written by Alastrom
I’d like to tell you a secret. It may not seem that significant to you, but it’s an idea I’ve been formulating for the past three years and it has come to mean quite a bit for me and the Reforged Gaming community as a whole. I suppose in some part, I need to tell you two close secrets. The first, is that it’s my intent to pursue game design within the next year. I’ve already had friends and family advise against it but at my core I know it’s something that my entire life has been directing me towards since I was young. I don’t know if you believe in fate and I’m not convinced I do, but it’s difficult not to look back and chalk it up to an unseen force guiding my path along the way. Steve Jobs once said that you can’t connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect them looking backwards. So call it fate, intuition, God, or complex chemical processes that occur in the brain, I’ve arrived at the conclusion that I need to be designing games and I intend to continue along that path by the time you’ve finished reading this sentence.
This isn’t some grand revelation for most people. It’s not like waking up one morning and realizing you need to sell all your possessions and climb Mount Everest before moving to a monastery to study the deeper meaning in life. I’ve played games nearly all my life, it only makes sense that I’d eventually want to create them for myself. How then, should I measure my ability to do such a thing? I have no ability to code and I’m not much of an artist, so by qualifications alone I have no right to make such a statement. But what I have done is twenty eight years of solid research on what makes a great game and more importantly, what the driving force is behind said games. Namely, the people. I said I’ve spent at least three years formulating this idea but in reality, it began the second I first picked up an NES controller. I believe this is a theory that anyone who enjoys great games has also understood, though maybe they’ve never put it into words. I call it “The Golden Triangle” and yes, I totally encourage you to turn that into a Tri-Force Meme at some point.
The Golden Triangle is a simple theory when all is said and done. It consists of three parts which correspond to the traits that both individuals and the companies behind game development need to adopt in order to be successful. I don’t mean financial success, as the Golden Triangle covers that schema. I mean successful in the sense that perhaps games truly are “art” and in order to succeed at art you need to accomplish more than market penetration. The three traits are as follows. Vision, people and marketing. You can place them at any point on the triangle and while each has unique characteristics, none of them are directly related to the capability to “code” a game. I struggled with that for a while but I’ve ultimately concluded that a game can’t be developed without the knowledge of how to develop it, so the triangle assumes such an ability as axiomatic. The important thing to note is that not everyone will inhibit all three traits to their extreme. In reverse, focusing too much on one of the three and sacrificing the other two won’t create a truly great game either. The great thing about this triangle is by the end of the article, you’ll be able to apply it to any developer you’d like and test its truth for yourself.
The first on the list is Vision. That’s a difficult word to describe because it has a different meaning for everyone. To have vision is to be able to see what others cannot. A person may go to work every day but a person with vision may see themselves as CEO of the company one day. It’s not to suggest that vision demands higher aspirations because that would fall into the purview of how each of us determines success. Instead, think of it as the dream. It’s the thing you want to achieve that may not fulfill another’s expectations but does your own. Vision is the driving force behind your work, the question “why” contained among a sea of “what.” Many people who pursue their goals believe they’re following their vision when in fact they’re pursuing someone else’s. In terms of game design this has lead us to an incredible number of cloned games and an even greater number of failed projects. To best define vision, we need to define what it is not. If your pitch for a game is “It’s just like X and Y but with Z” you do not possess vision. It’s not to say we shouldn’t compare our games to already existing titles, but starting from the premise that you’re going to make effectively the same game as someone else already has is not what we call innovation. That game may be financially successful but you’re simply repeating the patterns of the people that came before you, people that did possess the quality.
Vision is important because while some may have it and others don’t, you cannot create anything without acknowledging ownership in some part of the trait. Not everyone that starts with vision will end with it and similarly, not everyone that lacks it will reach the end of their road in the same capacity. If you’ve ever sat around with your friends talking about the “perfect game” into the late hours of the night, you already possess this trait. It’s a passion for creation and while I’m only focused on what it means in terms of game design, I’d encourage you to find your vision in your own life and follow it through to conclusion.
