I started making Syphilisation (Steam) with the explicit goal of making a postcolonial 4X game and it has been a very rewarding experience and, surprisingly, most rewarding to me as just being fun to work on the design of the game. It is of course also nice to make a game with values that I agree with but it is in the nitty-gritty of designing a game that has a clear ideological bent, in the day-to-day solving of game design problems that came from this goal, that I found the most fun.
Most games don’t really think about their ideology and are excellent for it. There’s no solid game design rule that states that games with a defined ideology are better than those without. However, this does mean that there’s a lot of interesting space for a designer who wants to work in it. Approaching an established genre with an ideological lens guarantees that your game will do something fundamentally new in the space and something that feels profoundly novel to your players.
A game that doesn’t think about ideology is a game that most likely uncritically represents the status quo, albeit flavored by the grain of the medium. An ideology, in part, defines itself by its difference from the status quo, which makes it trivial to identify places where it will disagree with the standard practices of a genre. Thinking about ideology thus forces you to engage with the assumptions of the genre and mess with its building blocks.
Direction and Approach
The ideology gives you both a direction and an approach, both things often hard to find when making a game. The direction helps make your game cohesive. Players are quick to recognize when a feature has been bolted on and doesn’t fit into the flow of the game and a lot of features that are built simply for the sake of novelty are pretty easy to identify.
This approach makes it much easier and meatier to solve for a problem as well. So much of game development is iteration as you try to find the exact problem that you’re trying to solve. We try building features and testing them out only to discard them when they don’t do what you need. So much of our work is thrown away with nothing to show for it but a deeper understanding of the specific problem that we’re trying to solve. This iteration is necessary for good games to be made but it is expensive and time-consuming. The clarity of bringing a specific ideology to a genre acts as a shortcut, reducing the time and effort needed to explore what your game is going to be.
Differences For Their Own Sake
Besides, different for the sake of different is inelegant and not fun as a designer. It often feels like you’re going against the grain of the game. This is especially bad when you have to fight with the idea that the standard solution is better, something that will very often be true when your idea is still in its early stages. Bringing in a specific lens eliminates this feeling as it lets you completely discard the standard solution when it conflicts with the ideology you are trying to introduce.
Additionally, you constantly have to ask yourself if your game is actually different enough. These differences become your selling points and so you need to make sure that they are compelling enough to attract players and make them pay attention. Furthermore, if your plan is to put in a number of differences, you then have to make them come together. A set of bullet point differences is hard for a player to really relate to, both when they are marketed to the player and when the player actually plays with them.
Furthermore, your players are going to compare your game against established ones on the basis of these differences. More specifically, they will compare the experience of learning and trying out your new feature against their familiarity with the status quo. This novelty is often very rewarding for the player, but it is also an ask that you make of them and something of a cost that you ask them to pay. Thus, it is on you to justify the differences and the burden of proving that these features are worthwhile lies on your game.
This is made more difficult when you are just trying to make another game in the genre. The statement your game makes is that it is at least slightly closer to the platonic ideal of the genre than the existing games as otherwise why would you make it at all? Building with ideology in mind lets you sidestep this. The claim changes from your game being a better implementation of the genre to being a better implementation of the genre when seen through a particular ideological lens. This is both substantially more defensible and also leaves more space for coexistence.
Ideology as a Complementary Tool
It may seem at this point like you have an all-or-nothing choice between making a game with ideology in mind or not but there’s really no need to be so extreme. You can just use an ideological lens as a tool to generate issues and then address as many or as few as you feel best. You won’t get all of the advantages I mention above if you try a more piecemeal approach but you may not need them either.
This way, you can combine this with other approaches. You can have a set of differences that you believe in and then use this to generate more places to change or use this to iterate into a better version of the game. A lens like this is really just another tool for the toolbox, not something that would ask you to throw the old ones away.
But What About Fun?
There is a driving motivation in game design to chase the ideal of fun, which is a laudable ideal, but which sometimes has to run into the real world. If your goal is just to make a fun iteration on established tropes, the fact is that countless games of that nature already exist. Your iteration may indeed be very meaningful and if you think it is, you should definitely go for it, but we all live in an ecosystem saturated with games that hew pretty close to the existing formulas save for a few differences for the sake of uniqueness.
If the goal is to make games significantly more fun than what came before, it seems obvious that trying something radically different has a better chance of striking gold than mining the seams that everyone else has already taken a pickaxe to.
The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle The Master’s House
Unfortunately, another reality that you have to come to terms with is that the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. Established games are largely built in the dominant ideology of the status quo and so to come at them from a different angle can only take you so far. Eventually you get to the point where you have to make a game that is unrecognizable as an example of the genre or accept that your game is ideologically compromised - something that has many gestures towards a new thought but still maintains some amount of the base ideology.
It’s completely okay to make a game that’s compromised. It’s just the reality of making games that the final result is never going to be perfectly clean. Coming at a genre from a particular angle puts you under no obligation to be a perfect representation of that ideology.
This is just another way to make games, something to be mixed and matched as works best for you. It’s been very rewarding for me to design in this space. I’ve had a lot of fun making Syphilisation. The postcolonial lens gave me a lot of very interesting, very deep problems to work on in this space and Syphilisation itself is something novel in the space and a game that I very much enjoyed making.