Flash Game Design Kitchen Nightmares
I’ve been watching a lot of the BBC America (plus the sub-par USA Fox version) of Chef Gordon Ramsey’s reality show Kitchen Nightmares. You might know Chef Ramsey from the “foul-mouthed chef” reality contest series Hell’s Kitchen. While that series is the standard by-the-numbers “Survivor meets The Apprentice” show, but with food, Kitchen Nightmares (especially the BBC version) is something else entirely. On that show, Chef Ramsey visits failing restaurants to help them before they fall into financial ruin. He visits the restaurant, eats their food, comments on their menu, meets and watches the staff while they are working, and then gives his recommendations (usually peppered with the word “f*ck”). Most of the time, these recommendations fall into the same categories:
- Simplify the menu
- Sell what the public wants
- Streamline your operations
- Make sure the word gets out
As it turns out, most restaurants (the ones featured on the show anyway) have similar problems, and these problems almost always lead to failure. Their menu has too many items because they are trying to be all things to all people. The food they sell is too fancy or not the right mix for their location because the owner or chef are too emotionally involved in their own ideas and creations to see what will actually make a profit. Finally, they have too many people working in the wrong jobs and are creating artificial bottle-necks that drive customers away because they have had a bad experience. Chef Ramsey finds these flaws like clockwork, and bluntly tells the establishment what is required to heal their ills. Finally, after changes are made, Ramsey offers innovative ideas on how to let the public know about the new direction for the restaurant to get people through the door. The audience then watches to see if the establishment is willing or able to change it’s ways fast enough to stay in-business.
Why am I writing about a “cooking show” on a blog dedicated to Flash game programming? Because as I’ve watched the show I’ve realized that the advice Chef Ramsey gives to failing restaurant entrepreneurs is great advice to anyone who is trying to create a business around offering their own creations that will be consumed by the public. I believe this extends to game design, and in particular, Flash Game Design.
- Simplify The Menu: Not the menu exactly, but the elements of the game. Don’t try to throw-in too much at once to cloud the main object of what you are trying to accomplish. In most cases, Flash Game designers are pretty good at this one. However, many games might be actually “too simple”. They are based on a funny and or interesting but thin concept that is appealing at first, but has little staying value. Finding the right mix of features and ideas that will work might take some trial and error, but it seems that the most successful games have an appealing level of depth, but at the same time don’t try to do too much at once. For instance a “tower defense” game at its heart is an addictive, one-sided game of “Capture the flag”. The idea is simple, the execution is what makes the game a success.
- Sell What The Public Wants: This might be hard to swallow, but it is possible that your “grand idea for a new concept in games and game play” is really not all that grand or new, and possibly, is not all that appealing. If you are in the business to make a living from your games, you might have to sacrifice the “big concept” for something that will appeal to the general public. This does not necessarily mean that you should copy a game that is current a success. Popular games are good guide as to what the public currently wants, but a cheap knock-off won’t buy you much staying power. Instead you should should glean the elements that you think make make the popular, and make sure to fold similar elements or game play into your creations. The game should be accessible to the masses, but have just enough unique elements to make it stand-out.
- Streamline Your Operations: This doesn’t not apply to staffing, because most Flash game developers are very small operations. However, this does apply to resources you include in game itself. For instance, many games skimp on small but important elements like well thought-out controls, animation, sound, and music. The “idea” of your game might capture people initially, but the nuances of these other elements will keep them playing. My game Hot Wheels Trackmod, has been played now over 50,000,000 times. Most of the feedback I have received is along the lines of “I love the sublime game play, but the hypnotic music keeps me playing”. Ira Willey has great blog entry named How to make a successful Flash Game that details many of these important elements that will help set a game apart from the pack.
- Make sure the word gets out: No matter now good your game might be, getting people to play it takes more than just posting it on your site and crossing your fingers. James Robinson’s recent article on Mochiland, Marketing Flash Games: The Other Half of the Battle is a fantastic guide on how to get the “word out” about your game. As well, the similar article on Mochiland , Sam Horton’s Thumbnail Design: A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Plays details another important element in getting people to notice your game.
- Franchise: OK, I made this one up myself mostly because the scope of the show Kitchen Nightmares can’t address this, but most successful restaurants aim to branch out with more locations and franchises based on their good name and reputation. Your game should be no different. Create games and characters that you own (as soon as you create them they are copy-writed to yourself), that will (hopefully) become familiar to players. Create game engines that can be easily “re-skinnable” or re-used for more games of the same type or with the same characters of your own creation. This might take some advanced programming to accomplish (creating a re- usable state-machine game engine is good start), but the benefits will outweigh the investment in the time you take to develop your game code. People don’t necessarily eat at McDonald;s because the food is exotic or gourmet, they eat at McDonald’s because they know what they are getting.