Business is Just a System, Neither Good or Bad
Business is just a system, like art, engine or GUI. Focusing on the business system before great gameplay is like arguing about what programming language to code in before prototyping something to see if it works at all.
When I say Great Gameplay First, Business Model Later I’m NOT saying that business is bad. It isn’t good, it isn’t bad, it isn’t anything at all without a good product at it’s core.
All business is a transaction between creator and audience. The mechanics around your player/audience exchanging their time in return for something awesome you’ve made for them.
Asking for (and giving) money in exchange for something awesome is done with the understanding that that money will be used to make more awesome things.
I have no problem with great developers making money from a great game – because it means we get MORE great games. A good business model enables FUTURE creativity!
What I DO have a problem with is the dogmatic evangelism of the system itself to the exclusion of what the system was designed to facilitate: the distribution of awesome things.
Focusing on the features of another game’s business model is distracting because all we see are the surface effects of success – the distribution channels that creator used to share their creation with the world.
Replicating the business model is superficial – it lacks substance. Substance being the pursuit of excellence in our craft, creating something new, something valuable.
It’s like an art teacher telling students that, to be a successful digital artist, all they need is the right painting program, a good computer, a website and all the latest social media profiles. Completely IGNORING how important it is to be able to CREATE GOOD ART.
I’ve been teaching business to creatives actively for the last year – but I very specifically teach business skills AFTER a creative has something valuable worth selling.
Why? Because I have seen distracting business model evangelism at the heart of failed projects, wasted opportunities and crap games for the last twenty years in the games industry.
Good Business is Easy, Good Design is Difficult
Human beings have a tendency to gravitate towards the easy stuff first – and avoid the difficult questions and big scary unknowns.
You see it all the time in how people approach work, relationships, health and fitness.
And when it comes to game design: “how to sell my game” is an easier question to answer than “how to make a truly excellent game”.
I’ve been coaching creatives (3D artists and game developers) for the last six years: first in the VFX industry then through teaching, through my incubator program and probono in the Sydney game development scene.
And every year I watch intelligent, creative and passionate individuals limit themselves to “safe” projects, popular platforms and common themes – and at the same time limit their potential success.
Instead of exploring something new through games design they’re replicating mechanics, aesthetics and business models that have already been done before. Out of fear.
Because they’re afraid of working without a script. Without a template or formula to follow. Afraid of failure.
Even though they know somewhere in the back of their head that the ONLY WAY to be known for doing something new and interesting…IS TO DO SOMETHING NEW AND INTERESTING!
The truly surprising thing here is that if these creatives instead focused on trying something totally different, making something new, then journalists would have more interesting games to write about than YET ANOTHER Halo sequel! New and interesting things are more likely to get written and tweeted about: just look at the success of Braid, Limbo, Super Meat Boy and Spelunky!
If new game designers focused on making a valuable and unique gameplay experience that people can’t get anywhere else, then people would have a reason to pay for it.
But how to create something new and how to create something valuable is a very difficult question to answer – there are no guidebooks or how-to articles on how to make the game we’re going to remember YOU for.
And of course you’re surrounded by well meaning friends and family who will pressure you to do what other successful game developers did (“Hey, just make a game like Angry Birds!”).
They’re afraid FOR you – and that fear makes them forget the reality that doing what’s already been done guarantees that you won’t be doing anything new!
“Don’t rock the boat.” “Don’t stand out.” “Don’t try anything new.” “That’s scary! You’ll get hurt! Don’t do it!”
This kind of stuff sound familiar?
We are wired to do what feels good and feels easy. We recoil from what’s difficult, scary and unknown.
Smarter people than me have put 30 years of research and experimentation into the all too human desire to gravitate towards what’s safe, easy and comfortable. You can follow their work in Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman; and Influence the Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini.
Very intelligent, well educated and MUCH better speakers have done a better job than me of explaining how the willingness to do what’s new and what’s scary is critical to success:
- Brené Brown’s TED Talk on The power of vulnerability
- Simon Sinek TED Talk on How great leaders inspire action
- Steve Jobs on “How to live before you die”
Lost time, Wasted Money and ‘Switching Off’ Creativity
I got into the business side of creativity precisely because I wanted to understand WHY so many projects in the film and games industries went over time, over budget, ending in brutally painful hours of crunch. Why so many great ideas slowly degraded into mediocre “stock standard” E3 game demos. Why so many studios shut down.
