Being First Is Not Always The Best Idea
The early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese. That’s an old saying that I used to hear from a lot of my colleagues when I was working in tech. It stuck with me because I thought that was such a visual representation of some of the things in our industry. That it isn’t always good to be first. Now how does this apply to game development? Well I’m going to tell you.
In game development, especially in the developer culture, a lot of us are creators. We want to create something new. We want to create something innovative. We want to create something that no one has ever seen before. The problem with that is NO ONE HAS EVER SEEN IT BEFORE. That can actually cause an issue in understanding your game, what it is, how it plays, how to use it and win. Especially from a marketing perspective when you are trying to show someone something and that person should understand what it is at a glance and be willing to buy it. It can be very hard to comprehend a new concept.
Not only that, but there are many things that you can do wrong by being first. Because there’s no person to learn from, it can be very damaging to create the first game of its kind. Now why do I bring this up? There’s so much innovation in game development, am I suggesting that you shouldn’t be innovative? Am I suggesting that you shouldn’t create new things? That’s NOT what I’m suggesting at all. What I’m suggesting is that, it might be better to be second at something than to be first. This is a concept that, I think, applies massively to technology companies. It applies massively to businesses.
It especially applies to creative endeavors like game development. I don’t know if some of you know this, but the mechanic of the Angry Birds game, was not a new game mechanic. It was first used by a game in the Google Play Store—I forget the name at this point, but it was some kind of castle game. You would basically draw back your little dude and throw shit at the castle.
So Angry Birds wasn’t first with the mechanic. They perfected the mechanic. What’s more, the timing for its launch was perfect because it was when touchscreens were coming about. Everybody was just getting used to touchscreen phones and this cool game that used the touchscreen feature in a unique way came out. It was perfect timing. They did not innovate on the mechanic they perfected it. The theme, the timing, that was all their own.
So sometimes creating everything from scratch if you want to create a new mechanic, new theme, the whole piece—that could be a lot of work. You can get a lot of stuff wrong if you’re doing new things all the way around. It’s like you’re reinventing the wheel all the way around. Sometimes it’s better to improve an existing mechanic, or improve something existing on a current genre, rather than to just go completely unique and innovative. That’s why genres exist. That’s why, when I say FPS game you guys know what I mean because there are so many different types of FPS games.
What these game developers do is they take the general, the common mechanics, the first-person perspective, for example, and they innovate on top of that. “Hey, what would it be like if we did an FPS game in space with Dinosaurs? Hey, what would it be like if we did an FPS game with spaghetti and meatballs?” They take the existing base and mechanic, and they add whatever they want on top of it. Now, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t innovate, that you shouldn’t be first, that you shouldn’t constantly try and create cool new things that you think should exist, because you have to you absolutely should.
What I’m saying is that sometimes it’s a lot better to innovate slightly on top of something that already works, than to create something completely from scratch. And you see this in a lot a lot of games. I like looking at sequels for games because many times, for bigger games, sometimes the sequel is better than the original. I’m not talking about the story, I’ll not go into that. Many times, a sequel provides a lens or perspective on what the first game should have been. The developers can fix quality of life issues, fix things about the game that irritate players, etc., because they’ve watched players for hundreds of hours play this game, they know how to improve it in a series of ways.
If you have ever made a game, and then made a sequel, you would understand that. No matter how much testing and iteration you do, nothing beats watching something go out to the public, get out there, observing how people play it and what they do with the controls and abilities the characters have, or do all kinds of crazy stuff you never thought they’d do. Nothing can beat seeing players play your game at scale. They do things with the game that you never thought they would. And a sequel is the opportunity to take what worked and add on top of it.
I think that’s why sequels work. That’s why iteration works. That’s why I like Call of Duty. Although it’s not necessarily one of my favorite games, but what the developers of the Call of Duty games do is, every year they take the same stuff that works, they add a few cool things here and there, and then they sell it again to players. I’m just trying to explain to you that the way to create something awesome doesn’t always mean that you need to create it from scratch. Sometimes, it’s adding just one little thing.
The best example is Apple. Apple is not a great creator of products. They are a great innovator on top of the existing products. The iPod is a perfect example of something that they radically changed and made better. They were not the first mp3 player out there. There were plenty of mp3 players already in the market. But they were the first one to make it easy to use, to make the sync with your computer work seamlessly, to make the capacity go from a 512 megabyte mp3 player to a thousand songs in your pocket. They didn’t make the technological advances that you thought because no one ever heard of any of these mp3 players. They made the necessary changes on top of the original to make it something truly great.
So if you’re thinking about what game to make, and you play a game that really inspires you, like something that you love so much, but you think it’s missing something—it’s missing this aspect, or this mechanic, or the story is horrible, or the art style is bad, etc. You can take that same concept, make a whole new game on top of it, and just change the things that you want to change. You can end up with a completely different game. And that game can go on beyond your wildest dreams because you improved the things that needed to be improved. You didn’t worry about being first. You tried to innovate enough to be second.
Sometimes second is better. I know that sounds crazy but it is. And I have seen this over and over again. First is not always best, sometimes second can be better. And I’m talking about real innovation, the good stuff—not the random stuff that people sometimes come up with just to be different.
The great innovation that this industry needs comes from those small innovations on a larger scale. It doesn’t come from these people creating radically new genres that no one’s ever seen before. There are a lot of existing genres out there. But when you take one of those existing genres or gameplay styles, and you add elements on top of it, you innovate in certain places. You add a piece of yourself into it. That’s where you can make a truly awesome game. Because people know what to expect in genres. If you innovate in all the right areas, and improve the things that need improvement without reinventing the wheel or taking the massive risk of starting something from scratch, you will make a better game that everyone will enjoy.
So that’s my message for today. If you have something to say, whether you disagree or agree with me, leave a comment below, I’d love to hear from you.