Saturday, 2 July 2011

Games as expression / Proun as me

What goal does a game developer have when he makes a game? This is a very interesting question, and one that cannot be asked often enough. I think the most common answers can be summarised as one of these two:

  • To make as much money as possible
  • To give the player the best game possible

(Note that in this blogpost, I am ignoring serious games, advergames and political games, which are games with different goals than these two. These are interesting topics in their own rights, but I don't want to talk about them today.)

Obviously, there are lots of subtleties to my two types of game development goals. Making money is not just about how much copies you sell at what prices, or how many in-game items you sell. It is also about how much making the game cost in the first place.

"Giving the player the best game" can also be interpreted in many ways. The most obvious interpretation is trying to get the highest review scores, but it can also mean other things. Niche games can be really good for a limited audience, and at the same time also really bad for everyone else. And I have been told that in Japan, game development is very much about fan-service: if gamers love a game, then making lots of sequels and derivative games is a service to the fans. In the western world we sometimes frown upon this and judge that they are abusing the franchise with quick games to make as much money as possible, while it may really be very good fan service. This is a very different view on what is the best thing to do for the gamer.

Of course, most developers try to aim for both goals: make a good game that also makes lots of money. This is also our strategy at Ronimo Games: we try to make awesome games, but we are also a company, so we also need to earn enough money to make a living. We believe that these goals can coincide really well, though: good games have a better chance at selling well.

Money and quality don't always have to agree, though: free to play games often base their design choices exclusively on item sales statistics. Surprisingly, there are a lot of things that make the game less fun, but increase revenue. I will get back to that in a later blogpost, though, because that is a big topic all by itself, and I am getting to the point of this blogpost now, which is that there is more than money and quality:

Games can also be made as self expression.

This is the case with Proun, and without doubt with some other games. Proun was made because there were ideas in my head that wanted to come out. They wanted to be a game. I wanted them to be a game. Design choices in Proun were not made to make it the best game for the player, or to make as much money as possible. Proun was made because I love the experimental art from the early 20th century, and I wanted to express this love in a game. Proun was made because I was fascinated by having a world where there is no up or down, and everything rotates.

The music in Proun is what it is, because I felt it was what had to be there. Lots of people told me they thought the graphics and gameplay should go with techno, but that is not how it felt to me. It felt like something in the direction of the speed of Rockabilly and the cheerfulness of Dixieland. So that is what is in the game.

The best example of the impact that designing a game from my own expression has, can be found in the lack of numbers on the opponents to show their rankings. Players often complained to me that they wanted to see how the computer players were ranked, so I experimented with adding numbers on top of the balls. This really worked: I asked some 15 people to test the game and they all preferred to see this like this. However, I personally hate these numbers: they clutter the minimalist graphics and make the eyes focus on the wrong things. So I turned them off. Despite 100% of the playtesters liking them, I turned them off. Because I didn't like them. I would never have made that choice if the goal was to make the best game for the player. Yet I did.

Don't get me wrong, though: I do care whether players like Proun or not. It makes me very happy and proud that Proun is getting such positive feedback as it is. I am human enough to be influenced by how other people think about my work. The point of this blogpost is just that that was not the main goal in making Proun.

I think making games from your own expression is an interesting starting point to do something different. Many of the greatest artists in history worked like this. For example, Van Gogh expressed himself through his paintings. He sold only one painting during his life, but he is now considered one of the greatest painters ever to have lived, and he is one of the founding fathers of all 20th century art. Van Gogh is known today for how his (distorted) personality shines through in every aspect of his paintings. I think the Van Gogh of games has probably not appeared yet, and I think when he does, he will change our perception of what games are. I think it is time more game developers start treating games as expression, and in the process they will broaden our minds.

(Image from an interview with me on


  1. I, personally, much prefer to play without the numbers. I agree, they take away from the minimalistic sense of the game, and I feel like they add very little.

  2. player spirit ultimately speaks upon the all total performance of the game to be played.

  3. awesome! i totally wrote something like this in my own blog not too long ago, but i don't think i was as fair about it as you were. i think all games can be a form of self-expression, and should aim to be. here's what i wrote:
    Make the game that you intended to make. Have a vision. Don’t just have a napkin or a single idea or a thought in your brain and then start making a game. Have a game planned out on paper, and then add the meat. Don’t change the game to fit the art, or the sound, or the story, or the whatever it is you’re thinking is cooler than your game. If you think something is cooler than the game you’re making to express that thing, then make THAT thing, not a game.

