Rule #2 – Don’t cross the streams

Like all media industries, the games industry is one in which passionate creatives are also, more often than not, passionate consumers.  Some developers have rules about levels of required consumption for team members, insisting that competitive knowledge is key if you’re to keep tight on both technical and gameplay developments in the industry.  With a the sheer weight of content currently being created, it’s easy to drown under the flood of XBLA, PSN, iPhone, browser based, handheld and console releases, but knowing the genre you’re working in back-to-front is a basic necessity of survival; being able to draw on other genres a close second.  If nothing else, the lively debate about the relative merits of new releases is an enjoyable and often entertaining one – one which keeps the content, and the sense that these are experiences to be enjoyed and discussed, alive and vibrant.  This does lead to one of the worst habits out there, however; one I’ve seen in action, and doing its damage, time-and-time again.  For the sake of metaphor, let’s call it crossing the streams.  It all starts innocently enough – a design meeting in which the team are trying to come up with the core gameplay of the latest experience – and then someone does it, they reference another game:

We could have the cover mechanics from Gears of War

To be clear, I’m just using Gears of War as an example here – it could be any game, for the sake of argument:

Why not lift the respawn mechanic from Bioshock

And there we go, in either case, design meeting ruined.  Think I’m being a little alarmist here?  To a degree I am, but if you think through the psychological mechanics of what happens here, you’ll see what I mean.  There’s an old trick pop-psychologists like to use to demonstrate this phenomena, which I’ll use here.  Play along, please.

Think of a colour, just don’t think of orange.  You’re not allowed to think of orange.

See the problem?  It’s virtually impossible for our brain to negate ideas presented to it – to not think of orange, you first have to think of orange, after which it’s incredibly hard to wipe that thought away and be left in the same mental state you were in before.  The point being?

Let’s assume you’re trying to come up with an original game, a fresh approach to an existing idea, or just the solution to a thorny mechanical issue.  All of this requires fresh and original thinking.  By mentioning other games you’re immediately falling back on unoriginal, unfresh thinking, and are corrupting people’s minds with a whole range of thoughts that are almost impossible to negate after, very much like the colour orange.  This isn’t limited to the mechanics, as our mind is hard-wired to look for connections to ideas presented to it.  Let’s use Gears of Wars as an example and our previous statement as the seed “We could have the cover mechanics from Gears of War”

The brain of Designer 1 – I didn’t like Gears of War, but I liked Gears of War 2, it had more verbs.  I’ve seen better cover mechanics though, like the soft cover lock in Red Dead Redemption

The brain of Artist 1 – If anyone asks me why our game doesn’t look as good as Gears of War, I’m going to kill them

The brain of Designer 2 – I wish I was Cliffy B.  I want to be interviewed on a bed with Playboy models.

And some of this may spill out into conversation.  It normally does.  The issue is, as we’re hard-wired to look for connections, as we’re consumers as much as creators, and have an opinion on the games we play, any reference to any other game is loaded with emotion, rhetoric, and unwanted comparison.  Once the game’s been mentioned, the creative and comparative streams crossed, you can’t go back.  People spin off on tangents talking about which Gears of War was ‘the best’; which cover system out of which game is best; and why Red Dead Redemption was actually mechanically better than GTA IV etc and so on.  Even if they don’t talk about this, in their heads they now see a weird pastiche of Gears of War and your game, with a little bit of Red Dead Redemption for good measure.  You may want this – Fifty Cent: Blood on the Sand, for example, was by-design a willing exercise in core mechanical evolution, with all the original thinking placed on the arcade points, scoring and combos system – but assuming you don’t, creating this psychological pastiche is creatively problematic and should be avoided.

The rule is this, don’t allow people to reference other games in design meetings.  Never.  Don’t cross the streams.  Have meetings, roundtables, water cooler conversations, to discuss, dissect and analyse other peoples games, but don’t bring those conversations into design meetings.  Focus on required player experience, and let the unconscious grey-matter do the rest.  You’ll think of plenty of other games, but being forced to describe what you mean in terms of player experience and how, in your game, this would translate into mechanics, without any corrupting ideas coming into the conversation, is an incredibly powerful thing.  Simple in theory, hellishly difficult to enforce but, speaking from experience, one of the biggest creative wins there is.

Rule #2 – Don’t cross the streams.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Jonathon Wisnoski January 30, 2011 at 1:14 pm

The whole concept of not mentioning the game you got your idea from seem a little like not giving credit where credit is due to me.

And I do not claim to have 1/100 the experience is brainstorming meetings as you, but any even moderate gamer will most likely be thinking of Gears of War the second you mention cover mechanics in any form anyways.

And new games for the most part are small evolutions on games that came before, and if you are making a brand new completely unique game (I am not sure I have even seen a game more then 1/4 unique) then their will not be many/any games to use as examples for explaining features you want to add anyways.


Matt January 30, 2011 at 2:18 pm

The problem with this is that no idea is new. Ever.

If we wish to progress in development we need to be able to use mechanics that have been put in place before, see why they worked in the first place and adapt them to the new situation as required. They were made for a reason and a lot of effort went into refining the mechanics for the final product.

