When a client hires me usually is for a whole project preproduction. It can be the startup for a new game or the research stage for a new feature of a live game. I help them during the whole process of finding the right formula. I work per day, every day is one slot. Every client can get from 1 to 3 slots per week.
Happens that during my service I realize that my help is not needed. It may happen for a lot of reasons. Sometimes I see that the team is on the right track and I am slowing things down. Other times I see that the client that hired me didn’t want my help with game design, so that I am useless.
In any case, my business is not like a therapist. When I realize that I am not needed anymore, I let go the client. I speak with them and explain any reason. It was a pleasure to be there, please leave your testimonial. You will not lose your money, I will not lose my time. Everybody wins.
(and very few of them leave the actual testimonial)
Loops are a great way to drive design discussions with everyone on the team. They are a simplified version of a flowchart and the last element connects to the first. I see that there are different definitions of loops and today I want to show you mine.
As with many other definitions related to game design, the fact that there are different versions implies often that you need to make an effort to understand the point of view of who’s driving the conversation.
Game, Core and Meta loops
When I say game loops, I mean the sequence of most used features within the game.
The example above represents an action-adventure game like Uncharted
Every circle represents a feature, a collection of mechanics that creates one or more dynamics
The arrows represent how the game is supposed to lead the Players to the next feature
With core loops I mean the sequence of actions that the Player performs more often during the gameplay
The example above is the core loop of a match-3 game
Every circle represents a mechanic
The connecting arrows can be read as “so that”: As a Player, you swipe tiles SO THAT you match 3 or more tiles you get a new board status SO THAT you can decide which tiles to swipe next.
Finally, there are the metagame (or economy) loops, which represent the construction of the economy on top of the actions. A good economy makes you think about the game when you are not playing.
the example above represent (a simplification of) a possible metagame for an RPG
every rectangle represents a game feature, mechanic, or concept
arrows indicate that a system adds or subtracts elements from the next rectangle. For instance, speaking to an NPC will increment the number of quests that the Player has. Collecting loot will remove inventory space.
There is not a single way of looking at loops, what is important as a designer is to have your voice. Oftentimes clients show me their “core loops” and in my definition, those are “game loops” instead. And there is no problem, the client is always right and I can adopt their jargon easily. The important is to keep my base strong to drive meaningful discussions.
Loops are useful to express concepts and drive discussions, they don’t have to be perfect. They are a medium for a concrete purpose: clarity. I saw very complicated loops, for instance, that do not add clarity. In that case is better to break it down into different feature loops (which are game loops that describe a single feature, when it’s too big).
Finally, the loops should be meaningful. Good loops have a long-term goal associated with them. You decide to repeat the loop over and over to reach that goal. So ask yourself what is the goal for every loop you identify.
“Someday a generative AI will be able to create a release a complete videogame. Can you imagine that?“
Yes, I can. But I am very skeptical about the quality, the value, and the timeline for that.
The creative process is very uncertain and risky. Specifically, you could work for months on something and then earn nothing. Many non-creative people would like to mitigate that risk. I get that for the true capitalist that’s juicy.
Now, think about yourself as a Player. You are downloading a fantastic new game that you purchased. And you know that a machine made the whole game. As a Player, you know you have to beat some useless obstacle not created by a team of people. You don’t have a true mind challenging you and presenting an opera. A machine did that and a company is asking to pay for it.
Can something like that be appealing to the people?
As a developer think about passing your days writing prompts and editing the results. Or better, remove the editing part. You have an idea and TA DA! Compile a superb game. A game you feel you couldn’t even imagine. And you didn’t have to pitch, discuss, get approvals. You didn’t have to struggle to find the right art style, the good coding structure, the best mechanics. You have it all in a few minutes.
Now think about it: how would you feel if you have to sacrifice one of the most important parts of being a person for speed, success, and revenue?
At the present time, I feel that there will be a split in game developers in case of the realization of this crazy prediction.
Every week I am reading news about layoffs in games industry. Every week a friend tells me she has been fired for whatever reason. Happens especially at big companies.
A friend of mine, who yesterday wrote a testimonial on me that made me cry, confessed that was laid off. He was in a senior position in one of the biggest companies in the World. This system is clearly not working to me. You work for a company, spend many hours putting your energy in. The company is very profitable and when the year ends they fire you because their investors must have their share bonuses. Incredible.
And then many people goes back to the hamster wheel. Posting on LinkedIn that they are doing assessments and interviews. Saying they are unemployed since months.
Honestly, I am out of that. I don’t care if at some point I have to work elsewhere to pay my bills. But I have to try to build my own thing. The games industry is too unfair. We prepare a lot to be able to make games. We study many hours, we stay updated on the industry trends. And for what? To make other people make tons of cash while we have to find the next job after 5 years? I am out.
Is that enough reason to start my thing? Of course it isn’t. My life is not for everyone. But I am very happy of my little thing. Because nobody can remove that from me.
Today in the morning I sent many emails to my clients to ask them to write a brief endorsement for me. Let’s hope to get enough answers!
The fact is that I lose many opportunities because new potential clients ask me for a portfolio… and I cannot show anything at all! In fact, for each project, I sign contracts that include an NDA. I cannot reveal anything about the project I am working on.
