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Opinion: Make games for yourself - and nobody else
Opinion: Make games for yourself - and nobody else Exclusive
May 30, 2012 | By Brandon Sheffield

May 30, 2012 | By Brandon Sheffield
More: Console/PC, Social/Online, Smartphone/Tablet, Indie, Design, Exclusive

[In this op-ed from the May issue, Game Developer magazine editor-in-chief Brandon Sheffield argues that developers should stop focusing on monitoring metrics and emulating popular games, and instead be successful through interesting titles that are true to their own vision.]

A lot of people say that if you want to make a popular game, you need to listen to focus groups, carefully monitor metrics, and focus on the mainstream. I say: bullshit. Scaling small and being true to yourself can win you free marketing and make you rich, if you do it right. Even better, your games will be way more interesting!

Personal power

Let's look at some examples. Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP for iOS is single-player, has a singular aesthetic, and launched at $4.99, which is expensive for the App Store. It was a recipe for commercial failure in a world where the birds are angry, and the top games are free. Still, the game wound up selling 300,000 units in the first 6 months, because the game was absolutely true to its creators' vision. They made it for themselves.

Minecraft is another easy one. Notch made the game that he wanted to play. Granted, he knew he was making a sandbox for other people to fool around in, but he didn't do any market research first. In making Minecraft for himself, Notch created a massive self-perpetuating hype machine, because when people like your game, with the proliferation of social media, they can't help but talk about it.

Something that resonates with a small group of people will expand to their friends, and then their friends, and eventually to their parents and grandparents, who would never have otherwise thought of playing one of these games.

The reason this works so well is because people want to identify with cool things, and they want other people to think that they're cool for thinking that this "cool thing" is cool. This little corner of the world they've discovered is something they now identify with, and they'll want their friends to like it too. When they share it around, they've already put the weight of their appreciation behind it.

Okay, let's do it

How do you emulate these successes? Contrary to popular belief, you shouldn't emulate the actual products. Instead, pay attention to the thought process that goes into making them, beginning with the initial idea.

There is something that you like more than anyone else you know does. Maybe it's Apple II-era platformers. Maybe it's fractals. Maybe it's dubstep, god forbid. Find it, and dive right into it.

What qualifies as a niche, then? "Sports" is too vague. The Olympics gets a bit closer, but if you take, say, the Hurdle event in isolation, you're starting to get somewhere. Now you need to find a visual or gameplay hook that really appeals to you (and hasn't been done to death).

A good example of this is Qwop, which was a massively popular Hurdling game for browsers. It had stupidly difficult controls, but was hilarious to watch in action, so people played and talked about it religiously. The game has since gone on to App Store success, and is a great example of a good niche game.

Once you've established your niche and tone of gameplay, determine the targets you want to hit, and never deviate from them. If the mandate is "everything blows up," then make everything blow up, even your UI. Rules like this can help you scale small. Throw out everything that doesn't fit your vision.

You may worry that people won't latch on to your idea. But none of us is unique, as much as we might like to think so. There's almost certainly someone else out there that likes the things you do. If you make a game for yourself, you're also making it for them. Nobody expects you to make a game that targets their weird special interest, so if yours matches theirs, they will sing your praises to the ends of the earth.

Nathan Vella, president of Sword & Sworcery developer Capy Games said this quite well. He said, "I believe that when you're targeting everyone, you're really targeting no-one. You're not making it for anyone specific, so your target group is no-one."

People can feel when a product is genuine, and there's nothing more genuine than something you've made for yourself. That feeling of "I can't believe someone made this" is what gets you instant success on aggregator communities like Reddit, which are huge drivers of content.

Your method of delivery is important too, though. If your game is hard to find, none of what I just said applies. Consider BloodyCheckers, which is an Xbox Live Indie Game. Players explore a massive first person dungeon, with loot, items, and experience points, as they battle the denizens of a haunted castle - all by playing a bizarre version of checkers. If this game were on Steam, the creator would be a millionaire. You have to go where the people are.

If you're developing a game for yourself, you can make something smaller for less money and only take a minimal risk. But the payoff can be huge. You might think this doesn't apply to you if you're working on a big team, and you might be partially right. But the principle of digging deep can be applied to one or two features just as nicely. If your open world game has a really deep crafting system, for example, someone out there will play it just for that.

