In the world of gaming news, reviews and criticism, there are a few common threads that get brought up time after time. One conversation that comes up all the time is the idea that games are becoming less original. This criticism is often lobbed at large AAA studios, whose gritty open-world shooters can often seem to blur together. However, you can also see this criticism in other areas, such as the mobile space, where every game that gains some amount of success is met with dozens of very similar copycats.
What do critics and players mean when they say that they want more originality in games? While it may seem obvious, the answer is not as clear as you may think. There is a reason why first-person shooters, for example, are still a very popular genre. That reason? Because players still buy, play, and enjoy these games. While it may be easy to complain about the number of cookie cutter games that just follow trends, those things only became trends in the first place because some part of the audience enjoys them.
The key to originality is NOT to never do something that has been done before. If that were the case, then very soon the game industry would come to a halt, as nobody would be able to design anything without stepping on somebody else’s toes. Instead of trying to reinvent everything, the key to making a fun and refreshing game is to take elements that people already like, and do something different with them. It doesn’t take a huge change to make something feel completely new – even relatively minor adjustments can make a huge difference.
What do I mean when I say “do something different with them”? Well, there are many ways to do this. For a AAA studio, the solution is often to try to make something feel new by making it bigger, with better graphics and more features. For a smaller independent studio, however, I believe the answer lies elsewhere. One very powerful strategy for making your game stand out is to give it a unique personality, which is what we will be talking about today.
What do I mean when I talk about a game’s personality? In the simplest terms, what I am referring to are the details that make that game stand out in your mind and feel unique. A game’s personality consists of the elements of that game that feel completely unique to it, and would seem out of place anywhere else. These little details are the fingerprints and brush-strokes that show that there is a creative human behind the game, and not just a formula.
When a AAA designer makes a game, they are often using money that was given to them by some publisher, and there are certain expectations that come with that money. These games are expected to appeal to an audience of a certain size, and make a certain amount of money in sales to recoup the investment. Because of this, they are incentivized to appeal to wider audience. They don’t need to make players fall in love with their game, they just need a large enough group of people to be interested enough to buy it.
As an independent designer, however, you cannot afford for players to just “like” your game. In the words of Mark Rosewater – “If everybody likes your game, but nobody loves it, it will fail”. And it is the details in a game that make players fall in love. Whether this be a unique character that they can relate to, an atmosphere or setting that sets it apart, a unique art style, musical direction, or sense of humor, all of these things could end up making somebody fall in love with your game.
Why is it not enough for your audience just to “like” your game? Because that sort of game is unlikely to spread. How often do you tell your friends about a new app or game that you “like”? Probably not very often. But if your players love it, then they are far more likely to spread it around.
Personality in games comes from having the creative freedom to do things that some players may not like. If somebody loves a particular aspect of your game, odds are that somebody else will hate it, and this is a risk that I believe designers should be willing to take. If you are too afraid to put something in your game that somebody might dislike, you will simply end up making a bland, flavorless game that will not stand out in the crowd.
A word of caution however – adding personality to your game does not mean you can throw in whatever random things you want. It is not about having a game where all the features do not connect with one another, but instead to have a game where all the features still feel cohesive, and yet unique to your game.
Suppose you two different ideas that you want to put into your game – one idea appeals to group A but not to group B, while the other appeals to group B but not group A. Both of these features will be beloved by one set of players, and yet hated by another. What should you do? If you put both in, then both groups will just end up unhappy. The key is to put in features that will appeal specifically to the type of player you are making the game for, and ignore features that do not appeal to this group. If you know who you are trying to appeal to and somebody else doesn’t like what you are doing, that’s fine – the game isn’t for them.
The 2-d platforming genre has been around since the 1980’s, and is still going strong today. How do designers continue to produce games in this relatively constrained genre that still feel fresh and new? The answer is that there is a lot of room to produce games that feel very different, even if they are very similar mechanically.
Take the games Super Meat Boy and Little Big Planet, for example. Both of these games are side-scrolling platformer games, and the main characters even look pretty similar. And yet the games themselves feel very different. One is brutally difficult with a dark sense of humor, while the other feels whimsical and encourages creativity. These two games have very different personalities, despite being superficially similar.
Where does this unique feeling come from? It is the result of all of the details of the game – the music, art style, character design, level design, difficulty level, choice of settings, enemies, obstacles, etc – that come together to form a complete cohesive package that feels unlike anything else.
While different games can feel very different from one another, it is also possible to create different personalities within your game itself. This is important because if all parts of your game create the exact same feeling, then the game itself can feel one-note. Even if your game is unlike anything that players have played before, if it is all the same then the player can still become bored, and it can still feel unoriginal.
One example of a game that does a great job of adding variety within it’s levels is Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze. While the game makes sense as a cohesive whole, each different island in the game also felt very different from one another. One island represented an African Savannah, while another level too place in a Pie factory that may have been an homage to the pie factory stage in the original Donkey Kong. When I think of this game I do not think of the fact that most of it’s mechanics have been done a thousand times before – I think of those fantastic levels.
Having a unique personality can make games into classics, such as the Earthbound series, also called the Mother series. These games in many ways are basic turn-based RPGs, but the bizarre settings, characters and humor of the games have made them into classics.
For another example, take the Portal series. While this series of games is a great example of how a small mechanical change can completely change the game, it is also an example of how character and dialogue can draw players in. While the game itself is fun, I have a feeling that it would not be nearly as beloved without the robotic humor of GlaDOS.
If you want to see just how far you can push this concept in your games, look no further than the Katamari series. The core gameplay of these games is to roll a ball around that slowly gets bigger and bigger until you reach some goal, usually by achieving a certain size. On the surface, this sounds like an interesting minigame or 2 minute mobile experience at best. Certainly this mechanic is not enough to sustain a game series for 14 years with over a dozen games?
By itself, that is probably true. However, the Katamari series expands this simple premise with its extremely unique and sometimes bizarre personality. Sure, players can roll up a huge ball and eventually swallow the entire Earth, but that is only the beginning. You can also roll around a Sumo wrestler, consuming food until he grows large enough in size to take down a competitor. Or you can roll around giant snowballs to complete a massive snowman. And that isn’t even mentioning the completely absurd cutscenes that can be found between levels. Katamari is practically more personality than game, and it is probably in my top 10 favorite game series of all time.
For my final example, I want to look to what is by almost any metric the most popular game in the world today – Fortnite. Why is Fortnite so successful? It is not because it was the first Battle Royale. It copies a lot (most) of it’s mechanics from PubG, and this style of game has been around for a while. So if it isn’t “original”, why is Fortnite doing so much better than PubG?
I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that Fortnite has more personality. It’s art style is more unique, where PubG has a more realistic and, frankly, boring art style. In other areas, Fortnite is absolutely full of personality. It has dances as taunts, allows players to hide in bushes, drops players out of a flying bus, and has other quirky details as well. It is not bound by strict realism, but by its own sense of fun and it has served it well. It’s no wonder so many people chose to stop playing the comparatively generic PubG after Fortnite was released.
That is all I have for this week! If you enjoyed this article, please check out the rest of the blog and subscribe on Facebook, Twitter, or here on WordPress so you will always know when I post a new article. If you didn’t, let me know what I can do better in the comments down below. And join me next week, when I look at conveying information in games. See you then!