20 Things I Learned…

…from 20 years in the games industry.


February 1st 2013 marks 20 years in the games industry for me.  I joined Revolution Software in 1993 and it’s been a fantastic career so far, thanks initially to everyone at Revolution and, now I’m freelance, to all those clients who have taken on my services.

Inspired by a suggestion from Maria Sif, here are 20 things I’ve learned over that time, presented in no particular order.

I hope I’ve learned many more things than just 20 but it feels like a good way to celebrate this milestone.


Have a great sense of fun but take the work seriously.

You must be serious about the work involved in order to achieve your goals but this should also include scheduling time to ensure your game is fun, which kind of sounds like a contradiction but it does make sense.  If you don’t enjoy making games, are the games you’re making going to be enjoyable to players?


Respect all deadlines and be open about the work you do at all times.

Deadlines are vital and it’s important to establish them properly so that you can achieve milestones without driving yourself into the ground.  Always be transparent in your work and progress with others in the team – secrets and hidden agendas will cause more problems than they solve and will bite you in the neck as soon as you turn away.


It’s the software that counts, not the operating system.

I don’t care if people have a Mac or a PC.  I care whether they can use Photoshop or Painter or Word or Final Draft or Scrivener or Maya or Blender etc.  I care if they use software of their choice to create great art, write captivating stories and dialogue, compose rich music or record dramatic voices.  The right software will enable you to realise your passions, the operating system hardly matters.


There is no magic button substitute for hard work. 

Tools and great software may help you work more efficiently and smooth the path towards realising your vision.  They will not take away the hard work, which comes in many forms – creating new ideas, writing 500 pages of text or fixing tedious bugs (to name but a few) – and you just need to buckle down to it.

If anything becomes easy, you’re not pushing your limits hard enough.


Respect others and learn from them, particularly those who have special talents and skills.  Never stop learning from others.

Respect is vital because we’re all human beings with feelings.  Even if someone rubs you up the wrong way, they may still have something to teach you.

There is always something new to discover.  If you think there isn’t, then this is the next new thing for you to take on board.

Learning is often about picking up lots of little things, like how someone draws hands effectively or another person organises their story plotting.  But learning isn’t copying – it’s about seeing how others do things and adapting them to fit with your own work methods and style.


Just because I don’t like a game it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad game

It just may not appeal to my tastes.

I’m also not judging your choices or values.  We’re all different and our individual ranges of games may contain common choices, but none of us can like everything.  I don’t particularly like war based games but I respect the fact that many of them are very well made.

Sometimes people ask me if I’ve played a certain game and more often than not the answer is no.  Like everyone, I only have a limited amount of time to play games so don’t be offended when I haven’t played a game you like.


Don’t look down on a particular genre or style of game. 

As a professional you should always apply your best work to any project.  Never have an attitude where you effectively say “it’s just a game”.  The huge variety of games means that all kinds of audience tastes are catered for and we must remember that those audience members – the players – are valuable to all of us.  If you feel a genre you’re working on is weak, help to make it stronger with your game.


Games development people are generally very nice to know. 

Not only are they passionate and enthusiastic about games in general and the work they do, they are also a pleasure to talk with whenever I get the chance to do so.

They are also lots of fun.  (And Gamescom is the best gaming event on the calendar.)


Good characters will drive your story.

I’m not talking about whether characters are well drawn or well modelled in stunning 3D; I mean characters who are developed properly as people and not simply as a collection of stats, abilities and equipment.  Rich, memorable characters are the ones we care about and whose predicaments make us want to discover how the story progresses.

If we don’t care about the characters we can’t care about the story.


Good plotting is vital.

By this I don’t mean structure, which is something else entirely.  I mean the way you make the story work, particularly in an interactive environment.  It’s about the fine detail and the big events and all the connections between.  It’s about making sure that everything makes sense on a micro and macro scale.

