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Slaying the Dragon: Fighting Fire with Water

This is the second post by independent game developer Dan Felder, who has his own indie studio and consults other game developers in his spare time. Read his first post here.

 

Look at the dragon. It’s tremendous, a monstrosity that dwarfs giants and their kin. Its gleaming scales are hard as diamonds, its jagged teeth sharper than nails…. And to top it off, it breathes fire. Yes… Fire. Now that’s just not fair!

 

In order to defeat the dragon, you can’t fight fire with fire (remember its aforementioned respiratory condition). If you want to take down this beast of legend and get away with some of its treasure, you have to tip the battle in your favor. Seriously, have you ever tried fighting fire with fire? It sucks. Instead, fight fire with water – you’ll be a lot happier.

 

When you’re shifting the battle to your favor, it has to be at a game the dragons aren’t used to playing. Hit them where they’re weak, hit them where they can’t strike back, and – if possible – try to challenge them to a ballet contest. Dragons are great at tearing through mountainsides and roasting regiments in their flames… But they have a bit of trouble fitting into a theater (not to mention a tutu).

 

So how do you shift the battle to your advantage?

 

It starts in design.

 

Your first goal is to create a title that changes the discussion of how to evaluate the game, matching your strength directly against the Dragon’s weakness. You don’t have to be better at everything, you just need to be different in one thing – so you become a legitimate choice.

 

Here’s a real-life example. A few months ago, I was strolling through the farmer’s market and passed by a pie salesman. The man was selling blueberry pie. Now I was actually on my way to a stand a few dozen feet away, one I’d been going to for years, that made the best apple pie I’d ever tasted… And I love apple pie.

 

Still, the blueberry pie salesman waved me over and asked me if I liked pie. I responded, politely, that I did, but only apple pie – and I was on my way to get a piece right now from the other stand. “Great farm.” He nodded, “They make great apple pie. You want me to tell you what makes mine special?” I shrugged and said, “Sure.”

 

He lifted one of the pies from the table. “This pie,” he said, “Is the only pie here made from the freshest, most delicious wild blueberries. There’s nothing else like it. Want to try a slice?”

 

I did, and it was great… And I ended up buying a pie, too.

 

If the man had tried to offer an apple pie, he never would have been able to beat out my favorite stand – but he didn’t try to fight fire with fire. Instead he offered me something completely different, yet absolutely great in its own right. He knew he couldn’t compete with my favorite stand when it came to apple pies – but they sure couldn’t compete with him when it came to blueberry. Why? Because they didn’t make blueberry pies!

 

He changed the battlefield and got me to buy in, and I’ve loved blueberry pie ever since.

 

So what about fighting fire with water?

 

The key is that the dragon’s got a weak point. Maybe on its flank, or in its co-op mode, but it has one SOMEWHERE. All you have to do is find it and then craft your title to slam through that weak point as powerfully as possible. Just pick something, anything, that the most popular titles don’t do too well (or at all)… And then make it your purpose in life to do it so well that everyone else looks absolutely silly by comparison. You don’t have to beat them with better graphics, you just have to be different – wonderfully, engagingly different. If the battle isn’t about the best graphics and the biggest explosions – then the dragons won’t know what to do.

 

After all if the battle’s about teeth vs. teeth, fire vs. fire… The biggest, meanest dragon always wins. But let’s take a look at mermaids. Could a dragon eat a mermaid alive? Oh hell yes. It’s called sushi. But which do you think a sailor would rather spend time with? Well, I’ll let the Flight of the Conchords answer that (via YouTube). 

 

So, right from the moment you’re shaping your title, make sure that its strengths hit directly against the dragon’s weaknesses… And don’t you dare do it halfway. A poke at the dragon’s weak point isn’t going to do anything, you need to hit that sucker with a sledgehammer. If the biggest titles have overly complex leveling systems, make yours so simple that a near-sighted goldfish could make it through the game. If everyone’s simple – make yours require a graduate-level course in character customization just to make sense of it! Alright, these are exaggerations but only barely so. In order to avoid comparisons to the dragons, you have to make sure that people can’t compare you to the dragons… Except where your strengths lie. Just make sure the game’s still fun!

 

So put your flamethrower back on the shelf and pull out the fire extinguisher. Trust me, you’d rather have the extinguisher when you’re facing down a dragon. Unless it’s trying to twirl its way across a ballet stage that is, but then – you’ve already won.

 

Dan Felder

 

About Dan Felder: A student at Babson College in Massachusetts, Felder is studying entrepreneurship while building his own indie game studio. He has a passion for storytelling and theater, which is playing out in his studio by giving it a creative vision to advance the conversation about what games can be and how games can touch us, move us, embolden us and strengthen us. He also blogs for Gamasutra, a leading game industry news site.

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