Game Design Theory – Identity
We’re going to talk about something that’s super interesting. We’re going to talk about game design theory. But not the whole subjective of theory, we’re going to talk about one specific piece of theory because it’s going to be an ongoing series that I’m going to be doing about specific pieces of game design theory. There’s a lot of cool stuff to explore. What we’ll be exploring is the concept of IDENTITY and why your game needs an identity to stand out.
I see a lot of independent game developers make games that don’t necessarily have a reason to exist. They don’t have their own identity. A lot of them have everything ranging from Flappy Bird clones to generic platformers. Platformers that are just run and jump, jump over the enemy, and collect the coins. Identity is super critical in separating your game from the masses because there are thousands or millions of games like that out there.
If you have a generic game that doesn’t have an identity, you’re not going to get anywhere with it. No one’s going to buy it. It’s not going to work. People are not going to play it; it doesn’t make sense to play it; it’s not fun to play it; people don’t understand it. There are so many different problems with a game lacking identity. It’s one of these concepts that’s a little hard to understand. So when people ask me, “Well, what IS a game identity?” I will usually respond and ask them, “What is your game?” And a lot of people don’t understand what their game is.
They give these long responses such as, “It’s like Call of Duty zombies but it’s got this extra mechanic where you can fly, you can turn upside down, and then this happens, the story is really cool because…” And they just go on and on and on and on and on about all kinds of shit. They tell me all the cool parts of the game, tell me all the features, and I’m like, “That’s not your game. That’s not the identity of your game.”
Top tip: You have to understand the identity of the game, you need to spend time to decide on what you’re making, you need to learn how to describe it in a single sentence. That is the number one thing. This is a marketing trick too because there’s a concept called messaging in marketing.
It’s a concept that relates to the brand, and all it is basically is that you want to understand the message that you’re conveying to your customer. The problem many companies have, especially if the founder who wants to create new products runs them, is that they have all kinds of shit, and they are all over the place. Their messaging is unclear, and you don’t know what their company is, or what it does.
Have you ever been to a website where you’re like what is this website? Where do I go? What do I click on? That is the result of a shitty marketing message and a shitty brand. Therefore, the messaging of your game, the identity that can be described in one sentence, is important. You have to be able to describe it under a sentence and you really need to understand that. If you can’t describe to me what your game is, that means you don’t understand what your game is.
Einstein said, “If you can’t describe it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” That’s true. I know that game design is a very iterative process, so it can be complicated sometimes to create these things, especially that one sentence thing, if your game keeps evolving. But it’s really important, just as a design pillar, to understand what that game is.
I’m working on a game called Black Rim which is a browser-based procedurally generated space game.
That is the one sentence of what it is. I have single sentences like that. Single identity sentences for each piece, for the story, for the mechanics, and all the different stuff. Those were really important for me to develop it because I I’d redesigned the game 3 different times. I started out with this one thing, and then I went to a new one. I started out with a vertical game and it was going to be built for mobile; the interface was built for mobile. But then I was like, “No, I wanted to be cross-platform, I want us to be web-based.” Then, “You go to different planets and get loot—or are there aliens that you fight or is it all human.” There are so many possibilities in a space game.I just kept getting sidetracked and doing all this different stuff.
So coming up with that identity of what the game was, not only helped me describe it to people, but it helped me stay grounded in what I’m trying to create so I don’t go all over the place. I don’t keep developing all these random things that pop in my head. That sentence is what it is, and that’s got to be what it is at all times. Therefore, the single sentence is really important.
Now one of the things, one of the tactics that I have for the single sentence is you want to lead with the strongest point. That’s really important too, especially when you’re conveying the game to other people.
Your identity is so critical in the game, but it’s especially critical in the marketing of the game, when you’re describing to other people, when you are trying to get other people to give you their time to play your game. You’re trying to interrupt their day, all the shit they have to do, all the other games that they have play, all of that stuff. You want them to stop and play your game. So leading with what the strongest point is really important. For example, with Destiny, they said it’s a shared world shooter.
It was labeled that way in 2014 when they announced the game. Destiny is so much more than that. The game is so much bigger. It has all kinds of weapons, all kinds of enemies, all kinds of worlds and combat, and all kinds of stuff. So shared world shooter doesn’t cover even 10% of what the game is, but that’s how they described it. Because that was the strongest point. That was the biggest part of the game. All the little details don’t really matter. If your message has a strong point in it, if it’s short, and sweet, and simple enough to convey the most powerful element, then people will want to play it. Then they can discover all the world details. If you tell them all the details: One, you lose their attention because they’ll get bored and they’ll be like, “What are you talking about?”
Two, you don’t want to describe all of it, it would be a lot easier to show them. It’s really important that you understand the the concept of identity, both from a development standpoint, but also from a marketing standpoint. If you try and be too many things, your development is going to suffer, and your marketing is going to suffer—both of those are going to suffer. You have to be very cautious about that.
Three, hyper focus. You can’t please everyone, you can’t be everything to everyone, you can’t make everybody happy.
Sometimes that sentence, that hyper-focused sentence that has your strongest point in it, is not going to appeal to everyone. Here’s the thing: A light bulb will illuminate a room, but a laser can cut through steel. It’s the same amount of light but the light is directed in a different way.
You have to direct your light at the super fans, at the hardcore people, at the people that are going to care about your game the most. Because those are people are going to buy it, it will resonate with those people, they will leave reviews, and send you emails, and tell you how awesome it is. You’re going to turn off people by cutting out some of the stuff. If you’re making a platformer, for example, you could compare your platformer to Super Meat Boy or you could compare it to Mario, or any one of these other games.
You’re going to attract a different player base depending on which one of those games your game is compared to. Generally, it’s a big chunk of platformer players, but inside that big chunk there are individual preferences for different types of games. So the identity of your game is really important. And identity has a lot of stuff to it, not just in marketing but also in the development elements like aesthetics, sound choices, user experience…all that stuff plays in the identity of the game.
Your game has to have that identity. It has to have that sense of purpose. It has to have that meaningful existence to the world. Otherwise, there’s no reason for it to exist.
Those are my thoughts on the subject. If you’re working on something, post your game’s identity below, I would love to hear it, and I’d be happy to critique your stuff if you want me to.