In the rapidly evolving world of video games its easy to get carried away and “create” something you believe to be totally groundbreaking. Referencing helps us see the bigger picture; curernt trends, things that worked or didnt work and most importantly is a jumping off point for fresh implementations. Its not just a case of making a new game out of parts A, B and C of other games.

A good example of this is Lego universe; a development team creating a multiplayer platform with the aim of communal building and adventure. When questioned about similarities to Minecraft they didnt know of it. Or as when borderlands was bieng released as an “innovative first person adventure”, “never done before”. When a year previously we had been playing fallout 3 with Bethesda’s whole line of The Elder scrolls games behind it.

Designers need to be able to reference other games. Recognising similarities and building improvement is what design is about. If we bliker ourselves and just tap away at a single minded vision we will see a lot of interesting little projects but they will lack the improvement and evolution that comes from professional criticism.


Sean Jin January 30, 2011 at 3:31 pm

I want to reference William Upksi Wimsatt here, author of the book Bomb the Suburbs, talking about stealing styles as a graffiti writer:

Although being a new jack seems undesirable in any hip-hop art form, you should enjoy it while you can. At this stage you can bite all you want with no remorse. All your elders will say is “Aw, isn’t that sweet, kootchie kootchie koo.” So steal that freeze, rob that rhyme scheme, and loot whole letterforms. Don’t worry about giving any credit, we’ll pat ourselves on the back and brag about how we’re influencing the next generation. But style isn’t a crutch or a schtick. It is understanding why the connection you bit flows or why the baseline you boosted bumps. Style is the process to an appealing end. Once you’ve studied it, you can reinvent your own style. Pretty soon, somebody will steal your secret sauce and the cycle will be renewed.

Or, in other words, steal! But don’t just steal for no reason. Understand why that particular element you’re stealing works so well. What is it, exactly, about the cover system from Gears that works so well? Is it the puzzle-game mechanics? The “Black Hawk Down” sense of action-hero it provides? Or something else? And once you understand that, you can make a new twist on the cover system, one that is perfect for your own game. And that, in my opinion, is originality.


julianwiddows January 30, 2011 at 6:53 pm

Thanks for the comments and feedback – appreciated. I’ll try to cover all the points in one place as best I can, which I hope will clarify things.

Firstly, a couple of folks on the RPS comment thread touched on the main point I was trying to communicate, which perhaps wasn’t clear enough. I’m really talking about high-level ideation and direction meetings, not the specifics of taking a chosen feature or mechanic and working out the technical and code design – in many cases building on the experiences of other developers, and other games, is a key stage here; learning from their mistakes essential. The only way to achieve this is to have a thorough knowledge of the current competitive landscape, which anyone worth their salt is going to be working towards on a daily and weekly basis. As I said in the article, this is a basic tool of survival; as I intimated, I truly believe the discussion, analysis and codification of those experiences is essential for all developers. Discipline agnostic statement that.

So I’m not trying to say that a finished game shouldn’t be evolutionary, rather than revolutionary – they almost always are. I’m also not saying that you shouldn’t reverse engineer a feature that’s worked in another game to define the specifics of your own implementation, once you have your desired macro feature set, and are sure you’re being influenced for the right reasons; as Sean Jin touched on, in many cases this is an ideal course of action. Really, what I’m talking about, is putting player experience first and keeping that conversation pure – what is the experience we want the player to have, and what mechanics are most effective at delivering that experience, whether new, evolved, or borrowed wholesale. Keeping the names, and the subjective specifics, of other games out of that conversation, keeps the conversation clean, which in turn keeps required player experience, your game and not someone else’s, at the forefront of the teams minds. Really, it’s all about cleanliness of thought – keeping potentially volatile, subjective and unfocused opinions out of conversations that should be circling the player, their experience, and what you need to deliver that experience.


Guest January 30, 2011 at 7:28 pm

The thing I’ve seen done to death the most since Portal isn’t the cake, it’s the concept of the killer narrator.

That disembodied voice or kindly character that’s been informing you about the gameplay? Big surprise, it totally has it in for you.


Andy Krouwel January 31, 2011 at 9:22 pm

System Shock 2.

Also, any game where you have to fight against ‘rebels’. You will at some point have to change sides and oppose the person originally giving you missions. Especially common in space combat games, for some reason.

Mind you, my head’s full of thirty years of game designs, so I probably haven’t had an original thought for at least two decades.


Jimmy January 31, 2011 at 2:05 pm

Don’t worry too much julianwiddows, I understood what you meant without any trouble, I actually can’t even see how everybody else seems to have misunderstood what you were saying.

I’m not in the games business, just a wannabe games designer and (application) programmer, but I still have the same issue. When I try to explain my new game idea to one of my friends for some feedback its hard not to go and say, ‘think of the map like in the civilization games’, of course that is then followed by a thousand questions of ‘would this thing work like in civilization’ and their mind is now thinking ‘how did civilization do this thing’ rather than be thinking of new ideas.

Thank you for the article.


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