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The 4 pillars of making a truly great game, according to Insomniac
The 4 pillars of making a truly great game, according to Insomniac
August 31, 2012 | By Frank Cifaldi

August 31, 2012 | By Frank Cifaldi
More: Console/PC, Social/Online, Smartphone/Tablet, Design

It's no secret that the recent democracy of game development tools and distribution methods have made it a better time than ever for fresh new faces to enter the world of game development. But those things can only take you so far.

Insomniac Games CEO Ted Price has learned a lot over his last 18 years of shipping games. And to a packed audience at the PAX Prime Expo in Seattle, he shared his four core tips for shipping games that stand out above the crowd, that help move the art forward.

1. Do one thing better than anyone else

The good news when you're starting a fresh, new project is that anything is possible. The bad news is that...anything is possible.

"For us at Insomniac...usually the most difficult part of getting started is getting started," says Price.

Twice now since its 1994 inception, Insomniac has had idea jam sessions, going up on the office rooftop with a keg of beer and brainstorming ideas for new games, coming up with a lot of crazy ideas for what would ultimately be a very complex project.

"It was a complete waste of time," he says.

"We weren't asking the right question. What does our game do better than any other game?"

Find that one thing you can do better than anyone else, and let it inform the rest of your development.

2. Fun comes first

Fun is hard to define. It's one of those things that we know when playing, but getting to the fun is hard.

In order to find the fun, you have to try and fail, over and over again, and never assume it will just materialize later.

The trap most of us fall into, says Price, is that once a game is running, we convince ourselves that it will be better once art and story and audio are implemented.

"That's dangerous!" says Price. "That's putting off the inevitable."

"All the fun stuff -- story, character, visual -- has to be subservient to fun. And once you figure out what's fun you have to prove it every single day."

3. Define your audience

Ask most ambitious young game designers who their games are targeted at and they'll give you the same, poisonous answer: everyone!

Today, more than ever, that is a very dangerous answer. Today's audience is incredibly diverse, and you have a much better chance of reaching your audience if you segment it.

Is it a mobile audience? "It better satisfy in seconds." Is it a hardcore shooter? "Your camera and controls better be second-to-none." Is it for the Facebook crowd? "Virality better be a core part of your design."

4. Make it personal

"The creation process should be an intensely personal experience," Price says. "You are sharing your interests and experiences and putting yourself in everything you make."

When you make your project personal, it shows. Put yourself (or all of yourselves) in your game, and your game will stand out.

It will give your game a soul.

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Mark Sample
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Short and Sweet article. I really like what Ted says, gets straight to the point and puts the focus on nailing just a few key areas.

I've been involved in loads of those wacky brainstorm meetings he mentions, only to come out with nothing useful.

Finding the fun is something Nintendo have been doing for decades now. Prototypes are made to really see how good or fun an idea is. Most ideas on paper don't really come to life until on screen.

Svein-Gunnar Johansen
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Prototyping (and iterating) for finding (and refining) the fun, almost goes without saying.

Point number three is however something that I think I am likely to forget at some point. I will bookmark this for future refrence :)

Jonathan Jou
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Finding the fun in a game *almost* goes without saying indeed! I've run into several collaborative situations where I've had to pit my intuition that "no, the basic mechanics of this game have to be fun, we can't fix that by adding puzzles and powerups" against people who wanted just that. I still don't think I've figured out how to explain that to people!

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Ron Dippold
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This is hard won with experience. They violated #1 when they shorted the single player game in Up Your Arsenal for mediocre multiplayer (not bad, just eh). They vainly tried to make it work for a few more games, then just gave up on it and concentrated on the single player game they're great at.

The new All Four One is entirely focused on multiplayer, so I expect it'll be great.

But can we make #5 'Don't try bolting multiplayer on the side of a game not designed for it.'?

Alex Covic
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It is easy to nit-pick.

For example: 4. Make it personal ... but when Sony's producers say Ratchet looks better with bushier eyebrows for the Japanese market, screw "personality" and - as Ted Price said in the same talk at PAX - "sometimes certain things work better for certain territories"*

... which is true. And it is completely rational and fine - but contradicts the pep-talk minutes before?

Working & competing in this industry over decades - at that high level - is hard. Simple rules don't apply. They can only be suggestions, reminders? "Be creative" - but only to a certain extent. "Be passionate" - but only in the limits of a team player... etc, etc.

I don't mind inspirational speeches - and IMHO Ted Price's PAX talk (a variation of his DICE talk) was fine - but these talks can only scratch the surface, due to lack of time. They lack ambiguity and depth. Public talks always have to transport "the message" - which in this case is a good one. That's why the Q&A allows for deeper explanations.

I love his honesty & how he admists to making mistakes and learning from them (mind you, as a CEO - how many in his position do that publicly?)

*) PAX stream on Twitch timemark 0:54:10

Peter Eisenmann
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I actually (instinctively?) followed all of those points when working on my last project, and, while no massive success, it is definitely a game a lot of people enjoy. It's on the Android store if you want to check it out:

Kenneth Blaney
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A good story that I've read in a few places is about Mario 64. Specifically, the first area that was made was the castle courtyard (where Boo's mansion would be eventually). The idea is that there are a bunch of random obstacles of various heights and trees to climb on. They then reworked the motion controls there a whole lot with the idea that if transversing a 3D space as Mario wasn't fun, then no amount of good level design would make that experience fun.

This leads directly to the "make something fun first" point in part 2.

Phil Lemon
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The "fun comes first" is a good reminder that your core idea has to be solid in the "fun" department but keep in mind that most of us don't "nail it" in game play from the get-go and the real skill in game development is in taking your ideas and refining and improving them. "Just ok" game ideas can transform into terrific fun with loads of replayability if you put in the effort to find out what does work with your idea and what doesn't. Be prepared to ditch components or elements that don't work and redo code and concepts even at late stages. Letting go with what doesn't work is equally important as pressing full steam ahead with what does. Don't fall in love with your own hype.

David OConnor
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interesting article, true!

Nick Harris
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Developers should avoid making something that is boring, rather than strive to make something fun. It may seem that fun is the opposite of boring and is therefore the obvious goal of all game development, but this narrow focus on fun ignores a whole set of experiences that are not boring, but not fun either:

- Gore
- Shock
- Scares
- Tragedy
- Sophie's choice
- Heroic self-sacrifice
- Protagonist sheds tears at a funeral
- Protagonist is revealed to be the antagonist
- Protagonist fails to defeat an infinite horde of enemies
- Protagonist fails to escape the fallout of an H-bomb suffering a slow interactive death

This is the stuff of drama which can include comedy to allow for more relatable characters.

Peter Eisenmann
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Ok, if you want to nitpick, let's call it "entertaining" instead of "fun".

Nick Harris
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If I wanted to nitpick I would have pointed out how weird this sentence was:

"All the fun stuff -- story, character, visual -- has to be subservient to fun."

I think the author meant to say something like:

"All the ephemeral atmospheric qualities -- story, character, visuals -- have to be subservient to delivering a solid core of entertaining gameplay."

Nagesh Hinge
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Thanks for Sharing, you made my day!

Peter Matiss
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I agree with Ted's four pillars, however, I would add a fifth--PLATFORM.

As Sony supported developer, Insomniac's business model has until recently been very different from that of other AAA developers who have the added challenges of competing on several different platforms, each with unique strengths and weaknesses.

Regardless, I hope Insomniac continues to make great games.