Game development is still hard…

It’s hard to believe that over ten years ago I joined the DirectX team with a goal of making game development easier. Back then, being a game developer was a relatively “exclusive” club. The barrier to entry for developers who wanted to make games was very high in all aspects.

My first goal was to make the act of writing the code itself to be simpler. DirectX is very powerful, but was quite esoteric if you didn’t use it every day. At the time, it was C/C++ only as well, and while these are great languages the fact was that Visual Basic developers (C# didn’t exist at the time) outnumbered them five to one (at least). Over the next few years many VB (and some C/C++) developers migrated to C#, DXVB became Managed DirectX, which in turn morphed into XNA Game Studio. Through each of these iterations the act of writing the code for a game became easier and easier.

If my only goal was to make writing code easier, then by any measure I can think of I accomplished this goal, but it wasn’t. I wanted to expand beyond the PC as well, I wanted to allow every day folks to write code for their home consoles, and in 2006 (with the first version of XNA Game Studio) that goal was accomplished as well (followed by the ability to publish and make money a year later). People don’t think much about it now, but that was huge back then. Nowadays it seems every device has a public marketplace and an ability for anyone to write apps and make money from them (and you would dismiss them if they didn’t), but it wasn’t the landscape in 2006.

It was all of these “successes” that prompted my exodus away from the XNA team and into a game studio in 2010. I felt I had accomplished all of the goals I had in lowering the barrier to entry for game development and wanted to move on to my passion of actually creating them. The release of Beards and Beaks has given me a bit of time to be introspective somewhat (which isn’t to say I’m not busy, but still).

For all the successes that we’ve had though, the simple fact is that today, halfway through 2011, game development is still hard.  In some ways, I would argue that it is actually even harder today than it was when I started, albeit for completely different reasons.

While we certainly helped remove some of the barriers to entry over the last ten years, we didn’t remove them all, and we’ve actually added a few new ones. For example, it’s still extremely difficult for an up and coming game developer to hook up with an artist, just as it’s hard for that artist looking for things to stick in their portfolio to find a developer. People are still confused about what a good “game idea” is.

Actually, that’s a good enough side track that I need to break off for a moment for a mini-rant. I swear if I hear one more person tell me that they have a great idea for a game, and then begin describe some story I’m going to scream. In the majority of cases, the story is not what is going to make or break your game (and invariably when someone is describing a “game idea” to me in this fasion, they are not in the minority where it matters). You need to know what game mechanic makes your game interesting. Even in story heavy games, the game mechanic is what makes your game most times. If your game idea is essentially “all the game mechanics of Gears of War with a different story”, this isn’t a good idea.

Sorry, with that rant out of the way, I’ll continue. I believe the barrier to entry for a budding game developer is so low now that the real problems are no longer “how do I make games”, but instead “how do I stand out in the crowd”. The barrier is no longer to entry, the barrier is now to recognition. How can your shining gem of a game rise above the cess pool of thousands of terrible games?

If you ask me, this is an even harder problem to solve, and despite rambling on for all this time so far, I’m not about to say some magic incantation that solves it because truthfully, I don’t know how. Sure, I have some ideas which I’ll go into presently, but I have no delusions that they are a sure-fire way to success.

First, as I alluded to above, you need to have a good mechanic (and a fun game). If you’re trying to make a rip-off of Gears of War, well stop it because you’re not helping anyone and just adding to problem. Now, that isn’t to say that taking a formula that works and improving it is a bad thing, but don’t try to copy something whole-sale unless you can do it better. You want to make a game that’s like Gears of War but includes the ability to turn into a dinosaur and eat folks? Awesome! You want to make a copy of Gears of War with a budget of $30 and a diet coke? Get out of here.

When I say taking a copy of a game and making it better, what I really mean (most times) is “polishing” the game. The term is a little weird to begin with, but basically what it means is that the game looks and feels professional. It’s hard to describe, but you can see it when it’s there and will miss it when it’s not.

People think that polish doesn’t matter as much, but in reality it matters probably more than anything. Consumers can tell. Angry Birds is like a printing press that spits out money, but it isn’t an original idea or anything. The exact same game came out years before it, but that game was unpolished and forgotten to the sands of time. Rovio took the basic idea, polished the hell out of it and have made more money than they know what to do with.

Of course, once your amazing game is out, you then need to market yourself. I feel a bit sorry for the single guys (or small teams) in this regard. At Microsoft, we have entire marketting teams, and it’s still a difficult proposition! I hope one day soon to talk more about this and some ideas I have, but right now this post is already way longer than I was intending it to be.

As the title says, game development is still hard.. I suppose I have a lot more work to do..

My new project!

After I left the XNA team last year, two of the most popular questions I was ask was why I left and what I was going to do next. It was hard to really formulate a good response to either given the general culture of secrecy that seems to always be around. However, now is the time to lay it all out on the line!

First, why did I leave to begin with? Philosophical differences I suppose you could call them. I was pushing very hard to get a LISP and COBOL version of the project out, and they didn’t think it would have a large enough audience. I still can’t believe they were so naive, but c’est la vie.

When I left I had a multitude of opportunities available to me, each of which were very compelling. Right when word got out I was leaving, I was contacted by the good folks at a new team that was forming. They had discovered that certain images in certain sequences could actually change the chemistry in the brain and give the user experiencing them a completely new outlook on life. The government wanted to get involved though, and I’ve worked with the government before. The technology was exciting, but not enough to work with them again.

