Game Design: 7 Core Tenets (Market)

I saved this part of game design for last, because the truth is that choosing a market is not something that every game must do; and some games are made entirely without a care to marketability or sales. However, there are some things that must be considered when making a game on the designer’s side in order to ensure that the game is constructed in such a way that it is capable of being sold.

I’m not going to discuss marketing here; I’ve never sold a game I’ve made, though as a reviewer I have sold a few copies of other peoples’ games, and while I’m loosely familiar with how to create ads, that’s something that isn’t really a game designer’s focus. Instead, the important thing for a game designer to consider is how to make a game that will be perceived certain ways and to create an experience that is enjoyable for players so that they will not only buy the game if they try it out but also recommend it.

The first part of creating a game so that it will sell itself is polish and presentation. I’m not going to go out and try to get everyone to buy a copy of E.Y.E: Divine Cybermancy, because even though it’s a fun game and I really enjoyed it I know that not everyone will enjoy a game that has some issues with polish, and E.Y.E. is just absolutely full of translation errors (in, as far as I can tell, its only released language, which is English), but it was also somewhat glitchy and I didn’t care for the user interface much, even though its core gameplay was pretty good and its setting felt rich and evocative. Skyrim, on the other hand, I can suggest to pretty much any console gamer and get a lot of positive feedback, even from people who normally wouldn’t do sword-and-sorcery RPG’s, because it flows well and looks really pretty and can attract a wide audience, though the PC version is somewhat less popular due to the fact that it had a number of issues including a directly ported user interface that a lot of people hated. That’s the sort of thing that a game designer can worry about when making a game.

As a game designer, however, you have to consider some more stuff when making your game. You can find a lot of games with 300-page strategy guides, and some of them really need them. The mainstream player, however, doesn’t want to buy a book with a game, and in the digital distribution system it’s harder to include a 20-page hint guide if your game needs it, especially since most gamers will just boot up a game as soon as it installs. As such, you need to consider your games’ mechanics and accessibility. Of course, many gamers are veterans and will take to core concepts like a fish to water; I remember a notable occasion where my brother jumped into a game of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare on Xbox 360 and came out top at a party, even though he’s a PC gamer who had never played the game before and had to ask for help with the controls. An optional tutorial works really well for this; a veteran to the series or to the genre can skip the introductory boot camp in a military shooter without any harm, and forcing them to sit through it without a strong purpose within the narrative is going to be frustrating rather than informative. However, if your game includes unique mechanics, you must explain them; it’s generally agreed that the best way to do this is to slowly introduce concepts to the player, again with the concerns of narrative kept in mind. A writing professor of mine in college described a short story as “the most interesting thing that happens in a person’s life”, and that philosophy should be true for most video games; nobody buys Battlefield to get the privilege of experiencing boot camp.

The games market, for both tabletop and video games, is a lot larger than it used to be, so pretty much everything can take a bite out of the pie; a game like Dark Souls sells on being punishingly difficult (even though it’s more challenging than punishing), with its PC and Xbox release tagline being that with its DLC included it was the “Prepare to Die Edition”. Similarly, there’s a wide variety of tastes and preferences, but not every game will cater to these. Be especially careful about just copying a formula when designing a game; Deus Ex was beloved in spite of its flaws, not because it had none. Games can succeed or fail independently of their merits; Call of Duty is often panned by more pretentious gamers, especially in light of the fact that it gets a lot of what are perceived to be copy-paste “sequels”, but loved by the mainstream shooter crowd because it’s fast, quick, and has a lot of explosions. Tribes Ascend, on the other hand, is typically well-received, but doesn’t have a huge following because it’s really hard to become good at it, and the fanatical Tribes fanbase has enough skill that they manage to drive away many new players due to the large skill gradient, something not found in Call of Duty’s careful design that attempts to level the playing field for everyone; a newbie will get a couple lucky kills with a machine-gun and rocket launcher while a more trained player doesn’t have to rely on brute force to get kills.

This phenomenon doesn’t mean that Call of Duty is better than Tribes Ascend (unless you’re the one on the receiving end of the cash), but it does mean that they appeal to different groups; a player doesn’t need to commit as much to be valued as a “good player” of Call of Duty as they do in Tribes, since a newbie in Tribes will often commit a variety of mistakes, particularly in playing a very static defense against foes who come by and grab the flag while going a good 200km/h. Designers can use this to their advantage; even if your game has a very obvious skill curve, and good players will always win, it’s possible to include experiences that will reward newbie players; playing a support class in a MMORPG is a common tactic to let new players gain a concept of the game’s rules and learn some combat and survival tactics, and even if they don’t perform as well as an expert they’ll be valued by a group, while a front-line fighter who doesn’t dodge and can’t tank a hit will be viewed as a liability rather than an asset.

In order to capitalize on the market for a game, there are a few considerations that can be made. It’s possible to attract people by making a game slick and smooth or by making it overly realistic. On the modern tabletop, Dungeons and Dragons sells well because of name recognition, but its earlier editions were much more simple than their successors, and the Old School Renaissance has been capitalizing on that by releasing games with simple core mechanics, and newer systems like Fate, Savage Worlds, and the Cortex System all capitalize on the ability to simplify and present a great experience without delving into the complexity of a more mechanically involved game like Shadowrun.

In addition, it’s important to consider what a demographic will enjoy. If you’re making something because another game sold well, consider why it did well, but I strongly recommend going with your gut feeling when making a game; if you’re working with a publisher and a marketing department this may not be so simple, but there’s a long history of games like Shadowrun or Oddworld becoming hits despite the fact that they don’t sound like the sort of thing that would be a first choice among gamers. You’ll always find people wanting to buy the latest “brown and bloom” military shooter, but you’ll see a healthy market of people buying the more colorful Borderlands, Eclipse Phase, Just Cause, or Saint’s Row, which came out of the blue and turned out to be successful because they avoided working from a formula and created their own markets and meaningful experiences instead of just delivering “more of the same”. Of particular interest is the mixed reception that sequels of these games have gotten; Borderlands 2 just isn’t as novel as its predecessor was, and while the first Just Cause and Saint’s Row were lackluster, their sequels actually succeeded because they broke the molds where their first installments were pretty standard.

One of the things I do when I work on a game is to make a game I’d like; this is the origin of many successful games, such as Shadowrun, The Elder Scrolls, and the phenomenally popular Minecraft; if it’s already been done but you have a passion, your game still has a chance, but if it hasn’t been done that doesn’t necessarily mean it can’t be done; my pet project Orchestra, which was originally released as a really broken, crummy tabletop game and later as a short interactive fiction world that was a good chunk better got a lot of good reviews because I made it unapologetically mine; from the ground up it’s based on my definition of what a cyberpunk dystopia is, and both times I released it I’d see a reply on a forum or a message from a player that said “I love the dark atmosphere.” or “Sweet, this is like “X, Y, and Z.”. Create a premise and stick to it; don’t jump around and compromise.

Remember when working on a game that your job as a designer is to design it; trust your vision, and while feedback can be helpful it should never cause you to compromise on your core vision.

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