Something seemed to keep going wrong between the “great idea” and the business of making that idea. Something, somewhere along the way, killed creativity and whatever magic could have been made.
I experienced this in one production after another as a senior and lead artist in film VFX – whether it was an Academy Award winning feature or a long form animated series, the project ended out of time, out of money and left a broken, burnt out and unemployed population of artists in the wake. And that was STANDARD. That’s just “how the animation industry works”.
And I grew up watching my Dad experience EXACTLY THE SAME BULLSHIT in the games industry over 20 years as programmer in the 80‘s and later a designer/producer in AAA game production.
The pattern I saw repeat itself, and what got me curious enough to shift out of a (very well paid) career in VFX to get into the famously underpaid fields of teaching and writing, was this widespread belief that mediocre projects and studio shut downs was NORMAL. It was just the “cost of doing business” and “the realities of the industry”.
That didn’t seem right! And it isn’t right.
Spend some time in other industries (from software development to finance) and you will see a widespread movement towards lean development: finding a balance between “creative innovation” and “cost effective business”.
Our most successful studios (Valve and Pixar for example) seem to get it. Year after year they focus almost exclusively on making the player/user/audience experience as awesome as it can be. Everything else, from business to production, supports and facilitates that experience.
So if our MOST SUCCESSFUL STUDIOS are focusing on making something awesome BEFORE selecting a business model to sell it…why the hell are we still perpetuating this “focus on the business first” mentality?!?
THAT is what pisses me off about game design conferences focusing on the gamification of revenue generation and how to use game mechanics to get people to buy more. Smarter designers than me have already discussed the parasitic implications of that on human behavior and how potentially damaging it is.
I’m angry because it distracts us from the very necessary discussion of what makes for great game design!
When game designers limit themselves to thinking about what would sell, or how to influence people to buy, they limit the possible outcomes of their brainstorming and experimentation.
This limits the kinds of games that get made. This limits what the games industry is capable of. What games COULD BE.
Once again, I’m going to turn to better more talented people to talk about how creativity happens and how focusing on the “how do we make it” and “how do we sell” it stuff to soon is dangerous:
John Cleese is brilliant. He’s hilarious. And his talk On Creativity is both of those things. Specifically his examples of the different states of creativity: the “open” state of ideas and creative flow and the “closed” state of Getting Things Done – and how to shift between them.
Neil Gaiman constantly redefines “the rules” of popular culture. Introducing Sandman to comics when “People only want Super-heroes” and making Coraline stop-motion when “everyone knows people only want 3D, stop motion is dead”. In a commencement speech to art students he said many great things, including: “I would do my best in future not to write books just for the money. If you didn’t get the money, then you didn’t have anything. If I did work I was proud of, and I didn’t get the money, at least I’d have the work.”
A Great Game is the Core Mechanic of Business
I define a Core Mechanic as the deceptively simple cornerstone to the construction of a great game. I say “Deceptively Simple” because it can be a such a small thing, yet if you take that cornerstone away, the whole building falls apart.
Take the ‘Portal Gun’ out of Portal and you can’t get out of the first level.
Take ‘jumping’ out of Mario and you’ll never cross the first gap.
Getting that core mechanic right first, feeling fucking fantastic, is crucial to the entire game feeling great. Everything else evolves out of that.
You’ve seen plenty of examples of games that skipped that step – they had great “back of box” features and stunning art…but flopped because the gameplay didn’t feel right.
If business is just another system (like your aesthetics, engine and GUI) then it is just another aspect of production that you set aside until you have your core gameplay feeling fucking fantastic.
AFTER you have a prototype that’s worth spending the next however many years developing, it’s time to look carefully at all the systems that will help you make this great game a success: art, code AND business model.
By that point there will be brand new platforms, distribution channels and monestisation methods to consider.
You’re smart as hell, you have great taste, and you’ll figure out the best business system for your game when you’re ready for it.
I know going forward without a “sure plan” is scary. But you can’t plan life and you can’t control all the crazy environment factors of what becomes a “hit” in the market.
So why not just focus on making the best game you possibly can? Your own work, your own standard of quality, is something you can control.
“For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” – Hamlet Act 2, scene 2, p239–251