The Differentiator: What I Learned Trying To Make A Game

It's a hard truth to realize that when you create something new, nobody cares about it. That's the default with new things. The only one who cares about it is you. And one of the most important things to do right at the very beginning is to think about why anybody else should care about it.

Title screen of the game prototype called “Spiritfall”
Title screen from my game prototype called “Spiritfall”

Making A Game

The year is 2020 and the pandemic is in full swing. After figuring out all the important stuff like working from home, securing enough paid work in uncertain times, and staying safe and healthy, I started looking for a new side project.

One of the things I always wanted to do since I started playing video games was to make one myself. So far it never happened, because I was busy doing other things and because I was afraid it would be too difficult. That was a perfect example of the second level of the “Dunning-Kruger-Effect”. I had no idea what I didn't know.

This time, I started trying. I watched hours of tutorials about making games in general and slowly, but steadily I got more specific about what I wanted to make. I wrote a lengthy concept, and a story for the game, and created mood boards and notes all over the place. I started to understand what I did and didn't know.

Then I made the plunge and started to work on a playable game. Thanks to countless free tutorials and modern game engines (I used Unity), I managed to create a short playable demo (about 10-15 minutes of gameplay). It was a lot better than I had imagined when I started months ago. I felt hyped.

Know What You Don't Know

At this point in my journey, I thought I had it all laid out. My notes, my roadmap, all the planning. I got comfortable making basic pixel art and working with assets from marketplaces. I got comfortable with working with the game engine.

I thought programming was going to be my biggest obstacle. Still, I worked through a whole programming course for making games and I started to understand some concepts and principles. My prototype got better and better.

Then life intervened and I had a little less time to work on the game and more time to think about it. It was interesting to observe how one day I thought that this could turn into a nice little game and the next day I thought that I was never going to get this done. The rollercoaster of creating something.

After a couple of weeks of being away from the project, I looked at it with fresh eyes. The prototype still looked and played pretty well. I had done playtests with friends and family, and the feedback was very positive. But I was not convinced that it could turn into something good.

What's So Special?

Going back to the drawing board, I came to the conclusion that I was not satisfied with “something good”. It would have been a game like thousands of other games. Good, but not good enough to stand out from the crowd of small games of the same kind. And the reason for that? There was nothing special in it.

The one thing I did not think about until now was what would separate my game from all the others? What would be special about it? Why should somebody play my game instead of another one?

Answering those questions is difficult. Not only for games but for every new thing. Why should somebody spend money and time on that thing instead of another thing? Why should somebody care about it? But it is important that the people who are about to create the thing think about these questions. Maybe there is something special and all you need to figure out is how to communicate it. Maybe many things could be special about your thing and you need to find out which ones resonate with your desired audience.

But maybe, there is no easy answer. Maybe there is nothing special about the thing you are creating. That does not mean it's going to be a bad thing. But if there are a lot of other things of the same kind (like games), you need to be aware of that, too.

Lessons Learned: Why Should People Care?

Nowadays I have incorporated these questions into all the projects I work on, paid ones and personal ones. I try to answer them as early in the process as possible or get the answers from somebody else if it's a team effort. You do not need to have a special, unique thing every time. But you should deal with that part of creating something instead of assuming that it is going to be a great thing and that people will care about it. Because by default, nobody cares besides you.