Why are you making a video game?

It's all about understanding what the different elements of your game are ‘for’
3/8/2022

Though it may sound mercenary, there’s a difference between making a game as a hobby and developing something that might make some money. In either case you can simply come up with and implement cool ideas until you decide your game is as fun as it can possibly be and then release it, but the harsh reality is that this approach makes it unlikely that your game will earn a profit. And while it’s absolutely true that cash isn’t everything, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to at least want a game to make enough money to fund development of the next one.

Time = money

To give your game as much chance of earning filthy lucre as possible, you need to consider the practicalities of game features = time = money. Or to put it another way, each feature you add to your game costs you X number of hours, and every hour spent on development means you need to sell more copies of the game to break even. Where this really trips people up is that there are hidden costs behind each feature: Obviously there’s the time to design, implement and iterate that feature, but then you need to polish it and add feedback, otherwise it won’t feel satisfying. Next, the new feature needs to be tested in isolation and as part of the entire game to see if it causes unforeseen issues where it butts up against existing elements. Then you have to introduce and teach that feature, and so on and on.

This is why I recommend thinking about new features before you implement them, and asking yourself what that feature is going to bring to your game. It’s still important that your game is fun, but what we’re looking at is the layer below that; where you also consider what each feature is ‘for’ from a holistic view of your game.

Crackdown’s orbs provide a compelling reason to explore the game world, plus a reason to develop your character’s mobility and your skills at using it.

Are you making a video game? If you are, if you're thinking about it, if you need help in any way with the making of a game, get in touch - we can help.

Infinite possibilities

Let’s look at some examples: You’ve decided that allowing the player to level-up their character through XP is a fun thing to add to your game, but there are lots of ways to implement this, each bringing something different to the experience and costing different amounts of your precious development time. So what might a level-up feature bring to your game?

● Maybe you want players to complete battles as perfectly as possible (rather than just mindlessly spamming attacks) to encourage them to fully engage with the battle-mechanics you’ve spent ages getting right. In which case, make ‘showing off’ in battle deliver XP.

● Or maybe you’ve realised that it takes absolutely ages to create each of your environments, so you’re not going to be able to include many in the game. Here you might hide XP in the levels, encouraging players to take their time and explore as they hunt for it.

● Finally, you might have spent ages producing a load of weapons, armour and costumes for players to equip. So maybe you award XP based on wearing the correct loadout, or have XP rewards gradually decrease the longer a loadout is worn, with both encouraging players to utilise all the gear you’ve made.

Or, to take another example on the gear theme, before simply ploughing ahead with creating that content you could ask what the gear will bring to your game.

● Maybe you make players spend in-game resources for gear, draining those resources from their inventory and providing a reason to always be collecting more.

● Or NPCs could give gear as rewards, encouraging players to engage with conversations and politics, and suggesting a development focus on how players interact with those NPCs.

● Finally, you might have players assemble their gear from components, potentially swinging your game in a new, unexpected direction (more on this later).

Blossom Tales makes you buy important items from shops, evoking the Zelda games it’s referencing but also giving a reason to constantly collect money.

Bang for buck

In each case you’ve identified a need in your game and created a feature that helps address it. So you’re still adding ‘fun’, but by thinking holistically you ensure each feature brings more than that, and therefore adds enough value to be worth the development time involved in making it.

As an aside, this is how Valve’s ‘cabal’ development process worked on Half-Life, with small teams ensuring that each area of the game delivered sufficient bang for its buck or risk being cut. True, they weren’t particularly doing this because they were worried about the time / money cost of these features, but ensuring each was strong enough to improve the game’s quality follows the same principle of taking a step back and thinking about what you’re creating and whether something else might be a better use of your development time.

Which way around

You can either approach this whole process ‘feature first’ or ‘need first’. If you have a feature underway or already in your game then you can look how it integrates with the other elements around it. Which sections of the game feed into this feature and, in turn, which can it influence? How complex your gameplay loops are depends on your intended audience, but in general you’re looking to ensure each feature ties into multiple others, because if you could cut a feature without affecting the loop then it suggests that it’s not pulling its weight. Alternatively, you can do this upfront, before starting on a feature, deciding on a development need like extending play time, enhancing a specific way of playing or even attracting a specific audience, and then designing to achieve that goal.

Angry Birds: Transformers initially had you shooting towers to score points. Implementing ‘enemy blocks’ took a lot of effort but immediately gave a better reason to engage with combat.

Delivering value

Let’s recap on the reasons to consider what a feature is for:

1. To mitigate a problem or weakness

You might find that some of your game’s content is difficult to produce, or maybe your underlying tech struggles in a particular scenario. In which case you can introduce new features to provide the same experience in a different way, to encourage players to focus elsewhere, or to slow down and really dig into expensive content.

2. To emphasise your game’s strengths

If your playtesters unexpectedly flock to a particular area of your game you can pivot towards making that more central to your experience, such as by adding depth to a section of the gameplay or introducing new features that feed into and out of that area of the game.

3. To react to trends

While jumping on a bandwagon can be risky, simply attracting attention to your game can be one of development’s biggest challenges. You might see an opportunity to add a currently - or even better, potentially about to become - hot gameplay trend to your game by designing a feature in a certain way.

4. To build technology and confidence

It’s common for studios to use each game as a stepping stone in developing their technology and experience in a specific genre, gradually bringing ideas that are way too large into reach over time. So you might implement a small version of a feature as part of a game in a way that lets you build on it in the future.

5. To prioritise

Even if you’re working on your five-year magnum opus, you’ll still find you have enough ideas for five-years-and-a-day, and so need to prioritise. Such grand projects are fine for hobby developers, but in the grubby world of needing games to make money it’s usually better to release several games, rather than one, building your reputation, confidence and tech with each. By asking what features are bringing to your game you may find it easier to prioritise them, or even realise that a feature doesn’t bring anything and can be cut.

Conclusion

To sum up, this is all about asking ‘why’, because in the day-to-day of development it’s often easier to focus on the ‘what’ of a feature through its design and the ‘how’ of its implementation. But before all that, perhaps the most important thing you can do is take a step back, look at a proposed new feature alongside your current game, and ask ‘why?’

We are Media Foundry; we help independent creators get their video game, movie, and TV projects made. You can find out more about us, here.
Stuart Maine
Stu has been a game designer and writer for 25 years, across PC, console and mobile. He’s currently working on an unannounced book. You can find him on Twitter as @maine_stuart.

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