GDC Talk: How To Explain Your Game To An Asshole

I never went to the Game Developer’s Conference as a journalist, but this year I took a week off and flew out to San Francisco on my own dollar to attend it as a developer. I was mainly there to demo Gunpoint for the expo crowds at the IGF Finalists Pavilion, but I was also invited to give a five-minute talk as part of the closing talk of the Independent Games Summit: the Indie Soapbox Session.

It’s a rapid fire sequence of ten indie devs giving quick talks about what’s getting them fired up at the moment – rants, new ideas or advocacy. I was honoured to be asked, then completely terrified when I saw the room I’d be speaking to, then totally calm milling around on stage beforehand, then debilitatingly nervous when I actually had to speak.

I’m told it went well, by several nice people who ran into me later in the week, and a few others have asked for the slides. I can actually do one better than that – correctly predicting that I’d be unable to form sentences on stage, I wrote my notes for the talk as a full script. Here it is, updated slightly to reflect what I think I actually said.

My day job is to write about games, but I’m also making one in my spare time called Gunpoint. It’s my first game, and it’s not finished yet, so I don’t feel qualified to lecture anyone about development.

I want to talk instead about explaining games. It’s easy to screw that up when it’s a game you’re close to, but it’s also really important to get right if you want anyone else to play it. And I had a headstart with this, because I’ve been explaining other people’s games for eight years.

When you’re trying to describe your game – for its website, in an interview, or in a trailer – you can’t assume the reader is a reasonable, interested, intelligent human being. Because in the worst case scenario, your reader might be me. And I’m an asshole.

The current methods of explaining games don’t work for assholes, and I’ll explain why. Then I want to show you how I’ve used my first hand experience of being an asshole to explain games in a way that even an asshole can understand.

The first bad way to explain your game is to not explain it at all. People often put out some raw footage or a screenshot and let it speak for itself.

The trouble is that doesn’t. It probably speaks for itself if you know what it says, but you have no way of imagining how little sense it makes to other people. Sometimes we can’t even tell which thing you’re controlling.

Mistake number two is thinking that to explain your game, you should explain your artistic intent.

So you might describe it as “a game about loss.”

OK, but what the fuck does that mean? For all I know Off-Road Velociraptor Safari might be about loss. I think Minotaur in a China Shop actually is.

But your message, your theme, and your artistic intent don’t tell me anything about how I play the game or what I can do in it that’s interesting or different.

Mistake number three is thinking that explaining your story explains your game. “The people of Darksun are under threat from the elder Gods…”

No-one gives a shit about the people of Darksun except the person who made up the word ‘Darksun’. I’m sure your story’s good, and I’m sure it’s important to your game, but it’s not going to be good in ten words. And if you write more than ten words, no-one’s going to read it.

Mistake number four: stating that your game is good, as if this will persuade us that it is.

No-one has ever read a developer describing their game as “innovative” and thought “Wow, that sounds innovative.”

We have read developers describing their game as innovative and thought, “Wow, they sound like a tool.”

Those are the ways that don’t work. So how do you explain something nuanced and cool to an impatient asshole like me?

You have to get to the point, incredibly quickly, in plain and simple language.

In fact, you have to get to four points, in about three sentences, or we just stop reading.

Point number one is to tell us what type of game it is.

You don’t have to stick to traditional genres, but try to use a word that reflects what you actually do in the game. Maybe it’s not a platformer, but it’s a “2D exploration game.”

Point number two, before you even finish your first sentence, is to tell us the coolest unique thing about it.

And you can summarise drastically. We don’t need to know how it works, but we want to know why it’s cool.

The main mechanic in my game is hard to explain in eight words, but if I say “you can rewire its levels to trick people,” you get an idea.

Point number three is to give us some context: who am I, where am I, what am I trying to do?

The plot will never sound good in ten words, but the fantasy might. You’re a spy? You’re a god? You’re saving kittens? You’re a kitten-god saving spies? All those things are cool.

By that point we should have an overview, but it might be a bit dry. So point number four is to give us an example of how it plays.

Describe a moment the player can experience that’s typical of the game, and illustrates the best of what you’ve just told us.

