It is the new year and that means it is resolution season. There is a good chance that you have decided, this year, finally, to finish a game.
Great goal! You should definitely do this!
You have probably already heard the same advice from hundreds of other people: keep your game simple. In a great article Edmund McMillen wrote “If you're just starting out, think small, then think smaller.” In an equally good piece this sentiment was seconded by Tommy Refenes “Just make your game with whatever you can, start small and worry about other things later. “ Extra credits has a good video about what a simple game means.
But even though they say keep it “simple” that is not a standard unit. If you have never finished a game before, how are you supposed to know what a simple or easy game is? Does simple mean an MMO with ONLY 3 playable classes? Does an easy game mean making an open world game that has only 2 biomes and only 3 tech trees?
I feel you.
I have released a total of five games and for three of them I thought I was making a simple game. I was wrong in all three cases. The first game I ever finished took me over one and a half years to make. It was not simple.
The most common problem I see with failed game projects is that would-be creators get mired in endless development, lose interest and motivation, and then put aside their dreams of being a game developer.
It turns out game development is full of these secret sticky traps that at first glance seem simple but will ensnare you in months or even years of development until you abandon your project.
The good news is that you can make a game that is fun yet doesn't’t have any of those potentially development-halting snafus.
Look at all those game designers who thought they would just make a quick open-world mmo with vehicle sections, PvP, and procedurally-generated dual-wieldable-craftable weapons.
The purpose of this week’s blog is to define what a simple game is so that you can accomplish your goal of actually making a game.
I am going to be very very reductionist in this piece about the types of games that should be considered as simple. The reason is that game development always expands to fill any vacuum and you should always be overly conservative when making a simple game so that you can actually finish it.
Some of you will say that my examples are full of not very original game ideas. Or that a game made from this list will not stand out in this crowded marketplace! Or, why do you do you hate story so much!?!
To which I reply, your first game is NOT going to stand out. Games are so damn hard to make that you need the most controlled environment in order to learn how to actually make them. You might be an awesome, experienced coder, you might have been an top-notch artist at a big studio, but actually making your own game on your own terms means you will have to juggle art, code, design, and marketing in ways that you never anticipated. There will be 1000 decisions to make each one will expand your scope. When you are just trying to get the balance right, you don’t need the added burden of trying to make an original piece of art that will stand the test of time. So for a first attempt, just try and get a game released. Then go back and make your dream game that will bring new meaning to the open-world-horror-farming genre.
Also note that this list applies to your first couple of games. Once you get the hang of actually releasing games, then go wild. Just to repeat, I am not saying don’t EVER make these type of games, I am just recommending that you don’t try to make them if you have never released anything before.
One more thing, have the courage to release your game
There is a world of difference between just coding a game and letting it sit on your hard drive versus actually releasing something on the internet and charging money for it.
Be brave. Put this simple game that you make on sale for $1. Yes, some people will say it sucks and that they want their money back. They are probably right. Refund it. But you must put it on sale. There is a different mindset when you put your name to something and ask for real money for it that will make you try just a little harder to actually finish it.
Even if you are doing this for the love of game making and not to make money, you should still charge for it. Players are more honest (both for good and bad) when you have some of their money. If someone doesn't like a free game they just close it and walk away and you will not learn as much as when you get feedback from a customer..
Before I released my first game, I had a bunch of failed projects. The reason was in the back of my mind I told myself that this was just a learning exercise. This made it easier for me to abandon several projects before any of them were done.
One of my first failed attempts was a Tetris clone. At one point I had only implemented 4 of the 7 tetrominoes and said to myself “ya I pretty much understand where this is going, I have learned enough here” and quit. I was wrong! I hadn't’t learned anything.
Even if you have coded a game that is playable and might even have a game over screen, it doesn’t mean it is complete. That is about 10% done. There is so much more you have to do such as implementing the store’s API, save states, marketing materials, options menu, and finally making the game polished enough that people will be willing to lay down their money. By releasing your game to a store and charging $1, there is an added social pressure to try harder. So even if this is just a hobby for you, sell your game.
You also need to get right with the fact that this game will not be a hit. You are a new game developer that nobody has heard of. What do you expect? See this essay for more on this topic.
The game’s press loves to write glowing stories about first-time auteur developers who make millions of dollars on their first game. Well that is a very very rare case. And just because your first game isn’t a perfect game doesn't’t disqualify you from one day making a masterpiece. It doesn't mean you are not a genius. Get over it and release. The majority of us just get back to work and keep releasing games.
So what is a simple game?
I am actually going to define simple by telling you what is not simple. I have made many of these mistakes with my own development process. I put a star next to each trap that I have fallen into. Please don’t do the same.
(Secondary reminder in case you didn’t read my earlier note)...I am not saying never make a game with these traits... I am just saying don’t try any of these on your FIRST game. Game dev can have hidden traps that will snag you and stretch out your game’s development increasing the chance you will abandon this noble effort.
Don’t fall into these:
* Anything with a story
This might be heartbreaking for you if the reason you got into gaming was because of all the rich lore, stories, and characters in classic RPGs. However, putting together a coherent story is hard skill to learn all by itself.