It’s about making sure that if the player needs a particular key it’s found in a plausible way.  It’s about reducing coincidence.  It’s about linking everything within the world in such a way that player agency cannot break the logic.


Write games with the player in mind at all times.

The player is your audience and without an audience you’re just whistling in the woods.  Even while creating game stories and designs, part of your mind must be on how the player will see things and react.  If you cannot do this you really ought to learn how to do so.


Not every idea is a great idea. 

Learn to cut the crap and polish only the gems.

It’s easy to fall in love with an idea simply because it was born from your fertile imagination.  However, there are times when your imagination can be a bit evil and fool you into thinking something has worth when it doesn’t.  Be on your guard at all times!

Big Ideas are also rarely single ideas but often made up of lots of small ideas that work together and complement one another.  If you can, learn how to refine ideas by the development of this extra detail.


Ignore advice/articles that proclaim that “everything should be/will be done this way”.

If my experience tells me anything it’s that such proclamations are rarely true.  The number of times people have foretold the death of cinema should illustrate this.  If anything, cinema is stronger than ever in spite of Television, VHS, DVD, etc.

In games, this often manifests in terms of a developer announcing they are making a game in a particular way and therefore all other ways are rubbish.  This is clearly nonsense.


The more creative I am, the more creative I want to be.

I get quite a buzz from being creative and seeing ideas come together in a substantial way.  It’s like I get a creative momentum going, too, which can mean I get annoyed if I’m held up by slow feedback or cancelled meetings.

On a connected note: nothing fires up a great new idea than being in the middle of exciting, creative work.  I don’t know if it’s just me, but my mind seems very happy to work this way.

Sometimes this can be frustrating because you instantly want to work on the new idea, but if you make notes of all your ideas and keep them safe there may come a point when you can return to them and give them the time they deserve.


Casting good actors is as important as writing good dialogue. 

And when they come together, the two will dance and sing and make me very happy.

Among the finest pleasures I’ve had while writing for games are the times I’ve spent in recording studios listening to good actors bring my lines to life in exciting and dramatic ways.


Player choice isn’t the same as non-linearity.

I believe the games industry uses the term, “non-linear” in a wrong way.  Most of the time it’s taken to mean player choice when it really shouldn’t.  Non-linear should be reserved for stories/games that jump around in time or between different points of view.  (I don’t mean time-travel, by the way.)

If a game stays with one character as he/she progresses through the game and story, then this is linear regardless of the choices the player makes.  Replaying the game and making different choices simply gives you a different linear path through the game.

And when I talk about a game being linear I don’t mean that it’s “on rails”.


There are times when you will be wrong.

Experience and knowledge can reduce the number of times this happens, but we’re all wrong at some point.

Get over it and move on.  If you dwell on your wrongness you will only eat away at yourself and undermine your own professionalism, particularly if you argue your point and continue to fight a losing battle.

Of course, there will be times when you are completely right and are overridden anyway, in spite of doing your best to explain your ideas.  Fight your corner, but know when to compromise.

Sometimes it’s not about being right or wrong but what is creatively best for the project.


Work towards a clear vision. 

Without it, what are you working towards?

Adapt the vision if necessary when things in the project change, but always make sure it’s clear.  It’s vital that it’s a shared vision, too.  If the rest of the team aren’t working towards the same vision, you’ll never get a game that’s properly cohesive.


Detail matters, but ensure that it’s relevant and important.

Refine your gameplay, puzzles, plot, characters, etc. as much as possible, but be aware that overdoing it can be detrimental.

Also, lots of text doesn’t necessarily mean lots of interesting detail, particularly if you get carried away on a single point.  Be succinct.

Some details will only be known to you but they will be details that feed into how you see a character or a game world or how you keep the vision in sight.


Never lose your passion.


Without your passion to drive you the work will become much more difficult than it needs to be.

But if you do lose your passion, look for ways you can rekindle it.  Play games that excite you, both old and new, and recapture what it was that made you love games in the first place.

Love your creativity.


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