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Inside the Magic Factory: I'm gonna need a bigger canon…

February 21, 2013 at 3:02 pm

Hey. I’m Jen, a researcher from TAG. My work is on how games are made, and the people who make them. I’m at Execution Labs a few days a week, and figured a lot of you would like to know what goes on in here…

Since Adrian Crook‘s day at the lab, I’ve been wondering if I need a bigger canon. Not the cannon that goes “boom”, but a canon in terms of a list of games that define the industry.

Game development, by nature, is interdisciplinary. Artists, designers, engineers, UX and UI designers, animators, and managers each speak a highly specialized language of their own. For example, business managers talk in a near incomprehensible spew of acronyms like KPIs, ARPUs, and eCPAS. As Casey O’Donnell points out, communication between these different groups would be difficult, if not impossible, without a common touchstone: the games we all play. References to games, mechanics, play styles, art styles, and genres become a means of understanding and communicating about the underlying systems and structures of the games they are working to create. That’s why game pitches are framed in terms of “it’s like Dead Space but with a Borderlands weapons system”. We immediately get some sort of idea of what people are talking about. Game canons provide a game design blueprint to riff off of and improve upon.

Here’s the problem. I’m a console and PC gamer at heart. And I have no clue what Adrian’s referring to when he’s talking about compulsion loops in Rage of Bahamut or failed monetization in Zombie Gunships. The game language I know is focused on 3rd person shooters, something that really isn’t mobile tablet territory. And I’m not alone in XL feeling this way.

So, the teams at Execution Labs are building a new canon: a list of social and mobile games on our internal wiki that we should all play. Every week or two, we’ll play a new game and then meet to tear it down, analysing what works and what doesn’t. Because social and mobile games are easy-access (no hunting down NES emulators), usually free-to-play, and designed to be consumed in shorter time sessions, learning a new canon should be easier. But this got me to thinking…

What do games look like when they’re designed without drawing from a canon? Maybe some of the games coming from the Pixelles or the Difference Engine Initiative might be examples here, as some of the creators are non-gamers. This leads me to a second question: If we didn’t have an established game canon, would we have more original games?

From my own experience, I think it’d be difficult to find any game that wasn’t, at least to some extent, loosely based on another. It’s not that we’re all rip-off artists and plagiarists. (To read more on this, check out designer Dan Cook’s thoughts on the topic). It’s that we want to belong. We are eager to learn and speak this new language. To get the inside references and jokes about CSR Racing. To join the conversation. So…if you’re the one person on a team of five who can offer a non-canon perspective (i.e. you aren’t a gamer and don’t speak that language) the first thing you do is rush home and google all the games you heard references to. You play them (or watch youtube clips if you don’t have time to play Evil Genius, Mirrorball Slots, Jetpack Joyride, Space Team, and Flight Control all in one night) and then, come to your scrum the next day magically transformed. Ready to talk about differences in HUDs, tutorial design, currency forms, etc. It’s human nature to want to speak the language. And so this is little bit of the life inside XL for this week.