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To make games you must play games
by Roger Paffrath on 12/12/13 08:22:00 am   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.


This was originally posted on my personal blog.

This one is for the guys who believe that working on your game to the point of exhaustion is the best way to make them.

I see this a lot. I saw it on myself a couple of months back. Games are hard to make, they take lots of your time. Better to dive in and forget all around you then, right? I used to answer "yes" to this question and get a twisted feel of superiority over my peers who played hours per day. Then I started getting stuck with my ideas. I got stuck a lot and kept working just for the sake of it.

Even though I still believe that working through your blocks is the best way to overcome them, there are a couple of things you can do to diminish them. I realized this when I started relating some advice for writers to game development.

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”  - Stephen King

No successful writer will tell you they don't read. Nor will a musician advise you to stop listening to music and spend your time solely working. And can you imagine a movie director who doesn't watch movies?

In a longer project I didn't have the block problem. I just needed to sit down and code. The idea was already there. In fact, new ideas that came up during the development process were the problem. But when I started working on smaller projects, like some little prototypes, I encountered these blocks frequently. I needed to have fresh ideas on a daily basis. And I was having trouble.

Then, the Humble Indie Bundle 9 came, bringing FEZ, FTL and Limbo for a few bucks. It was perfect for my low budget and I decided to give it a try, changing my daily routine to include some play time on my nights.

The result was wonderful. Certainly, there were lots of new neural connections being made every day. They were of a wide variety too. Colors and cubes, spaceships and aliens, grey tones and traps... so much niceness. How did I missed that? Oh, yeah... I was busy spending hours stuck and feeling good about working a lot. Truth is, after I started playing again, my workflow improved immensely.

The gain from playing everyday again was so meaningful that I changed my routine, including reading after lunch and clearing some hours on the weekends to movies and series. My week work hours got more productive. Work is even funnier. Trivial things like riding on an airplane are now capable of triggering the game developer inside me.

Finding a balance between input and output is the key. I am still learning how to do so. The essence is: I need to appreciate what other game developers are offering and fill my head with as much possibilities as I can to then be able to mix everything and come out with something fresh of my own.

In the end, all creative work is a journey inwards. Exploring the work from others and the world around you helps you discover more about yourself and makes you better at whatever you're doing. Even calling your mom is a pro tip.

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Ian Richard
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I fully agree that an exhausted developer is an incompetent one. A while back I was at a studio that had us working 100+ hour weeks for months. The more we were told to go without sleep, the more broken the game became. Crunch did far more damage than it was worth.

Taking time to recharge is vital to any effort.

That said, I feel it's important to mentioned that this doesn't need to be playing games. I know more than a few excellent developers who no longer play games. But they each have their own way of clearing their heads and recovering from stress.

- I've met some that recharge by spending time with their family.
- I know a bunch who play in a band and use music to recharge.
- I'd rather watch other people play games and take random college courses to expand my knowledge.

But as you said, it's about that journey inwards. The more that I've learned about my own habits, outlook, and needs the more effective I've become in every part of my life. It's amazing how much I can accomplish without stress just by learning my own limits and habits.

* Nearly all of them dabble, but very little time is actually spent on gaming.

Bryan Fisher
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I recently went from the pendulum swinging from always work no play, to more play, less work. Now I'm swinging the other way.
I think it's important to implement a way to relax and recharge. Playing games helps me, and keeps me excited about making games as well.
Great post!

Bernardo Del Castillo
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Ewww! using Stephen King as an example for a good writer? Better not follow that advise. I guess he DOES write a lot... but one could count his good books with the fingers of one badly mutilated hand.

No, but for real, I agree to a certain extent, as a game designer I think it is necessary to play as a way to know what is being made. But it can also turn into a crutch, influences can be damaging to an idea when they present "solutions" that could have been tackled more "originally".
Of course this is more or less important depending on one's occupation, a programmer won't be very disrupted by playing simply because the experience of programming and playing is quite different on an interface level. But he/she could have problems if he/she starts reading someone else's code in another programming language or solving a similar but different problem (Whenever I go into objective-c, my C# skills go bonkers)

Likewise, a systems designer or a Level designer could be influenced (positively or negatively) by observing some other game.. ( although arguably that could happen through any sort of interaction with anything )

However, an artist could ( and should ) take influence from more than just other games ( because as imaginative as they can be, games tend to be very iterative in their aesthetics ) , they should nourish their artistic vision with whatever they find EVERYWHERE.
As @Ian Richard said, its a lot about having a breather, or a smoke break in your routine that gives you perspective.. but that may or may not be games.

The thing is that whether we like it or not, the most interesting Videogames of late tend to veer away from the traditional concepts of "videogame". That is not to say that whoever developed them didn't play several other games. But sometimes it seems like a boon to isolate the concepts rather than "Creating from the observation of existing products".
I don't want to be overly critical but it seems to me that a lot of games make design decisions because "it's what games are supposed to do", or because "it's more fun that way", which are kind of weak perspectives given how far videogames have evolved. In that way, maybe we should learn more from OTHER sources rather than games and their existing shortcomings.

Also... There's many movie directors or actors that say that they don't watch movies, and several writers that claim don't really read other authors... Jason Reitman said: " The instinct to make movies doesn’t come from watching movies, it comes from experiencing life" which is undoubtedly a sappy quote, but not less true. And Christopher Nolan has said that he takes more from literature than from film when he makes his movies... which makes a lot of sense... After all they are not trying to capture movies, but to capture experience ( which is even more true for Game makers).
I'm not saying that that's the best way to do it, but I can't deny that some people get to some very interesting solutions when they are not observing other people's equations.

