While any game worth its salt ultimately rises or falls on how engaging it is, the issue for many small studios is how to get players to notice their wares in the first place. You can work the magazine and blog circuit, post about your game in Twitter and otherwise try to drum up interest, but I think the most important thing that you need is a look.
A look is not about production values. Sometimes deliberately low-fi graphics are the way to go, and often the more expensive the graphics become, the less interesting they are. Looks are about style rather than technology, and a look gets players into the idea that your game is worth checking out.
Video games are by the far most visual of all games. They offer the player the opportunity to step into a world in motion, and so it is crucial that the visual element has something about it. The PC and console games industry have understood this for decades. It’s why so much of the talk around those platforms leads with graphics as the main theme, and why a great deal of effort is expended to make games look pretty.
The visual attraction of games has never really changed, however in the modern world simply throwing a lot of technical effort behind graphics is not enough. Too often developers have focused on graphics as a technical feat rather than an artistic one, and the results increasingly all look the same. Looks developed in this way become formulaic, interchangeable and eventually just part of the background radiation of the universe.
However you can immediately recognise Angry Birds, Castle Crashers or Katamari Damacy from across a crowded room because each has a visual style that is unique. Distinctiveness and establishing a voice are far more important than simple technical impressiveness, and all great looks are distinctive.
A distinctive look helps a game travel. Whether it is in Youtube videos recorded by fans, or featuring in the pages of Wired, a look speaks volumes in a way that text can’t. A signature character, logo or scene has an immediate emotional effect that a discussion of game dynamics or technology lacks. Video games are an entertainment rather than a technological market, and what matters is whether you can inspire players in their hearts rather than their minds.
Independent Developers are Better at Look
Although they spend a lot to acquire it and find it easier to have a media presence, big studios often screw this up. Though they all look lush, many of the games that appear in the pages of Edge or on the front page of Kotaku look like clones of one another. The average reader could probably be pretty easily fooled into believing that images from Gran Turismo were actually from Forza, or some from the Call of Duty series were actually from Medal of Honor.
Big studios usually have too much organisational cruft to really settle down and create something magical. They operate too much like a committee, and their problem is that the larger the budget, the more likely the groupthink is to want to be conservative rather than experimental. The fear grows that they will lose more users than they will gain if they take big risks (this is a learned pattern that people who work in big game companies adopt after a while, and it takes years to shake it), so they opt to play it safe.
Dan Paladin, on the other hand, does not have this problem. As the main (possibly only) artist on Castle Crashers, Paladin had the opportunity to make side-scrolling fighting cool again in a way that had not been seen since Double Dragon et al. His characters, animations and overall sense of style positively bleed through his game, leaving a lasting impression. Castle Crashers is one of the most successful games on Xbox Live because that style (and it’s also a great game to play) communicates so much with so little.
Smaller independent developers are often better at achieving distinctive looks than their big brothers. In the last few years many of the exciting successes in games have come from indies doing something distinctive. Social media, such as Youtube clips or Twitter reviews, passionately shares new awesome clips of a game from some tiny studio from Finland, and an Angry Birds is born.
Meanwhile much of the traditional industry is in quagmire. It used to be the case that there were reliable press organs who would post long and loving previews about game studios and their graphics, and while those organs still exist, studios have to work so much harder to gain the same attention that they were used to. With games like LA Noire you can really see that studios like Rockstar understand how to talk in the new media and get players excited.
However a lot of traditional studios do not understand this, and they’re stuck. Those who are taking risks on their look (such as Limbo) are leaping further ahead than those spending millions on me-too zombie slashers, which is a good thing for the art of games.
But hold on, I hear someone cry, Minecraft isn’t slick, CityVille is conservative. And Black Ops sold millions of copies. What gives?
A distinctive look is not a matter of production values. It’s a matter of context.
Looks are neither objectively good nor bad. Console game audiences love the meaty brutality of a Modern Warfare, for example, but this look is a turn-off for most casual game players. Retro-minded audiences get excited by games that show their sense of heritage combined with originality in a way that is meaningless to younger players. Even the famously blocky Minecraft has a look that is perfectly aligned with its market, the PC gamer.
Long before any buyer gets to making a purchase decision for your game there is the time when they are hearing your marketing story, and the look tells them not only whether your game is of interest, but also whether it is aligned to who they are. Whether your game is a deliberately lo-fi space trading game like Planetarion or a multi-million lush experience like Gears of War, the form of the look matters a great to its market. To everyone else it’s either just nice or poor graphics. Neither will get them interested.
A look is the probably the most potent mechanism for starting a conversation with your market. On the iPhone it starts with the icon that the users see on the App Store, while on Facebook it starts with the postage-stamp sized graphics that users see in advertising or Notification Requests. On the Xbox it starts with trailers or magazine covers.
Looks are essentially how the game opens the door for the user. Whether you then deliver on the promise that your look makes is where you stand or fall ultimately, but you still need a look to get them interested at all.
(Today’s image is from the iPhone game Tiny Wings, which looks great.)