No matter where you go in the games industry you’ll find countless people telling you to start small “make something manageable that you’ll get done quick or you’ll never finish it” is the accepted wisdom but I believe this is bad advice and I thought I’d write a quick blog post detailing why you should think big when starting any project but especially your first.
You only make an entrance once
Your first game tells people who you are, what your studio stands for, it’s dissonant to go against your established brand and it’s hard to get across. If Dan Marshall was to make a game about the Holocaust, not only would he be starting from scratch to find a new fan base but his existing fan base would be confused about how to take it. This is why you should treat your first project like a mission statement. Dan Marshall started with toilet humour up front, Mike Bithell started with a great story, Rami Ismail made a game with nothing but mechanical depth. You could do the same but for what it is that you are passionate about in games.
Passion is Art
On the topic of passion, it’s an excellent idea to make something important, not just to you, to the world. I’m not saying it has to be something that turns heads it just needs to be something that YOU think is important to the world. The reasons are three fold, it’s something you can be proud of, it helps motivate you and it is what differentiates you.
If you’re starting out on your own it’s hard, it’s far easier, in fact, to just make something terrible on someone else’s time and get a wage. The thing that you do get, that you don’t any other way, is a game you can be proud of, a game you can show people and tell them you made it without feeling a little embarrassed or deflated, something you can hold up as an example of why games are important.
Motivation on a project is probably the most important thing and the reason people tell you to start small is because they assume you have a small, finite pool of motivation that is fixed regardless of what you work on and this is not true. Take it from me, I know this first hand, It is actually harder to finish a 2 week project you never had any interest in than a 5 year magnum opus you that came to you in a dream and just won’t let go of your attention.
Differentiation is one of the most important things in the modern games industry without it no one will ever play your game and being passionate about it is going to differentiate you for two reasons firstly if it’s something you feel is important it’s probably also something that’s not being made by someone else, the idea here relies on the potential that if you think it’s important you might find other people think it’s important too and that will differentiate you big time. It also differentiates you because the passion and energy will come across when you talk about it, consider as an example Gaslamp Games and Clockwork Empires. That game has gotten press and the public excited in a huge way despite few people having played it and the game barely existing at all in it’s current form, the reason is because the project is ambitious and that ambition fuels passion in the developers in a way the press rarely see and that passion infuses the game in a way that transmits to the public when they read about it. The previews of that game sound like the game, the developers and the press are all in a state of hyper excitement and passion can do that for you too.
Think big, cut regularly
I touched on motivation earlier and thinking big increases motivation because you are excited about it, true, but it also helps with motivation in another way. Motivation is a plastic thing, sometimes you have tonnes of it and you get lots done without very much effort and other times you feel stuck and slow, like you are working in tar and it’s hard to get out of this frame of mind, it’s happened to me a few times working on Alaska and the only way I’ve found to unstick myself and get a fresh perspective on the project and a new burst of productivity is to cut some things from the design, all of a sudden the end seems much closer and you feel like a 10,000 meter runner suddenly seeing the finish line, this kind of pace management is much harder to do when the design was razor thin to begin with but of course there is truth in the theory that you might not need these techniques if you think small. It is my opinion though that this kind of pacing is essential to building the stamina needed to complete a large project and if you think small you haven’t exorcised the muscles needed to complete a large project at all.
The herd is fucked
I don’t want to be one of the people spelling doom because there are more games being made than ever, this is a good thing, it’s a great thing. Games will get made that satisfy all sorts of weird niches and maybe they’ll be niches we enjoy, who knows. Saying that it’s the single most important thing a game developer can do to break any from the pack. You need to do something other people don’t and making something small is easy, anyone can do it and everyone is. If you really want to set yourself apart the best way to do that is, the surest way to set yourself apart is to put a fuck tonne of work in, so that when people look at it all they can see is sweat and blood. It will move people from just glancing at it to giving it a chance more consistently and more reliably than any other way I know, beyond spending a LOT of money advertising.
Hopefully that was useful to someone and who knows maybe convinced someone to make an art game rather than an endless runner with in app purchases and ad’s as a vehicle to fund something that they will never make because unremarkable things so rarely make any money. I’ll end on one of my most popular tweets on twitter –
@HobbyGameDev Lots of different shovelware & I learned that it doesn't provide job satisfaction or job security, so it's a waste of time.
— Andrew ☭☮☸ Haining (@Sombrero_Kid) May 5, 2014