If you say it’s a game about possessing your enemies, I’m interested. But if you tell me I can possess an enemy, throw him into a friend, and knock them both into a landmine before I switch back to my own body and watch them blow up – I’m sold.

If you can do that, you’re done.

And when you read it back to yourself, it doesn’t actually sound like it was written for an asshole. It just sounds like it was written with a respect for the reader’s attention.

The truth is that most of your readers aren’t assholes like me, they’re intelligent, reasonable people. But reasonable people still respond better to writing that values their time, and doesn’t waste it to gratify the writer’s pretensions.

This isn’t really about indie versus mainstream, or arthouse versus commercial. It’s just about communicating efficiently enough that everyone who would like your game ends up playing it. I think it’s a shame when that doesn’t happen.


45 Replies to “GDC Talk: How To Explain Your Game To An Asshole”

  1. So when writing anything you need to sum it up in as brief and as interesting a way as possible, to capture the imagination and attention of the average r/gaming subscriber?

    You must have to investigate every word you ever use Tom, maybe you are built that way, it sounds like a great skill to own.

  2. Let me try this with a game I love but not many people (assholes) have played:

    IJI is a side scrolling platformer with skills and leveling up. The story, events of the game, and how your enemies react to you, depends on whether you’re being a pacifist or a mass murderer. You play as a young female survivor in the genocide of humans by an alien race. Yeah, you fight back. If you sneak up on your enemies, you can hack their weapons to backfire. Most encounters in the game can be handled without discharging your weapon.

    A bit over the limit, but I think this is a great way to explain games I like to other people. Thanks!

    (PS: I tried explain Dwarf Fortress first, but my brain froze up just thinking of the possibilities. That game is too awesome for me to express in a few lines.)

  3. Explaining DF?

    In a randomly generated world that keeps track of everything imaginable, you can direct a Dwarven colony until it’s eventual demise, or explore the ASCII high fantasy world as an adventurer. The only goals you have are the ones you set.

  4. @Klingon13524: That about sums it up, yeah. It doesn’t begin to cover the kind of craziness Dwarf Fortress is capable of, though. I doubt people used to mainstream games can grok “keeps track of everything imaginable”.

  5. I curate an app store as part of my job. Getting developers to explain their app succinctly and not ramble on about how it’ll ‘increase customer retention’ or whatever is a real challenge. Maybe I’ll show them this in future :)

  6. Dwarf Fortress is an innovative game about losing.

    I’m a bad boy.

    OK another try:

    Dwarf Fortress is a game about building soap towers, a game filled with long term managing action and catsplosions. *kaboom* ENGAGE IN INTELLECTUAL THOUGHT as you beat the system by starting with a DIY that allows you to have iron tools and weaponry at embarkment. ISOLATE your labor force in complicated labyrinths. PIERCE the gates of hell. SEE it all collapse before your eyes. BY THE TIME IT IS OVER the dwarves will not be the only ones with a drinking problem!

    I can’t help myself. Though this one is more of a commercial…

  7. Wow!! I have noticed that i tend to ramble on about how awesome things are, and nobody cares… I commend you for so efficiently stating how to efficiently state how things are awesome.

    Seriously, great job! I’ll keep this in mind for a long time! I’ve always wondered how you guys at PC Gamer can make things sound so interesting while i completely fail at it!

    So please know that you may just have changed my life, atleast the capacity of my communication skills! Thankyou sir!

  8. I read the first nine words of this and got bored.

    In all seriousness though, I think you should update your business cards to say “Tom Francis, Asshole”. I’ve now decided that if I ever need my own business cards, they’ll also state “Asshole”.

    PS: Very good presentation – I read it in “Tom Francis Podcat” voice.

  9. Amazing, Tom! I’m studying Software Engineering right now, and I hope some day I can give a shot at a full-fledged, awesome game with a cool concept and great gameplay

  10. Tom Francis lets slip about his next game, a sequel to Gunpoint, involving a kitten-god that saves spies!

  11. Good article, I agree with you about how to describe a game.

    “I wasn’t sure if people would notice the slide change here”

    That’s easy to fix: paint the added/modified text in orange, green or fuchsia.

  12. Damn, this is awesome.

    Even in a meta-way. He explained how to explain your game to an asshole in a way that can be understood and absorbed by assholes. Sweet!

