When you want to create anything you need to know a little about what you’re creating–what has come before and how you can develop or improve on it. If you want to write, you read books. If you want to make movies, you watch a lot of movies. The same goes for game design. You need to play a lot of games.
Chances are this is far from a burden. With a few exceptions (mostly those looking for profit rather than quality), artists create what they love to consume. The trouble is, we live in an age of mass media. The more art that we have access to the harder it becomes to optimize our time. Time and effort are resources. If you want to succeed, you need to spend them wisely.
The video game industry has exploded in the last decade, and in the last few years indie development has only added to this explosion. This is true of both the online and offline markets, although the former is a far bigger industry in general. Not only are there hundreds of AAA titles that the would-be game designer needs to check out, but there are dozens of indie gems, many of them essential playing. You can’t possibly play through them all. What do you do?
When it comes to video games, you don’t need to have completed a title to take some important points from it–to understand what makes it tick. It’s tempting to want to “finish” every game you start. Nowadays some of the best titles take at least thirty hours to finish. You can triple or quadruple that amount of time if you want to do the side quests. The longer games, such as the Elder Scrolls series, can run into the hundreds of hours of gameplay, and if you like MMOs you might be looking at thousands of hours. Of course, these are extreme examples, but the fact remains, finishing any one game is a significant time commitment.
Similarly, when you play pen and paper games, you don’t need to slog through an epic campaign like Call of Cthulhu’s Horror on the Orient Express. Yes, to completely memorize the ruleset you’ll need a bunch of sessions. Most of the time, you don’t need to be a walking encyclopedia. That’s what the internet is for.
All that time playing one game, means you aren’t spending time playing others. You can’t keep up with what’s new, and you can’t familiarize yourself with canonic titles that you haven’t yet played. Here are some tips on how to diversify your gaming experience.
1. You don’t need to finish any one game. This is the most important point, and it was implied above. But I’ll restate it because it really is key. In an ideal world, you’d play every classic, old or new, from start to finish, and have a full perspective on it. (So many of these games are being re-released on platforms like Steam or GoG). But to do so isn’t practical. Give yourself a few hours with everything. If you play every day, as I do, sometimes for multiple hours–and I make time for this, even when I work–then take one hour off your preferred title to play something else that needs playing. Right now, for example, I relax with FFXIV, but make sure I put in some hours with an indie title like Terraria or The Binding of Isaac, both of which are a joy to play, and hardly a waste of time. (In general, MMORPGs are the devil. They’re insanely addictive, massive time sinks, and economically draining in terms of monthly fees that could be used to buy other titles). It only took me about an hour with The Binding of Isaac to understand why it is genius.
With pen and paper RPGs, this translates to running one or two sessions of a game without dipping too far in. Try and use published adventures rather than your own (there are tons of classics on Drive Thru RPG, including PDFs of titles you can’t easily get in print); you need to see how things work as the designer intended. (Although the ultimate aim, obviously, is to make your own stuff. Try adventures from a variety of settings or time periods. This way you can see how the ruleset translates in different situations.
2. Take notes and reflect. You don’t need to pause playing every five seconds to scribble an idea or observation; this would ruin the experience and immersion. But give yourself at least twenty-minutes daily to reflect on what you played and why it did or didn’t work.
3. It’s okay to prefer one game and one system and to master it. The hobby is supposed to be fun, and you’re going to lose your passion for it, and for creating within it, if you spend all your time playing stuff that you don’t like. But you should make sure to take some time to experience the new.
4. Be selective. It is possible to learn from bad games, especially what not to do. But frankly the problems with most of these titles emerge within the first twenty minutes (for digital) and a single session for paper. You definitely don’t want to waste time doing a full play through of a crappy title. Instead, choose the best games, the ones that are successful, the kind you want to create. These are your bread and butter; they’ll inspire you and keep you motivated. And related to this…
5. Get outside your comfort zone, but not too far. Learning about all kinds of games is vital; it will help you innovate. But again, if you want to create fantasy rpgs, play a lot of fantasy rpgs. SciFi? SciFi it up. Same with horror, sports games, strategy games etc.. You need to know what’s popular within your genre. There isn’t a fantasy game designer on the planet (whether paper or digital) who doesn’t need to have spent some time with Dungeons and Dragons, even if it isn’t your final choice. The same goes with Zelda or any other classic. Remember, you can’t innovate and create something truly unique or independent, if you don’t understand the mainstream. Otherwise, how do you know what innovation is?
6. Paper designers need to understand video games and vice versa. You can learn a lot studying the “other species”.
These are just some preliminary ideas. Whatever you decide, it all takes a significant time investment. But that’s the price you pay for any creative endeavor that’s worth doing well. And all creative endeavors are worth doing well. That being said, any time I think about “what I should be doing” I run the risk of paralysis. These tips are ideals, and progressing towards them is more important than fulfilling them to the letter; progress, not perfection.
And of course, eventually you’re going to want to create. You’re going to want to make your own game. During this process, you might not have time to do much else, let alone playing games. So do your research beforehand. Remember, quality is better than quantity. But definitely you need to know what’s out there, what’s selling, and why. At the very least, it will help you pitch your game or draw up a business plan when the time comes. Good luck!