MonthJuly 2018

Is Anything More Important Than a Game’s Consistency?

Hello friends!

I’ve been thinking for a while about what makes a game successful, or rather what makes a game unlikely to fail. My definition of success, in this context, is simply not failing. That is to say, a game has been successful if it can earn its money back and not be a financial and critical failure. I’m not looking for a formula to solve game development, because I don’t think that exists. But I do think we can mitigate our failures by keeping some important points in mind, and I’ve been trying to discover what these points are.

I don’t think we can predict success if we define success as selling 1M copies or having your company bought by Microsoft… but I like to think that we can identify some key properties that will make a game unlikely to fail. This is a hit based industry and I would be a multi-millionaire if I knew which games would be critically acclaimed monumental financial successes… but I’m not. And I won’t pretend that I know the answers to what makes a hit, but I will throw an idea out there to be pondered within my definition of success. This idea was created in hearing tons of game developers talking about their failure stories, and I think there might be something to it:

Consistency is one of the most
important predictors for a game’s success.

That’s my hypothesis, and hopefully it can be discussed, debated, and refined or refuted. I am by no means an expert in this subject and don’t intend this to be purely informative, but I think this is a point worth considering and discussing, and that discussion may help us achieve a deeper understanding of our craft.

I should add, before we get to definitions, that a crappy game won’t succeed regardless of how consistent it is. I can’t claim to know where exactly how high that minimum quality bar is set, but the idea is that many games that could have had success ended up not finding it, mostly due to a lack of consistency.

My Definition(s) of Consistency

When one creates a game, they create a universe. They create at the bare minimum a visual style, a set of rules of physics, a soundscape, interactions between parts, a user experience, and a universe. Beyond that, game developers may create mechanics, rules of interaction between systems, stories, cultures, languages, customs, and more. These systems need to be consistent with how the game is talked about, consistent with one another, and consistent in themselves.

I’d like to consider three kinds of consistency here, and then we can discuss whether this is actually a strong predictor for success (i.e. non-failure). Personally, I think the order I’m presenting them is their order of importance.

Marketing Consistency

We talk about and pitch our games in different ways, on different platforms, and to different people. We try to explain our entire game in a catchy sentence, we show a screenshot, or we make a trailer that tries to convey the player’s experience in our games. Unfortunately, we often break the consistency of the universe we’re attempting to create even in the way we pitch or market out games; we show off static shots of cute characters when really the in-context animations are what give them their charm, we talk about procedural generation in a rogue-like when the real fun comes from the combat mechanics, and we talk about open-world and crafting when the best part is the story.

From a failure workshop talk that Hugh Monahan of Stellar Jockeys gave at Full Indie Summit in 2016, he talks about his early access trailer for Brigador: “The problem is that it looks like a twin-stick shooter. Brigador is anything but a twin-stick shooter.  For some games, Brigador included, the subjective experience of playing the game is totally different from what it looks like watching a video of gameplay or watching somebody else play.” He goes on to explain how the feel is different from what it looks, and how much deeper the gameplay is than it looks: “This isn’t the game I was sold”, is what many players were saying after playing it. “Because this game looked close enough to existing tropes, or existing genres of gameplay, a lot of what was creative and unique and different about Brigador got completely wiped by this instinctive ‘oh, it’s a twin-stick'”.

Now, I know that anecdotal evidence isn’t going to prove my point, because for any example I give I’m sure others can be found that were inconsistent in their marketing but still did well, but I think this shows how this inconsistency can be dangerous.

Genre Consistency

Players have certain expectations about your game based on other games they’ve played in the genre, other games they’ve played with the same art style, and other games that list similar mechanics or features to yours. If a game is a hardcore strategy game, it needs to look like a hardcore strategy game. If it doesn’t, it needs to be made abundantly clear to players why it doesn’t look like they would expect it to. I should add that we have to be careful when making games, because any hint that our game is similar to another game or similar to games in a genre will be picked up by players, and the expectations start to creep up.