That’s why my idea is to have people speak about me. A testimonial book to show potential clients the moment I introduce myself. I prepared a document on Google Docs for each one with their face, name, title (at the moment we worked together), and the space to leave a few words.
I am excited and at the same time worried that not more than 30% will answer my request. That’s because writing an endorsement for someone is not a trivial task. Especially when the language is not your native one. I asked them to use the English language.
A tool without a good mind can become a piece of garbage, an obstacle, a weapon, and many other things. The problem is never the tool, but the fact that not any tool is useful to everyone.
That’s why I tend to stay suspicious when I see best practices. That is why I don’t use any tool without making it mine, somehow.
If you give me a space rocket, which can be seen as a space travel tool, I will probably sell it. Or make a mess, I don’t know. The problem is that I am not prepared to use that tool. It’s amazing, but just not for me.
I see a dangerous trend on social networks like LinkedIn. It is proven that strong opinions spread better with the algorithm. People tend to make declarations like brainstorming are useless. Roadmaps are killing your product. Design documents are a waste of time.
All of those things are just tools. Great games have been created by using those tools at certain points. It’s a matter of mindset, not tools.
Returning to our example, best practices are great for unlocking meaningful discussions. But most of the time, they are bad to just speed up the process. We can say that the no.1 best practice is that you need time to make things simpler and better.
I was watching the Half-Life documentary released by Valve a few days ago. Right at the start Dave Riller says “I think most of us had no game development experience… There were 3 or 4 people who had actually shipped a game before”.
This story repeats over and over in the history of games. Baldur’s Gate (the first one) has a similar story. League of Legends, too.
But that was a different time, right? Nowadays, games are more complex and you need a lot of experience to make a successful game.
I discovered this game called Atomic Hearth thanks to a new friend I made here in town. It was released this year, the first game from a remote multi-national small company. They reinvented Bioshock. Huge success.
Someone tells you that you can’t be successful with juniors. Other people say that your first game cannot be a success. You need to fail 50 times, first. I often tend to believe the same things, but facts contradict me every single time.
The history of games teaches us that an epic win is always possible. Do the best you can do with the resources you have. The future is built very often by people belonging to the future. Our industry is where it is because people with no experience had their chance at some point.
Over the last 10 years, I have assisted in the rise of many services and information providers that offer concrete predictions based on data. I had to quit a big company too, because of that. They were also testing game concepts based on the people’s responses to some text. So everything we proposed was texted out using a text redacted by someone with a high salary and very few things to do.
I went to a local indie fair where a friend pitched a game to publishers. One of them said, “Don’t you know that games with vegetables do not work?”. Then we ask why the publisher’s business model doesn’t work. It’s because of things like that!
Games are made by people who believe in a concrete vision and work hard to deliver. Many games will fail, because maybe people are not interested, because of the quality or many other factors. But you cannot use data to predict the success/failure of something without having tested it out.
Data-driven (or better, data-informed) development works when you work with concrete data from your things and compare them with your past. It doesn’t work when you read data from others and try to replicate it blindly. Sometimes it works out, but it’s because of other factors. It’s always because there is a passionate team behind that did something great. And lots of luck, the state of the market, and factors you can never control.
You can avoid risks by going iterative, of course. You can test prototypes and demos and see the actual reaction of people to that. That is good. But you cannot assume “this kind of game with these features is working in the market, so if we made something like this we would probably have success”.
When we play games for work we often misunderstand the real motivations for the true fans to play that game.
Maybe we are working on a social casino game but we don’t really like this kind of games, as players. So that we study that game from a cold perspective. And we can also think that it would be easy to replicate mechanics and dynamics. Social casino games have really simple interactions, right?
Then the degeneration of that discourse leads to something worse. We start believe that a machine can build this in series. Today everyone is talking about AI, but also before of that there were kinds of fun experiments.
But then we notice that these kind of experiences are hardly successful out there. Best social casino games have teams of more than 50 people working hard and passionately every day to deliver the best experience.
To me there is a silent contract between the Player and the Designer. For designer I mean the whole team, also. That silent contract states that there is a creator from one side that propose a challenge to another person on the other side. The motivation to play (or fun, if you prefer) comes mainly from this contract.
You decide to play a game. You know that the game has been made by someone. Part of the challenge is to beat that someone’s mind. If you read reviews of games you will notice that many comments go in the directions of creators.
What happens if the Player know that a machine created that game? Will they give these games the same value? People are smarter (and dumber) than we think.
Every game creator I know, every company I worked for, always wants a thing: that the Players stay with them until the end of content.
On f2p games the more the game stays in the market the more this is hard to reach. For premium games, games with an ending, it can happen. Still, in most cases it doesn’t. The vast majority of people do not complete the games they purchase. And the trend is going worse as we have so many great games published every month.
The question I have is: is that important? One may think that if the Players complete a game then maybe they will buy its sequel. Another can say that if the Players stay until the end it’s because they loved the game.
Well, I think of me and it’s not always the case honestly. There are games I loved and that gave me tremendous emotions that I have never completed. The reason is not important here.
That’s why in game design we like to talk about the moment-to-moment. The important thing is that the Players enjoy stay in our game while they stay. It doesn’t really matter if they don’t complete the game. If we provided them enjoyment, engagement, challenge and motivation during that time that is where the real value of games is.