Gaming Your Way

May contain nuts.

Bad games != Bad developers ( Sometimes )

I see a lot of blogs where people tell us all how to make good games. It seems lots of people have something to say on this subject, even if they've only got one or two games under their belt, and then of dubious quality.
Some posts are truly inspiring, they show common gameplay / design issues in a new light that just clicks in your head, that "Shit yeah" moment when you connect with someone else's words in such a way that your own thoughts are solidified.
Other posts are like a tick list of game design. Responsive controls. Fair collisions. Give the player lots of power-ups. Shops, shops are always good. Sigh.

Rather than me force my view of game design down peoples throats ( I still only consider myself a so-so game designer, I've got better, but I'm far from good. If I was good I'd be confident to lay out my golden rules, but without me being able to say "You know that game I did, that you loved and played for hours ?" and all of you agree, I don't think I'm too well placed to hand out the testament according to GYW ), I thought I'd take the other tact of explaining why some games have faults.

Sometimes shit bits in games aren't due to the developer being shit. There, I've said it.

How many of us have posted a game to a forum and died a little inside when having to read "It's good, but if you did <whatever> it would be better" ? Or the classic "It'll be good when it's finished" after the person playing it has just played it on the client / sponsors website. What part of that obviously been finished haven't you noticed ? Don't get me wrong, no one's above feedback, and you can't post a game and expect everyone just to gather around you in a circle in awe. For the most part the feedback is spot on. When it's not though, it jars like nails down a chalk board.

We don't live in a utopia where every game is released when it's finished just how you want it. There are developers who release their magnum opus, and when asked how long it took you hear "Over 6 months", "Around 9 months" and so on. That's great, that's games as art in their purest form. That's not game development as a viable living though. That's game development as a hobby, a break from the day job. If you spent 6 months on a game, well fuck, it should be exactly how you wanted it, there's very little reason for it not to be aside from technical ability or the ability of collaborators.

In the temple of making a living wage with games, things are different. You have a budget to work to. If it's a client game then you have a deadline as well as a budget, not to mention the client themselves.

  • If you're doing a project for a client you usually have a set amount for the project. That includes designing how the game will play, prototyping if need be, some times creating custom engines or getting your head around 3rd party libraries. It means getting an artist on board if you don't work with one full time, giving them direction, sorting out a sound guy too. It means showing builds to the client and waiting for sign off, and dealing with amends. Some where during this time you have to actually ensure the game is fun, it's not a God given right that it will be just 'cause you've done a game design doc. Also you've got bug fixes and testing.
The vast majority of your time is spent on getting the features in, getting the game to be what it should be and just working, that things like multiple iterations and tweaking the difficulty curve are just a luxury. You can go over the budget and swallow a loss to devote more time to the more neglected areas, but by over delivering you're doing more work for less money. Good developers do that, but there does become a point of ever decreasing returns, where the extra hours being thrown at a game aren't giving you enough back in terms of cost vs quality.

This isn't just a client based issue, even if you're doing a game for sponsorship you've got to have one eye on budget. You know roughly what your game will bring ( Whilst secretly hoping for more ), and you have to avoid slipping into making that magnum opus which will only ever at best earn a fraction of the development cost back. If it's a business then it's got to be about the money as well as the art.

This is sometimes why a game isn't as feature complete as you would like, this is why you're aware that "If you did <whatever> it would be better", but unless that avatar on the forum with all the wise words is going to pay you for that extra time, it's not going to happen. It's not a lack of love for the project, or ability, or vision, it's called paying the rent.

  • Deadlines. There's never enough time to do what you want, so corners have to be cut as you need to hit that deadline ( Whether it's for an ad campaign or that Halloween themed game that has to be sold to a sponsor in a very tight time window ). That's not always skimping on levels, only doing 20 where 30 would be better, sometimes it's nasty kludge fixes to your code where you hope that the bug you get every now and again is so rare now that it's just magically gone away as you've put some heavy handed code around it to force it to work rather than re-coding the whole routine.
Again things like tweaking the difficulty and testing are hit. Yes, if you press the mute button over and over the title screen hangs, thanks for finding that and pointing it out, I just wish I had the time to test that myself rather than just doing everything else.