This is not to say that we should make games that all look like one another… absolutely not. But I think we need to be aware that player expectations exist regardless of what we want, and that making a deep strategy game that looks like the image below is setting yourself up for an uphill struggle of trying to change player expectations that are already pre-established.

While I haven’t played the game yet, there’s a pretty wide agreement that Yooka-Laylee didn’t live up to expectations. I don’t think it sold as well as was anticipated, and its review scores for metacritic were not too favourable. The issues that reviewers talk about always include the idea that the nostalgia element was good, but the game brought with it all of the annoying things from those old games like Banjo Kazooie: the camera, the pointless currency collection, etc. I’m not sure the Yooka-Laylee team could have prevented this, since the expectations were set high as soon as Playtonic mentioned that they were making a 3D platformer. But at the end of the day, people expected something more than what they got.

Just as a quick aside, I know and respect both of these companies whose “failures” I’m highlighting, and I still look up to them as game developers despite using their games as “failure” examples.

Game Consistency

I touched a bit already on what game consistency is comprised of: things in the game cannot contradict what other things in the game say, how they work, or how they feel. Within the game itself, the mechanics and everything that you’ve created in your game universe need to be consistent and predictable.

A rule that has been established and conveyed to the player cannot be broken by the game, otherwise the game risks losing consistency. If the game is set in the year 2093, the font used in the menus shouldn’t be Times New Roman (unless there’s a damn good explanation, and even then, why are you using Times New Roman??). If the player plays as an extremely kind-hearted, benevolent, peaceful person, they shouldn’t be killing in cold blood in the next level. If the player can always grab ledges in a platformer, there shouldn’t be similar looking ledges that can’t be grabbed. The example here is in Zelda (in every Zelda game I’ve ever played, in fact), a cracked wall means you can bomb it. It never, ever means that anything else, as this would bring the player out of the experience and lead them to question the rule they learned, that all cracked walls are bombable.

We teach our players the rules of our universe in many ways, and if we ever contradict the rules that we established or the rules that players believe we established then we break the immersion and we create a bad experience for players.

Why Do We Care?

Consistency is key, in my opinion, because

player expectations are created by consistency and those same expectations are shattered by inconsistent marketing and game design, leading to a bad experience.

These player expectations are created by you, your universe, trailers, screenshots, menus, game mechanics, art style, website, and everything else that has anything to do with the game. These expectations are also created by preexisting genre tropes, and anything your game does has to be aware of those preconceived notions.

This is why, in my search to find some properties of a game that will help it to avoid failure, I’m pointing to the idea of consistency as a proposed indicator.

Some Good Examples

I’m going to give some examples of some projects that I think achieved the consistency I’m discussing. As is the case with any argument, using anecdotal evidence is not a strong way to provide “proof”… but I’d just like to demonstrate some strong consistency examples after talking about a couple of weak examples in the above sections.

To provide an example of success, I present the game Shovel Knight by Yacht Club Games. That game promised retro, old school, challenging gaming and that’s what people got. What we also got was the innovations in new games (save files, responsive input, longer game, etc.) while not ruining any of the old stuff that we found so charming. Plus, everything about the game kept you in its world by being consistent: the music, the level design, the art style, the menus, the sound design, etc.

Firewatch from Campo Santo is another good example. First I should say that the trailer for Firewatch is a work of art. This is just one of the trailers they made, but they all seem to be consistently amazing.

It gives you every feeling that you’re going to feel while playing the game: suspense, discovery, relationship building, fear, relaxation, everything. This really sets the tone for the game, and it doesn’t fail to deliver. The music, the art, and everything else about the game reinforces this core point.

Like I said before, finding these examples doesn’t “prove” my point, but it can help illustrate why I think consistency might be a major factor in determining success of a game.

Suggestions to Improve Consistency

I can think of a few ways to try to ensure consistency, some harder than others.

Make sure your trailer conveys how the player will feel when playing your game.

