Why Game Developers Should Play More Games

If you’re like me, you probably have a huge “stack of shame.” What’s that, you ask? A huge backlog of games that you haven’t finished playing, or in some cases, haven’t even taken out of the box! I still have a bunch of original PlayStation games that I haven’t even touched…Vagrant Story, Parasite Eve 2, several Wild Arms installments, the list just goes on, and that doesn’t even count the PC and consoles that have come out since then. Those Steam sales and Humble Bundles don’t help much, either…

I just shake my head and ask “why did this happen?” As a lifelong gamer, gaming has always been a fun pastime for me, and unfortunately, when things got too busy with school or work, the driven, ambitious side of me decided that gaming was one of first luxuries I would cut. In college, the work was a lot more challenging than I had expected, so my PlayStation went under the bed for the semester, starting a life-changing pattern that has endured for over 10 years now.

But as a game developer, gaming is not just a hobby anymore. It’s an important part of my field. I’ve talked to a lot of developers who don’t have the time that they used to for playing games, and it’s understandable. For any working adult or student, gaming patterns change to accommodate the demands of life, and you can’t always spend the weekend doing nothing but playing games from dusk until dawn. However, it’s important for game developers to find time to play games, even if they have shorter play sessions, choose different types of games, or don’t finish all the games they start.

Here’s why.

It’s essential to becoming fluent in your craft.

If you’re a writer, would you expect to not study the work of other writers? Don’t film makers watch movies to learn about lighting techniques, dramatic pacing, and so on? Why wouldn’t game developers do the same?

I firmly believe that before developing my first mobile game, I should have spent more time playing mobile games. I would have had a better grasp of control schemes, how to engage mobile players, and best ways of presenting the user interface. Playing RPGs and platformers on a PC or with a controller on a big-screen television is not the same as playing a casual game on a small touchscreen, and being more fluent in games for smaller, mobile platforms would have helped me to make a better game. You cannot expect to successfully create for a medium in which your knowledge is limited or outdated.

It provides a set of common references.

I’ve written quite a few game design documents for people, and when I ask them to describe the game idea, invariably, they say something like “well, this mechanic is similar to so-and-so game.” Of course, I still need them to be more specific, such as explaining how the feature is similar to, as well as different from, the referenced game, but being knowledgeable about different games helps us to create a common foundation for discussing different ideas. I guess in a way, it’s the same idea as design patterns for software engineers; you can convey an idea without having to re-explain the whole thing from scratch.

It helps you figure out what works and what doesn’t.

Chances are, at least some aspect of your game idea is similar to something that’s already been on the market. If your idea has already been poorly executed by someone else, isn’t is better to know that in advance, so that you either scrap certain aspects of the idea, or figure out what went wrong and improve it in your iteration? On the flip side, you might realize that another game has already worked out a lot of the kinks and issues that you’re experiencing with your own idea. And of course, it’s always good to make sure that you’re not unintentionally rehashing what someone else has already done. No need to reinvent the wheel, right?

It’s just plain fun!

Everyone needs a break sometimes, so why not spend it doing something you love? Don’t feel guilty about having some much-needed fun; if you’re feeling stuck and frustrated with a problem, or sense that you’re about to burnout soon, taking some time for fun and relaxation is the best thing you can do. Plus, achieving even small victories during gameplay can be positive and motivating. It might sound weird, and maybe it’s just me, but whenever I’m playing Skryim or Oblivion, and I get some new loot for one of my houses, I feel pretty accomplished and get on sort of a “roll” even in real life. I think it’s more about doing something that feels fun and helps lift my energy; whatever the case, it’s a great psychological boost for me, and I usually come back to my work refreshed and ready to tackle my challenges.

So, those are my reasons for why game developers should carve out time to play games. I still struggle with this sometimes, because I have that guilt of “I should be working, not playing games,” but I’m striving to get better.

What are your thoughts?

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