How can you take a rough game idea and turn it into something fun, interesting and engaging? This is definitely one of the most difficult obstacles that you must tackle as a game designer, as your job is to craft enjoyable experiences in a constrained environment.
Would you believe me if I told you that after you finish reading and participating in the activities established in this article, you will have a game designed and ready to be developed? Yes, I know it sounds inconceivable, but trust me - this series of unconventional exercises will explain the workflow of designing a brand new game from zero to pitch.
Strengthen Your Game Design Muscle
I want to share with you one of the habits that helps me strengthen my game design muscle all the time: turning real life experiences into games.
When I started developing video games, I acquired the habit of trying to take everyday experiences and imagine them in terms of a video game; this makes you very aware of the things that are happening around you and the fun or frustrating factors in them.
For example, let's say that you took a flight and when you arrived at the airport your luggage got lost. This is a very frustrating scenario, but now take that experience and try to imagine how the luggage got lost and who the people involved in that particular situation are. Could you make a game based on this?
Can you take something apparently dull and turn it into something fun?
What about a game where the player has to manage the conveyor belts at an airport and he loses points when passengers reach a certain level of frustration from waiting for their luggage? Or what if you experienced some turbulence during your flight and you got a little bit nervous... could you make a game where you had to fly an airplane and gain points by doing abrupt manoeuvres and scaring the passengers?
Of course you can! This is the raw idea that you need to write down on paper and start working on. As a matter of fact, there's this little booklet called the Tiny Game Design Tool that can make this process a little bit easier, by helping you jot the idea down as soon as possible.
This tool is a printable PDF that you can carry in your wallet which helps you establish in very little time the following basic elements of your game:
- Emotion, Mechanic and Theme
- Main Character
- Level Design
Play With the Elements
The alchemy of creativity. (Image taken from Everything is a Remix Part 3.)
We have a raw idea. This idea is like clay: you can mold it, split it into two, make a shape with it, and so on. Now we have to play with this idea... but how?
Well, another creative exercise that is very useful to constantly work your game design muscle is to put in good practice the three basic elements of creativity: copy, transform and combine. I took this elements from the third episode of Kirby Ferguson's documentary Everything is a Remix and they will help us exercise our mind so that it can always be wide open to creativity.
Get practice and experience by copying existing games, but also apply small modifications to make the game easier or more difficult. This process of repetition and modification is called iteration and is very common in software and video game development.
An example of some games that follow this exercise are:
- Plasma Pong, which is a Pong variant with fluid dynamics and a new game mechanic that lets the ball stick to your paddle.
- FPS-MAN, which is a take on Pac-Man but with a change in perspective. Now you look at the action from the point of view of Pac-Man and it changes the game experience completely.
- Portal: The Flash Version, which takes the basic mechanics of Portal but constrains them to a two-dimensional space. This is also known as a demake.
Did you have an interesting experience today, this week or this month? If you didn't... borrow one! Take a newspaper and watch the front page news; you will notice that these stories are generally based on events that have something interesting to tell. Pick a story you like and turn it into a video game. Ask yourself questions: Who are the people involved? Where did the action happen? Could the personalities involved be interesting characters for my game?
A recent game that tackles this type of exercise is Riot, in which the player experiences both sides of a protest, as rioters and as police officers. This idea came to fruition when Leonard Menchiari wanted to capture the feeling of his own experience of protests.
A kid that has to reach an airplane while avoiding security guards, cameras and checkpoints.
A more personal experience I had with this exercise was a small game I made for a jam where participants had to develop games based on TV news. My game was called "Escape from el Dorado", and was based on a TV report about a kid that infiltrated the "El Dorado" airport in Bogotá and got into a plane that ended up in Chile. This story made me think immediately about how I could implement stealth mechanics in an airport setting.
Take an existing game and combine it with another game, or change its genre. What would happen? What if I took a game like Super Mario Bros. and applied a skill tree just like the ones found in role-playing games?
A recent example of combination is Bombermine, which takes the classic Bomberman game and mixes it with multiplayer elements.
Planting the Characters' Seeds
Now we've gone from a raw idea to something that is starting to take shape, and slowly but steadily we are covering the basics. Next, let's design the characters.