    Think like a player. This is all about playtesting. Ideas are cool and ideas are good. Ideas are the start. But not all ideas work, even if they look good on paper. This means you need to go out and test your idea before actually going ahead and making it. And if the idea DOES fail, let it go and try a new idea. Also, when I say idea here I’m referring to execution of design, not the design idea. Usually, design ideas are all great (if they aren’t feasible it’s usually due to technological limitations or resource limitations, in which case, be more realistic or efficient), but it’s the execution of these ideas that are flawed. Playtesting allows you, as a designer to sharpen the design idea into something more concrete, playable, and accurate to the actual idea.

    Honestly, tell us what the game is. Not what it could be or what it might be or what you hope it will be. What it is. If you have a real design that works and that makes sense and has been playtested (not FOCUS-tested! Don’t ask your players if it’s FUN, ask your players if it WORKS the way you intended), then it should be concrete enough to be described in words. So put it in words and put it in your press release instead of some BS about it being immersive and groundbreaking and having the coolest art in the world. This is game, and I am first and foremost going to PLAY it, not only watch and hear and read it. Be honest, what does the game PLAY like.

    i think what you're saying kind of fits into what i said. but you brought up a good point about certain games having different goals. i think it's something i need to consider when looking at games, as the line between "advergames" and blockbuster games sometimes get blurred. anyway. thank you for sharing your thoughts!

  4. This makes for an interesting discussion piece! I actually disagree with some key points of what you are saying, so let me explain why.

    "Make the game that you intended to make."
    Once you play what you had in mind, it almost always turns out to be different. It is nearly impossible to really know whether what you have in mind as a designer is a good idea, until you try it. For this reason, prototyping is what almost everyone in the games industry advocates. This also means that I think designers shouldn't stick to what they intended originally. They should experiment and try things and make what they feel is good, not what they felt was good before they even tried it.

    "Don’t change the game to fit the art, or the sound, or the story"
    A game is a combination of lots of elements. I don't think rules and level design always have to get priority over art, sound and story. The game is a thing as a whole and some games are about mechanics, while others are about stories or feelings or graphics. So I don't think what you are saying applies in general. In fact, I think most games should be made as an interplay between all the elements and all elements should adapt to each other.

    "Don’t ask your players if it’s FUN, ask your players if it WORKS the way you intended"
    Games are not simulation, so why does it matter whether it really works? In the end, the only thing that matters is what the player is experiencing. If as a designer you are designing something that is intended to be fun (95% of all games have this as their goal), then I think it is way more interesting to know whether the player had fun, than whether the player thought it 'worked'. In fact, if it is broken in a way that is a lot of fun to the player, then maybe the definition of 'broken' is wrong.

    I think even when a game is intended as self expression of the designer, the designer should still play around with it and experiment to see what fits what he is trying to express.

  5. interesting. I guess i see games as more a direct expression rather than something that should be subject to "outside" forces? though even thinking about it now, it's not as though we as creative types aren't influenced by the ideas and works of others (creatives and critics alike).

    i guess i have some slightly "broken" ideas about what games designing is about. but i do feel like there must be a point at which you decide what to stick to and what to go with, right? i mean, you can't simply keep moving with your feeling forever, right? isn't there some element of simply locking down and idea and fleshing it out? i know that that's what i need to do with writing some times.

    the point about the art, i understand what you're saying there. and the way you describe it makes more sense to me now. i think the kind of examples i was thinking of was how some games seem to use art as a means of covering up the limitations of their game, as opposed to being complementary to the gameplay. i guess i was thinking that focusing on the feel of the gameplay and using that as a guide for what kind of art or style to implement would be a good idea.

    i guess the last point is something that i have the most trouble accepting. then again, i'm not a developer, so i have no real grounds for doing so. still, i find that this type of philosophy is important to have in any creative endeavor, because it focuses on the type of end that the designer has in mind as opposed to the player. though i think what i mean to say too is that if your design isn't getting the intended response, you need to consider changing it, even if it elicits that response from yourself.

    anyway. thanks for considering what i wrote :)

    i enjoy thinking about these things, and i'll continue to write about them as i play more and more games. i also really enjoy your writing too, and i'll keep up with it as long as you keep writing it! :D

  6. "i enjoy thinking about these things"
    So do I, these are interesting topics! So many ways to look at things, so many lessons and methods to be learned! :)

    I guess game design is much like a painter making sketches and experiments before making the final work. And then while he is making the final painting, the painter is still constantly revising smaller and bigger things.

