From game critic to game creator: 5 levels of understanding

Everyone wants to be a game reviewer. No, scratch that — everyone wants to make games. Hmm, no, that’s not right either. Wait, wait – I got it: Everyone wants to get paid to play games. Ah, yes…that’s it. The ultimate dream job. Y’see, most people think reviewers and developers do just that. Man, I wish!

As a former editor of Electronic Gaming Monthly/1UP/Bitmob turned game designer at Bigpoint, I have a confession to make: Critiquing/creating games is a lot harder than earning rank 0 in the endless mode in NES Balloon Fight (done it) or coming up with an idea for the next World of Warcraft killer (don’t wanna do it). And making the transition from a journalist to developer is even more difficult.

But like in any game, progress through the stages, and you may just win in the end. So here are the five levels I had to conquer to understand just how different critiquing is to creating:


Level 1: Inception

No, I’m not making a dream game with sideways gun fights (though that would be kinda cool). Every product has to start with an idea.

Sounds easy, right? Well, because it is. At first. Until you start digging deeper. (OK, no more Inception references, I swear!)

When I was a reviewer, I always used to complain about the lack of creativity in games. I’d ask, “Why are there so many World War 2 shooters?” Or: “Urban sandbox games?” Or: “Defense-lawyer games?” OK, maybe not the last one….

But it wasn’t until I became a developer that I understood why creativity often falls victim to conformity: Popular genres simply sell. Making original titles is a big risk, because if the market is unknown, it’s also equally unknown if people will want to spend money on whatever crazy ideas we come up with.

When coming up with the game I’m working on, Ruined, we wanted to make something unique, and trust me, we had a ton of wacky plans at first. But at the end of the day, we had to make something people would play.

That’s why we settled with a multiplayer shooter. The company I work for, Bigpoint, is based in Germany, and our game is the first U.S.-developed project to come out of our studio. So right away, our bosses wanted something that would appeal to an American audience.

And what do Americans like to play? No, not defense-lawyer games. (I wish!) Shooters, silly. Americans like to shoot people in the face. Easy as that.

Level 2: Features

Coming up with features isn’t too different than brainstorming general game ideas. The genre, of course, dictates a lot of this. Shooters, for instance, have a cool feature where you can, uh, shoot people. Hmm…maybe that’s why they're so popular? 

Anyway, it’s easy to play something and want more, especially when you’re critiquing them. I remember reviewing God of War 2 and wishing the developers would have added more puzzles exclusive to the weapons. For instance, maybe Kratos had to use the Barbarian Hammer to knock down a pillar to create a path. Or maybe he could block enemies from approaching by using the bow and arrow to shoot down a gate. In my head, it seemed so easy. I mean, really, how hard would it be to go back and throw stuff like that in?

Answer: hard. Really hard.

I really had no idea what went into creating features until I started on Ruined. Once the development curtain was lifted, I began to realize the number of steps that go into the simplest of things.

For instance, we wanted to do an achievements system. Pretty basic stuff, right? Almost every game, from console to mobile, has it. So one would think it’d super simple to program. And, technically, sure, it probably is. (Hell if I know. I’m not a programmer — haha!)

But the hard part comes when you factor in everything that needs to actually make up an achievements system. You need a way to track the players' progress (in our case, across multiple games, characters, etc.); you need a way to display the achievement unlocking on the screen; you need the art department to both create icons for the achievements and also a place to display them in the menus; you need a way to reward players for unlocking the achievement, etc. And this isn't even counting quality-assurance testing and bugs.

Yup — all those tasks for something simple as achievements. And if it takes that much work to do something as seemingly easy as that, imagine how hard it is to do something major. That’s why Ruined seems pretty basic to start. But like Bill Murray learned in What About Bob?, it's all about the baby steps.

Level 3: Balance

Guns kill people in real life. Did you know that? Seriously! Usually takes one shot, too. So, uh, why does it always take so many goddamn bullets to kill enemies in games? Balance, duh!