M. Joshua Cauller has a great article about this on his blog. This is probably the consistency issue I’ve seen most: developers will create trailers (or worse, have trailers created for them by other companies) which don’t properly explain what the player experience is like. The trailer might completely miss the mark and focus on something that the developers find interesting, but that isn’t the real thing that makes the game fun. Sometimes, trailers can even be good on their own accord, but not linked to how the game makes the player feel. For example, if your game is interesting because of the flow and precise shooting and movements, creating a story-heavy trailer that doesn’t show those elements might cause people to expect something very different from what you’re providing… that lack of consistency leads to bad reviews.

Get an artist.

Probably not this one…

I’m not an artist, and I wish I was better at this… but people need to have an artist with a good eye look at their graphical elements. I’ve seen too many games with strange menu fonts, colours that don’t match the theme, UI elements that look like they came from Hearthstone in a game where the rest of the screen looks like Fez, etc. Strangers and other developers will can you if your visual style is inconsistent… leading to the next point.

Show the game often, and show it early.

By soliciting player feedback early, you practically ensure that you’ll catch the major issues before you get too far. Showing the game to other game developers, artists, film people, designers, architects… all of these will help you to understand the consistency of your art style and your game in general.

Be aware of everything that is in or related to your game.

I might just be picking patterns out of nothing here, but I find that often the inconsistency I’ve seen in games is linked closely to outsourced work that wasn’t well monitored. Art asset creation assigned to other companies, completely outsourced trailers, and far removed audio teams could contribute to this. If we are careful about the details about all of the things that are going in our game or are related to the game’s universe, we may be able to mitigate some of that.

What Do You Think?

Do you agree with that consistency might be a good predictor for success, above a certain low quality bar? Do you disagree? Do you think I’ve missed something important and shouldn’t be focusing on consistency? Do you think I might be on to something, but misinterpreting it? I’d love to hear what you think, so feel free to email me or discuss on Twitter, or leave a comment on the Gamasutra version of this article!

Thanks for reading, if you’ve made it this far! 🙂

 

The Best Book I’ve Ever Read

I just finished the best book that I’ve ever read, ever. In fact, it’s more than the best book I’ve ever read… I would argue that it’s the best collection of words I’ve ever seen in any sort of literary piece ranging from novels to essays to textbooks.

The book is called The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature by Steven Pinker, a cognitive scientist, linguist, and evolutionary psychologist (on occasion). The contents of the book have pretty dramatically changed the way I think about the world, given me a much clearer understanding of how things work, and given me a ton of insight into the brain and its functions. It has explained to me many behaviours and many human tendencies, and given a lot of credit (and some solutions) to my worry about how the current political climate is affecting our ability to think rationally and reasonably.

The nature vs. nurture debate is a somewhat solved one, in that we all know that pretty much everything is a combination of both. The goal of Steven Pinker’s book is to argue that we rely very heavily on this idea of the blank slate, the idea that everything we do and think is programmed into us from our environment, and that relying so heavily on this very false idea leads to serious issues in policy, education, politics, legal discussions, and more. The first half of the book dispells three popular myths, then discusses how some “hot button” topics such as gender, violence, and children could look when approached through a lens of human nature. Throughout the book, he argues that an understanding of human nature is necessary to understand who we are and how we act, and that challenging socio-political topics cannot be properly answered by ignorantly blaming our environment. In fact, a better understanding of these issues which takes into account the perspective of human nature and evolutionary psychology helps us to make progress toward goals of equality, freedom, and peace.

The first of the three myths he dispells is that of the blank slate itself. The idea that our environment has more of a role than our genes do in terms of our development is false. I’d guess that (especially in the current socio-political climate) the average person would say that over 90% of our thoughts and behaviour are caused by our environment, and that intuition couldn’t be farther from the truth. The best example of the many, many studies that suggest that our genes make up at least 50% of what we consider “personality” is a series of studies with identical twins who were raised in different homes vs. adopted children who are raised in the same home. Time after time, the identical twins showed more similarities in terms of personality, mannerisms, even strange tendencies like twirling a pen when they’re nervous, when compared to the adopted children who were raised with the same parents, same parenting style, same rules, etc. It may be surprising, but you’ll understand if you read the book, which you absolutely should. Ignoring the idea that much of our personality is genetically determined can lead to dangerous decisions, and he outlines that perfectly in his book.