Luis Guimaraes
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"maybe we should learn more from OTHER sources rather than games and their existing shortcomings."

Or maybe the opposite.

Christian Nutt
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Stephen King's "On Writing" is regarded as a classic manual on how to be a professional, working writer, whatever your opinion of his output as an author.

Bernardo Del Castillo
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@Christian Nutt...
Well it was a bit of a joke TBH, not meant to be taken as a real criticism...SK is probably one of the modern authors that has written more about how to be a writer than any other... but I do think he's a terrible writer that writes a lot of horribly cliché generic stories.. and I honestly wish there were no authors like him... It's like Zinga ( if they made money )...not inclined to find value or be interested in their probably massive surely rather functional output.
However, as you say ( and as I implied when I said " no, but for real "). Sure, maybe his advice on writing is good. I personally feel that reading and writing a lot can help, but there are those who tend to do the opposite with really great unique results.

@Luis I'm not saying we shouldn't learn from videogames and their shortcomings, but often we see projects that are seemingly tied to previous shortcomings for no other reason other than sticking to "videogame tradition". Red barrels surely should explode, but maybe the discussion to be had is outside the traditional discussion of videogames.

Luis Guimaraes
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We're too young an art form for such thing as a Video-Games tradition to exist.

Red-barrels are just a trope use to make up for the lack of novelty in shooters which then become color-coded to conform to Power Fantasy design mentality that everything must be telegraphed to the player so he get in the game already knowing how to play it.

I word myself way too briefly oftentimes too. What I meant to say is we should stop getting ourselves tied by the shortcoming of other artforms looking at them for inspiration too much, and do things the game's way instead. Not to be confused with stoping at where Video-Games have been stopping at either; there's a difference between a shortcoming and a line that haven't been dared to be crossed.

I have yet to see an actual shortcoming of Video-Games as an art form, we won't be there in at least the next century yet and by then this day's technological limitations will be nullified as well. It's either unexplored things or shortcomings we tend to parasite from Fiction media that are the shortcoming Video-Games "have".

Fiction represents reality in Form. Video-Games do in Form AND Function. Virtuality is closer to Reality than Fiction will ever be*.

Not to be confused with pure Simulation or Realism either. Art as art, pure Simulation is the Still-Life of Video-Games -- if you want to look at it as hole and not just a branch of Software which's the medium (Video-Games are the Message).

Bernardo Del Castillo
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I totally agree.. although I don't think there is such a thing as a medium without tradition, no matter how young. When you define a medium there is a certain conception that there should be a way in which it's reality is presented. Particularly videogames get stuck in many formal structures of older games just because. Why are there levels? why is there HP? even why must they be fun? there are many aspects inherited from abstract concepts that are regarded as structural rules.

Also, I'm not saying we should look at other artforms for inspiration (although I don't think it would hurt, it's only natural to do so), but that inspiration for videogames in videogames can lead to stagnation. I'm saying that the inspirations for videogames, systems mechanics, narratives, etc. can be present more purely and raw elsewhere (even in nature or life experience itself)...
I understand, for example, that Shigeru Miyamoto thought of pikmin when gardening. It's impossible to say which of his experiences defined more particularly that creation, but I feel that sometimes taking a very foreign view and applying it outside the more "expected" structure of videogames makes for the most interesting experiences.

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Arturo Nereu
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Good advice, I also think that a game developer (designer, artist, programmer, etc.) must play a lot of other games.

The question I always ask to myself: should I play similar games to the one I'm making?

- It can be good because you may face a problem already solved.
- It cant be bad because maybe you will start to copy.

Thanks for sharing Roger!

Ian Richard
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My answer would be it depends.

It's another one of those personal things that everyone does differently. I've met some who believe that playing similar games can taint their creative vision and I've met some people who focus entirely on similar games. Both methods work for the individuals own development style.

My own method is that I usually play similar games during the initial concept stages so that I can see the competition. These early plays allow me to learn what players will expect from an XXX game. If all of the games have a similar control scheme or multi-player death matches... i know players will expect the same or I'll need to justify why mine is different.

Once I start developing though, I usually play very different games. It can be disheartening to a game that's fun while yours still sucks. I try to limit my exposure until I've solidified the unique aspects and given my game a life of its own.

The other advantage to playing other games is that you can often find unusual solutions by studying other genres. Cover systems existed in old arcade games, leveling and upgrades were common in RPGs and even platformers of old, unique stealth systems are scattered across gaming. I've been studying games for 20 years and I've barely scratched the surface of what is out there.

If you add on little thing that isn't normally associated to your genre, you'll be called innovative. Keep your eyes open for these lucky moments.

On a related note to this article, don't forget to play what you enjoy regardless of anything else. Stress and exhaustion do bad things to a developer and having fun is a good enough reason to play.

Ty Underwood
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To make good games you must play games, read books, watch movies, get exercise, have conversations, read books, watch TV, fall in love, read comics, look at art, go to museums, and read books to name a few things. Games based on games will just be a cesspool.

Nikolay Todorov
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I am reading Gamasutra for a while, but i never thought a post would push me to register and start writing. Anyway,

Lately I was thinking that this issue appears in all parts of life - inspiration that is.
Some people get inspired from other people's works. And this is not bad - implementing, or "stealing" ideas in the sense of Picasso's words - "The great artist does not copy, he steals" can be a very good practice.
But I think that the real inspiration can only come from a personal experience. In that sense - when playing a game, watching a painting, a movie, etc. I find it better to focus on my own emotions, and the way I see it. This will surely help you make something unique :)

Lewis Pulsipher
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Ran across this post today just after posting what amounts to a cautionary if not opposing view: