Developing Development Guidelines: Don’t Reinvent the Wheel

Read the Introduction.

I think there’s an inherent desire when beginning work on a creative project to do something different, to bring something totally new to the table. After all, that is the value of creative work – to create something, rather than just repurpose other things that already exist. But this desire can be somewhat antithetical to a fundamental truth of creative work: imitation can be the most effective way to learn something new.

And we are still relatively new to game development.

When we started trying to develop our first game, Harvest, beyond the basic premise (sci-fi survival horror set on a farm), we wanted to do things differently. We didn’t want our game to feel like other survival horror games. We ditched any semblance of linear level design and typical puzzle-solving, opting instead to drop players in a small, but extremely open ended space, where they could explore however they wanted. An item needed to open a door in the farmhouse might be hidden in the barn, and we wouldn’t push players to it, leaving them to discover things at their own pace.

Needless to say, designing a game like this is hard. And for first-time game designers, it was simply not realistic. We started building out the environment without a real plan in place for how to execute on our ambitious gameplay ideas. Would it even be fun for players to have to backtrack throughout several locations on the map with no guidance or sense of linear progression? We had no idea, because we’d never played a game quite like that. Our ambition to do something totally new was a major reason we never got close to finishing the game.

And it was for that reason that we decided on our first development guideline for Interference: Don’t Reinvent the Wheel.

We acknowledged our previous missteps and made an effort to embrace that we are new game developers. We need to learn why certain video game tropes exist, and learn how to execute them before we can subvert them. We had to learn the rules before we could effectively break them.

So with Interference, we decided to stay a little more traditional, with a scripted experience that plays out in an even smaller physical space. We didn’t shy away from using a familiar branching dialogue system that works in so many other games. By leaning on familiar building-blocks, we had a better sense of how the game would feel to play going in, which gave us direction and motivation to stick with it.

All of this is not to say that Interference is just like other games. In fact, we feel that it’s even harder to neatly categorize than Harvest was. We are still able to experiment with narrative and player freedom in ways we feel make our game unique. But this experimentation is grounded in elements we’ve seen work in games before, and has been the difference between staying motivated and flailing in our own over-ambition.

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