I’m writing this rant because this Kickstarter has just come to my attention. As a bit of background, I’m working on a learning game called Codemancer, and consequently I keep a close eye on the games for learning space, especially games that teach programming principles.
I think we can all agree that a good game is hard to make. Even a team of fantastically talented and experienced game developers with infinite money can still make a bad game. There are an incredible number of books, courses, conferences — hell, this entire website you’re on — all saying “games are really hard to make, but here’s, maybe, a bit of advice that can help you.”
And yet I see ‘startup people’ (aka technology entrepreneurs) assume that it’s as easy as e-commerce. Some guy has an idea and thinks he’s a game designer — well, maybe he is, but wouldn’t it be smarter to find out with a small project? Make something with a $0 budget and see if anyone thinks it’s worth playing. Oh, but you just have this one epic game idea, and no others? That’s easy, then. You are not a game designer — at least, not yet.
Right now I’m in the midst of making a learning game (they used to be called edu-games, but most things by that name were insipid, and the term was jettisoned). Learning games are MUCH HARDER than entertainment games, because on top of all the difficulty of making something interesting to play, it also has to be teaching you something. The thing you’re learning has to be what MAKES it fun, not an add-on bonus stage, or a gate that blocks you from having fun until you have answered this math problem.
So when I see a group of people attempting to make a learning game without anyone who calls themself a game designer on the core team (which is very very common, for some reason), it makes me sad. There are a few reasons I get sad:
1. This game is probably either going to be bad, or isn’t going to get done. There’s always a slim chance that it will be finished and good, but almost negligible.
2. If the game is finished but bad, as most turn out to be, it will erode the already poor reputation of games designed for learning – just as we’re starting to get a foothold!
3. In the worst case, the creators of the game know the horrible truth: It doesn’t actually need to be any good to make money. All it has to do is play to the anxiety of parents who want their children to succeed (citation).
4. There was an easy way to avoid this disaster — get a game designer on your team (me, for instance — I’m happy to help)!
Truly, I’m sorry to be negative about people joining the games industry. I really do want as many people as possible to make their voices heard. Please make games. Learning games are especially sparse, and I like to encourage people to make them for any and every learning goal. Please, make games for learning.
On the other hand, independently developed games, and especially independently developed learning games, have very limited public attention and favor, and I’d rather that it not be spent unsustainably.
If you are an entrepreneur at heart, I recommend that you start a games company! This is a very different process from creating a game, and perhaps one that will make better use of your talents. Hire a talented game designer or two. Due to downsizing at nearly every major studio, there are quite a few on the market right now. You could also buy out a respected indie studio in financial distress. Sit down with these people and come up with a game together (it’s absolutely OK for you to be part of the creative process). Get an experienced producer who can figure out how much money and time you will need. Let me know if I can help.