The second trait contained within the triangle is people. Once again, this is something that has a wide definition but as games are designed by people and enjoyed by people it seems only natural that people should incorporate a wide enough consideration by… you guessed it, people. Both gamers and game developers have developed a bad reputation over the years as strange looking gremlins who dwell in the dark corners of their parents homes, staring wide eyed into their electronics, isolated from the rest of the world. While it’s a bad image to conjure up, every stereotype has some echo of truth to it and this is one that I feel the industry struggles the most with. We are social animals and in order to succeed in a group environment, we must adapt to the dynamic that our group creates. With equal understanding, we must understand who the intended audience is for the thing we are trying to build. An architect, for example, should consider the population of an area before designing a building. The people of a rural farm town are less likely to appreciate an artistically designed skyscraper as well as they would an innovative storage shed. This is not to rate either of those buildings. Both fulfill a function, but that function can only be understood by an understanding of the people involved in its use. Video games fall into a similar situation and while we use categories like ‘FPS, RPG, Sim, etc” to classify the people that enjoy said games, you can’t begin to craft a human experience while ignoring the human element.
You can create an interesting game with fantastic mechanics but in the ever evolving world of game design it’s unlikely you can do it without some sort of team. The “people” trait on this triangle encompasses everything from the psychological understanding on how players will interact with your game to the management skills needed to lead your team to a successful outcome. Perhaps the social pariah wearing thick glasses was an accurate stereotype in the past, but these days you need to set aside your social ineptitude and make an effort to understand people if you want to create truly great anything. It might seem obvious to you and if that’s true, I’m glad because arguing against it means you’re suggest a different nature about people than what I have. In which case, all you’re saying is that you have a different understanding of people than I do.
The last in the list is the most difficult for most of us to talk about. It’s for that reason alone that I feel it needs to be included. Marketing is a dirty word in the United States. We think of sales people as the scum of the Earth. The wolves on Wall-street and the assassins that stalk used car lots for unsuspecting victims. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of truth to be found there but it’s not the complete truth. The term marketing goes hand in hand with phrases like business and economics. Regardless of what your world view is on the topic, we all market ourselves every day and if you don’t believe that’s true, try walking down the road wearing a clown outfit versus an Armani suit and see if you get the same result. Peacocks market themselves just as much as business owners and both do it for effectively the same reason – survival. Game development is a business. You could say the goal of the business is to make money but that’s not the whole truth. The goal is to continue the business. It’s a cycle that must be understood in order to succeed. Most of us look at a select number of large game publishers and suggest that they only care about marketing garbage games with heavy micro-transactions, so it’s easy to define ourselves by the desire to do the opposite. That’s marketing as well, it just doesn’t seem as morally black to most people.
Developers need to turn a profit. Imagine the best game ever created and now imagine it’s free to play and has no in game cash shop. If by either miracle or magic that game were to be created, the chance of it continuing to exist in the public space is minimal at best. Like everything on the triangle, finding the balance is crucial for these games to succeed. Underpricing your game is just as bad as overpricing it and you’ll never reach the right answer if you don’t understand your market. So many would be developers say they’ll just rely on crowdfunding, or they’ll just go to a large publisher to get their game made but how many actually understands the weight of each of those decisions? It’s not enough to create a great game and if you don’t understand the economics for making it successful, you need to find someone that does. That, in and of itself, is a marketing decision.
The Golden Triangle can be applied to every single game developer out there, big or small. I challenge you to try it yourself. Look at your favorite game, then consider the company behind it. Do they have vision? Do they understand the people involved in the project? Was the game commercially successful? I use this process when looking at new games for the Reforged Community and it has a one hundred percent success rate. That doesn’t mean every game we play is a winner. Quite honestly, most of them don’t end up being the experience we hoped they would be. But even in those cases, the triangle can connect those dots looking backwards and gives us greater understanding of what to look for moving forwards. If you’re a person who has always wanted to design games, I further challenge you to apply the triangle to yourself and if you’re already a part of a company doing so, use it as a way to gauge if you’ll be job hunting in a few months. If you disagree with me, let me know why but if you think there’s some truth to what I’m suggesting, feel free to keep applying the formula until it doesn’t fit anymore.