Game development is still hard…

It’s hard to believe that over ten years ago I joined the DirectX team with a goal of making game development easier. Back then, being a game developer was a relatively “exclusive” club. The barrier to entry for developers who wanted to make games was very high in all aspects.

My first goal was to make the act of writing the code itself to be simpler. DirectX is very powerful, but was quite esoteric if you didn’t use it every day. At the time, it was C/C++ only as well, and while these are great languages the fact was that Visual Basic developers (C# didn’t exist at the time) outnumbered them five to one (at least). Over the next few years many VB (and some C/C++) developers migrated to C#, DXVB became Managed DirectX, which in turn morphed into XNA Game Studio. Through each of these iterations the act of writing the code for a game became easier and easier.

If my only goal was to make writing code easier, then by any measure I can think of I accomplished this goal, but it wasn’t. I wanted to expand beyond the PC as well, I wanted to allow every day folks to write code for their home consoles, and in 2006 (with the first version of XNA Game Studio) that goal was accomplished as well (followed by the ability to publish and make money a year later). People don’t think much about it now, but that was huge back then. Nowadays it seems every device has a public marketplace and an ability for anyone to write apps and make money from them (and you would dismiss them if they didn’t), but it wasn’t the landscape in 2006.

It was all of these “successes” that prompted my exodus away from the XNA team and into a game studio in 2010. I felt I had accomplished all of the goals I had in lowering the barrier to entry for game development and wanted to move on to my passion of actually creating them. The release of Beards and Beaks has given me a bit of time to be introspective somewhat (which isn’t to say I’m not busy, but still).

For all the successes that we’ve had though, the simple fact is that today, halfway through 2011, game development is still hard.  In some ways, I would argue that it is actually even harder today than it was when I started, albeit for completely different reasons.

While we certainly helped remove some of the barriers to entry over the last ten years, we didn’t remove them all, and we’ve actually added a few new ones. For example, it’s still extremely difficult for an up and coming game developer to hook up with an artist, just as it’s hard for that artist looking for things to stick in their portfolio to find a developer. People are still confused about what a good “game idea” is.

Actually, that’s a good enough side track that I need to break off for a moment for a mini-rant. I swear if I hear one more person tell me that they have a great idea for a game, and then begin describe some story I’m going to scream. In the majority of cases, the story is not what is going to make or break your game (and invariably when someone is describing a “game idea” to me in this fasion, they are not in the minority where it matters). You need to know what game mechanic makes your game interesting. Even in story heavy games, the game mechanic is what makes your game most times. If your game idea is essentially “all the game mechanics of Gears of War with a different story”, this isn’t a good idea.

Sorry, with that rant out of the way, I’ll continue. I believe the barrier to entry for a budding game developer is so low now that the real problems are no longer “how do I make games”, but instead “how do I stand out in the crowd”. The barrier is no longer to entry, the barrier is now to recognition. How can your shining gem of a game rise above the cess pool of thousands of terrible games?

If you ask me, this is an even harder problem to solve, and despite rambling on for all this time so far, I’m not about to say some magic incantation that solves it because truthfully, I don’t know how. Sure, I have some ideas which I’ll go into presently, but I have no delusions that they are a sure-fire way to success.

First, as I alluded to above, you need to have a good mechanic (and a fun game). If you’re trying to make a rip-off of Gears of War, well stop it because you’re not helping anyone and just adding to problem. Now, that isn’t to say that taking a formula that works and improving it is a bad thing, but don’t try to copy something whole-sale unless you can do it better. You want to make a game that’s like Gears of War but includes the ability to turn into a dinosaur and eat folks? Awesome! You want to make a copy of Gears of War with a budget of $30 and a diet coke? Get out of here.

When I say taking a copy of a game and making it better, what I really mean (most times) is “polishing” the game. The term is a little weird to begin with, but basically what it means is that the game looks and feels professional. It’s hard to describe, but you can see it when it’s there and will miss it when it’s not.

People think that polish doesn’t matter as much, but in reality it matters probably more than anything. Consumers can tell. Angry Birds is like a printing press that spits out money, but it isn’t an original idea or anything. The exact same game came out years before it, but that game was unpolished and forgotten to the sands of time. Rovio took the basic idea, polished the hell out of it and have made more money than they know what to do with.

Of course, once your amazing game is out, you then need to market yourself. I feel a bit sorry for the single guys (or small teams) in this regard. At Microsoft, we have entire marketting teams, and it’s still a difficult proposition! I hope one day soon to talk more about this and some ideas I have, but right now this post is already way longer than I was intending it to be.

As the title says, game development is still hard.. I suppose I have a lot more work to do..

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  2. I certainly thank you Tom for the amazing work you’ve done when you worked in the Microsoft DirectX team: you allowed us to get our hands on way quicker. You can be proud of it.

    Now, you shouldn’t take any responsibility on the fact that making games is harder than before because it really isn’t.
    As you said, you made it simpler to get your hands on but you cannot make it simpler to make good games.

    It’s like asking Adobe developers to make it simpler to make good movies or illustrations.

    You were a tooling developer and you achieve what you were supposed to: provide tools.

    To take a middle-age comparison, you were this unknown guy that brought blacksmiths with better anvils, hammers and perfoming ovens so that warriors could get weapons.
    Either the weapons were good or not depended on the blacksmith talent.
    Game developers are just these blacksmiths and players are warriors ;)

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