    So on one side the designer is constantly revising, and on the other side he is trying to achieve a certain goal, going for a certain concept.

    How this works is very different between studios, though. Both at Ronimo and for me personally the goal is just to create something awesome. So if at some point it turns out that certain ideas don't work as well as hoped, while new ideas pop up that make it a different, but much better game, then we follow that. We don't have a specific end game in mind that must be achieved, it must just be something really cool.

    This can still fit with different motives, though: at Ronimo we very much design with the user in mind, so 'really cool' means that players must think it is really cool, plus that it must be at least somewhat new and unique. For my personal projects, however, 'really cool' is defined as what feels right for me, as what fits with what I want to express. So the quality measure is different, but the searching for the coolness is the same.

    "some games seem to use art as a means of covering up the limitations of their game"
    I totally agree that that is a bad thing. I'm just saying that the opposite, where art must always be less important than gameplay, is a bad thing as well. They should work together, and this also greatly depends on the concept of the game. For some games art is more important, while for most games gameplay is more important. The designer almost always has to compromise both at least a bit.

  7. interesting! it seems like having that inner compass is much more important than setting up some kind of outside goal that you stick to fanatically.

    I think that's something i can use in my writing! awesome :)

    and yes, i wasn't trying to endorse one extreme over the other :) i certainly agree that having a sort of compromise and knowing how to compromise is the best way to do things when it comes to interdisciplinary works.

  8. Let me know when you have a blogpost up with a similar topics, I'd love to read more about your view on this topic! :)

  9. You have made a masterpiece with this game; it simply works, and works well! It's a unique take on racing, which goes unnoticed until you play it for a few times. Rather than just playing it, I was just exploring the world you created of simple artistic shapes, and though you borrow heavily from Cubism, you complement the style and bring it to life quite eloquently. I even like the added touch of the jazz band background music, which fits in quite well.

    Then after a while, I became competitive, and found that portion of the game worked quite well too. Anyone can pick it up, yet there are many levels into this game made by just speeding it up! There wasn't a need for a complicated tutorial, or an army of button configurations... just pick up, play, learn then improve. When I made the leaderboard for the the day, (ExE) and felt well impressed with myself!

    And then there's the pricing. When I first found this game, I thought it would be risky strategy to release a project you have been working on after 6 years online for free. Bill Gates never done it, and look at his empire now. People, particularly software developers, and more particularly, game developers, like recognition (best way is cash!). My first impression was thinking it might not be a good game (since it's being offered away for free). After playing it and being stunned into thinking this is one of the best games I've played this year, I felt compelled to offer at least more than the first payment suggestion (think you're being a bit too modest here!).

    I read a few of the comments in this forum from the other blogger "sonicblastoise", and when it comes to making games, fun and challenging are the top two in my check list. I enjoy playing chess, and have played a number of chess engines (also developed one myself), and though I have a passion for the game, if I were to continually play against a rubbish opponent, I would find the game become very boring, very quickly. This also goes the same for very hard opponents. My point is, you've created a racer that is unconventional and minimalistic, yet challenging. Reminds me of the first Sonic games on the Sega Genesis. Bright, vibrant colours, fast game play, and challenging obstacles.

    I have my own suggestions and mods I would like to try (Opponents you can nudge and bounce off, making the ball jump, alternate routes, AMBX compatibility etc), but I admire what you have done, and I hope that the project rewarded you well enough financially as well as in satisfaction, as I can say it worked out well for me and many others, and I hope they were decent enough to pay at least for the bonus track!

  10. Thanks for the very positive analysis! :) Recognition is indeed a drive for me to make this kind of thing, but recognition to me is less about money and more about the number of people playing Proun, and the positive remarks (like your post, but also Eurogamer giving Proun a 9, for example). So in that sense Pay What You Want makes a lot of sense: more people play it and people are extra positive because of the model. :P

  11. Hey Joost! Hope everything is well.

    Missed you posting during the weekends! What's up with that?!? :) Probably busy making cool games, I'm sure.

    I was hoping to get a chance to ask you a few more questions about game design and the independent development industry and culture. If you have time, I'd love for a chance to talk!

    You can contact me either through here or on my own blog (the mediocrity codex)

    Thanks :)

  12. "Really busy" is indeed the right term. I hope to get back to posting soon!

    You can ask any questions here, or send me an email at joost -at-, whichever you prefer! :)

  13. Can you make a Linux port? Assuming the graphics are done in OpenGL, it shouldn't be too difficult to recompile for Linux with minimal changes.