I like the idea of approaching game development as an artisan baker would approach making bread or the way a craftsman would approach making a piece of fine furniture. Making unique, high-quality products for a discerning audience. Artisan games.
There were a couple talks at GDC this year that reminded me about this, especially Nathan Vella's talk on how they making Sword & Sworcery stand out by taking taking risks, targeting a niche audience, and keeping quality high.
Nathan started with the business reason for making a game which stands out: There are so many games out there, it is easy for your game to blend into a sea of similar games. Making a game which stands out is a big step towards success. I also have a personal reason: I want to make something new, something unique. Games take so much time to make that I don't want to be making games that have already been done.
Making a game that doesn't stand out is straightforward: just follow convention. Do what other games do. Each game platform has a set of common trends that you can follow. Making a game for iOS? Use cartoon graphics, one or two simple mechanics, and keep the game short. Making a Facebook game? Have an energy mechanic to encourage players to return tomorrow, use asyncronous multiplayer, and nudge the player to invite their friends. If you always take the "safe" option when faced with a business choice, your game will probably blend in. If you want to stand out, you're going to have to start breaking conventions, ignoring trends, and taking risks. Nathan kept coming back to the idea of taking risks throughout his talk.
Amir Rao (Bastion) spoke during the failure workshop and mentioned a great safety net to use when making a risky game:
- Ask "What's been done?" Find the conventions.
- Do something else, something new.
- If #2 fails, fall back to the conventions you identified in #1.
Falling back to convention sounds like a great way to make progress if the risky innovation doesn't pan out. On Bastion they ditched a gardening mechanic that wasn't working but their game still stands out because they bucked trends in other areas of the game. You don't have to innovate on every aspect of your game to have it stand out. It is ok to stick to conventions in some areas.
Nathan specifically warned against trying to make a game with broad appeal. Yes, the payoff is huge but there's also stiff competition. He compared it to a lottery. Instead, Nathan suggested going after a niche. This lets you target your game specifically to your audience. You will be able to know your customers and know what they want. You're much more likely to stand out to your customers because you're making a game just for them. You can tailor your PR so you are speaking directly to your niche. Nathan pointed out that there are enough game players now that niches can still be huge. They've sold something like 350,000 copies of their niche game on iOS.
The last part of artisan games: quality. Nathan said on Sworcery they decided it was safer to slip their deadline and over-run their budget than to release a rushed game that wasn't great. In the end, they found that finishing a risky game well opened a lot of doors. This echoed what Kert Gartner said in his talk on making trailers for games: a bad trailer is worse than no trailer, so either make an awesome trailer or don't make a trailer at all.
This seems especially important if you're trying to build a reputation for great games. The one caveat I would add is that it probably doesn't apply if you are just starting out. New developers usually don't have the skills to making high-quality games. That's normal. If you are new it is more important to make lots of games than to get stuck trying to make your first game high-quality. Quality will come with practice. Going back to the baker analogy, no one expects a beginning baker to make a perfect loaf. If you have the skills to release quality games, though, it seems like a sound choice to do so instead of rushing crap out the door.