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I get dozens of emails each week from people wanting me to consider their game ideas. I hate to ignore any email, but I ignore this kind. If someone sends me an idea, it tells me that they got excited about the title of this page but didn’t read the post itself. If they had, they would know that there is really no point in sending me game ideas.
The only way you will ever see your game on a screen is if you make it yourself.
For a more complete explanation of why this is so, see my article on Why Won’t Developers Listen to Your Game Idea?
Now on to the main post….
You have a brilliant idea for a video game. It’s creative, original, intriguing, and fun. You can picture it vividly—the breathtaking visuals, the jaw-dropping action scenes. You can’t wait to play it, and when you tell your friends about it they can’t wait to play it either. Your only problem is, you don’t own a game development studio. How do you get your game idea made?
Then you meet me. You find out I make games for a living, and before you can stop yourself you’re telling me about your idea. Your eyes get as wide as the twin moons over a desert planet, your hands scrub the air, spittle foams on your lip. I understand your game idea, I say it’s pretty good. Then you ask me, “What should I do to get a real game development company to make this game?”
How do I know you ask me this? Believe me, I know. I’ve worked in games for almost fifteen years and this is the number one question I’m asked. But no, that’s okay, it doesn’t bug me. Ask away—I’m happy to offer some advice.
I’m going to answer your question by asking you two questions. First: Is your idea really a game idea? Second: How are you going to climb the Ladder?
Is Your Idea a Game Idea?
Let’s start with the first question. You’ve got an idea for a “game.” My first question is: Is your idea really able to be made into a game?
When a game development team starts building a game, they start with a Game Design Document, or “GDD”. Usually this is a literal document but sometimes it’s a more informal thing: sketches, whiteboard drawings, memories of fevered conversations. But the best game studios strive to record their design in a written, illustrated document. In order to have even the remotest chance of getting your idea published you need to turn it into a GDD.
A game design is much more than a game idea. It’s a detailed specification for how the game should work. What does each button on the controller do? What does the HUD look like and what do each of the pieces do? How does enemy AI work? What pickups can players gather and what do they do? The game design describes every part of the game and tells how all the parts fit together to create a fun game.
This raises another question. What makes a fun game?
There are many possible answers to this question. No one has found a sure-fire formula for fun. Sid Meier says that a game is a series of interesting decisions, and this is a helpful starting point. Players have “fun” when they have to make choices. But not just any choices. Fun choices have to be intriguing, meaningful—interesting. How will your game design produce interesting choices for the player?
This is a hard question. Let me show you two examples that illustrate how hard this is.
The original Half-Life took the gameplay of Quake, then amplified and extended it in many ways. One of the ways they amplified the gameplay was to add a Reload button. Now ten years have gone by since Half-Life was released, and games like Halo have made Reload commonplace. But at the time it was a risky design. In earlier games you never had to reload, so Valve was making weapons harder to use. Players could easily get annoyed—”Why do I have to keep hitting Reload every ten seconds? None of the older games made me do this. Why can’t the gun just reload itself?”
Valve took a gamble on reload and the gamble paid off. Players loved Reload even though it made more work for them. Why? Because Reload creates interesting decisions.
When you’re fighting enemies and your gun has a little ammo left you don’t want to spend the time reloading. If you’re sure the area is clear of enemies you will reload. But what about those times when you’d like to reload but you’re not sure whether an enemy is about to pop out at you? Then the choice of whether to reload becomes an interesting decision.
Half-Life was more fun as a result of Reload even though Reload made the game harder. Now let’s look at another example.
Doom 3’s design called for the game to be set in darkness. Many of the rooms had only one light and some were completely black. To counteract this, the game gave the player a flashlight that could be used to light up any environment. Yet the player could not shine his flashlight and wield a weapon at the same time. This created a decision: do you want light or protection?
Many players hated this game feature. It seemed arbitrary and unrealistic. It often put players into impossible situations where they could either see their enemies or fight them but not both. Players would find themselves either staring helplessly at oncoming bad guys or blasting away into blackness.
Half-Life’s reload feature and Doom 3’s light feature are similar in many ways, but one of them was fun and the other was not. If you can understand exactly why that is, you’re one step closer to turning your game idea into a winning game design.
Most game designs also talk about the game’s setting, story, and characters. But I want to stress that this part of the game design usually accounts for less than a fourth of the total document. When people tell me their game ideas, usually their idea is 99% setting and story and only 1% gameplay. I have to tell them that they don’t have a game idea—they have a story idea. A game design is not a story design. If you want your idea made into a game, you’ll have to fill out the details about how the game actually plays—what the player actually does, how he moves his character, how he interacts with the world.
