Another First-Person Puzzler?: Musings on 'Dying Genres'

We often ask ourselves as game designers and developers, "Does the world really need or want another XYZ game?" It's an important question - but not for the reasons us indie developers are oft asking it for.

Simply put, this is an internal validation question. We're not really asking the world - we're asking ourselves if we find value in creating this thing for the world. More often than not, we're seeking that validation because of external attitudes and market statistics whispering sweet-nothings into our ears.

Portal is the best first-person puzzle platformer - can you really do it better?

Market research shows that puzzle games, specifically platforming variants, are one of the lowest selling genres on cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

To the studios seeking to build a profitable game, these are very weighty and important questions and doubt surrounding them should be duly addressed. But for indies with little to no skin in the game, should we really be concerned with this?

I found myself pondering this question with regards to making Parabola. With games like Portal and The Talos Principle - is there even a unique angle this game could stand out on?

My answer to this questions was "yes". The real kicker was how do I go about that?

My design mind first jumped to story. Specifically, first-person puzzle games are often designed with little to no story, relying on engaging gameplay and challenging mechanics. Portal would probably be considered the godfather of the genre (I am purposefully excluding early first-person adventure games - I feel they represent a different design paradigm) but it is one of the few that is remarked largely for its characters and story. Could I somehow wrap a remarkable story around the gameplay loop in Parabola?

After weeks of trying on different fits of stories, I was at a loss. Nothing felt right. Everything I could come up with felt too grounded or an extremely veiled attempt at trying to make the mechanics seem grounded. My solution to that was to start considering the game taking place in a fantasy setting - but again, that's just a design decision to alleviate the fear that my gameplay design was somehow too lofty.

Which, when you really think about it - it's ludicrous. That line of reasoning is a plague to creative individuals across the world, especially with video game designers. If my game can't stand on its own solely based on gameplay - then what kind of game is it!? I'm not making a 'walking sim' as people call them - I am making a puzzle game based on shooting mechanics.

With that, we're still left with this nagging question - are people going to play it, though? Gamers nowadays are playing more and more multiplayer games and singpleplayer is dying, yah dah yah dah.

First off, the whole 'singleplayer is dying' concept that is purveying the industry right now is just bullshit. It's clickbait fodder that the gaming press can use to drum up drama between gamers. It's divide and conquer 101. Are AAA studios churning singleplayer games out as much? No. But in their wake independent developers are.

These types of games are often considered a risk. Risks, sadly, are not the strong point of these AAA behemoths - and that's fine. Risks are even bad for mid-range indies, the newly dubbed AA developers. But for us small guys and solo-dolo developers - risks are a potential gold mine.

If you're sitting down with an idea and you start to ruminate over the external value of bringing that idea to life - ask yourself these questions instead:

  1. Do I need to make a profit to justify the creation of this game?
  2. Does my livelihood depend on that profit?
  3. Will the chances I can afford to make another game be negatively impacted by this games failure?
  4. Do I want to make this game?
  5. Do I enjoy games like this?

If you answered "No" to the first three and "Yes" to the rest - make that damn game.

Portal came out at a time where first-person games were synonymous with big budget shooters like Halo and Call of Duty. Did the world want or need a first-person puzzler then? I would say no - Portal came out of left field.

Sure, the Valve name was attached to it - but remember, this was a studio known for making shooting games and this was in the early days of Steam (I'll leave it at that - we don't need to go down the rabbit hole with regards to Valve's present 'ambitions'). Portal was a side project for the developers and a risk for Valve. That's why they tossed it into the Orange Box compilation, essentially as a bonus to their bread and butter, Half-Life 2. The game blew up, received a sequel, and has a healthy community of modders to this very day.

Is it unfortunate that every other first-person puzzle platforming game to come out since then is almost always compared to Portal? In some ways, it is. In other ways, it is a blessing in disguise.

Despite the market trending towards games-as-a-service multiplayer phenomenons, there is and always will be a solid core of gamers that enjoy first-person puzzlers, RTS, and other off-shoot quote-unquote dying genres. The blessing is that when this group begins to feel even more neglected than they currently do - they're going to turn to indie titles that are filling the void AAA leaves by abandoning 'unpopular' or 'non-monetizable' ideas/genres/designs.

Will Parabola be the next Fortnite sensation - fuck no. Could it be a fun and refreshing jaunt for puzzle game fans - I sure as hell hope so!

It wasn't until I removed myself from this desire to fit into a box that I recognized the potential for Parabola - a challenging, mechanics driven game with rewarding gameplay. To pretend like it should have been anything but was me fooling myself.

Michael DeLally