Don’t Be a Fake
Mike Bithell, the creator of Thomas Was Alone, wrote a little advice for game developers who want to be controversial not because they have any taboos to break, but merely because they think that controversy is a “great” promotion tactics.
It’s a highly recommended read. I just want to talk more about one thing from it. Talking about “the poser. The controversy hipster. The person who […] imagined the 10 Polygon articles”, Mike goes:
Don’t be a fake.
This is a very good advice for all the reasons Mike mentions in his post, and for one more.
Being a fake will most likely hurt your game, controversial or not.
At least that’s what happened to me in early 2000s. Someone I knew asked me to help them finish a certain game they were making, because the development was going nowhere and the team was struggling and no one really had any idea what to do next.
I love adventure games and action games and RPGs and real-time strategies and made at least one game in each of these genres. The project I was asked to help with was, however, a 3D RTS in a style of Homeworld. Something I did not really feel or understand. Even when I agreed to help and played Homeworld for research and inspiration, I could not be bother to finish more than two missions.
(I’m not saying Homeworld is a bad game — it’s not! I’m just saying its genre and execution and basically everything about it what not something that I really had any lust for. Simply, not my cup of tea.)
That project I took the creative direction of was called Starmageddon. I wrote the story, designed most of the features, and drove it to completion. From the commercial point of view it was mildly successful, in a meaning that it made some money for the investor — which was the only thing they cared about.
Other than this, it got 67% Metacritic, no one really remembers it, and I usually do not list it as a game that I’ve done — as I would have never made it if not as a favor for a friend.
I do not even remember the game at all. I wrote the story but I could not tell you a single thing about it. Looking up “Starmageddon” on Google it’s only now that I got reminded the real full name of the project was “Project Earth: Starmageddon”, and “Project Earth” is the title the game is usually listed under.
It was not a particularly bad game. It was just very calculated and disingenuous.
And gamers will always smell that. Like this…
…they have certain uncanny skills and they can always tell which game had a soul and which didn’t. Does not matter if it’s an AAA game or an indie game. They can even tell which parts of a game were clearly developer’s love for games and which were pushed onto them by suits.
Gamers will see through your game. Your disingenuity will always bleed through. Everything is a product but if your game is nothing else, it will leave gamers cold no matter how many controversial or currently-cool things or movie licenses you put in it.
It’s the same, say, with movies. I’ve seen so many of them that were trying to be edgy and controversial in hope of commercial or critical success — latest craze: zombie rape — and yet people stayed indifferent.
And contrary to what a lot of people think, some of the most commercial products in the world, ones that you would never consider were made out of love, actually had a lot of deeply engaged creators behind them. But even if there are exceptions — and there always are — I do believe that making a game you really want to make is a better commercial approach than making one you just think would be commercial.
Instead of Starmaggedon, I wanted to do a different game, but I could only get the investor to go for it after finishing Starmageddon. That game was Painkiller. It enjoyed infinitely better reception and sales, and one of the reasons, I believe, is that gamers felt it was made by people who loved what they worked on.