Ed McMillen’s Advice on Game Development

January 1, 2010

Over at the Indie Games Blog they have an itemized list of do’s and don’t’s for aspiring game developers up by none other than famed indie developer Edmund McMillen of Meatboy and Time Kfuc (among many others) fame. If you’ve ever even thought about attempting to make games, I think this should be mandatory reading. Even if you’re quite content not making games, it still makes for an interesting read if for no other reason than to gain a little insight into one of the more successful independent developers in the game.

As someone on the other side of the equation (critic/consumer, as opposed to developer/producer), I admit that some of McMillen’s items don’t necessarily speak to me. At the same time, other items have me nodding enthusiastically as my experiences in evaluating games have brought me to no end of violations of these tenets. When I read “Don’t make something that looks or feels exactly like an existing work,” I’m struck with how many times I’ve come across games, even during my year long tenure at Jay is Games, that were nothing more than rehashes of rehashes.

I get the urge to want to copy and duplicate. As a developer you want the affirmation, you want dozens of comments in Kongregate telling you how great your game is, and in order to get that, you want to present something that you know people will like. You know, for instance, that people like The Legend of Zelda, so it would make sense that if you made a game that closely emulated the framework of Zelda, you would have a hit on your hands.

There’s a problem with this thinking, though, and it is one that persists these days in just about every entertainment/creativity based industry we have. When you look at the music industry, or the film industry, or even mainstream gaming, the same complaint applies equally; everything is pretty much the same. How many comic book movies with ridiculously high budgets and A-list actors got made this decade? How many pop music artists right now are indistinguishable from each other? It seems you can’t make a hit song these days without heavy auto-tune abuse. In this regard, mainstream video games could be the worst, thanks in part to characters that never die or grow old (MGS will get a nod here for at least recognizing Snake in old age). Like 80’s slasher flicks, video game franchises rack up ridiculous numbers of sequels: Nine Megamans, Seven Metroids, More Zeldas than I could possible count and even more Super Marios. Hell, even recent franchises like Mystery Case Files are boasting plenty of follow up titles.

And whether its an indie developer intentionally biting off of a formula for a positive reception, or a major corporation guiding its creative agenda, the principle is the same. You know what people like, so you capitalize. For corporate entities, it’s about profit. We already know anything with HALO on the package is going to sell, so there is always a push for more HALO games. The downside to this, and this is what I think McMillen is speaking to here, is that this tendency also stifles innovation. If you’re trying to constantly capitalize off of the old, you’re not spending your time building the new.

That’s fine for industry establishment types. We’re doomed for years to come to have to suffer radio stations playing Brittany Spears clones ad nauseum. But this is far less forgivable a sin in counter cultures such as the one provided by indie gaming because that is where you go to get away from the stale and recycled output that clogs up the mainstream. I love homages, I love retro-gaming, I love parodies, but I don’t stick mostly to alternative gaming for those reasons. No, I am loyal to alternative gaming because I get games here that you won’t find sitting on a store shelf. I get concepts and gameplay that you won’t find in the mainstream. What is risky to a high level exec, is daring to someone like me. Sure, sometimes these ideas fall apart or fail, but it is better in my mind to have made the effort than to stick with what was safe and create something that lacks courage and passion.

Which is another item list that also resonates with me. “Design from your heart.” Believe it or not, heart shows in a work. Passion shows in a work. There are tell tale signs in a game that let you know how passionate the developer was about their work. Did they take the time to really polish up the aesthetics (not necessarily “good” graphics, but “consistent” graphics)? Is the game thoroughly debugged? And there are peripheral tell-tales as well. Do the developers get out there and really sell their product (more on this one in a minute)? Do they get in the comments sections of the places where their games are posted and really engage the players and dialog over the criticisms? But even without these minor tells that you pick up over time as a critic or game enthusiast, there is still an otherwise unidentifiable quality of a game that was created by someone who was clearly in love with his or her own work. I think most people, if really pressed to do so, could identify games they have played that were made with love and passion.

The final point I wanted to remark upon is McMillen’s second to last; “Try to make money.” Ed’s point here is totally utilitarian and a good one that I can’t hate him for in the slightest. But I would like to take it a little bit further than merely the act of collecting a paycheck. When you try to get paid, that means you have to actively sell yourself and your work and I think that act can be beneficial to aspiring developers in so many ways, and in fact can reinforce some of Ed’s other points earlier in the list. For instance, making a commitment to selling your games can indeed force you into critical thinking. When you undertake figuring out how to sell your game, a critical part of that process is figuring out why people wouldn’t want to buy your game, and coming up with clever and effective counter arguments. If there is a reason not to purchase your game that you can’t counter (say, your control scheme is horrible, or your menu system doesn’t work), then take that as a cue to retool or debug your work. Also, selling your work requires that you have pride in your work. Trust me, no one wants to buy something from you that you yourself don’t have pride in/think worthy of selling. Hopefully what this means is that if you make something you intend to sell, you will make something from the heart, something to be proud of.

Finally, selling your work establishes a special relationship between you and your audience, one that goes beyond monetary exchange. Some of my favorite developers don’t sell there games, and I can think of at least one off the top of my head that is morally and ideologically opposed to it. That’s fine, but you’re still missing out on a customer/provider relationship, one that has its own advantages, but is also perhaps more trying on behalf of the developer. Once money is exchanged, there is a greater responsibility placed upon the developer, whether its customer support due to acting as your own distributor, or the more distant but still integral role of overall supplier. With money involved, things become more intense, potentially, but that also could put the pressure on you to perform better than you have in the past.

So, like I say, Ed’s list is a good one to read, and he has the chops to back up much of what he says. I suppose it’s important to understand, too, that his points don’t just resonate with developers, but also with the critics who watch them. I won’t speak for every critic out there, but I will say that for me at least, many of the items on Ed’s list are one’s that I’ve been paying attention to in my own head over the years, even if I didn’t know it until now.