What I Learned at GDC: Making Someone Else’s Game

There were a lot of really great talks at this year’s GDC Online, but there was one in particular that proved to be extremely motivational. If you’re going into the game industry, you’ve probably learned by now that you will have to work on a game you don’t want to. While you may be itching to make the next Final Fantasy, you might actually be making a Barbie game. Laralyn McWilliams gave an excellent talk on this very subject, entitled “Get Over Yourself: Making Someone Else’s Game.” 



No matter who you are, there will always be at least one point in your life when you have to do something you don’t want to. When trying to get into the game industry, you’ll likely find yourself with an entry level position working on a game you would probably never play. But just because you wouldn’t play it, doesn’t mean no one would play it. Every game has its own audience, and it’s that audience that you’re making the game for – not yourself. So how exactly does one make someone else’s game? At the beginning of her presentation, Laralyn presents that same question, only to pose a second, better question right after. Instead of asking yourself how to make a game you wouldn’t play, ask, “how do you motivate yourself to make this game?” Even though you may not want to make this game, it is still going to get made, so you might as well motivate yourself enough to make it a good game. She then provides six steps towards motivating yourself and making the game the best that it can be:

  1. Do your research.
  2. Meet the competition.
  3. Meet the players.
  4. Put something personal in it.
  5. Involve the team.
  6. Get a hobby.
The first three steps Laralyn discusses are mostly to gain a better idea of the target audience and what they want to see in the game. Just like with any game, research is important, so use the early stages of development to conduct research on the target demographic and competitors’ games. Next, you want to “meet” the competition, so set up playtest sessions and have the whole team play through the competitors’ games. Afterwards, talk with everyone on the team and try to figure out why players might like the games, and what can you as a developer learn from them. Once you’ve researched the competitors, it’s time to meet the players. There are a number of ways to go about doing this, but probably the most successful is focus testing. Laralyn noted that there is a stigma surrounding focus tests, but says that you shouldn’t be afraid of using them; focus tests aren’t going to tell you how to make your game, but can be used as a tool to help you understand your target audience. And when you do conduct focus tests, be sure to listen to your players! After all, they’re the ones you’re making the game for.
Don’t dismiss a game just because you don’t like or understand it.
– Laralyn McWilliams
The last three steps Laralyn talks about are more about motivation for yourself and the rest of the team. First off, it’s important to find a part of the game that really resonates with you, something that you are particularly fond of. If there’s at least one thing you like in the game, you will work harder to make it great, and the game will feel more important to you than it might if you didn’t care about anything in the game. That one feature you think is awesome might be the driving force for you to get the game done and done well. Second, the whole team needs to get involved. Laralyn notes that everyone on the team should feel a personal investment in order to make the game as good as it can be for the target audience. You can boost motivation by highlighting individual contributions from team members, posting the game art on the walls around the office, or even ordering cool swag for everyone. Remind the team (and yourself) that it’s more than just a game; it’s a means to build relationships with your team members, to improve your skillset, and to acquire more knowledge, metrics, or cash flow. Lastly, she notes the impact of hobbies. Sometimes, you might find yourself consumed by what you’re working on, so it’s a good idea to invest yourself in something other than working on the game. Hobbies can work wonders at times like these, and can even offer a great time to practice your developer skills.
You are a game developer, regardless of what you’re working on…
It’s not about what I want; it’s about what the audience wants.
Laralyn McWilliams
The key takeaway that I got from the talk was to get over the fact that you aren’t making something you want to and remember that you are still doing what you love. As I am nearing graduation and am expecting to work on several titles that might not quite fit into my collection, this talk proved to be incredibly helpful to me. If you happen to have access to the GDC Vault, I highly recommend looking up Laralyn’s talk once it’s available, since my notes don’t do it justice.
Don’t change your games, change yourself.
Laralyn McWilliams
    • Jeff
    • November 5th, 2011

    I am looking forward to your new UDK videos, please upload them soon as I think they are always very professional.

    You may want to check out this book, currently still in progress


    I have bought the ebook pdf version but not gotten round to looking at it much


    • Thanks! I’m actually working on two right now, and I hope to finish both of them over the weekend.

  1. Amazing things here. I am very glad to peer your article.
    Thanks a lot and I’m having a look ahead to touch you.
    Will you kindly drop me a e-mail?

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