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Games Are Not Silicon Valley
by Rob Lockhart on 10/14/13 03:05:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


I'm writing this rant because this Kickstarter has just come to my attention.  As a bit of background, I'm working on a learning game called Codemancer, and consequently I keep a close eye on the games for learning space, especially games that teach programming principles.


I think we can all agree that a good game is hard to make.  Even a team of fantastically talented and experienced game developers with infinite money can still make a bad game.  There are an incredible number of books, courses, conferences -- hell, this entire website you're on -- all saying "games are really hard to make, but here's, maybe, a bit of advice that can help you."

And yet I see 'startup people' (aka technology entrepreneurs) assume that it's as easy as e-commerce.  Some guy has an idea and thinks he's a game designer -- well, maybe he is, but wouldn't it be smarter to find out with a small project?  Make something with a $0 budget and see if anyone thinks it's worth playing.  Oh, but you just have this one epic game idea, and no others?  That's easy, then.  You are not a game designer -- at least, not yet.

Right now I'm in the midst of making a learning game (they used to be called edu-games, but most things by that name were insipid, and the term was jettisoned).  Learning games are MUCH HARDER than entertainment games, because on top of all the difficulty of making something interesting to play, it also has to be teaching you something.  The thing you're learning has to be what MAKES it fun, not an add-on bonus stage, or a gate that blocks you from having fun until you have answered this math problem.

So when I see a group of people attempting to make a learning game without anyone who calls themself a game designer on the core team (which is very very common, for some reason), it makes me sad.  There are a few reasons I get sad:

1. This game is probably either going to be bad, or isn't going to get done.  There's always a slim chance that it will be finished and good, but almost negligible.

2.  If the game is finished but bad, as most turn out to be, it will erode the already poor reputation of games designed for learning - just as we're starting to get a foothold!

3.  In the worst case, the creators of the game know the horrible truth: It doesn't actually need to be any good to make money.  All it has to do is play to the anxiety of parents who want their children to succeed (citation).

4.  There was an easy way to avoid this disaster -- get a game designer on your team (me, for instance -- I'm happy to help)!


Truly, I'm sorry to be negative about people joining the games industry.  I really do want as many people as possible to make their voices heard.  Please make games.  Learning games are especially sparse, and I like to encourage people to make them for any and every learning goal.  Please, make games for learning.

On the other hand, independently developed games, and especially independently developed learning games, have very limited public attention and favor, and I'd rather that it not be spent unsustainably.


If you are an entrepreneur at heart, I recommend that you start a games company!  This is a very different process from creating a game, and perhaps one that will make better use of your talents.  Hire a talented game designer or two.  Due to downsizing at nearly every major studio, there are quite a few on the market right now.  You could also buy out a respected indie studio in financial distress.  Sit down with these people and come up with a game together (it's absolutely OK for you to be part of the creative process).  Get an experienced producer who can figure out how much money and time you will need.  Let me know if I can help.


I'm Rob Lockhart, the Creative Director of Important Little Games.  If you were to follow me on twitter, I'd be grateful.

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Rick Hoppmann
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The heading is terrible.. it doesn't meet the articles content.

Rob Lockhart
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You're completely right. I was really struggling with it. Any ideas?

Daniel Cook
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Games are not Silicon Valley?

It seems like you are talking about people who come from outside games with no understanding of games but treat it as 'yet another tech startup' in the model of 'smart VC backed entrepreneurs' like those found in various tech start up hubs.

The issue here is not that they are entrepreneurs, but that they lack an understanding of how to make games.

What is confusing about the title is that starting a game company is very much an exercise in entrepreneurship. It happens to be one that requires a specialization in the craft of game development, but many game companies would do well to think of themselves as startups. Taking a holistic look at product, cash flow, and market fit would likely increase new studio survival rates.

Lance Thornblad
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I have to agree. The article was not at all what I expected based on the title. Also, it seemed the point was to call out BotLogic for not having a game designer on the core team, yet I see no evidence of that.

I would say that their presentation is pretty corporate and personally think their game looks a heck of a lot like Light Bot. That's not necessarily a bad thing as I think most games are variations of a type.

Have to say that I'm curious about Codemancer. I left a pretty good job in the game biz a few years ago to work on my own start up (with some similar goals), but I've been spending all of my time just building the technology.

Rob Lockhart
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@Lance shoot me an email. We should chat sometime. bobbylox(at)importantlittlegames(dot)com

Rob Lockhart
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Great suggestion. Changed the title.

Jacek Wesolowski
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This reminds me of that one time when a two-person startup approached me, asking to help them develop their game idea. It was a Facebook adaptation of an educational game about Tragedy of the Commons (so the idea wasn't even theirs). The original game was nice and to the point, but it was meant for use during live training sessions. Two hours of gameplay, tops, and only because processing player decisions took time without a computer. The adaptadion would last for ten minutes, maybe fifteen. And it was a Facebook app. And it was supposed to earn money. So yeah, they had a problem, and of course they ignored me when I pointed it out.

After about a month of concept work and a few somewhat fruitful meetings, I reminded them I was a freelancer who designed games for a living. I told them I could help them part time, but not full-time, unless they could pay me (they had offered me a share of their future profits on our first meeting and I refused, because come on). They never showed up for our next appointment...

My brief adventure in the startup land involved more than those two people, because the startup in question was tied to one of more active local incubators. What I learned from it is that startup people are generally a) very young, b) completely clueless, c) quite often sociopathic. I think they genuinely believe charisma and determination are what makes businesses tick; familiarity with subject matter (be it games, solar panels, or domesticated pigmy giraffes) is irrelevant. I mean, some of them actually thought quitting university half way through improved their odds...

Ian Richard
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I don't know if I can't quite agree with you especially where the kickstarter is concerned. It doesn't look like a terrible game in any way. I've played more than one game that uses the similar mechanics.

I've was a programmer in the video game industry and designer of two board games. I know what it takes to make a solid game... and I know that it doesn't require a self-proclaimed "Game Designer". ANYONE can make a good game with the right skills and mindset.

Some of the most talented designers I've met are dabblers who don't consider themselves a designer. On the same note, some of the least talented I've met tightly hold on the title.

Some people will make good games and some will make bad games. Do you best to be in the first category and don't worry about those that fall into #2.

Rob Lockhart
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I'm not worried about that particular kickstarter so much. This seems to be a wider phenomenon which is hurting the reputation of all learning games. I wish nothing but the best.

Christian Kulenkampff
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I think I understand your point. Teachers probably feel the same when it comes to the development of educational games, or campaigns, which state "everybody is a teacher!". Of course everybody can teach something, but there is a reason why you can study pedagogy. Academic excellence and specialization don't guarantee professional outcome, but they rise the probability of such an outcome to a degree, that it is just professional to hire somebody professional...

BTW the Codemancer game reminds me of RoboRally, a quite popular board game (see

Rob Lockhart
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This is exactly my point. Thank you.

I've played RoboRally. Codemancer is trying to be a bit closer to Logo but definitely in the same genre.

Amir Ebrahimi
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Rob, I thought it was odd for you to mention Lumosity. I don't see them as trying to create outstanding learning games or hear them making claims that the games they are making are primarily meant to be fun. They're using games as a way to improve the brain's core cognitive functioning.