Razors

Straight_Razor_(white_background) Following from the previous post, let's talk a little bit about razors.

A lot of junior game designers start with an idea, and flesh it out by adding stuff on to it. Look at a lot of novice designer's game design docs, and there are a lot of "ands" in there. It's like this, AND like this. AND it's got this other thing. AND some other stuff.

As you spend more time developing games, it's difficult to go through the process & not eventually come to realize that most games are not fifteen ideas jammed together to create something super awesome.

They're one idea.

That is, many of the best games are about one thing. The Sims is a joke about consumerism. Ico is a game about a relationship between two characters. Journey is about a transient relationship between strangers.

The beauty of these games isn't in massive complexity - the beauty is that there is no more complexity than is needed to convey the central idea.

This is not an easy thing to do. It is much, much easier to add features until you've hit all the necessary marketing bullet-points. It's much harder to strip a game down to its core idea, because it's extremely difficult for most people to even understand what the core idea is.

One of the first jobs I had in game development was at EA. I learned a lot there (and I'd recommend to most aspiring game designers that the first job they get be at a big, established company) - some good, some bad - but one of the most enduring things I learned was something that at the time I thought was time-wasting frippery.

At a large company like EA, everything has a process. In order to get a game approved, you had to develop a pitch to certain specifications, and then get that pitch approved. One of the things you absolutely had to have was something called "The X". This was a one-sentence description of your game. Sometimes there was an "outward-facing" X, which often translates into a marketing tagline (something like, for Madden, say, "Legacies are built on Defense", for some year when defensive play was the focus of development) - but there's often also an "inward-facing" X, which can reference other games as shorthand. Say, "Assassin's Creed w/ procedural rivalries" for something like Shadow of Mordor.

I used to think these were silly. I didn't need to reduce the complexity of a game to a single sentence for some executive goons because they couldn't be bothered to invest more than a sentence worth of time to understand a pitch! That's ludicrous!

But it's not ludicrous at all, because really, the X isn't for them, it's for you. And the thing that makes it the most useful is when you can construct it as a razor.

It's relatively easy to construct a one-sentence description of your game. What's Halo? "Shoot aliens and save the universe." What's Final Fantasy? "Kill a supervillain to save the universe." But those sentences aren't good enough, because they don't actually describe what makes these games genuinely special. And how can you tell?

Because they're not razors.

When I say you want a sentence to be a razor, I mean that you need to be able to use it to cut away everything that your game is not.

Just as a broad example, with Self Aware Games, our company's tagline was "We make games you love to play with your friends." The main things that were important there was the "love" and "your friends". Building things that people love requires them to be a little weird. You can't make something everyone will love, so sometimes you sacrifice some portion of the audience for that quirky strangeness that will make your stuff lovable instead of just acceptable.

We also focused very strongly on social elements. We wanted to make sure you could play with your friends. This meant that it had to be a game you wouldn't mind showing to your real-world friends. Or that you could make new friends because our games were social enough to actually foster relationships. Which is way more than just Facebook-spamming people you know & slapping a name & image on an arbitrary thing in-game, which was what "social" games were for a good long while.

More, though, it meant having a very simple tool to know whether we would work on an idea at Self Aware Games. People would pitch concepts to me that were single-player, and I'd have a way to say, "Is this something you'll love to play with your friends?" Generally-speaking, that was enough to get people to reconsider their pitch. Is it limiting? Sure, but an excess of ideas or time were never, ever, ever a problem that we had.

The reason you want a razor for what your game is, for what your company is, is that it's trivially easy to add stuff, and it's extraordinarily difficult to say no to things that sound awesome. But things can sound awesome and not help the core of your company, or the core of your game. Having an X - a crystal clear, simple sentence - that defines what you do helps you maintain focus and clarity, and when you can do that, you can create something that is different than everything else. You can create something that exists for a reason. There's no point in doing anything else.