Developer friends of mine started working on a really intriguing project several years ago. They had this concept for a puzzle game based on language and having to understand the meaning without being able to understand it. You played a robot that was teleported back to the stone-age and your goal was to help the cavemen progress. But all the cavemen could do was communicate in body language resulting in a symbol and the robot had to interpret the meaning of the symbol to be able to assist in solving the problem.
Now language is a really tricky thing in videogames on it’s own. It has to convey a lot of meaning and instructions to the player. But all the developer can do is hope that the player understands it the same way that it was written. Language is technically highly structured, but the meaning of what is said or written is not, it is inherently multi-interpretable. Converting language into a game mechanic, seems an even more risky task to set out on, for your first game.
The developers knew this and they decided that instead of winging it and go for the ‘fail a lot until you succeed’ method, they asked help from outside the game industry. They contacted a linguist, to come by the office and talk to them about language, to teach them what language is made up of, how it originated and what to keep in mind when creating your own language. They recognized that they knew a lot about making games, but not necessarily about the subject of the game. Sadly, the game still hasn’t been released, and I lost track on the development.
What they did, is something a lot of developers struggle with. Asking for help from people who know nothing about games. A lot of developers think that the most important thing in development is to understand games. Know what makes a good game and the rest will follow.
So a lot of games are released as technically and designed masterpieces, but fall flat on communicating their own ideas.
The risk of designing a game that relies on language wasn’t that they couldn’t design a game or develop it. It was that people could not connect with the subject. That the language concept would feel off and take the player out of the immersion. Almost no player will have theoretical understanding of language as a concept, but every player has extensive experience with using language and when the usage wouldn’t be right in the game, the player would instinctively know.
A few years later, after releasing our first game (with my studio at the time) we prototyped a concept of our own that dealt with a concept that we had no in-depth knowledge about. We wanted to make a game that centered around several fictional religions, that would each consist of playergroups that would ‘battle’ for the dominance of their deity. Each religion with their own customs that would connect with players on a level with more depth than just an ordinary ‘clan’ system. We wanted to make these religions as close to real-life religion and make the players ‘belief’ in their in-game ideals.
The biggest risk we identified, was that the religions would be nothing more than fluff. That players would min-max the experience for results, game the system. Or that we would misrepresent existing religions in a way, or maybe even create unintended and problematic side-effects in the behavior players would develop to obtain the in-game goals. All these things would ruin the experience for the player, or create situations that would make us liable for issues that we weren’t going to be able to deal with.
What we figured was that we were not going to be able to learn enough about religion on our own in time to develop the game. Understanding a concept so complex, that normally would take decades of research to ‘get’ was not on the cards. So the next best thing would be to get someone into the project that already had researched the topic for all those years. We were going to need a theologian, and we were going to need it from the start of the project.
We had zero budget to hire someone, so we contacted several universities whether a student was looking for an opportunity to research religion in games and was interested in helping us out. We found something even better. We ended up being referred to a Dutch theologian that had been researching games & religion for years and was looking for an opportunity to take part in the development process. The knowledge he had about religion, already in the context of games, was something we would never had been able to replicate on our own.
Ultimately the project was canceled because of other factors outside of our control. It did however convince me of the usefulness for game developers to involve outside expert on topics as early in the process as possible. Game developers generally think that to develop a game, you need to understand the industry, but games are more than just gameplay. It is presumptuous to think that developers can learn about complex topics during development on a level really needed to convey the topic in a fair and useful way.
So for the next project that you start, think about what you want to accomplish and whether an outside expert would be useful. Most are waiting for the opportunity and willing to even do it for free in exchange to be able to use the results in their own research. It even allocates more time to focus on development, instead of having to research these topics yourself.
Got any questions or feedback? Hit me up on Twitter (@Ithunn).