Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

9 November, 2006

Playing games as a designer
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 5:52 PM

One of the biggest problems that designers face is how to play a lot of games in limited time. Sounds like a real tragedy, doesn’t it? But, seriously, it’s hard to keep abreast of all the different games that you need to play if you actually want to, you know, develop games. This can be a serious problem in some situations because you just can’t keep up with some genres. Epic multi-hour RPGs fell off my lists a long time ago, for example.

So, what can you do?

Personally, I haven’t had time to play many games recently because I’ve been working on a contract. Even when not under contract, I should be working on some projects to eventually get them launched. Great game ideas demand I work on them!

Of course, it’s not just games that fall by the wayside. I’m writing about this topic because my blog has been so neglected recently. If I ignore the blog too long, people will stop visiting! :)

Of course, this can be rather embarrassing. When people are talking about the latest hit game at a conference, you might have to meekly admit that you haven’t had time yet. Alternatively, games can pile up next to your desk. I recently acquired the updated Pirates! game, but I haven’t even opened the box yet. Sounds like a great game, and I loved the original version (which I played a lot in college), but here I am unable to find time to play the sequel.

But, there are larger issues, too. People talk about emotion in games, and say that the only major NPC people remember is the robot Floyd from the text adventure Planetfall. Yet, I think people today might be more familiar with the death of Aeris from Final Fantasy 7. Why do designers ignore this example? Perhaps because most of them never had time to play FF7. (Truth be told, I never got to the very end myself. Stupid third-party memory cards wiping my progress right near the end….)

It gets worse when we start talking about virtual worlds. I play a lot of EQ2 these days (that’s one of the reasons why other games sit unopened near my desk). I can’t just play a few hours and expect to know everything there is to know about the game. How many game developers really appreciate the details of raiding? How many Blizzard Developers have worked up a character away from their officemates and tried to get into a raiding guild? Would this help them improve a part of the game that seems to make many people dissatisfied with the game? I’ve spent a lot of time talking to friends that played other online games that I never had time to. I didn’t get into raiding in EQ1, but one of my good friends did and I know his experiences. Is this as good as first-hand experience? Probably not, but it’s what I’ve had time for. Thankfully, I don’t have to design much raid content. ;)

So, what’s the answer here? For me, I just buy games late after the verdict comes out. For example, I gave Black & White a pass because most people agreed it was less than great. Yet, I still read up on the game in order to learn more about it. I also bite the bullet and play some games even though I technically don’t have the time to do it. But, I need to get better at managing my time to make sure I get my contract work and my personal development work done. It can be hard without external pressures. I also notice that I tend to like a lot of flash games; these tend to clone old arcade games many times, so it can be a lot of fun to dig into the game that only lasts a few minutes at a time.

What do you do? Is it realistic to expect designers to play lots of games? Or, can you learn about it from second-hand experience?


  1. It’s no different on the journalist side of things. Even if you focus on a single niche within video games (I focus on MMORPG’s), it’s impossible to play them all to the point that you have an actual understanding of the game to the point that you can provide serious criticism and coverage of the games for you readers.

    As a journalist, you can only hope to work on a *team* of journalists who each focus on a specific game or three and provide that coverage. ‘Beat reporting’ from the old newspaper days if you will…

    Even then, there are all kinds of distractions, “I’ve just gotta try this new beta for a day or two!” that keep replacing themselves with new iterations of the same distraction “Oh, another shiny beta! Just a few more days….” and then that whole jaded thing. You play a game for ten minutes and start thinking “This is just GAMEX with FEATUREY swapped for FEATUREZ.” When you do that, you immediately stop being able to learn from the game, or being able to criticize it.

    Volume, for a designer, journalist, or deeply meshed fan is a serious problem. As Brian suggests, going with the advice of a friend who you can trust who has played a game you haven’t is often all you can do.

