith Burgun

    I mean, I think that starting with a theme can indeed provide a kind of “boost” to a fledgeling design, and it’s true that many games do start with some kind of theme. I think the important thing is to get off of that as quickly as possible, because obviously being realistic or accurately representing reality often has NO correlation with what would be the best rules for a game.

  • Rob Seater

    This is a case where board games and digital games differ white a lot. Both in that board games are _expected_ to have innovation to be taken seriously, and in that content creation is (mostly) not very expensive for board games.

  • http://www.keithburgun.net/ Keith Burgun

    Content creation doesn’t have to be expensive for videogames. In fact, it *should* be cheaper, if people were simply sensible and got rid of these crazy 80s/90s/00s arms-race ideas about content.