Where did all the good games go?, an illustration of my days reviewing shoddy movie tie-ins, dreaming of games that were inspiring me to be a game designer, Matej Jan, 2011

Where did all the good games go?

Retronator Editorial

Back in 2008 I decided to start a company for creating video games. I was very wet around the ears and the obvious first thing to do was write a 5-year business plan:

The business plan for Retronator with market research (middle) and its mighty 5-year cash-flow balance projection (right).

Hopefully I don’t have to tell you how close to the financial projections things turned out. (Spoiler alert: zero.)

However, there is something noteworthy in my 8-year-old document. That middle page with market analysis proved to be right.

It was at the time when I just traded my teenage anger against my parents for a more noble hate of the AAA gaming industry. My beef was that half of the stuff the big-name developers were making was just another FPS after FPS after FPS.

I loved my GTA IV and Fallout 3, but I wanted more games where I could create things, like Little Big Planet and Spore. The industry was not delivering; the predominant game mechanic of the majority of games was shooting or fighting with the next biggest chunks devoted to sports and racing.

Google search for “Top Games of 2008”. From left to right: shooting, shooting, shooting, shooting, shooting, shooting, shooting, fighting, creating, thinking, arcade

I went and counted all the upcoming games from a 2007 game convention to create this pie-chart:

Main game mechanic of games in the late 2000s.

I felt let down. This was very different from my teenage years growing up in the 90s. Indeed! When I did the same analysis for the most popular DOS games on the retro gaming site Abandonia, a different image emerged:

Main game mechanic of PC games in the 1990s.

What struck me as important was that these were titles that were most popular by retro gamers right then in 2008. By my logic that meant there was a market gap between supply and demand for the group of gamers like myself. I went ahead to plan out my lineup of games based around creating, something I was most passionate about as a gamer.

Unfortunately my business courage didn’t match my aspirations and it would take me 8 more years to finally start working on my dreams. As for the market gap, it turned out, not only was it true, but also that us aging gamers weren’t the only ones that would love to have more games based around creating things. In 2009 I was proved right. Minecraft happened. First with us old farts and these days with our children. The gap was real and it got filled. The rest is history.

Indie games

Minecraft was first released as an alpha prototype on TIGSource forums, the cradle of independent game developers. It joined sandbox games like Dwarf Fortress that spark our human drive for making things. In their freedom and openness lies embedded creativity. You can make anything you want. And then destroy it. And make it again. Like Legos. The indie game community delivered.

My beef today is not with the AAA industry any more. (I stopped caring a long time ago.) Today I want to call out indie games for falling into the same trap.

I see a lot of indie games in my search for great pixel art and as much as I love how the art style is evolving, I’m being let down by game mechanics yet again. Rare are games like Kingdom that get nominated for excellence in game design for a unique way of interacting with the world. Lonely are FEZ and The Witness, both without a single thing to kill as they care about peaceful exploration and puzzle solving. Papers, Please wanted to talk about the emotional toll of an immigration officer. The main mechanic then was stamping people’s passports while being affected by their and your own life story. It wasn’t a platformer where you collected red stars jumping on people’s heads!

And yet with the majority of today’s indie games, what we see are derivatives of Super Mario Bros. and Diablo over and over and over again.

Featuring: fighting, fighting, fighting, fighting, shooting, fighting, thinking, fighting, fighting, fighting

Is running and jumping the most essential mechanic to what your game’s theme is? Is fighting through a slew of enemies really what your world is about?

My real life involves 0% of fighting and shooting. Instead it is full of creativity, exploration, learning, relationships, ambitions, athleticism, fears, love, art, technology, space, inspiration … Can you help me tackle these topics?

And so I urge you, game developers. Don’t just default to designing a game where you fight bad guys as you make your way from point A to point B for its own sake. Dream bigger! What is your game about? What are you trying to tell? What is the player taking away from the experience?

When you have that figured out and your game mechanics match, the world will be richer for it.

Thank you for reading this editorial. When I’m not ranting, I am designing a pixel art point-and-click adventure about learning how to draw. In the game you help your character get into art school, become a game artist, explore and conquer art theory, get inspired by the sci-fi environment, meet other artists, make new friends, equip your art studio and most importantly, you actually learn how to draw. The game is called Pixel Art Academy and you can support its development by pre-ordering. Thank you.