And who says you should be anonymously toiling away on that big, bloated team anyway? If you have an idea, just get out there and make it. So find your passion, see it through, and don't let the bastards get you down. I'm taking my own advice, and I'll live or die by it.

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Game Designer


Robert Baxter
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Manuel Guerra
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THANK YOU! This is what I've been trying to do all along with my games ( They have been smashingly unsuccessful but them bastards won't take me down!!!

Jukka Hilvonen
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Thank you so much! That truly is one simple, but often so hard-to-follow recommendation for game developers. But that (inner vision) truly is where the best games comes from!

David Burningham
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Excellent article!

Jerome Goomba
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great article, i think it's really important to focus on his own vision. Too many games are based on mainstream which lead to a mainstream market full of bad title.

David Navarro
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"Scaling small and being true to yourself"

Well, what if those two are mutually exclusive? Some people want to play "Super 8-bit One-Button Jumper", but other people want to play Skyrim.

Brandon Sheffield
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2nd to last paragraph: "You might think this doesn't apply to you if you're working on a big team, and you might be partially right. But the principle of digging deep can be applied to one or two features just as nicely. If your open world game has a really deep crafting system, for example, someone out there will play it just for that."

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Alex Nino
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hahahaha, lol! you made my day with this comment... I am seriously thinking that I've made the hardest game at the app store. People are regularly so pissed because each level looks stupidly simple to complete and most of the times they have to go bed thinking... how come?

Torsten Fock
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Nailed. Thank you for this really inspiring article.

Maurício Gomes
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Nice article!

Except it does not always work...

For example, I am making games for children below 6... the closest I come to the article, is make the games tolerable to me, but I certainly do not enjoy them. (but if I cannot tolerate them... something is broken, and I am pretty sure kids won't tolerate it either, much less like it...)

E Zachary Knight
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In that situation, I would approach it with this frame of mind: "If I were to play this game with my 6 year old daughter, how would I make it enjoyable for the two of us?"

Katheryn Phillips
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Make it unique, make it your own, and if other people feel your passion, they will beat a path to your door. I cannot agree more with the passion aspect of this article.

I believe that developing for yourself is mostly critical to self-satisfaction and does not necessarily equate to financial success. Like many indie film makers, many indie game developers toil on productions that don't really have a place in the market, chase a market, or have passed their optimal timing for release. Understanding market forces, market timing, and where YOUR market are more critical than the post-release feedback of MetaCritic scores, surveys, and sales of mainstream releases. Those metrics belong to someone else's creation, not yours. Understanding who will play your game, what platform will best support your creation, where your game should be sold, and when it should be released are vital to your success. Feeding both your passion is great for maintaining your drive to finish your work, but an understanding for what the gaming world wants/needs are equally as vital.

Tweaking the gameplay of trendy title/genre and re-branding it for slightly less cost is not going to yield a great return on your investment of time/effort/money. Making a game that is like someone else's game, but slightly different, is hitching a ride on success, not finding it. To compare this to surfing, the best surfers can react to a good wave, but they are always looking 3 waves out to the one that will let them do what they want to do with their ride. You must attempt to gain an understanding of the who/what/where/when of the gaming market and see your wave. To sum it all up...You can chase someone else's wave and either slide down the back of it or get crushed in the curl, or you can give the world a ride it has never seen before, and let them bring the rewards to you.

Hang ten and show them your ride!

Addison Siemko
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Yeah, stick to making synth modules, Dave.

Just kidding!

Wait, you are that Dave Smith....right?

Arthur De Martino
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I think the author of this article had a good intention however I do question if he knows that games are objects of design first and foremost. Which means even if you uphold your view and desires to make a particular game, it is important to have an audience for it.

It's less about "Making a game I want to play" and more about "Making a game that this particular group will show any interest in it".

You can inclue yourself on that group you know. By researching metrics, you can truly see and better your vision for your game. For every sucess story I could link the author to other "authoral" games that just didn't sell much or at all.

I will reinforce the notion that a game needs to have high quality above all, but don't fool yourself if not looking outside the box and using all your tools including your passion, your knowledge and metrics isn't the way to go. One doesn't eliminate the other rather it makes the other stronger.