    Oh, the problems of modern man. ;P

    Comment by Grimwell — 10 November, 2006 @ 8:45 AM

  2. Two years into City of Heroes and I have yet to reach the cap. My EQ2 alts stalled in the 30′s. SWG, we won’t even go there… WoW… been resisting anything more than a month subscription. If I let myself, Civ4, Pirates, and a few others would have replaced sleep altogether. Yet at work, I’m asked more and more about serious game opportunities where I really WISH I’d taken the time to review a broader swath of titles for inspiration. THAT while I’m reviewing and learning the tech on my own time so I can better make recommendations.

    About my only saving grace: My wife. She gets in playes more titles than me- I learn most by “watching the hilights” from her.

    Comment by Chas — 10 November, 2006 @ 2:19 PM

  3. I’ve made a conscious choice to move away from games that are huge time-syncs, like MMOs, and started playing games across the board, from 1701 AD, to Children of Mana.

    Designers should like games, and play games… but there is limited time. If you are working on a new product, you have to at least try out the games in its genre that have been successful.

    But, playing SimCity might not help your design of a game like Grand Theft Auto. Market research has to be focused and segmented.

    Comment by Rusty Parks — 10 November, 2006 @ 5:42 PM

  4. I read a lot of reviews, and I know they’re not the best but I’ve subscribed to enough mags over the years, that I think I have a good feel for which reviewers I trust. Then I try to sample the best of the best, but man it’s really difficult. And you do get jaded, miss the good bits, etc. I should try more cheat codes just to see more content.
    One thing that works really well is becoming employeed for six months or so and just catching up. :-)

    Comment by Beevis — 10 November, 2006 @ 10:06 PM

  5. My limited time forces me to be very precise in my gaming consumption. If there is a major title that I simply haven’t the bandwidth to play, I make an effort to talk to those who have.

    Just recently, I added forums to my blog. I invited any visitors to share their thoughts/reviews in a less structured atmosphere. Feedback has been great so far. (Of course, I certainly invite you to visit and lend your thoughts, too!)

    I think open discussion and sharing (like this blog) help matters significantly. You can’t play everything, but it helps to talk with designers, developers and players who’ve experienced what you’ve missed.


    Comment by covert.c. — 11 November, 2006 @ 7:53 AM

  6. Definitely have the same problem myself. Never enough time to develop the game I work on, play all the games I want to, and still have some measure of an outside life.

    I tend to rely upon people whose opinions I trust. That is to say, I convince Shwayder to play games that interest me and wait to hear his report on what is good or bad about them.

    Players of MMOs definitely want their devs to play the game they work on, but sometimes the perception is a losing battle. No matter how much a dev might play, there will be rabid raiders/tradeskillers/decorators/questers who feel that the devs don’t play enough and don’t understand what’s important to subscribers.

    The thing that this segment loses sight of is that devs can’t just be soley focused on a single game–not even their own. A dev pulls inspiration from all different media and experiences, and living 24/7 in a single game world is going to ultimately start feeding on itself and lead to stagnant content rather than material which is fresh and interesting.

    Comment by Moorgard — 12 November, 2006 @ 12:11 AM

  7. [...] In response to: Psychochild’s recent post about playing games as a designer. You’ve got work to be able to play, and if you work or want to work in game design, you HAVE to play or at least keep a working knowledge of various game play elements to be able to keep your own ideas fresh. That said, it’s a definite balance, but an important one to maintain. I kind of like Moorgard’s idea of convincing somebody else you trust to play through games FOR you that you don’t have time to play then report back. [...]

    Pingback by My 2 Copper - Game design opinions, commentary, and ideas — 15 November, 2006 @ 8:41 AM

  8. WTS [Club of LtM-bashing +3] $10

    [...] our games of choice, that gets most people fired at other jobs. Hell, some of us are realizing that we can play as many games as we used to due to limited [...]

    Pingback by Psychochild’s Blog — 8 January, 2009 @ 5:37 AM

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