The second is the idea that he calls the ghost in the machine. This is the feeling that there is a “you” inside your head which consists of your conscience and tells your brain what to think, which subsequently tells your body what to do. In philosophy, this is sometimes referred to as mind-body dualism (i.e. the separation between mind and body). The “you” simply is your brain, an extremely complex computer, a circuit of connections and pathways and chemical reactions shaped by your genes and your experiences. With a proper understanding of the brain, there is no need for a soul or a separate “you” that lives inside your head, as if that ghost in your machine can manipulate your thoughts disconnected from your brain.

Lastly, he makes an extremely strong case against the idea of the noble savage. This is the somewhat popular (and completely incorrect) belief that if we didn’t have our current society (technology, capitalism, borders, governments, etc.) that we would live peacefully, like the small tribes of people who have been secluded from modern civilization for hundreds of years. The truth of the matter is that in these pre-state societes, murder rates are unfathomably high, and rape, revenge killings, and violent inter-tribe war are common. The few studies that did find these “peaceful tribes” were completely disproven shortly after their publication, yet their legacy lives on in our ignorant but hopeful minds.

Pinker goes on to talk about some what he calls “hot-button topics” and brings up some interesting, controversial, and I think extremely true things. Among the less controversial are statements like “intelligence depends upon lumping together things that share properties, so we are not flabbergasted by every new thing we see”. This is written when attacking the post-modernist idea that everything is socially constructed, including not only “race, gender, masculinity, nature, facts, reality, and the past” but now extending the list to include things like “authorship, choice, danger, dementia, illness, inequality, school success”, and more. He talks about the mental processes of conceptual categorization and explains how it works and why stereotypes are not necessarily a bad thing, provided you don’t assume that every member of a group shares all of the properties of the stereotype of that group.

 

Another example is when he talks about violence, and how we wrongly blame violent toys and violent media for turning children into violent creatures. We have always been and will always be violent, men will always be more violent than women by nature, and we should try to understand our violent nature in order to correct it and keep improving toward a world where people live happily and peacefully. Not only do we ignore some genetic predisposition toward violence by invoking the blank slate theory, but we also miss the mark in trying to fix the issues that come from it. There’s a whole chapter on this, and then another entire book called The Better Angels of Our Nature where he expands even more on the topic, though I haven’t read that book yet.

The concept of the blank slate is dangerous in a few ways, and I think this is best described by Pinker himself:

The vacuum that it [the blank slate] posited in human nature was eagerly filled by totalitarian regimes, and it did nothing to prevent their genocides. It perverts education, childrearing, and the arts into forms of social engineering. It torments mothers who work outside the home and parents whose children did not turn out as they would have liked. It threatens to outlaw biomedical research that could alleviate human suffering. Its corollary, the Noble Savage, invites contempt for the principles of democracy and of “a government of laws and not of men”. It blinds us to our cognitive and moral short-comings. And in matters of policy it has elevated sappy dogmas above the search for workable solutions.

I highly, highly suggest you read this book. It’s sparked even more curiosity for me to dive into the world of learning about psychology, evolutionary psychology, biology, and philosophy and I think it has presented me with some very good answers. These answers are not only to questions that I hadn’t thought of before, but also intelligent answers to questions which I knew the right answer to, but didn’t know how to express the answer intelligently. This is important because a lot of things in this book can be seen as controversial, but I think many people know that the truth is sometimes not politically correct, and if you can’t defend controversial points well, it discredits the ideas that you might stand behind.

And to end with two quotes for reflection:

“… Popular ideologies may have forgotten downsides – in this case, how the notion that language, thought and emotions are social conventions creates an opening for social engineers to try to reform them.”

“The strongest argument against totalitarianism may be a recognition of a universal human nature; that all humans have innate desires for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The doctrine of the blank slate… is a totalitarian’s dream.”