    Let me try this:

    Warlock TV is an arena combat tower defense game. As the warlock, you personally fight alongside your towers against waves of enemies. You’re a contestant in a gladiatorial magical combat game show where they see how long you can survive against waves of goblins, trolls, ogres and orcs. You can freeze giants in front of your towers so they’ll get pummeled, or lay down fields of flame and use pressure waves to push crowds of zombies into them. Every match ends with death, or big money prizes!

    (okay, I tagged on a bit at the end).

    Well, it’s better than the schlock I wrote before.

  13. I would like to request two follow-up talks in this series :

    “How to sell your game to assholes” and “How to answer emails about your game from assholes”

  14. another mistake is letting everyone know that your game is challenging fun yet hard to master. the most cliched phrase in all of game history.

  15. I’m a sucker for succinct things that make sense and this presentation makes me happy. Case in point: the description from Minecraft’s home page that enticed me to actually look into(and subsequently buy) the game:

    “Minecraft is a game about placing blocks to build anything you can imagine. At night monsters come out, make sure to build a shelter before that happens. It also has music by C418!”

  16. Gotta Eat is a game about four hungry frogs. Help them catch insects flying overhead. Avoid the bees, they’re deadly! Catch floating seeds to boost your score. Honor and treasure for the best hoppers. The headgear of shame if your playing is lame.

  17. The metaphor for this is the mountain v. the martini glass. You’re advocating for the mountain (an advocacy I can easily get behind.)
    In the mountain, you state your point, and as the audience demands, you elaborate. In the martini glass, you elaborate, and eventually get to your point, hoping the audience is still awake to hear it.

  18. It is amazing how well the old technique of explaining it to a dumb person works. It is almost as amazing as the amount of people who explains the technique as a recently discovered truth.
    I am not saying the article is useless, I am only pointing out this information has been written many times about many topics, I wonder if we really need to read it once again.

  19. I love Tim’s writing; it is a perfect nuance between effeciency and wit. I feel slightly more intellegent after reading this piece.

  20. Game presentation works the same as with any work of art – creators make the mistake of assuming that what makes sense to them also makes sense to other people. Letting the finished product speak for itself doesn’t always work.

  21. I was there in person for the talk and I thought it cut to the heart of how to drive quick meaning and interest to people who may well start with none of that. Now I can refer back to that talk to aid my memory anytime! I will try to steal and apply these points often in the future. Also, reference anything about Flashbang or Matthew Wegner shows smarts and refined tastes.

  22. so let me see if I got this right something like this?

    It’s a trick taking tarot game where the Major Arcana can change the rules for a hand. Its based on a fantasy world where they literal gamble with their fates using this game. If you are losing a hand and you can’t follow suit you could use a Major Arcana card to switch the hand from high to low and make your partner win the trick.

  23. I fear I’m behind the curve with this, but I’ll have a go with the game I’m developing:

    OreSome is a 2D strategy game about ore – exploring space for it, fighting aliens for it, blowing up planets with it. Build a network of frames and bots to defeat your enemies – or just throw a sun at them. In a dying, decrepit universe full of foes, build up your forces and mine your way to the top of the food chain to explore further and further out into the void.

    By the time you’re ready, you’ll be powering light speed jump drives with stars, building Death Star style super weapons with black holes and in charge of the largest scale mining operation ever known to man – all working for one of humanity’s least scrupulous corporations – and there’s a lot of competition. See for more…

  24. Despite Freelancer’s blatant self promotion I was drawn to click the link and check out OreSome. I might never play it but you can’t fault the advice!

    I can’t help feeling like I’ve been played…

  25. Cerulean Moon is a traditional 2D platformer with unique touch controls, subtly dealing with themes like coming of age and self discovery.

  26. Nice article indeed. The quicker you explain it, the better. Its also a good idea not to take things TOO seriously. Saying: “If you liked Final Fantasy you will like this” will most likely get you in trouble with your audience fast.

  27. Every High Level Design doc (1 page bullet pointed list of main features) I write has a “Back of the box” statement at the top – an elevator pitch if you will, that entices the reader to read the rest of the page. It’s only 1 sentence (at the most 2 short sentences) that summarises the whole premise of the game.

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