Connecting the Dots is a series of in-depth articles from the team at Vela Games, highlighting a variety of game development subjects that are important for our project, but often easy to get wrong. Travis George is co-founder and CEO of Vela Games, and directs gameplay for our first title.
Making games is never easy, but making a genre-defining game? That’s an entirely new layer on top of an already difficult process. Yet that’s the goal we set for ourselves when we founded Vela Games. Of course, we can only create something we believe has the potential to be genre-defining, because ultimately it’s not us who decides if we’re successful, it’s our players. I’d like to talk about our thoughts on what makes a game genre-defining, and how we’re approaching development of our first game at Vela with this in mind.
Two Sides of the Same Coin
If we want to define what it means for a game to be genre-defining, it’s first important to define certain aspects of a game. Games are essentially collections of play patterns, which are created from different game mechanics. A mechanic might be aiming a gun, but a play pattern is a level above that; a play pattern could be lane pushing in mobas.
A genre-defining game can manifest in different ways. At its core, however, it’s a new experience for players that establishes a new game type, and it can support multiple iterations. It contains either completely new play patterns, or an amalgamation of existing play patterns that together result in a unique experience. A good example of the former would be Minecraft, while examples of the latter would be League of Legends, Heroes of Newerth, or the original DotA mod—these games defined the MOBA genre by mixing play patterns from RTS and Action games to create something unique. One of my favorite games—and a great example of this—is Dead Cells; it deftly and artfully took play patterns from a bunch of other genres, made them harmonize, and pushed forward into exciting new territory. So no matter how a new genre manifests, innovation is always critical to its delivery.
The goal is never to make design decisions based solely on numbers or to build a game from spreadsheet formulas…
At Vela, we’re aiming for the latter method: creating a unique experience from established play patterns. An analogy I like to use is that we’re taking a bunch of ingredients from a recipe, like for chocolate cake, but mixing different proportions and cooking them in a different way to create a different, delicious concoction, like chocolate chip cookies. We’re not inventing new ingredients, aka the underlying play patterns of the game, just creating a new recipe from them. This lets us focus our innovation directly on our unique mix of play patterns, and boosts our ability to provide the very best version of the experience.
One of the key components of our work at Vela is research. We deeply understand the play patterns in our space, but we want to go beyond our own experiences as developers and players. We research not only what’s popular with players, but also why players play the games they love. What motivates them to play, and how can we best satisfy those motives? Once we understand what engages players, we can thoughtfully mix that research with our own ideas and instincts to create a deeply rewarding game experience. The goal is never to make design decisions based solely on numbers or to build a game from spreadsheet formulas, but to ensure that we’re creating something our players will truly find fun. Remember, it’s ultimately players who decide if we’re successful in creating a genre-defining game, not us.
Finding the right hook for your game is critical, and as any seasoned developer knows, it is also hard. There is both an art and a science to it, and unfortunately there is no magic bullet solution. So how can we increase our probability of uncovering and developing something innovative?
For that, we have to be deliberate in how we operate; we think about it when we’re hiring people, when we’re deciding how to build the game, in how much tools development we do, and in deciding our direction as a studio. All of these things can help us increase that probability if we deliver on two key components: accuracy and velocity. Take a look at the formula below.
The first part of the equation, Accuracy, is about reducing the number of iterations we need to unlock the ultimate version of our gameplay experience. It contains two key components: purpose and talent.
Purpose is about having a clear direction, a guiding light to keep us on track and ensure we’re answering important questions during the development phase: why are we here, and what’s the problem or opportunity we’re trying to solve? At Vela, this goes back to our literal purpose for existing as a company: we believe that great co-op games can drive fun, new experiences and bring players together through play.
Talent comes down to the people on our team, and how we work together as a whole. We hire people not only with deep expertise, but who are able to understand players’ needs, and can apply their knowledge to a wide range of situations. We search for specialists in fields and disciplines, not tasks. When the right people function well as a team, they reduce the number of times they have to iterate. Combined with a strong purpose, this leads to much higher accuracy.
We never want to be reckless, but when we’re pioneering a new recipe we have to be able to take risks.
The second part of the equation, Velocity, describes the speed at which we can iterate. It is based on environmental factors, but is modified by fearlessness.
Environment comprises everything from our tech and tools, to our work systems, to the ways we orient our physical space—it’s all about the environment we create. For example, we know we’re creating a co-operative game. It would be easy to begin by hacking some sample gameplay and ideas together; however, we know that as soon as we take that experience online it completely changes the feel of the game. Because of that, we put in the effort up front to set up our tech and tool environment so that we can make solid iterations very rapidly. This is important to us, because as a company and team we always want to be building forward momentum—never slowing down.
Fearlessness. We never want to be reckless, but when we’re pioneering a new recipe we have to be able to take risks. We know we’ll make mistakes, but we’ll learn from those. Success isn’t instant, nor is it without bumps in the road, and as a team we need to be able to work through instances of failure without losing our enthusiasm and passion for what we’re building. We’re inherently going for something risky by trying to create a genre-defining game, and playing it too safe would severely limit the level of innovation we can achieve.
Crucially, this fearlessness relies on us creating a culture where everyone can be heard, and where everyone feels empowered to both give and receive direct feedback with dignity. We don’t care where the best ideas come from, we just want to ensure that amazing ideas make it into our game. Myself, Brian, and Lisa cultivate that culture by trying to set that example ourselves. It’s also important that we hire people who don’t just understand that culture, but are excited to work in and contribute to it.
Finally, we acknowledge that luck and timing are natural factors in the success of any game that’s aiming to be genre-defining, but our philosophy is to understand and accept that these things aren’t entirely within our control. What we can do, however, is seize any luck or opportunity that comes our way!
I’ve mentioned it a couple of times throughout the article, but I want to end by reinforcing that everything we do is in service of creating a compelling, engaging, and fun experience for players. They are the ultimate arbiters of whether what we create is truly genre-defining. We can always create something new that is personally exciting for us, but if that doesn’t intrigue and satisfy players, then we haven’t succeeded.
I hope this has offered a bit more insight into our approach to development at Vela Games, and how we work toward achieving our ultimate goal. If you’re interested in more, keep an eye out for additional Connecting the Dots articles from other members of Team Vela, covering a variety of game development topics. Thanks for following along on our journey so far!
Special thanks to Antoine at https://www.business-landscapes.com/ who helped me develop this formula in our previous lives.
Travis has loved games for as long as he can remember. He started making games in 2002, working as a designer on AAA action games at Activision, before switching focus to development on PC MMORPGs. In early 2008, Travis joined Riot Games. He led Gameplay Production on League of Legends prior to launch in late 2009, then was Product Lead for three years during the game’s biggest growth phase.
After over a decade and a half in the industry, a move from California to Ireland, and more recently an MBA, Travis co-founded Vela to help lead the creation of a new genre-defining game experience.