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Pitch Worlds, Not Mechanics

Can mixing up the order in which we conceptualize our games result in better experiences for the player?

This is a very exploratory article and one that I felt compelled to share with fellow industry people because I believe in this theory that I have developed and that it is a legitimate way to design games. Indeed this is just my own experience so other people may already be aware of using a method such as this and so it will be pretty uninspiring but (cliché :) )nothing ventured nothing gained. So to the rest of you, I hope you can take something away from this article.

I have just completed my 4 year honours degree at Abertay University and I finally have time to write the ideas that I have been wanting to share on here for 3 months now!

Over the course of my time at university I've learned a great deal about game development and all the varying factors that impact upon a respective project and thus, the final product. This is all good but I am a great believer in questioning EVERYTHING you do or have done in order to see if you could have done something better or in order to prepare yourself for a certain situation in the future, should it arise and in essence that is what this post is all about.

So I want to share with all of you just a little theory of mine that some of you may want to try out. I'm not even sure of who this might interest but I think current students through to experienced designers could have a glance at this theory and see if it works for them.

I had a small team consisting of 2 programmers, 2 artists and myself as the designer. We were creating a game that we could pitch to Dare to be Digital 2011 (if you haven't heard of the competition check it out here http://www.daretobedigital.com/) in which we were ultimately unsuccessful in our application but a penny dropped at the very start of the design process for me (long before the rest of the team had seen what I had come up with). I realised I was pitching worlds, not mechanics.

I love creating new IP's and along with being the sole designer I thought I would get the ball rolling by pitching a handful of concepts to the team so they had a choice of what we could make (ALL small teams should allow their team members to have a say in the design and I was happy to do that but to start with I was challenged with giving us a spark of an idea to go on with).

A small team like ours has to be lean and agile, there's no place for waste, any wasted energy puts your project in a higher degree of risk than it might otherwise be in a bigger team. With that in mind I wanted to make sure the game IP's I was pitching to my team were simple, interesting, original and ultimately had the potential to be a lot of fun.

So one midweek we all met up and I had 4 IP's ready to pitch, one IP had 3 different versions of how it could be played out but I will just say it was one of the IP's for now for simplicity's sake.

2 out of the 4 IPs proved pretty unpopular with my team, fair enough, being a good designer means you take the criticism well and not get too precious about your ideas.

One IP was 'OK' but the other was by far the most popular. It was called Nightbulb, this specific idea was quite complex but I stripped it back to such an extent that I realised mid-way through presenting it to my team I didn't actually have many mechanics, in fact I had just one mechanic for each of the 3 different potential versions.

But why was this specific IP so popular? Simply put - The world was the best; Nightbulb had a rich, original world and it was that very richness and detail that gave us the best starting point. Due to the world of Nightbulb having the best context and meaning it meant that every design decision could be checked over with the question 'does it fit in with our world/theme?'.

Now, I know normally when designing a game this is a common question but due to the order in which this theory works it means the question becomes even more important to answer because it puts the world/theme to a higher priority.

 Concept art capturing the essence of our game

For us so far, we had only designed the world (Basmhor), our one playable character (named Solas) and the enemies (the Muig). Not nearly enough design work yet to make a fun game I'd think you'd agree because we had no mechanics... yet.

This is where this theory really comes into its own - deciding what interactions the player can have.

Under normal circumstances the 'spark' for a game idea is a mechanic that is different and thus the rest of the entire game is built around this functional basis. Fun experiences aren't necessarily about the functionality of a game, it is almost everything else! So why construct it that way!?

It's the portrayal of mood, choice of characters, the challenges presented, consistency of the artistic style and the layers of feedback that the player receives that create fun experiences. Using this theory bases the resultant player experience factors at the fore of the design process which should lead to a more enjoyable playing experience.

Back to my case in point, our game idea was basically about a world where light was limited and so we decided to make the usage of light in our game our main mechanic. In fact everything in our world has a singificanct relation to the light, this re-enforces our theme and we know for a fact our mechanic (on the assumption it works well on a functional basis) fits. The enemy want to destroy light (see above photo). When all the functional levels can easily be retraced back to the theme it means that the functionality has meanign and context and as designers we know that this is a huge part in the success of our games.

So what do I mean about creating the world first? I am referring to the context of everything to do with your game. The WHY's of your world... The Essence and the overall justification for the possible courses of actions the characters have (NOT the HOW's - that comes later under mechanics & functions)
 - Environment
 - Overall visual style
 - Characters and how they impact upon the environment (if at all) 

So with having your game's context relatively ironed out before anything else means that every action the player could take needs to fit in with your designed world or you risk losing the richness that was created in the first place in order to accommodate them, probably because it is not consistent with your theme.

It can be argued that this method results in very abstract types of mechanics but that can prove very popular and is respectively up to the discretion of the team developing your game.

However, I believe in our modern world some designers (and even developers) could adopt this theory in order to create some meaningful new IP's that have real substance rather than having a world that 'flashes in the pan' to never be seen again due mechanics that 'didn't feel right'.

It is such a waste when a well designed world is let down by functionality that doesn't fit with the theme or a mechanic that the player could never imagine the main character doing. By designing the mechanics around the context of your new world you ensure that the actions fit with the characters' expectant actions, with the mood and art style etc.

I think most people would agree that a game's mechanics/functionality are the most important (not in all cases but in general) seeing as it is that very functionality that sets games apart from other media but it doesn't mean they are the first thing to design. This theory doesn't replace mechanics with world design, it just changes the order in which we design it and I think it's a great method. I encourage you to try it :) .

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