Scott Clark
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Having a passion is great. But success is contingent on *being right*. That is rare. And expecting that thinking to evolve into a big financial success is *super rare*.

Having that as an esoteric goal is great! Having that core to your strategy though basically implies: a) you don't care how many people play it; and, b) you don't care if you make money on it.

Those are great too. Games don't need to be design-for-publishing. They can be pure art and self-expression. And sometimes (rarely) pure self-expression DOES turn into a major financial success.

But it's rare enough you don't want to bank on it out of the gate. People will look back on games that became successful and want to model their own goals around that process. But they absolutely should also look at games that followed the same model but which *weren't* successful.

Basically, look beyond the press releases and GDC circuit :)

Lewis Pulsipher
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This seems to be the "heroic" view of game designer, as a person who makes a game the same way an artist paints a painting or composes a symphony.

It's terrible advice for beginning game designers. Some of them may have the same tastes as the audience they're trying for, but some won't; and the ones who do are unlikely to be sufficiently self-critical if they depend only on themselves for feedback.

If pursuit of metrics is similar to the politician who constantly modifies his platform to match the latest polls, then I agree that this is a bad idea for a designer. But if it means listening to the target market to make the game work best for them, it's clearly a good idea.

In Aleksander's terms, some of the now-famous game designers can pursue the heroic view, be artisans, and those who aren't trying to make a living can try it (and usually fail), but most successful designers need to be engineers.

In connection with this I recommend reading:

TC Weidner
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you miss the point, if you make the game you want to make and you yourself are pleased with the end result. There is no failure there, you have already succeeded.

But as one can see from your perspective, you are of the engineer mindset, not an artisan one.

Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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TC, the problem isn't if you "could" make the game you want but if you have the ability to do so.

Even if you have the "Artisan mindset" the question if you have the -ability- to succeed.
99% of the time, developers simply dont.

There are countless failed game-design ideas, concepts, prototypes, not because the developer didn't have the right -mindset- but didn't have the -ability- to follow through with the mindset.

I can have Seve Jobs's mindset, that doesn't mean i will succeed like Steve Jobs.

Thats the distinction. Geniuses are rare, thinking you are a genius doesn't make great games.
Making great games makes great games. (yay tautologies)

TC Weidner
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Aleksander, art is in the doing, its in the creation. As for creating the art, and artist must know his limitations and set his parameters accordingly.

and you miss understand me, I never said" could", I said if you set out to make art, and are pleased with the process and finished product, its is a success.

Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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TC, this will be a controversial comment

If you create art for arts sake, thats fine and thats your prerogative, but its not the same as being "successful".
Successful here equals everything else but "self satisfaction".

Most of us are not interested in making art for arts sake, and nobody should be told that this is the "mindset" needed to succeed.
Because it isn't.

Most developers don't want to create games for games sake, they want to create games that people want to play.

Artisans are rare, if you are one, more power to you, but its not a rule (mindset) that should be applied to the vast majority.

I think thats what Lewis was pointing out.

Mathieu MarquisBolduc
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"Let's look at some examples"This is like my aunts asking me "Why dont you get rich making Iphone games"? (or worse, "why didnt you make Facebook?"). Because for every Angry Birds, there are a hundred thousands spectacular failures, and most of the time it has nothing to do with the product. Its luck and timing.Meaning, its not because it worked for some people that its a receipe for success.Sadly we have a counter-example in the news this month: Curt Schilling tried to make the MMO he wanted, instead of a game that would pay for the bills, and look at the result.This said, I strongly believe there IS money to be made in niche markets (look at Paradox!), but you still have to know those niche markets and make an appealing product.

Kostas Yiatilis
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From what I understand the problem was exactly the opposite. First off based on reviews the game they released (RPG not MMO) was a mish-mash of various other RPGs.

The MMO was supposedly being developed in parallel, they what money they had left to create the RPG in order to fund the rest of the MMO, which didn't do very well. So the MMO never saw the light of day. His "unique" vision was never seen and he is far from what I would call a game designer, he had an idea and he found a source of money.

His situation is far from what is described here.

