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An approach to game design

This post describes my process for designing games, with practical tips that can be useful to junior game designers. The main takeaway is that game designers should be much more than the "idea guys".

This post describes my process for designing games, in the hope that it may be found useful by other game designers. It goes over a part of the activities typical to the job, but its purpose is not to cover them all - just a good base to have and to evolve from. Also please remember that there isn't a perfect order in which to tackle them, find what best works for you and your current game.

The idea

Every game starts with an idea. The idea can be good or bad and that might influence the final result. But usually an idea gets morphed so much during the game’s development that what once seemed like a bad idea first can be transformed into a great idea. And vice versa, a seemingly great idea can turn out to be uninteresting or unplayable so it needs to be modified and skewed into something that works. Or a great idea can lose its focus with time and become a mixture of uninteresting parts that no one wants to play.

The point of the above is two sided. On one hand, you should probably have a good idea before starting to make a game, it’s much easier to use that initial vision to come up with a good game in the end and it makes the process a bit smoother. On the other hand, it’s very rare that the original idea is what you will find in the final game, so it’s perfectly acceptable to make a game even if you don’t have the most awesome game idea that no one ever thought of before - you just have to make sure to make your game interesting on the way. Because if a game is not interesting, very few people will want to play it.

Maturing

It’s very advisable to never go ahead working on the first idea you come up with. Even if you think it would make the most brilliant game ever, don’t listen to that initial rush of confidence. Let it mature. Do other stuff, don’t think about it too much. Sometimes you’ll have moments of clarity where new bits fall into place for your idea, so writing everything down is vital. After a while, you can find yourself already bored of the idea or even thinking that it didn’t make that much sense in the first place - that is perfectly normal and it’s the reason why you shouldn’t head first jump into working on the first idea you have. You can also find after a while that a minor or major shift for your idea would make it better, more interesting. So it’s important to allow your idea the time to grow, to become more fleshed out and more polished.

References

A major part of a designer’s work, references gathering is the next step after you have a decently defined idea. You need references for how the game would look, including characters, environments, game screen. You need references for how the game would feel, such as other similar games, similar stories, movies that can serve as inspiration, books, music and any other forms of media. This step is incredibly important if you’re working in a team, so that everyone can easily get on the same page and have a good idea of what the desired result is.

Evolution

Sometimes you get to this step, go over the things you wrote and the references you gathered, maybe even through the prototype if you’re lucky to have one already and you feel like something is missing. The idea sounded great first, but as you’ve let it sink in more, detailed it and gathered the references to form a more complete picture, you realise it’s not going to be enough. That happens often to most designers and there are 2 solutions:

  • find the missing pieces if you feel the core is strong enough
  • drop the idea, at least until you’ll have an unexpected breakthrough, most likely while thinking about something else entirely

To find the missing piece, you can either look for even more references, play and read a lot, watch movies, basically use any mediums that can get you inspired. But I’ve noticed that most of the times, the best solution is to stop thinking about it, at least for a while and revisit it later. The best ideas tend to come when we least expect them - that’s why the second option, dropping the idea completely, also sometimes leads to getting back at it with the exact piece you felt was missing. And it's perfectly fine to let ideas go, especially since you probably worked alone so far and the costs involved should be pretty low. If it doesn’t yet feel right, don’t force it or it will show in the final game.

Research

As a designer, it's very possible that you'll need to do a bit of research for your game idea. This goes in a bit more depth than references gathering. Maybe you need to understand the trends of a specific era, the way of thinking of a particular group of people, the type of literature, the architectural principles of a certain style and so on. It doesn’t involve just looking at pictures, but it goes deeper than that. If you do your research right, the game will feel more grounded and even if most players won’t know why, they will be able to better resonate with the game because of the details that came up from that research. 

Prototype

When you have a good idea of how your game would play, it’s time to make a prototype. Focus on the core mechanics, don’t think about mood and fluff at all. You want to define how the game plays, not how it looks and feels. If it doesn’t feel right playing it, it doesn’t matter how much polish you’ll add, you’ll just not have a good game. Prototype and let other people play your prototype and get their input to help improve the gameplay. If you don't have the skills to make a prototype yourself, find someone who can help. But it would be in your best interest to learn how to make prototypes - being able to test out ideas without depending on someone else will help you a lot with productivity and to filter out bad ideas before showing them to other people.