Trying to juggle characters, a mult-act-structure, a climax, resolution, and themes while at the same time trying to wrangle the technology to accurately portray these things is like trying to assemble a ship-in-a-bottle while navigating a real ship in a hurricane.
During development you are going to run into conflicts between your story and your game play in the form of ludonarrative dissonance and you will have to redo your gameplay or story or both. DO NOT ATTEMPT for your first game.
* Games with Puzzles
If you were inspired to make your own game because of Braid, Limbo, Talos Principle or even new ones like Gorogoa, watch out. Puzzles are very very tricky to make because they have to be hard enough to be challenging but not so hard that people put your game down. To thread this needle you will have to constantly test your game with users who have never played it before and re-calibrate each puzzle to make it the right difficulty. This means that you will have to constantly rework your game in order to make it fun. Making a puzzle-based game is actually like making a game composed of several little games.
This ties in with games with story. It is a slippery slope to narrative town when you have dialog because as soon as your characters open their mouth, they start telling stories.
Although super fun to play, you are going to spend a lot of time trying to balance the rules to feel fair. The only way to test your game is to find people to play against each other and that is just another burden that will slow down your development. Also releasing your first game means it will be hard finding just one person to buy it much less enough people to play against each other.
Writing networking code is hard and you will spend a lot of time getting it right before you even start work on your game. Also, networking code probably means you are making a multiplayer game or an MMO. See “Multiplayer” and “MMO”
If your game isn’t fun in a single room, it isn’t going to be fun in an open world. Learn the basics of how to make a game fun first then go open world in your sequel. All an open world means is that you have to make a whole lot of content so it doesn't’t feel like players are exploring a barren landscape.
The trouble with AI is that it can suck infinite development time with only minimal improvements. Instead, try to focus on games that allow you to get away with just setting enemy behavior to run around randomly or in a straight line towards the player.
Same deal as AI. You can sink infinite time here with minimal improvements each iteration. If you really need to vary your world, set it to random and call it a day.
* A Platformer (both 2D and 3D)
I know Super Mario Bros. seems super simple, but it is not. Creating a platformer that “feels” good is very very difficult. You will spend so much time trying to get the physics to feel right. If you miss the mark, your game will feel extra horrible. Don’t try it on your first game.
* A game that takes place on a circle
It is a beautiful motif but it is a trap that can lure you into extra development time. Any game that is fun on a circle is also fun on a straight line. The controls on circular games are really tricky and don't ever feel right.
Rotato was an easy game I made that takes place on a record. Don't do it.
These seem harmless. But, if your game necessitates a cutscene, it indicates that your game has a narrative. Worst of all cutscenes beget cutscenes. So if you have an intro cutscene it also means that you will have to have an ending cutscene and then you will also have to build content to fill the time between the beginning and the ending. See “A story.”
This is another secret indicator that your game has a narrative. A boss means that you have some content leading up to it which means you have to ramp up tension to the boss. And you will have to have a climactic victory animation after the boss. Furthermore, boss fights are kind of like their own puzzles where you have weak points to trigger, and tells, and multiple forms.
Levels mean manually created content that players will run through at a fraction of the time that it takes you to create it. You can spend months making something that a player can consume in less than 30 minutes. Instead of levels, think in terms of algorithmic waves. Each wave is slightly harder than the next because you tie the difficulty (enemy speed, hit points, damage dealt etc) to an ever-increasing functional curve. But don't go too crazy with the algorithm, see "Procedural Generation"
See every single one of these points listed above.
What are you left with?
That was a pretty brutal list and I am sure you are wondering if there is any game left that you can make under those restraints.
The good news is creativity comes from limitation. When you set hard limits you will have more epiphanies than if you were just staring at a blank screen with every option available to you.
This is Chuck Close, he has face blindness, had a stroke and is a paraplegic and yet created amazingly creative portraits. I think you can manage to create a game under fewer constraints than him.
Start from the video game basics
If you are still wondering what to create, you need to look back at video game history. It turns out that most arcade games from the time period of 1962 (with the release of Spacewar) until just after Donkey Kong 1982, dodge all of these sticky hard game traps. All of the following are good starting points for inspiration for you. I divided them into categories
Collision games - Pong 1972, Breakout 1976
Shooters - Galaga 1981, Space invaders 1978, Centipede 1980
Obstacle courses - Frogger 1981, Marble Madness 1984
Shooters - Robotron 2084 -1982 , Gauntlet 1985, Asteroids 1979, Missile Command 1980
Scrolling games - Spy Hunter 1983, Toobin 1988
Collector games - Pacman 1980, Crystal Castles 1982, Snake
Puzzle - Tetris 1984, Klax
Accuracy games - Bowling, Golf,
Build and destruction games - Rampart 1980
Generative puzzle games - Sudoku 1979, Solitaire, Minesweeper 1989
Light Gun Games - Duck Hunt 1984, Operation Wolf 1987
Crane Games -
Dona Bailey is the creator one of the most well-designed games of all time: Centipede. It is also a wonderfully "simple" game
What typically keeps these older games simple was their technical limitations but also that their business model was based on trying to keep you there feeding quarters into the arcade cabinet. If you “beat” one of these games that meant you probably wouldn't’t play it anymore. Therefore, progression needed to be based on slowly ramping up the difficulty of the core game loop. Each wave of enemies would come at you faster and faster or have more hit points.