  • Clients come in all shapes and sizes. Some of them are great, some of them are not quite as great but still nice ( Yeah I can be faux professional ). No matter what though, they'll want some input. This varies from changing the colour of some text to sweeping changes that push you right up to the deadline, to gameplay changes which just break the game. The adver-game you see is never the developers pure image of what the game should be.

So if you're not a game developer, next time you're looking at a game, and you're thinking "How the hell could they release it with that bug / missing feature ?" hopefully some of the above will explain why. Yes, some games are just plain crap, but sometimes every once in a while a good game under achieves. It doesn't mean the developer doesn't give a shit, or isn't insightful enough to realise that it would be better if it did x,y and z, it means they've got rent to pay and that some times that gets in the way of making a truly great game.


Comments (4) -

  • tweenout

    1/20/2010 2:53:22 PM |


    This is a great post and you talk about some key points that I was going to focus on in one of my classes I teach.


  • ickydime

    1/20/2010 3:07:56 PM |

    well put.

    i am going on a bit of a tangent here, but i think the whole situation is a 'catch-22' for me.  if i were making a game for myself w/ no budget and no timeline, I would never finish it.  my work is never perfect in my eyes.  there is always something to add that would make it better no matter where i stop.  so even tho budgets/timelines/clients/etc may be blamed as the reason some games have flaws. i think it would also be fair to say they are the reason we have games.

    anyways, interesting article. again, well put.

  • Porter

    1/20/2010 5:43:14 PM |

    Amen to that.

    I share that same feeling of not being a complete pro, despite how much advice I try to give in my own blog. I try to lean towards helpful advice with programs, specific aspects, or other random info, rather than saying "this makes a game good", because as you said, I only have a few games under my belt, and none of them are HUGE. Tower of Greed did well, rather well, but it's still no Gemcraft or RaidenX. Well said, I love how you speak your mind, include your cussing and all, it makes it a much more enjoyable and realistic read. Keep it up, take care,


  • Squize

    1/21/2010 3:18:54 PM |

    Thanks guys.

    I wrote this when I was tired and was worried it would just come across as yet another developer bleating about things ( Perhaps it does :) ).

    Sometimes it's good to argue our own corner. The amount of times I've subjected my games to peer review and had the whole "Great, but it would be better if..." and I can't help thinking "You're a developer too, you know how long that would take, how much work that would be, why can't you be a little subjective and understand things like that ? It's not perfect, but I'm not going to be earning perfect money from it".
    There is a cost/time vs quality issue on all games ( Aside from those hobby projects ) and that needs to be taken into account.
    If we had the time and budget of a Dofus then we could be making a game that large and wide. We've not, so we can't.

    Icky, good point mate. If you're doing personal games just for the fun of it, then even they need a deadline as feature creep kills more personal projects than anything else. Even if you've been good and done a GDD beforehand, you'll still get those moments of inspiration which add new features to it, it's the natural evolution of a game, and if it's your baby and in your 9-5 you're working to other peoples input / ideas then it's very hard not to go "Fuck it, this is mine, I'm going to add everything I want otherwise there's no point me doing it".

    Porter yeah your blog has some great helpful posts, I wasn't referencing you at the start :)
    But you know the sort of blog posts I mean, these sweeping generalisations that try and put a good game into a neat little list of tick boxes usually based on the posters own expectations rather than a real knowledge of game design based on years of experience ( Of both failing with games as well as succeeding ).
    It's just an easy lazy post, anyone can do it. What's hard it defining what makes a game fun, and how to improve your chances of that happening. Technically competent games are easy, fun games are very hard.

    As to the swearing / tone of the blog, I try and write here as I would chat down the pub. I believe this is generally a peer read blog, I don't think we're like say Hero Interactive where the majority of readers are fans of our games and panting for the next release, I think most people who read it are people like ourselves. If everyone is in the same boat then we should all be open and honest, so I write how I speak as anything else would feel a little false for me.

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