by Steve Ellis
Some time back in the 80's my parents bought me a Rubik's Cube. It was a simple but fiendishly difficult puzzle whose goal was to fill each face with squares of a single colour. I spent countless hours twisting and turning it, trying to work out what combination of moves would allow me to complete it. In all that time, one thing that I never did is ask why? Why do I need to make all of the faces a single colour? What's my motivation?
Fast-forward 30 years and we have videogames with 8-figure development budgets, with complex multi-threaded storylines written by teams of professionally qualified writers and voiced and acted by Hollywood actors. Embarking on one of these games usually involves watching several minutes of cinematics that explain your motivation in great detail. Increasingly, these are the only kind of console games available.
Somewhere along the way, it seems, something has been lost. Over the years I've sat in many meetings with many publishers and their marketing teams, pitching many different projects. Often the discussion has led to a marketing person saying something along the lines of "looks great, enormous fun to play, but what's my motivation?"
I often imagine what it would be like to pitch a game like Tetris to a publisher this side of the millennium. "What do you mean, there are blocks falling from the sky? Where are they coming from and why? Why do they disappear when I make a row? Who am I? What's my motivation?"
The view of these marketing guys is that you can't sell a game without making up a backstory to justify it to the player. They are the same guys who have spent the past decade saying that nobody buys puzzle games - until Angry Birds sold hundreds of millions of copies; the same guys who said that you can't sell a point-and-click adventure game - until Double Fine proved that you can by raising over $1m in 24 hours through crowdfunding.
Personally I try to give players a little credit. I don't believe that they will instantly reject any game in which they are not defeating terrorists, uncovering a conspiracy or getting revenge against the person who killed their brother. I don't believe that all games need to try to be movies. Maybe I'm idealistic but I like to think that if the game itself is good, people will play it and have fun - and tell their friends about it. After all, people didn't play Bejeweled, Fruit Ninja, Zuma, Peggle, Tetris, Angry Birds or Farmville for their amazing stories.
Crash Lab is currently working on several games, one of which is unashamedly a puzzle game with no backstory. You'll be completing the levels, not to reach the next unskippable cinematic, but because you're enjoying the beautifully-crafted puzzles and the expertly-balanced difficulty curve that leaves you always wanting to play "just one more level". Want to save the world? You've come to the wrong place.
It's a noisy world out there and it's tough to get a new company off the ground. If you would like to see us succeed, you can help spread the word by sharing this article. We can't offer anything in return except our thanks and a promise that we'll always try to make great games.