[In this opinion piece, originally published in Gamasutra sister publication Game Developer magazine, EIC Brandon Sheffield takes on a common industry ailment, and reminds game developers to take the time to sit down and play some video games now and then.]
In a previous column published in Game Developer
magazine, I mentioned that it would be beneficial for developers to look outside games for inspiration. This is something I believe strongly, but on top of that, how many of you out there actually have the time to even play games, let alone consume other media?
It seems that nine times out of ten, when I ask a working developer what games he's played recently, he'll honestly admit he doesn't have the time to play any games but his own.
Those who say they have played contemporary titles, if pressed, often admit only a cursory familiarity with the recent games they've tried. Some actually seem to be proud of the fact they don't actively play games but their own. This is a worldwide phenomenon, and not a particularly awesome one.
The Exception That Proves The Rule
I recently heard a story from a friend who used to be a producer on the publishing side. He played a lot of games on his own time, and talked about it vocally with others in the office, as watercooler discussion.
Over time, he became known as a guy who plays a lot of new releases -- even by his higher ups. His bosses would start to come around, asking for opinions on competing titles, and he'd be able to give solid answers.
As a result of being known as the guy who knows about games, he got promoted to an executive-level position dealing with third parties.
This guy is competent and intelligent, so those traits are contributing factors to his rise as well, but even to hear him tell it, his being a developer who actually played contemporary games was so unique and valuable that it warranted a promotion.
Knowing Me, Knowing You, A-ha
Games are, like most entertainment media, very strongly influenced by past successes. If you make an FPS, you're not just referencing the Call of Duty
series, you're riding on the shoulders of Doom
, Wolfenstein 3D
, and even Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: Treasure of Tarmin
for the Intellivision.
No product exists in a vacuum, and in this world of iterative improvements, those games which are made with an awareness of the past are less likely to repeat mistakes, and more likely to push forward.
I've heard some folks say they don't want to be accused of being influenced by other games, but theoretically if your design is solid and well-implemented, it should stand on its own. And as I mentioned, what game isn't influenced by a host of others?
Leads at the very least should be paying attention to the work going on in other studios, or should be playing those studios' games. After all, what director doesn't watch movies, and what novelist doesn't read books? Certainly only the outliers.
The Usual Caveat
Time is every game developer's nemesis. A 60-hour work week is not unusual, and if you've got a family, how can you justify playing games at home (other than perhaps with your child or spouse)?
There is a lot of institutional pressure keeping developers from playing competing products, and some of them may not be solvable in the short term. If people could stop working 60 hour weeks, they would.
In the film industry, the whole team works ridiculous hours for the duration of the project, but they are compensated well enough that they can actually take a bit of a break in between projects.
A potential solution might be to have mandatory scheduled playtime for leads and key creatives during work hours. Of course, when the pedal's to the metal, that looks like an attractive cut, but building it into company culture would likely be beneficial.
I personally have been trying out the first hour of any game I get, rather than filing it away for the day when I'll "really have time to sit down with it." You can glean a lot from that first hour, and if it's engaging, you might go for another.
Reading reviews and gathering popular opinion on a title just isn't enough. No judgment is more sound than our own, yes? In some cases it may be impossible to work games into your life more than they already are--but it seems like something worth doing.