Modern video game creation offers a world where you can express yourself, earn recognition for your abilities, and even support yourself financially. Technology has promised developers the ability to do nearly anything they can imagine, which seems to be what everyone wants; on the other hand, having unlimited possibilities might just have a detrimental effect on one's productivity. Without some kind of structure, developers can often become riveted in the brainstorming phase of video game creation, or spend eternity trying to make everything “perfect.” One might be inclined to dismiss this as one of many problems that developers have overcome in the past, and simply attempt to continue pushing forward without considering an important difference between development then and development now.
The critical difference between the games you grew up playing and the games you’d like to make now are limitations. Think about the amount of limitations Shigeru Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka worked within to create the original Super Mario Bros., both technologically and thematically. For example, cartridges on the NES were commonly about 300kb and the system had 2kb of RAM, which led to many stylistic choices that are now considered “classic”, “timeless”, and iconic. As a game developer, one most likely looks back on the most remembered games of yesteryear with a nostalgic eye; the pixelated, “retro” stylings of many recent indie games demonstrates a deep-rooted love and respect for early video games. As a developer, however, one must keep in mind that developers of yesteryear didn’t sit down with unlimited possibilities and choose to make a 2D game at 256x240. They were forced to guide their idea into fruition through the filter of hardware and software constraints, which helped shape their games into the masterpieces many of us consider them to be.
With this in mind, one must confront the fact that working within limitations is the way to make good media of any kind. We all understand that good paintings are impressive because of the fact that they are indeed painted by hand, using a small batch of colors, and as such we are amazed at the artist’s ability to work within those limitations. Music also pointedly relies on limiting factors (scales, time signatures, instrumentation) and is judged by how exciting it can be while remaining within those limitations. It follows, then, that good game design and development occurs within similarly limiting structures - the only difference is that in today’s realm of (seemingly) unlimited possibilities, you must define and enforce your own limits. Once you begin to do so, all aspects of your development process will show a marked improvement in quality, and your own satisfaction will undoubtedly grow.
Methods To Madness
So, the importance of working within limits has been expressed and now it’s time to get down to what this literally means for you, the developer. Limitations can be imposed in every aspect of your project, from visuals to gameplay design; this is not to say that you should be imposing limitations on all aspects of your game, but that you should instead choose areas where you’re having trouble focusing. Listed below are a few things you can do in each aspect of your game (and there are many more) to help you stay focused.
- Find Your “Core” (http://ow.ly/9UNan)
- Count Your Gameplay Dynamics and Remove Unneeded Aspects
- Keep Implementation In Mind At All Times (Can I make this?)
- Lower Poly Models (What Is Needed vs. What Is ‘Fluff’)
- 2D Games Are Quite Simply Less Work (How am I using my third dimension?)
- Deresolution Script In Unity3d (http://ow.ly/9UNhh)
- Abstraction (Could I represent this with basic shapes? Lines? Colors?)
- ”8 Bit” Music + Simple 3 Part Songs
- Simple, Non-Annoying, Iconic Sound FX
- Remove Spoken Dialogue
- Try Messing with a D.A.W. Yourself (Skip hiring composer if possible)
- Normal Writing No-No’s Still Need To Be Avoided (http://ow.ly/9UNjE)
- Single Protagonist with Simple Motivations/Goals
- Cover All Bases Before Adding Extras
- Don’t Be Too Afraid Of Cliches
- Use A Simple Arc
The Perfect Fit
If you find yourself constantly being frustrated by the limits, by all means push them, but never let competition with multi-million dollar projects stifle your progress or lose sight of your core. If you’re having trouble keeping your ideas contained, keep in mind that working within limitations is what almost all popular media makers do. Yes, even ones that you yourself respect. So don’t let the infinite possibilities of modern, HD digital media prevent you from getting into the groove of creation. The point of this limitation, again, is that once you accept the boundaries you’ve set, you no longer feel unfulfilled or like you could be making something prettier, larger, more immersive, etc. A feeling of satisfaction can and should be a part of working on your project, and that feeling won’t happen as long as you’re thirsting for more; take this advice and get to it!
Note: A similar post was made on #AltDevBlogADay while I was writing this article, and I thought it was a good read as well. http://altdevblogaday.com/2012/02/22/constraint-based-design/
Pat Flannery is currently a Production Assistant at design3 and has been busy shooting and editing lots of interviews with game developers and industry professionals. Find him on design3.com as “pflannery” or follow him on Twitter, @design3video. Original Artwork by Bill Kiley.