The GDD

So you have a good idea, you have your references, the idea is mature and polished, you’ve done your research, you should even have a prototype, what’s the next step? It’s time to put everything in a form that can be easily given to other people, with enough details so that you don’t have to always explain things in person: the game design document. Far be it from a design bible, the GDD should describe the game in a broad sense, with details about your locations, characters, mechanics and game rules - not necessarily in this order or only these things. It shouldn’t be exhaustive, instead it should give a clear high level idea of what everything is and let the details be decided when that thing will be worked on in production. For example, you can describe the major traits of your characters, but you can safely leave out details like what kind of shoes they’re wearing - unless that is a vital aspect of that character.

One important aspect of the GDD - or it can even stand apart in its own document - is the vision for the game. What are you hoping to achieve, why and how? What are the key aspects of your game, what is the logic behind your main decisions, what will the driving factors be during the game and so on. You need to answer at least a bunch of these questions for yourself and then for others. The clearer the reasoning behind your choices, the better will people be able to understand and resonate with them.

Trim the fat

As a designer, you must always be prepared to let things go. Either your idea won’t be approved, some parts will be rejected or some pieces won’t fit in the overall picture. The point is that letting go will likely be a big part of your work. But aside from letting go because of outside factors, another important reason for letting go is because some bits just aren’t important, they’re just fat. Nobody wants a fat game, they want a game where there is a sense and logic for every bit. That’s why we have the saying KISS - “Keep It Simple, Stupid!” You need to analyse your game idea from all sides and decide what parts are really necessary and relevant to the experience and what parts are there just to get more playtime, without too much meaning. You also need to analyse your game for feasibility - what parts can be done by your team with the tech at your disposal in the given deadline and what parts are there just to make life more difficult for everyone, without a strong reason for them to be there at all. And in the end trim the fat, keep all the important and doable bits and lose the rest.

Sketch

As a designer it’s very important to be able to sketch. It doesn’t have to be drawings, you can use any sketching tools at your disposal, even diagrams. Instead of drawing landscapes, you can make collages, instead of drawing characters you can take references and make notes on them like “darker hair” or “bigger smile”. You can always find solutions, the important thing is that you will need to perfect your skill to be able to quickly make a sketch - if an image is worth 1000 words, a sketch is worth at least 69 (sorry, couldn't help it).

Vision holder

As the game designer/director, you are the vision holder for the entire game. There isn’t one part of the game that isn’t your job. You need to think about the gameplay, the story, the looks, the mood, the sounds, the music and everything else. It’s very important to do your homework, don’t wing it! And it’s also very important to listen to other people’s opinions. It doesn’t mean to take all suggestions and incorporate them in the game, it means that if you listen, a lot of good ideas can click with you and sometimes some bad ideas can trigger really good ones in your head. You need to balance your vision with the feedback and come up with something better than both.

Talking to people about your ideas, from your team or not, will also help you shape the final vision of the game. Sometimes you'll be asked questions about something you haven’t yet thought of in depth and this will force you to analyse that part of the game. Sometimes there will be useful suggestions. But most importantly there will be a lot of validation - either you'll share the same idea or be in agreement over something, or if you won’t you'll need to elaborate and argue your position, which will always lead to an enhanced understanding of the issue in your head too. All these will help get a much better defined and more polished vision for your game.

Conclusions

If you want to be or you are a game designer, it’s important to get your tools bag in order. And the above mostly covers the initial part of designing a game, there are many other things to do after that. A game designer’s work isn’t simple, there are a lot of things you need to consider, you must be able to tackle dozens of issues in your head at the same time and always be able to connect the dots with the most interesting line. You’re not the “ideas guy”. If you design games based on ideas only, then you can be replaced by anyone, because anyone can come up with ideas, most likely better than yours. You need to put in the work, to enhance and polish your vision, to put it in an understandable format for the rest of the world, to have a solid reasoning behind your decisions. You need to know how to write, how to sketch, how to communicate efficiently. You need to learn new skills all the time. Learn how to prototype yourself, how to better format documents, how to write fiction, how to draw and so on. You’re never done improving, you’re never good enough. Get better and you’ll be more likely to make better games!

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