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The Challenge of Defining Your Design

Inform both your players and your own design by knowing how to define your game to yourself.

The quickest and easiest way to define a game is a comfortable combination of genre and how the player interacts with the world, such as player count or camera view. Skyrim, for instance, could be defined as a first-person fantasy game. If I sit down and say that I’m going to make a heist game, I can infer gameplay mechanics from that—stealth, action, tactics. But when you’re designing a game and you’re making a lot of hard calls about where you’re going to take your project, the more clearly you can define your game for yourself, the more purposeful your project is going to be.

Say you’re making a game where the player is a robot and they shoot a laser out of one hand. It would be an easy trap to take that and define your design as “like Mega Man, but in first-person.” But even if a game is inspired by Mega Man, there’s a lot of second-hand design that’s likely being left out. Mega Man has its own inspirations and quirks which contribute to its design that individual players will carry with them every time they think about Mega Man. Not only do those designs get lost in translation, you’re doing an injustice to your own game.

Think about Breath of the Wild—calling it an “open world Zelda” doesn’t really highlight what makes it unique; its sandbox and its resource management are things that neither “open world” nor “Zelda” inherently describe. Those terms inaccurately depict the mechanics that designers carefully put into the Zelda series up to that point, as well as the mechanics that went into making Breath of the Wild stand apart. Saying Zelda meets Skyrim brings it closer, but again the nuances of what makes both games interesting are lost.

The question is: Are you really informing your design by comparing it to these games?

At their core, each of the Gallery games (Call of the Starseed and soon Heart of the Emberstone) are adventure games. The marketing evokes its Myst and Dark Crystal inspirations, but as a designer it’s far more valuable to step back from that, and to find its own place in the pantheon of adventure. Adventure games as a genre have always meant three foundational pillars: puzzles, exploration, and items. Anything on top of those foundational pillars only sees to further define the game’s individuality.

From there, it’s determining the look and feel. With The Gallery, we’re inspired by weird 80s sci-fi and fantasy movies. As well as the time period, the reference to movies implies something that looks cinematic. Feel, on the other hand, is always the hardest thing to figure out. It’s something you don’t really find until halfway through development, at which point you realize you’re either evoking an emotion you didn’t really want, or that you found the emotion that you do want and have to figure out where it’s coming from to try to hold onto it.

The best games today want you to feel something, be it impressed, or lost, or excitement, or dread. They cite those emotional cores when they’re designing their game. The designer can walk you through and show you each of the things they designed to create that emotional experience. In virtual reality, that capacity to evoke emotional content is even easier to reach, and much easier to lose.

The Gallery is trying to recapture that moment where you’re a kid and you see an amazing movie for the first time. Where there’s this overwhelming sense of awe and amazement and involvement. Where you don’t yet have the cynical blinders to see through the special effects, or the difference between good and bad acting. We want to offer the feeling that it’s not a bad thing if you can still feel that same way 10, 20, 30 years later. You can still feel amazed. You can still feel good.

Every game has to start somewhere; it’s not wrong to want simpler and more easily digestible terminology when you’re defining your game. But it’s better for you as a designer to be aware and understand what about that game or that genre makes it so. Dark Souls-esque is not a building block to inform your design, but a stepping stone to find it. Your Mega Man-inspired game is going to feel more like the things that compel you personally, than what Keiji Inafune dreams about.

Before you define your project, make sure you can deconstruct what goes into each of those terms, not just for the sake of explaining your game to your players, but for guiding your design in a meaningful way. 

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