A phrase that I keep hearing is no-brainer.
What it's referring to is a game or business idea that is so obvious that you can't think of any reason why you wouldn't do it. It is the idea that literally requires no thought to explain. Some investors (and other powerful figures) love no-brainers. For many, they are in fact the only kind of idea that they really want to hear about. No-brainers seems to fit into a strategy, to be the perfect cog for the golden machine, and so all their problems are solved without the mysterious and complicated hair-pulling exercise that is most game development.
These people are, not to put too fine a point on it, being morons.
By moron I don't mean stupid. What I mean is the original Greek meaning: dull. A moron is someone for whom imagination and seeing beyond what's in front of their face is impossible. Lacking intuition or vision, the moron seeks to reduce all of its problems to things it can touch.
We are all morons much of the time. Nobody is super smart and enlightened about everything, and we all fall into the trap of listening to our inner moron far more often than we ought to. But we do it anyway. The moron within is the inner critic, the voice that worries, tells you that you have to be pragmatic, sensible and other such things. Criticism is certainly warranted, because a lack of critical thought is a sign of really bad game design. However criticism requires brains.
The hallmark of moronism is the no-brainer. If you have a game idea that you consider to be a no-brainer then be on your guard. Either you have in fact lucked onto that one genius idea in the world that really is a natural fit, or - more likely - an impossible idea that your inner moron loves. And the inner moron is almost invariably wrong.
In this and next couple of articles, I present some light-hearted but serious questions that you could use to help separate your inner genius from your inner moron:
1. Has Someone Else Done It Already?
This is pretty obvious. One day, one of my colleagues at Mousebreaker (where I consulted for a while) showed me a fun 3D tunnel Flash game which, over a series of 9 levels, became an incredibly fast and exciting rush of a game. I was hooked, played it obsessively over the next couple of days and was fascinated by the control mechanism in particular.
It occurred to me that this would work brilliantly as an iPhone game. It was a no-brainer. I was convinced it would be a huge seller. I started thinking about how it could be made, who I'd get to make it, could I get the original developer involved, and so on and so forth. All while thoroughly congratulating myself on my intelligence in the process. All of which lasted until I hit the App Store and discovered that at least 5 other developers had had the same idea and already built their versions.
Downloading and trying them all, I discovered that Retro Revolution was in fact exactly the idea that I had had in my head. My inner moron had thought itself so smart, but reality begged to differ. Not only had my game idea already been realised, it hadn't sold that well. It was average.
Most no-brainer ideas are no-brainers because someone already thought of and made them. Whether successful or unsuccessful, there are a lot of game ideas out there that are barn-door obvious to the point of being average. Over a million games have been created and released over the last 30 years. Do you really think that your tunnel game idea is new? I did.
Then I realised I was being a moron.
2. Is It A Nuts And Gum idea?
A Nuts and Gum idea is taking two perfectly good game genres and thinking that the smartest thing that you could possibly do is stick them together. The resulting unholy alliance is supposed to appeal to both segments of the audience that like each individual game genre, grabbing a share of both and also, for good measure, generating its own unique audience. Nuts and Gum is basically a kind of synergy argument that tries to avoid the hard work by applying idea sticky tape.
At the heart of Nuts and Gum is a poor understanding of people and their motivations. Psychologists like to say that economists and psychopaths have the same sort of profile. Morons and fast food managers also have the same profile: Each is thinking of users as hungry rats bouncing around in a maze looking for pellets. They also think that the task of creating and selling a game is as simple as coming up with a catchphrase product and then selling it.
The moron believes that customers really do think in terms of market genres, and that the average player in the street goes around looking for that perfect cross of first person shooter and Angry Birds.
Nuts and Gum ideas tend to come out of big companies with the budget to consider them, and often what they end up doing, to try and cover over the resulting mess, is to go into high advertising and PR mode to sell the game. The reason why many marketing budgets for games are nothing short of stratospheric these days is that they are trying to sell Nuts and Gum.
Why doesn't Nuts and Gum work?
Because the game dynamics of succesful games are interdependent, and attempting to stick two sets of dynamics together usually results in a mutant rather than a hybrid. What's often forgotten in the urge to create synergy is dysnergy: That the sum of two things results in less than, not greater than, their individual parts. Often the audiences that like the nuts or the gum don't actually like the opposite type, which is why they didn't buy it to begin with. So they're being a sold a game, half of which they don't want. Dysnergy often outweighs the effects of synergy because when there is so much competition from other games, why bother with the one that's only doing half a job right?
(The origin of the Nuts and Gum example is a joke from The Simpsons, by the way. Unfortunately I couldn't find a clip of it online. The joke is that Marge and Lisa were bemoaning that society never listens to them, to which Homer replies, 'I'm a 36 year old white man. Everyone listens to my ideas,' and then reaches into the cupboard to withdraw a jar labelled Nuts and Gum: Together at last!)
3. Is It A USP?
Any designer or producer who has worked in the industry for a while will tell you that the three letters that they hate more than everything else in all the world are U, S and P. Specifically, Unique Selling Point. The USP is an idea that pervades many business plans, and is all about establishing difference. 'What', the plan asks, 'is the difference between my coffee cup and the competitions' cups, and so why will users choose to buy mine?'
USPs are a big part of game pitching and investment hunting because everyone asks about them. The belief is that without a defining characteristic that makes your game not the same as everyone else's, there is no message. The USP sentiment is absolutely correct, but in the world of no-brainers what this actually translates to is extra features. And yet users do not buy into games for features, they buy into them for engagement.
The no-brainer USP always ends up looking something like 'Zynga Poker, but on Twitter' or 'FarmVille, but in 3D' or 'Bejewelled, but you match four, not three balls', or 'Halo, but with the Alien vs Predator franchise', or 'Mario, but with a branded character' and so on. They seem no-brain obvious because they are easy to describe in 10 words or less, but the vast majority of them are ill-thought-out. The USP moron sees an image in his head of a success graph matched with a no-brain innovation, leading to big bucks.
Which is another way of saying that beauty often seduces on the road to truth.