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Quick Tips: Finding the Core Gameplay

A quick rundown of my design process for finding a good core gameplay system

Hey internet! Sometimes I feel like I write articles that are needlessly wordy, so this week I’m gonna try something more compact. Does this get the message across? Or are you hungry for more detail? Let’s give it a spin:


When I’m tasked with designing a new system (such as Chroma Squad’s tactical combat or Mecha fights), one of the biggest challenges is to establish a solid core to build the game upon.


I usually start my designs by searching for a solid core system that could sustain the entire game going forward. I don’t have a recipe for this, or a specific list of things that need to be satisfied, but overall what I am looking for is a system that offers:


a) Good results by itself: even reduced to the bare minimum mechanics, the system should offer the experience that I am aiming for. It’s ok if it’s shallow or repetitive, or too simple - actually it’s almost expected of it to be at this point. But it absolutely must hit the target, whether it’s getting people to yell at each other and work together (Dungeonland co-op dungeons), or to offer classic take on SRPG that still manages to contain a Tokusatsu flavor (Chroma Squad’s tactical combat).


b) Good potential for depth: this is the hardest point to explain in a few lines, as I must be convinced that the cost/benefit of adding new features vs. the resulting increase in depth will be good. This means that I can clearly see many possible ways to offer new and interesting challenges to players - possibly endless. A solid core system will generate exponentially more depth as I add/change mechanics, better if these are cheap and simple additions. For example, if I was designing Chess, the core of moving around the board capturing enemy pieces would benefit greatly from simple variations of movement rules between units - thus, I would find it to be a system with great potential for depth.


c) Character: while it may be derivative of something else (in Chroma Squad's case it’s classic SRPG movement-and-attack, hardly groundbreaking), the system must have enough of its own flavor to be unique. At this point, the system should at least present me with novel problems, with something to learn. As a rule of thumb, if I can just transfer knowledge from similar games to be instantly good at the game, it is lacking character. A system with nothing new to teach players is not worth building.


Which reminds me that talking about emergence and depth in game systems would be a good idea for a future article. Hmm.


Oh, and as usual: playtest, playtest, playtest. At this stage I usually play by myself if it’s at all possible, or with just one or two friends. This way I can throw away bad ideas faster and speed up my iteration cycle. If it meets my criteria, I move on to include more people and test more until I feel confident that I have a solid base to work with.



Is this how you approach core gameplay? If not, how and why do you do it differently?



See you next week!


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