Once a game has mechanics that work (i.e., players can use weapons to kill each other), the real challenge starts: balancing. I never realized how hard a task like this was. Think about it: In everything we play (especially multiplayer shooters), we want to kill people fast and efficiently. So, in essence, we want every gun to be really, really powerful, even if it doesn’t make sense for it to be (because, admit it, if you wield a pistol that killed guys with one shot, you wouldn’t be complaining).

But it’s actually really difficult to make sure each weapon does the right amount of damage to make it fair when playing against other people. For Ruined, we actually made an extensive Microsoft Excel spreadsheet that lists all our guns, the amount of damage they do, their rate of fire, and all sorts of other stats. Hell, we even made pretty graphs, too! And while we crunched numbers and thought we had everything balanced, it became clear that theoretical charts and graphs don’t perfectly translate to a real, in-game experience.

Because of this, we’ve had to change multiple things (gun damage, character speed and health, etc.) several times to what we as a development team thought was right. A lot of times, we don’t even agree with each other. This, of course, makes sense, because the balance of the game is entirely subjective, especially when you factor in player skill. So it’s our job to make sure we tweak everything  as best we can for all types of individuals. And that means no one-shot pistols, sadly.

Level 4: Monetization

Games need developers to make them. And before they can do that, they need companies to fund said developers. And in order to do that, they need people like you to spend money on their products. So what the hell are you waiting for? Go buy a game, dammit! Making money, however, is a touchy subject, especially in the free-to-play sector.

Free-to-play titles (with microtransactions) are a lot different than console games because you’re trying to please two very different gamers: 1) those who play for free and 2) those who are willing to spend cash. That means, in order to get free players to spend money, you have to entice them with valuable items and/or gameplay changes that will give them a significant advantage over non-paying customers. Of course, this doesn’t always have to be the case, as it’s possible to offer things that don’t affect gameplay (costume packs, special privileges, etc.).

With Ruined, we’re trying our best to make something that is fun for both paying and non-paying players. We currently have a moneization scheme, but we're holding it back for the time being to bolster a big enough community to support it.

That means you should play our game right now. Seriously, come back and read the rest of this crap later. Stop reading this sentence. And this one. Are you playing Ruined yet? Go!

Level 5: Time

Without a watch, you’re screwed if you want to tell time. Without time, developers are screwed if they want to make a good game.

I never quite understood how long it takes to make one when I worked at EGM. Sure, I know it takes a good two or three years for a high-budget production, but I couldn't really process what that meant until I actually saw firsthand what it takes to make a game from the ground up.

With Ruined, we made everything from scratch (with the exception of our engine, Unity). Like I said earlier, this is the first U.S.-developed project at our company, so it meant we were the guinea pigs. It also meant we had to learn how to make everything work perfectly…very, very quickly.

Time is the biggest enemy for any game in development, and now I understand why titles like L.A. Noire take multiple years to complete. Quality takes time. Without it, you’re left with a backlog of amazing ideas that may or may not come to fruition.

For instance, with Ruined, we originally had five to six modes planned, multiple character skins and costumes, and a skill tree for long-lasting play. So what made it into the game? Two modes: deathmatch and team deathmatch. That’s it! Not by choice, mind you.

But luckily for us, we have the ability to add new features periodically thanks to this being an online game. Still, development time is something I never really comprehended as a reviewer. It’s so easy to sit back on our couches and whine and complain about how what we’re playing doesn’t have a lot of content. Hell, I did it for a living! But now I truly understand why this is. And that’s why I don’t wear a watch! Time sucks.

Final boss: Making money

We’re currently gearing up to fight the final boss right now, and hopefully we’ll win (*crosses fingers*). In the meantime, you can help the battle by checking out our game at And by help, I mean spend $1-$5,000 when we eventually put content in the store. Preferably the latter figure.

Thanks! Y’all are the best.

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