It’s hard for most people to think through how a game should actually play. Here’s a helpful hint for how to do this. Write a “Five Minutes of Gameplay” document. A lot of studios require this, and it’ll help you think through your game.
In this document, you’ll describe, in absolute detail, what a player does in your game for about five minutes of play. When I say detail, I mean detail. Don’t say, “The player goes North.” Say, “The player pushes forward on the left joystick.” Don’t talk about what the player thinks or decides: just show what he sees and describe what he does with his hands. If you can describe five minutes of your game’s gameplay in that kind of detail, you’re well on your way to writing a great GDD. In fact, you can put your “Five Minutes of Gameplay” document into your GDD as a kind of overview of the game.
How Will You Climb the Ladder?
You are not the only person in the world with a brilliant game idea. There are hundreds of thousands—perhaps millions—of gamers all over the globe who have ideas for games. How are you going to make your idea stand out? How will you get it to be one of the few that actually gets made?
You need to be realistic about this challenge. There are perhaps 8,000 people working in the game industry right now. Most of those people have their own game ideas that they want to make. They’re not sitting around wishing someone would give them a great idea. They’ve already got ideas and are just waiting to get the power and status and respect to form a team to get them made. So these people—game developers like me—are your competition.
And if you’re not already working for a game company, you’re at a disadvantage. A professional game developer has all the connections. He can walk across the hall and talk to a potential financier for his game—someone who knows and trusts him. A professional game developer also has expertise. He knows how games are made. So if you’re not already making games for a living, you have 8,000 other game designers ahead of you in the queue.
In fact, even if you’re already a professional game developer you have a huge mountain to climb. Very few people in the industry get to run their own game project. Of the few that do, many of those projects are based on movies, TV shows, and other properties, so even the project leader has little creative control.
So there is a tiny, tiny fraction of people who have game ideas and actually get to make them. Yet even then their job isn’t easy. They have to sell their game to publishers, explain and re-explain it to their teams, and ultimately convince gamers that their idea deserves the $50 it costs to play it.
There’s a huge ladder above you—a huge pile of people you have to compete with, overcome, work with, and convince. How are you going to climb it?
It is possible to climb it. Some people do. I did. In fact there are two different strategies for how to get to the top of the ladder and make your game.
The first strategy is to work your way up. I studied computer science in college. Along with my studies, I also did extra work teaching myself linear algebra, C++, 3D rendering, and game programming. By the time I graduated from college I had written two game demos. I showed them to game development studios and before I even graduated I had landed my dream job working for Origin Systems—at that time, the biggest game developer in the world. I worked as a programmer for a few years, then moved up to lead programmer and ultimately producer and director. I worked for four different companies on a dozen different projects, many of which were canceled. But a few projects shipped and a few did well, so I was able to keep climbing. It took ten years, but I got to design games and lead large projects. If you have the talent, the dedication, and the people skills, you can climb the ladder this way.
One step you can take that will shorten your ladder-climbing journey is to study at a game development education program like the Guildhall. I teach game programming at the Guildhall, so maybe I’m a little biased. But every one of the programmers we’ve graduated so far has gotten a good job in a real game development company, so obviously we’re doing something right.
No matter how you start, getting to the top of the game industry is a hard, long, difficult climb. If you want to make big, sophisticated, AAA titles, it’s the only way to go. But if you’re willing to make smaller games there’s another strategy that is both easier and faster.
The casual game market is growing rapidly and offers lots of opportunity. Casual games are the sort of simple, quick games you play on websites like Armor Games or Shockwave or on your cell phone. They’re usually created in Flash or Java and are relatively easy to make. In the last couple of years I’ve made a dozen or so Flash games, and they’re a lot of fun to make and play. Best of all, you can make a game all by yourself or with just a couple of friends. You don’t need millions of dollars, a hard-to-find game job, or even a publisher. You just do it!
There’s even money in it. If your games get popular enough they can get sponsored by a website. Websites will usually give you either an up-front license fee or a cut of the money that they receive from advertising. You’d have to make a lot of games every year to make a living this way, but it can be done.
Casual games are a tremendous opportunity. The downside is that they’re casual. They’re not big, grand, gorgeous experiences like BioShock or Fallout 3. If you can be happy just making modest, simple, fun games, you can be happy in the casual game market.
Whether you decide to climb the big ladder to making big games or the small ladder to making small games, you can get your game idea made if you work hard and stick with it. No matter whether you decide to make big games or small games, you have to start with more than just an idea. You have to turn your game ideas into game designs by thinking through the details of how your game actually plays and by discovering how to make it fun. This skill, too, comes with practice.
Best wishes as you start your journey. Drop me a line when you have questions. Let me know about your successes and I’ll celebrate with you.