Cross Talk: How to Design a Video Game (Or Not)

Do video games exist to make money first and foremost, or do they serve a higher purpose? Games as art, games as entertainment, games as business; these are all different approaches game developers take, or attempt to combine, when they first put pen to paper.

Last week, Dave Wolinsky (editor of this blog) sent over a note:

DAVE: Jay -- this might be a good idea for another post. I'm assuming you hate monetizing and think nobody who makes games should make money off them, though. :)

Okay, a bit snarky, but true in sentiment. That is, I sometimes resent the new "free" approach to games that invariably ends with smug businesspeople ("Ahem. Of course you have to focus on making money off of games. Anything less than that would be *unrealistic*; you just don't take business seriously.") distilling gamers into dehumanizing numbers that, I think, distracts us from what a truly good game should focus on: gameplay, core mechanics, artistic vision…

I could really get caught up talking about this (again!). Instead, let's just defer to the conversation that followed between me and a more even-minded person in the game space (formerly of Tap.Me, a mobile ad platform), Jared Steffes, currently working on a new startup in Chicago due to launch soon.


JAY: Okay, I'll bite.

There's a clear trend out there to use video games as a vehicle to make money instead of making a good piece of art/entertainment that makes money by virtue of being good. The former is being run by business folks, venture-capital jerks, and people who care less about changing the way people think and more about the bottom line.

Would Schindler's List have been made by people like that? Casablanca? Citizen Kane? Or would rosebud have been sponsored by Pepsi? You know what I mean?

This is a service for the people who make the video game equivalent of Talladega Nights movies, and fine, there's a place for that. But life's too short for me to worry about that kind of stuff.


JARED: This is one of the reasons GDC Online killed itself. The conference is going on right now and has announced it is its last year. Luckily I was able to get Graeme [Devine, game designer and programmer] to talk on my panel at GDC Online last year.

He hit it on the head. But there is a reality to needing services like this and it is risk. The audience for games got larger and is still okay with the early iterations of F2P. VC and institutional angel money has also entered the space. The goal for them is to have something like great studio buyouts of the early 2000's and make a good return. For that, a studio needs to have a track record of profitable IP. etc, etc.. blah blah... garbage... reason...

I would personally use every service available and is something I did while at Tap.Me. It is important to experience what is out there and you may learn something to make you a better traditional developer. One of my favorite tools provided the ability to tailor gameplay on the fly and find where players are getting stuck. Having that power could mean the difference between players seeing your ending or never turning on your game again.

An example in this case is the whales for Delve Deeper [a game that Jay's company, Lunar Giant, made]. They exist, but are not necessarily paying for more content. They just play an awful lot. Would it not be interesting to see what levels they play the most and have hypothetical reasons why? That way you could create more content like that for an expansion or the second installation in the IP. Whales are the players that you can learn the most from because they like to eat the same content over and over, where as a normal person consumes it and moves on. You can't learn as much.


JAY: You're talking about games from the standpoint of them being primarily consumer items. I'm talking about games from the standpoint of them being a form of creative expression. Both are fine, but you can't make the kinds of games I like playing and making through market research and analytics.


JARED: I bet I could!

Jay Margalus is a game developer at Lunar Giant, and chairs the Chicago chapter of the International Game Developer's Association. He can be reached @Poplicola on Twitter.

Contact Us