Yet another group offered me a new job which sounded at first glance to be quite boring. Have you seen those big number signs where they’re constantly increasing with witty phrases such as “Your share of the national debt is <blah>”? Did you know that Microsoft wrote that software? I was offered the chance to be the guy who watches the numbers scroll by and make sure they stay accurate. Sure, it sounds boring, but you get to travel the world and see lots of numbers, how bad could have it been? Everyone loves numbers!

However, the job I finally took was over in Microsoft Game Studios working on an amazing new title. I probably shouldn’t be telling anyone this, but I’ve been holding it in so long, I just can’t wait anymore. What’s the worst they could do? I’m proud to announce our new game Kinectodeck. Everyone has seen how amazing it can be when you’re the controller, but we wanted to see how amazing it could be if you were actually in the game!  We use an amazing set of new technlogies to transform your living room into the actual game playing field. There are eight different Kinect sensors spread throughout the room along with sixteen mini-projectors which bring the game world directly there! It is a completely new innovative experience, where the possibilities are really limitless.  One of our recent test subjects was sent on an safari adventure where they were out riding a tiger through a lake:

We have a few bugs we still need to work out though. For example, due to our desire to have maximum realism, we may have went a little overboard. Shortly after the picture above was taken, the tiger ate our poor test subject. It’s ok though, she signed the release form. Minor setbacks, something you would expect from such an ambitious project. Major innovation doesn’t happen by being safe!  We’re moving quite fast though, and an expected release date should be just about a year from now, and I can’t tell you how excited I am.

You may be wondering how you write the games though? Why XNA of course!  You will of course need an AppHub membership to get the toolset. I’m also happy to announce that the toolset will be available for download (in a very early alpha form) next week! Stay tuned for more information, this is an exciting time in our industry and I am ecstatic to be a part of it.

A new book on Game Studio 4.0

It has been about five years since my last book came out.  During that time, a lot has happened.  Heck, that book was about Managed DirectX, and at the time it came out XNA Game Studio didn’t even exist as an idea, much less a product.  Since then, it’s not only been released, but we’ve announced the *fourth* version of the product!  We’ve added support for Windows, Xbox, Zune, and soon, Windows Phone 7.

So much has changed, so much time has passed, it was time to do a new book.  This new book will cover Game Studio 4.0 in its entirety, including Windows Phone 7, the new features, Xbox, everything.  While we haven’t announced any release dates for Game Studio, I’m spending my spare time (what little I have) to make sure the book will come out as close as possible to the release of the product.

I’m also having some help with this one, and will have a co-author, so that is a bit exciting too!  Writing has begun so if you have suggestions, now is the time!

360

Although it is probably a mistake, I’ve put my Xbox Live Gamertag on my blog page.  Despite my potentially obvious bias, I’m quite pleased with the new console.  For all of you still waiting to get theirs, if it makes you feel any better, I just got mine yesterday, and I’ve been trying hard since launch.  So don’t just assume that all of us here have them, because we have to wait in line just like everyone else.

Geometry wars is entirely too addicting.  I haven’t even gotten a chance to try out the other arcade titles, nor many of the other games I have because of it.  Although I did pick up DOA4 today, and will try to get some more time in with PGR3 and Tiger Woods later tonight.  That doesn’t even consider I still need to try the rest of the arcade games, and NFS:MW and Ridge Racer and Tony Hawk and Call of Duty and Kameo and … oh man.. too many games…

XBox Live

Given my job in the DirectX team, it’s probably a safe bet that people already realize i would be what is called a ‘Gamer’.  I spend entirely too much money on video games, and depending on the games that are out there, entirely too much time playing them.  However, right now my ‘gaming’ time is being spent almost exclusively on two games.

Obviously, i’ve had XBox Live since it was first launched in November of 2002, but honestly for the almost the entire first year it was out, there was never anything i really wanted to play on it.  Sure, i played some Mech Assault, and was into Unreal Championship for a while, but nothing i would consider ‘great’.  That’s been changing recently though.

For example, Project Gotham Racing 2.  This is probably the best XBox Live game available today.  Not only does it have a great multiplayer experience online, even the single player missions are all ‘live-enabled’.  Your best scores are stored on xbox live, and you can compare yourself to other players in all of the single player missions.  Better yet, you can actually download the ‘ghost’ of other players who have played the missions to see how they’ve acheived these outrageous high scores.  And since you’re always signed into live while you’re playing (even in single player mode), any of your friends who are also online can invite you to play a multiplayer game.  Even playing in the multiplayer modes lets you get kudos tokens you can use to help yourself during the single player mode.  This game should be the model for all future live games.  It is the entire package.  The only downside (if you could call it that), is that it doesn’t support XSN, which i can understand considering it isn’t a ‘sport’.

Speaking of XSN though, the other game i’m really into nowadays is Links 2004.  Joining tournaments online, and competing, and watching my stats is addictive.  Personally, i’ve tried Tiger Woods game, and it just doesn’t match up.  Sure, you have a wider array of choices when creating your character, but the golf isn’t as realistic, you can’t play with teams, and you can’t play with more than two players.  Playing in tournaments is the absolute best.

This doesn’t even consider the other great XBox Live games out nowadays..  Rainbow Six 3, Counterstrike, Crimson Skies, Midnight Club 2, etc.. After being out a year, i’m now really starting to be impressed..