Mathieu MarquisBolduc
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I think had he been a savy businessman instead of a dreamer, he wouldnt have tried to make an MMO at all.

Michael Rooney
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@"His situation is far from what is described here. "

The situation being described here is that you are making a game, which he was. If you're going to give successful anecdotes without giving background of the actuality of the market people are going to end up very mislead. The truth is like Mathieu paints it. It's not as simple as just making a game you want to play.

Alex Nino
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hahaha, lol! you made some good points considering that this article is totally oriented to indie developers. I would like to say that the games mentioned here got a serious story behind and also a magic marketing touch. Do you know for how many years was minecraft in beta version and nothing happens, only few played it? i will let you guess...

Aaron Casillas
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This is part of what it means to be a designer, the ability to put yourself in someone elses shoes and see the interactivity for the first time again and again.

TC Weidner
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good article, I like to think game design is like cooking. Sure you could join a large kitchen and put out OK food to the masses, or you may be talented enough and lucky enough to be a highly trained chef creating fancy high priced stuff ( but your still cooking in someone else's kitchen), or you could just be a good cook, who stays at home and makes some nice home made meals.

For my taste, nothing beats home made cooking.

Aaron Burton
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Kim swift the creator of portal and quantum conundrum said it beautifully. "I only make games i want to play".

John Tynes
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The year I spent making a game for four-year-old children was my favorite project ever. If you only make games for yourself, only people like yourself will love games.

Michael Rooney
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I feel like your article has a lot of hyperbole. A handful of examples exhibiting the traits you explain were successful, but there were twice as many games that failed that exhibit the same traits.

Not that your rules aren't great, but I think the evidence that it will always result in better games/better sales is not necessarily sound.

Kevin Alexander
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I agree with you entirely.

I think most people DO try and make a game they're particularly interested in playing. Its the rule, not the exception. On the indy scene, this is why so many clones exist because "originality" is rare.

On bigger teams, It becomes very problematic when multiple decision makers are involved, all wanting to make a game they want to play, when that vision conflicts and indecision settles in, teams default to established conventions, and old/tired ideas instead just to keep the project moving.

In cases like this, having a clearly defined end user, abstracted from personal ego's on the team is better in my opinion.

Kenan Alpay
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I don't think Brandon is saying that you shouldn't let anyone give you feedback on your game. I think he's saying that the premise and vision should be true to something that resonates with you, the creator. If you're making something that you are genuinely interested in, you'll be more motivated to finish it, and be more proud of the results.

The other crucial step is visibility, and that's a tough problem. It helps to make friends who can tell others about your game!

I'm really just parroting the article's contents, here!

Scott Foulk
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Hmm. I liked this article and feel it is quite on the head. I write games for programming practice and I am basically an engineer type, looking to do things faster and better, because I like a good idea, and I like to improve upon one. I also write books (The AngelFall Series), and I am very much aware that the story must jibe with me. Otherwise why would I try to sell my books (or games)? I have read many, and I know what I like, and it generally parallels what most people enjoy. If I am not drawn to it, why should anyone else be.

But there is no absolute. Your audience will vary, your project will need changes, your boss may want it yesterday. You have to work in the world you live in. That's how it goes...

Ellis Kim
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Preaching to the choir here :D

Josh Rough
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Congratulations, Brandon - you've just written the typical business plan for a failed mobile/indie game developer. Wouldn't it be great if success were this simple?

Until you've done this yourself, you shouldn't be writing articles about it. You're not a game maker. Games have to live in the wild. They have to earn money or people don't get to make more of them. Metrics matter. It would be great if we could all just shout IDGAF and make whatever we want without regard for our audience, commercial or critical. But we can't. We have to make money with our art.

Brandon Sheffield
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I've also written the typical business plan for a successful mobile/indie game developer. Talent and ingenuity is a key element I didn't think I had to spell out.

I've worked on 10 games so far, which isn't a lot I grant you, but is definitely more than zero. And a 50 person game I was narrative director on got canceled post-alpha, so I am not a stranger to failure, nor to success! You're welcome to disagree with the article all you like, but please don't tell me what I have or have not done.

