By Stace Harman & John Robertson
If you’ve ever spent five minutes day-dreaming about creating your perfect video game – or have recently made a new year’s resolution to start making it – you’ve likely come up with a long list of killer ideas and must-have features to include.
Perhaps you’d love to build upon the immersive narrative and stunning world-building of your favourite action-adventure, or craft a fast-paced shooter with awesome set-pieces. Being inspired by the games you love is a natural place to start, but what about setting out to improve on those things in games that don’t work so well or fix long-standing problems that have always bugged you?
In this excerpt from Independent By Design: Art & Stories of Indie Game Creation, a deluxe hardcover book, video game developers Tom Francis (Gun Point; Heat Signature), Teddy Lee of Cellar Door Games (Rogue Legacy), and Lucas Pope (Papers, Please; Return of the Obra Dinn) discuss the inspirations behind their own game ideas, explain how they work to incorporate player feedback into design and reveal how a sharp critical eye can help improve game creation on a wider scale.
Independent By Design: Art & Stories of Indie Game Creation
Take a closer look at the book by swiping through the gallery above.
Tom Francis (Gunpoint, Heat Signature) on Inspiration
Francis reveals that he’s just as likely to be inspired by ideas that he dislikes as those he admires: “Something that I’ve always had a low tolerance for, but now have an even lower tolerance for, is losing progress [as a player],” he says. “It always irritated me, but now it outright offends me because I feel my time is precious … I’m as motivated to solve problems that I don’t think other people have solved as I am to copy things that already exist.”
Got feedback on our player?
We want to hear it.
To this end, Gunpoint’s game save system is designed to record progress with uncommonly high frequency so that if something goes wrong and a player fails while experimenting they lose only minimal time: “I wish more people were inspired by things they hate rather than things they love,” laments Francis. “There are some things like [the Gunpoint save system] out there already, but I haven’t seen one that’s quite as extreme as this … I don’t know of many that are as reliable at saving you every second of effort that you don’t want to undo.
“In general, if people solve problems through the creation of their own games then they’ve made something that’s genuinely adding to the medium and making it better.”
Leaving the medium in a better state than how you found it is an admirable goal. It’s also one that can lead to design headaches if you become fixated on something and lose sight of the effort required weighed against the prospective payoff. Francis tells of horribly complex scenarios that he got trapped in when trying to deal with how fail states would work, both in Gunpoint and Heat Signature. Primarily, these stumbles were fuelled by not wanting to present the player with a ‘Game Over’ screen to indicate failure while their character was still alive, a design ‘feature’ he has long felt animosity towards.
“I didn’t want to recreate that kind of situation, but I’d designed myself into a corner where all of my principles were at odds with what I wanted to do…”
Teddy Lee of Cellar Door Games (Rogue Legacy) on Maintaining a Critical Eye
From his earliest exposure to video games, Teddy Lee, co-founder of Cellar Door Games and creator of seminal roguelike Rogue Legacy, excelled at identifying, arriving at and explaining solutions for design problems that he came across in games. This eye for critiquing games in a very fine, precise way means that there are very few games that he has ever, genuinely, enjoyed.
Asking Teddy which game he last enjoyed playing, he pauses. He pauses for a long time. Eventually: “Well, back when I was a kid… I dunno… hmm… The nostalgia is impacting me when I think back about games that I might have liked and maybe didn’t actually like that much. Although, I did enjoy Super Mario RPG, that game was so far ahead of its time.” Super Mario RPG was released in 1996, which gives some perspective on how difficult Teddy is to please.
“RPGs nowadays still can’t compare to [Super Mario RPG], which is a little upsetting.”
Teddy realised fairly quickly that the kind of criticism he would apply to the games he played differed enormously to that of the friends he would play them with: “I was very critical, but I was a different kind of critical. Essentially, I got very anal about things and I didn’t enjoy games very much for a really long time. Maybe I was just playing them out of habit, but there was a period that I would just think that all the games I played sucked.
“Honestly, I still think games suck. But don’t tell anyone that [laughs]. I just don’t find as much enjoyment in them as I wish I did. I think I might be a little too critical of them.”
The quite wonderful thing about hearing this kind of ‘critique’ is that it’s performed in a manner that is entirely charming, clearly originating from a desire to see things improve rather than out of a perverse love of cynicism and failure.
Lucas Pope (Papers, Please; Return of the Obra Dinn) on Listening to Feedback
“Sometimes it’s not the solution that’s being suggested that you need to listen to, but the problem. So I try to listen to what they’re saying and look at how things can or might be fixed.
“When you’re making games you’re making them for people and so I feel that you have to really try to match expectations and make games easy for people to enjoy,” Pope reflects. “I don’t mean easy in terms of difficulty, but if someone’s complaining about something you can just fix it. You fix it and they can enjoy it more, I guess. I do focus on practicality a lot, what’s someone going to think when they play this? Are they going to think it’s stupid?
“Artistically, I have no torch to bear about things like that. Some people will say that ‘it’s got to be like this because of my artistic vision’ but for me that’s a huge red flag and even if there’s no practical problem, I might change it anyway just because I’m not comfortable with that kind of single mindedness for art.”
Independent By Design: Art & Stories of Indie Game Creation is a celebration of independent video games and the people behind them, presented through a deluxe hardback book that chronicles the experiences and vivid design of over 20 of the world’s most revered and renowned indie game developers. It is written by veteran game writers and critics Stace Harman and John Robertson and available with a special launch discount for a limited time through IndieByDesign.net or via Amazon.