Designs should be made with intentions, oriented toward player's experience. What do I want my player to feel? (see my article on game spots)
Choosing an intention is the fun part - cause we don't really need to look for one, we always have a whole bunch of funny & crazy ideas. The hardest part comes when you need to keep those intentions alive in a full working and tweaked design. To be fun, situations need to work and that often means compromises.
It is almost impossible to design a perfect situation at the first try. Not because you're not a good designer, but because the game will change over time; because new systems imply behaviors nobody can foretell without experiencing them; and a ton of other reasons. Whether you want it or not, designs are iterative.
As you design, you tend to forget the big picture to focus on small interactions. Does my enemy see the player when he is there? Should I move this cover a bit to the left so it won't hinder player's sight? And through all these tweaking, you sometime end up with a situation completely different from before. Working indeed... but what about your intentions?
Although unavoidable, iterative thinking is a tool you ought to use to keep your intentions alive. It involves having objectives to achieve and stages in your design; parsing into steps, at the end of each one you take a step back and look and the whole picture.
Here are iterative steps I find interesting to follow when you design. It applies to level design but I think it can apply to game design too, with little modifications.
Step one: Context
To keep your intention through your design process, you need to clearly define its components. What do I need to build the wanted experience?
List those components following your instinct or experience. Try not to make it exhaustive but efficient. The less you have, the more freedom you'll get but in exchange of control over your design.
For instance, my intention is to make the player feels trapped with no way out. To make it simple, I'll need :
- Few eventual ways out
- Enemies blocking these exits
- Very few safe move options
Obviously, more stuff are needed to deepen the experience but it should be enough for the example.
Now you can do your first iteration. A very simple design, containing all the elements you need in the most efficient possible way. At this step, do not think about challenge yet. This first iteration is there to confirm your identified elements really help your purpose. Find all vital links and think about the subtle mechanisms.
As you go deeper into your design, those "must haves" will serve as references.
Step two: Motivation
To thoroughly live the experience, players need an objective. According to the situation, you can invert this step with the first one. It depends on if you have to make a design with a predefined objective or if you are free to set the objective around your intention.
I put the objective as the second step because most of the time, players will remember context more than motivation. Players tend to be more marked by "the fight over the bridge" than the fact they need to reach a position behind that bridge in less than 2 minutes. By setting the objective afterward, you're sure to work freely on the context.
The important thing is that both context and motivation are there to emphasize each other. The objective is what will drive the player deeper into the experience, what he'll focus on. It ought to guide the player and affect his choices so he will live the context the way you meant it.
Therefore, motivation is not to be taken lightly. Remember the eternal question: what do I want my player to feel?
In my situation, the player is trapped. I've made sure that he feels that way. Now do I want him to feel an urge to leave the place or make him experience an over time pressure, with a survival-like objective?
Think about your motivation twice because a wrong one can make your context frustrating. For instance, having to eliminate all the enemies when the player is trapped is contradictory. If players are in a disadvantageous situation and must do something which suggest having the upper hand, they may think they are doing wrong and have a bad experience. In that case you may parse your objective in two, the first one being to get out of the trap and the second one to clear the area (in a new situation with another context).
Step three: Variations & Modifiers
You now have a design with a strong context, enhanced by a meaningful motivation. It's time to make things more sophisticated, hence more interesting.
Variations and modifiers are meant to make your intentions more subtle. At this stage, you'll try to modify almost everything that is not included in your "must have" list. It's the perfect moment to add details that'll make the personality of your design.
Variations are all about changing the layout: adding floors, corners, occluders, exits & accesses, etc. They directly impact how players will interact with the environment. Interesting variations give players something to master. They offer what make games interesting: meaningful choices.
With the help of variations, you create strong and weak points which can vary with time or what players have to do: to survey an area, a high position is good; but to contain an assault, a corridor with only one access for enemies but a lot of exits for the player is better.
Modifiers will give a tone to your context. They are about changing something the player is used to : available weapons, controls, enemies or environment reaction, etc. They will break players senses of mastering, create surprise and give them something new to master.
The player know how to handle a group of five basic enemies coming front, but what if there's a storm making aiming pretty difficult with his suddenly last working gun: a 6shots colt ?
Step four: Challenge
Your design have an awesome context, a fascinating motivation, an original layout to conquer and conditions to master. It's time to add some challenge.
This stage is really tricky. It is really hard to have an objective point of view of the difficulty of a situation. Designers tends to link easy to boring. But I disagree there. Games are not fun because they are difficult; they are because they offer challenge, things to master and obstacles to overcome. They would be a whole article to write about challenges so I won't come to it now. I don't think I've found some miracle solution to have the right challenge every time anyway.
Try to make it relative. Don't think stuff like "is it hard enough for me?" but think about what your player can do at this stage of the game and what you ask him to do. Is the gap too wide or not?
Then playtest, you'll have your answers. Be sincere with yourself; it's often hard to admit when a situation is too difficult but you ought to remember: all that matter is players' fun.
Step five (and so on until no more time is available): Tweaking
Now you have a solid situation that players should love. However, playtest's feedback may tells you that some stuff are not working. It is time for tweaking.
Tweaking is definitely the moment when intentions are the most put in jeopardy. Make sure to never lose track of your "must have" list. Most of the time, it's just a memory issue. The "list" will help you remember why you made those choices and why you should keep them.
It is important to stay open to changes, however. You may discover that some of the elements you identified as "must have" are not really. It's all about logic. This list is there to help you make choices, not to decide for you. It is meant to take a step back and understand the whole quickly; knowing why stuff were made the way they are.
As I said, even if this article is mainly oriented towards level design, I think it could applies to game design as well, following almost the same steps.
To me, the method I described is a good way to prioritize your thinking and make sure you don't mix everything up. It should help you keeping track of your design layers and find what is more or less important.
Working on a video game means modifying your work, from the first to the very last day. Changes are good, but not all of them. We always forget why we made some of our choices and it then becomes hard to assume them.
Here comes the "must have" list, some kind of message from an old you. An old you who wasn't corrupted by tiredness and the will to end things quickly.