iWin's VP of creative Laralyn McWilliams' advice for developers? Get over yourselves -- and learn to enjoy making games your audience wants to play, she said in a GDC Online session.
She started by listing the games she loves -- games like Oblivion -- and games she worked on, like a Disney Stitch game for PS2.
"When we finished making Stitch, and I sat down with the design team, it wasn't in our control... There were several possibilities, and one of the possibilities provoked this response -- 'I'd rather put a bullet in my head.'"
The game? Barbie Horse Adventures.
"At that moment in my career I sort of thought that way too," McWilliams said.
All the same, "We're all aware how the industry is changing... You can tell by looking at the top games. We're seeing changes in core games too."
"I think we tend to assume because we work with a lot of people just like us that we represent the people who play our games, and even for core games I don't think that we do," McWilliams said.
She finds it "super frustrating" that people say "if we want more games for women, we need more women in the game industry." While she thinks that's true, "that's bullshit. Are we going to start hiring 10 year old kids to make games for 10 year old kids?"
"The more important question to ask is, how do you inspire yourself to make something great and how can you inspire your team?"
"Don't change your games; you need to change yourself -- the way you look at games and game development," said McWilliams.
With Stitch she saw a boy playing and loving it at a kiosk at Comic-Con. "It dawned on me that I had put a lot into this game, and so had the team... The immediacy of the knowledge that I had entertained this kid better than he had been entertained by other games... Was a moving moment for me."
So. How do you do this while making a game? "Identify your target demographic really specifically," she said. She gets pitches from developers -- and is not interested in them unless on the first line they define "who is this for?"
"None of your features matter if you don't tell me who the game's for," said McWilliams.
You can get demographic information online, and from sources like Nielsen.
One thing she learned while developing Free Realms is that "there's an age, around 11, where kids don't want to play kid characters anymore; they're completely turned off." She could not have predicted that; it determined the game's direction for the player avatars.
Learn what they like. "It's not because you want to put Lady Gaga in your RPG; it's because you want to know how they think -- because they're not you. Think about them like an alien species you're studying," she joked.
Next step: Meet the competition, and show some respect.
"First, I think you have to eat the competitors' dog food. Once you have those top games, spend some significant time with them. And get the whole team to play," she said. Significant amounts, not just a couple of hours.
For Free Realms, the team played MapleStory, Dofus, and RuneScape. "We totally dismissed those games," she said.
"Our takeaway was that those games were crappy, and that we would make a real game and show them how to do it... And because we had that hubris, we lost about 6 months of competitive advantage at launch." The team had to delay Free Realms and make "serious changes" to its itemization when the team finally woke up to MapleStory's success with its demographic.
"Don't just dismiss a game just because you don't understand it and don't like it. It's popular for a reason," she said. "Don't just think the audience is inexperienced or dumb."
"The casual audience had 20 years to decide they liked our games -- and they don't," she said. "Don't try to stick in the game mechanics you like just because you think you can trick the audience into liking them with a coat of paint."
"The only way you are going to have a chance to get that people past it is to talk about it together... Explain why people like this game. Do the research on forums and Facebook," she said. "What are they doing that's great?"
You also have to meet your players -- via focus test. "They have gotten a bad rap --because they have been scheduled by marketing, picked by marketing, marketing writes the questions and hands the results to the developers."
"Don't think about them as something that is going to tell you how to make your game; think of them as valuable insight into how your target demographic thinks."
How do you ensure you get useful results? "If you can, own the tests. Suggest having focus tests before marketing does," McWilliams said.
"If you can, tell marketing folks, 'I'd love to write the test plan.' Proactively do that. The marketing folks will be ecstatic, because they don't understand the game very well."
Makes sure to go to every focus test. "I don't care if you miss two weeks of work -- if you're a design lead you need to be there, butt in seat," she said.
And do your own reports. "Marketing interpretations of what players of doing is really not what they're doing," she said. "Write up your notes along with solutions and send them out ASAP. You want your solutions to be the first people see."
And as you develop the game, "think about how you're growing as a developer throughout this," she said. You may mot be making the game you want to make, but you are gaining skills, knowledge, and your company is getting to make another game.
Keep perspective, in other words.
"Very few people actually get to do that," she said, of making games. "So in the end, does it matter that you're making Barbie Horse Adventures? It only matters because you're making a great Barbie Horse Adventures, and you are going to give the little girls the best game they've played in their lives. And that's what you should be thinking about."