How to design a game you can finish.

It starts with an idea. It can spawn from a dream, a situation, some action you’ve performed thousands of times. But when that inspiration hits–it hits hard. We’ve all got journals of dozens of game mechanics on our shelves, but how do you pick one? Which one is worthy of your time?

Dream Big, Start Small

As designers, we’re all dreamers. We’ve been dreaming since before we can remember. As we grow up, we utilize each and every medium at our disposal to bring those dreams to life, and video games are a natural end to that hunt. We’re not here for the money or the fame. We’re drawn like moths to the flame by the idea of making a game so incredibly sweet it’ll change the gaming landscape forever. Your big idea is probably an MMO-something. Most likely 3D (or VR nowadays) with hyper realistic graphics. And with your leet photoshop skillz and java script powaz you’ll have it cranked out in no-time.

Your First Dream Game This is what your first game probably looks like on paper.

But you won’t get far. Biting off more than you can chew is the most common mistake in game development. And even when you know to look out for it, chances are your first game will still end up much much bigger than you intended. Like an infinite runner with randomly generated terrains and a complex physics engine you might have heard of.

What’s so bad about starting big? Chances are you don’t yet have the skills, the money, the personnel, the tools, or most importantly the discipline to make your dream game come true. You’ll get 5% of the way in and give up. Then you’ll decide another dream game to make, get 5% out of that one and do the exact same thing. Eventually you’ll get fed up and quit, which is bad. You can make your dream game. Just not yet. You need practice. You need to start small!

Start Simple

Start with a game that only has a core loop. For your next game, add in a menu system. All the while keep adding reusable code that you can implement on future projects. Improve your code base: your repertoire of things you’ve already done and can easily add to other titles. Over time you’ll create an arsenal you can rely on, and have the experience to implement it. The more completed projects you have, the more willing other people will be to join you in your quest to make your MMO-FPS-TD-Action/Adventure hybrid you’ve been planning since you were 10.

Know Your Goals

Why are you making a game? Purely for hobby entertainment? As a skill or portfolio building exercise? For market? Depending on the answer to this question, many of your priorities must shift. If you are developing for entertainment, then polish doesn’t matter. If it’s for your portfolio then it needs to play mechanically well, even if it doesn’t look amazing. Making a game for market comes with a huge design burden which is can be a dangerous trap for an inexperienced designer. Figure out what you intend to get from your game making experience and plan the game accordingly.

Practice Good Design Principles: Minimize Waste

  • Maintain good ‘Design Elegance’. Design Elegance is the art of doing a lot with a little. A game with two primary mechanics that interact in infinite ways together is elegant. A game with 20 different mechanics that only sometimes interact and have their own complicated rules is not elegant, and many of these mechanics end up wasted.
  • Know where your game lies in the ‘Mechanics-Fiction Spectrum’ and develop with that in mind. Checkers is purely mechanical and has no fiction. It’s a waste of time debating if the player pieces should be circles, squares, horses, or goblins. Meanwhile a game like the sims is almost entirely fiction. If you remove the fictional layer—the stats, the relationships, the careers—and turn them into pure data, nothing makes sense. The precise balance of the relationship system just doesn’t matter. The players won’t notice, because they only care about the outcomes of events, not how those outcomes are determined. You don’t want to waste resources on something that isn’t meaningful to your game.
  • Keep it fun. A game needs to be fun. It should be fun as soon as the core mechanics are in place. And it should be more fun when another mechanic is added. If you add 100 unique special abilities, but 70 of them are too boring or underpowered to use, then you have 30 real abilities and 70 testaments to wasted resources.

Mechanics-Fiction Spectrum Where does your game lie on the spectrum?

Pump the Jams

One great way to practice all of the above is to participate in Game Jams. Game Jams are extremely constrained game design sprints. They’re generally 1-3 days maximum, and often have a restrictive theme. They’ll force you to flex your design muscles, help you practice the core tenants we talked about above, and minimize your ideas to the necessities. They’ll let you fail fast and often, giving you an easy out from games that just don’t pan out how you thought they would. But you can also take a successful game-jam-game and expand upon it later if you find an idea that you really jive with.

UI Artist by Day, Tech Artist by Night

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