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What every developer can learn from short games

Games are getting longer. Look at any AAA RPG and you’ll see the industry’s race for 100 hour playtimes. But what about games that go in the opposite direction? What about microgame-- games that take less than 30 minutes to complete? I maintain that there are a variety of lessons developers can learn from these smaller projects regardless of their own projects’ length.

We have a ton of great microgames here on itch.io but I want to focus specifically on the games of Nicky Case. If you aren’t familiar with Nicky’s work, you should fix that. Case’s games are alternatingly beautiful and heartbreaking and reflect real world issues with a rare level of maturity and nuance. In advance of Nicky’s new game The Evolution of Trust, let’s learn from their back catalogue.


1: Give your games a clarity of purpose

It’s not hard to understand the “point” of Case’s Parabole of the Polygons. You watch over 2 groups of blobby people with different shaped bodies -- either triangle or square and put them near each other. Fairly early on, shapism (read: racism) becomes a huge issue with your small community. The game asks you to consider both the roots and effects of racism before the game’s conclusion. While the game isn’t technically complex, all of the mechanics feed into the main theme of the game. There is nothing there that isn’t in service of the game’s message. No fetch quests, no filler, nothing that doesn’t have to be there.

2: Make the game that only you can

Since the beginning of art there has always been the desire to create for someone other than yourself. Whether it’s for profit or because the artist is too afraid to expose themselves, these projects can end up terribly. The first game of Nicky’s I ever played was the devastating Coming Out Simulator. The game is semi-autobiographical and is heavily based on the conversation the developer had with their parents when they came out. I maintain that this is one of Case’s best games because it was a game that only they could make. There’s a beauty in seeing the artist in their work, and the work always benefits from it.  

3: Get to the point, then get out

One of Case’s most popular games is We Become What We Behold, a game that looks into the real world issues that come from fear-mongering news coverage. The entire experience can be completed in under half an hour but it has stayed with me for months. As you work your way through the narrative of generating news coverage you see your small population of doughy people become more and more hateful and afraid. The game doesn’t try anything outside of this and once you’re significantly revolted with what you’ve created, the game ends leaving you to unpack the experience. There’s no filler here, only what you need to feel sufficiently guilty. Keep that in mind for your games, don’t add unnecessary content to pad the experience. Be deliberate.

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