The player’s goal isn’t to see how a story unfolds. Instead, they are trying to get their name on the high-score chart. The original designers of Pacman didn't even anticipate an end to the game, they just let the memory run out and a kill screen would appear.
Pacman didn't need an ending, it just let the memory overflow.
There are even some other modern games that are simple
Although they have evolved way beyond their arcade ancestors, these games have a very simple core loop. Be aware though that a bunch of extra, non-simple production and design elements were added so they feel current. Focus on the core game loop and you can still have a “simple game.”
- Tower Defense games
- Fruit Ninja
- Plants vs Zombies
- Physics games: Goat Simulator 2014, Angry Birds 2009
- Bejeweled 2001
- Doodle Jump 2009
In general the challenge in all these simple games fall into these broad challenges:
- Get the highest score
- Kill everything on the screen
- Collect everything on the screen
- Match or arrange everything on the screen
Games that seem easy but are traps
Although mining gaming’s history to find ideas is a great way to find simple games, you still have to be careful because there are some that are actually traps:
Side scrollers and platformers
Examples: Donkey Kong, Burger Time, Moon Patrol, Joust, Super Mario Brothers. Platformers live and die by how good they feel. It can take years of coding practice and trial and error to finally be good enough to get platformers to feel right. There is a real risk in trying to develop these as your first game because you can sink a lot of time trying to get it to feel right. Save platformers until you are better at making games.
Programming a basic adventure game engine is actually pretty simple. Most of the logic is in animating characters and checking that object A is dropped onto object B. However, you quickly run into the double-headed problem of a story and puzzle game. You can easily sink years developing an adventure game.
Yes their origin came in 1980 and they hardly have any graphics. So it seems like they should be a slam dunk for being a simple game. However, their reliance on procedural generation is a sticky trap. Furthermore when developing a rogue-like there is an urge to develop infinite depth of simulation. Just look at the years that Dwarf Fortress has been in development. There is no end to the well of complexity that you can add to a rogue-like. Be warned.
Mind the sirens of procedural generation
How to be totally not bored when creating your simple game
So let’s say you find a perfect, simple, core loop. You also got the game to be score focused, wave-based progression. But you just aren't feeling it. You want motivation.
My advice up to this point has been to strip, strip, cut, and strip again. But there are some things that you should definitely add to your simple game.
Juice and Screen Shake
Just because the core game loop is as old as the Reagan Era doesn't mean that your graphics have to be. Adding a bunch of pizazz and extras is one of the most fun things in game development. Art and “juice” make your game feel right. There is no way that I can explain Juice better than these pair of videos. Watch and add as many as you can on top of your simple game.
I know I said that you should mentally prepare yourself for this game's failure. But, there is a chance that it can happen and your game will go viral. So you should always add a place for people to sign up for your mailing list from within your game. When you make your second, not-so-simple game you need to be able to contact the players who found your first game.
For more information about why you need to Add a mailing list instead of twitter, see this blog.
I poo-poo story. It is a trap. But there are little touches you can do to add some emotional depth to your game. One of the best examples of this is CANABALT. This game is ALMOST a perfect example of a simple game (It does feature 2d-platforming which can be tricky if this is your first game). The simple design (distance-based scoring and an endless ramping difficulty) are paired with a mysterious setting evoking something that transcends its basic game loop.
Why is this man in a suit running? Where did those destructive robots come from? Why the muted tone? Why don't the birds more concerned about this situation? None of these questions are answered but by just adding some compelling imagery, it created a story without having any dialog or any cutscenes.
In your simple game you should strive to do the same. Add little unanswered questions. To keep yourself on the straight and narrow though, always add elements that establish setting not story.
Do Not Clone
The purpose of looking back at classic games and stripping extraneous details might make you think you are cloning another game. As long as you are not meticulously copying the design of another game, your own personality will shine through. It is impossible to completely mask who you are in your work. Listen to your creative self when developing your game.
If you do avoid the traps, finish something, and are brave enough to release it, you will join a very exclusive club of game designers. It is incredibly difficult to release a game and releasing your first game is the mentally hardest one.
Many very smart and talented people spend years on a game never to release it because they have built up in their own mind that their first game should be something special and it has to be just the right otherwise it will mean you are a mediocre game designer.
Jeff Vogel said this in the context of designing an RPG but the same applies to any genre
Designing an RPG is like sex. The first time is utterly terrifying and everything goes wrong. Every time after that is grinding tedium with the occasional small change thrown in to try to maintain interest.— Jeff Vogel (@spiderwebsoft) December 8, 2017
You are going to be ok.
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If you are interested in learning how to actually market your new simple game, check out my other articles: