Stop me if you’ve heard this story before. There’s a game that comes out with what seems like a killer concept, conceit or story. You read the back of the box, take it home and try it out and find that while the marketing bullet points are all there, the actual gameplay fails to live up to either the text description or the months of hype that proceeded it. Oftentimes reviews for these games follow a familiar “good concept, poor execution” pattern. Heck, I’ve been writing reviews for a long time and I can’t count the number of times I’ve said it myself. The thing is, it doesn’t have to be that way, and in examining the latest example of one of these “noble failures” I’ve decided to recommend what I believe is the greatest book on game development ever written: “On Writing” by Stephen King.
“On Writing” is a short book written by the highly successful author of “Salem’s Lot,” “Carrie,” “Misery” and far too many other books to name. Yet no matter what you think of King’s fiction, “On Writing” is a one of the best deconstructions of the creative process I’ve ever read. In it, he doesn’t attempt to quantify what makes some writing “great” and some of it “awful” nor is it an attempt to defend his own output from the legions of detractors and critics who hold their noses at the thought of reading a Stephen King tome. King himself admits in the book he’s no Faulkner or Shakespeare, merely a competent storyteller who credits his success to two things: a knack for catching the public’s imagination with a particular concept and a diligent work ethic that would put most Puritans to shame.
It’s the second part of King’s success that really concerns game developers. The first part — the ideas, the concepts, the flights of imagination — are the easy part. If I had a nickel for every email I’ve received from a gamer telling me about a great game idea and asking how to get it in front of a developer I’d be as rich as King. It’s the second part of the equation — the due diligence — that most people get wrong. That’s the part of writing that is covered in the middle part of King’s book, the nuts and bolts of the craft of writing. In it he pulls apart grammar, spelling, theme, plot, characterization, symbolism and many of the other aspects of writing, examines them in detail, and compares them to a set of tools in his uncle’s enormous toolbox. Grammar and spelling, for example, he compares to a screwdriver and a hammer. The kind of common everyday tools writers use that, if allowed to rust, make any job impossible.
I’ve received many emails over the years with horrible spelling and grammar asking how to get a job in the industry, or how to become a game reviewer. Quick piece of advice: If your cover letter has misspellings, you’re never getting a job anywhere. The tragedy of these “great idea, poor execution” titles is that they make the same mistake many beginning writers do — they don’t get the basics right. In gaming, the basics begin with gameplay. “Gameplay” however, is a broad concept, so in the best Stephen King tradition, let’s take an element out of our gaming toolbox and figure out how to make a good (not a great) game.
Videogames are a bit different from what we traditionally have referred to as “games.” One of the key elements of a “game” is voluntary restrictions on the actions of the participant. Football teams for example, agree to keep the ball within a strictly defined play area. Going outside the lines isn’t clever, it’s cheating. Within the arbitrary parameters of the game rules, however, the player has complete freedom to improvise and strategize a way to defeat their opponent. It’s this very freedom and essential randomness that makes a “game” enjoyable. Watching or playing a football game is fun not because of what’s always the same but because within those parameters there’s always something different.