James Hofmann
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I've failed a ton as an indie, but I totally agree with this advice. The problem in execution is to discover what you actually want, and most devs have to arrive at that via a very exhausting combination of experimentation and the feedback cycle - the first requires a strong willingness to go outside of your comfort zone of skills and knowledge, and then throw out some of the results, and the second requires putting together a social network that will give useful feedback, and a mindset that can effectively parse feedback into decisions.

But if you come from a typical industry background, your language and thought patterns are likely distorted into a very linear "make it and ship it" model, you got too comfortable within a certain skillset, and you aren't in a space where you can properly "see" either the experiments or feedback for what they are. It doesn't help that there's a certain amount of pressure to pay bills, and shipping seems like the way to do it. But in the process of charging forward you end up losing all the low-hanging design fruit - things that would have actually been easier to polish up, and are more novel and exciting than your original concept.

That's what makes indie games hard to make; like any businessperson, you have to constantly tell yourself that you don't know what you're doing, yet, and combine "work" with "learning" as often as possible, otherwise you get trapped in a prison of your own creation - which is considerably more depressing than working on BigCo's idea.

Edgar Barron
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Interesting article. This has been apointed by some comentaries here: There's no real "recipe" for success as we are talking about a big market, which give us a lot of variables to play with. I think we have to adapt ourselves (and our designs) to constantly evolve or even to "deevolve" if that's necessary. I believe nothing comes from nothing, all the art expressions done by humanity are influenced by their predecessors (be it accepting them or as a response against) , "art does not improve it just changes".And I see a Video Game as a mean of expression, therefore when I make a video game a part of my personality and a piece of my essence is impregnated in that videogame, here it is where i think this article aims. "There can not be a work of art that talks about nothing".

Nowadays originality is an utopia. What we do is to take a concept and put it in another context and to demostrate this I put as an example the all known Minecraft. It is a special case cause the idea of building with blocks is very old (Lego) as the zombified attackers that crawl in the night. What the MineCraft team did is to take those concepts, add them the new capabilities that technolgy gives and cha chan!!! we have a million dollar idea. We are in the postModern era after all. There are always risks when doing such projects even the big Designers don't know how people will react. I really encourage designers (as a gamer) to try new things because we are in a point where we always play Shooters, I don't like the direction of the Big AAA companies but there's nothing the young Desingers can loose by innovating (they win experience).
And for closing i really recommend u guys to watch the Indie Game Documentary, the whole thing and the behind the scenes, because designers (Braid designer and more) talk about their inspirations, their fears they are humans too... here the link:

Paul Laroquod
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I'm going to go this article one better. If you are "making games for yourself" you should not be thinking about filling any "niche". The word "niche" should not even be in your vocabulary — this is a marketing term that has nothing whatsoever to do with "making games for yourself". Pandering to a niche is the same as pandering to the mainstream; it's just aimed at a smaller group of people.

Taking the niche approach *may* (and this is by no means certain) allow you to strike a better compromise between marketing and self-fulfillment, but it still comes down squarely on the 'marketing' side of the equation.

So, let's *really* cut the bullshit. Making games for yourself means making them for yourself, period. If other people like them that is wholly accidental and you lucked out. There is no 'niche'. That is what "making games for yourself" actually, literally means. Anything else is just one of many varieties of different poses adopted by different marketing-types to differentiate™ themselves in the marketplace.

John Odom
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Everyone that has commented on this article are right from their own perspective of how to make a successful game. I believe that being successful is when you accomplish a goal that you set for yourself or in a team when designing a game. It can be making a game for you and your friends or making a game with a 100+ team to make profits. I would rather work on a game that will be fun for me ( and other audiences if I have that as my goal ) than on a boring game that I would never want to touch.

Making money is a good thing to consider (which you should if you spent a lot of money on an incredible engine or on a super computer for hosting servers) but if you are first-timer at making games or just wanted to make a game that you would enjoy playing in your spare time then go for it. Especially if you are not spending a lot of money on it like using the Unity Engine, but if you think you can make money from it legally (watch out for copyrights!) then more power to you.

In fact, making games for any reason would help you improve on your designing skills in ways that will help you improve upon it, prevent problems from happening again (if you learned from your mistakes), and find more efficient ways of recreating the same solution.