We'll start with a game design tool called Game Seeds. This game is generally played in groups, but for this particular exercise we will play a single player variant focused on character development.
Click to see the full size image.
We're going to start with this fifteen card grid as our foundation. Please pick just six cards that have game mechanics that appeal to you. Now, in three steps we're going to fill the Game Seeds sheet found below with the information given to us by the cards:
Step 1: Fill the Hero Profile
Now that you have selected the six cards, go through each one and write down the icons that appear the most for each category. (In the case of a draw, choose the one you like the most.)
For example, in the "species" category of your six cards you might have three human icons, two robot icons and one creature icon; based on this, your character will be human.
From the fifteen card grid I chose Fight, Escape, Race, Duel, Destroy and Navigate. Using those cards this was my character:
- Creature (3 occurrences) or Robot (3 occurrences) (a draw, therefore I pick Robot)
- Androgyne (4 occurrences)
- Lives in the past (4 occurrences)
- Nomad (5 occurrences)
- Tall (3 occurrences) or Short (3 occurrences) (a draw, therefore I pick Tall) and Heavy (4 occurrences)
Step 2: Fill the Hero Attributes
Now take a look at the bottom of the cards and mark the Hero Attributes section with an "X" for each attribute that appears.
Using the cards I chose I get the following attributes:
- STR (STRENGTH) (6)
- HEA (HEALTH) (6)
- DEX (DEXTERITY) (4)
- WIS (WISDOM) (2)
- CHAR (CHARISMA) (0)
So Strength and Health are the main attributes of my character, and it is neither wise nor charming!
Once you've done this, add your personal touch to the character in the Character Development section. This will define all the details that are going to give personality to your character.
Step 3: Pick the Mechanic; Draw Your Hero
Finally, pick your favourite game mechanic from the six cards you chose. This will be your main gameplay mechanic. Now you can draw a sketch of your hero based on all the attributes and his profile.
This is my hero sketch - a tall and heavy androgyne robot in a steampunk world, who was built using parts from a bank vault:
This is the point where you realize I suck at drawing.
The Basic Elements of Game Design
Now that we have a basic foundation of our game and a main character, it's time to play with the elements that will form the game. I recommend you start with the elemental tetrad shown above, because it's going to make things very straightforward for you when defining both your game and the experience you want to give to your players.
Use what you have done so far as a guide to define the following:
- Aesthetics: This is how the game looks, sounds and feels, and it's also what has the most direct relationship to the player.
- Mechanics: These are the rules of your game. Use the game mechanic you chose in the previous activity and expand on it, asking yourself what the main goal of your game is and how players are going to achieve it.
- Story: What tale do you want to tell through your game? Is it going to be a micro-narrative as in NES games, or is it going to be a complex and branching story?
- Technology: This is the medium in which the aesthetics, mechanics and story will take place. What kind of technology are you going to use that will make the game possible?
Limbo is very good at capturing someone's attention just by its aesthetics.
Pong has a very limited set of rules, but that doesn't mean it's boring.
David Cage always pushes the envelope in terms of storytelling, with games like Indigo Prophecy and Heavy Rain.
Maybe your game works better as a board game, or as a game for smartphones.
Look at Your Creation Through Lenses
Our game is growing and finally taking shape, and now it's time to polish the rough corners. To do this we are going to use the questions from the Deck of Lenses and focus them in areas of our game that we think need improvement.
There are five different areas related to game design that you can tackle with the Deck of Lenses to improve your game:
Notice that each card has a different symbol, representing these five areas.
- The player: Board game piece symbol
- The game or the game mechanics: Pair of dice symbol
- The process of game design: Lightning bolt symbol
- The designer: Thinking designer symbol
- The player experience: Thought bubble symbol
For example, at the moment I feel that my game is not engaging the player as much as I want, so I look for a card with the thought bubble symbol. In this case I draw "The Lens of the Interest Curve":
This card asks several questions to help me think about the interest spikes in the interest curve that my game must have, and the way it fluctuates through the game experience
So, if you feel that at this point your game is lacking in any of these areas, you can start asking yourself the questions found in the cards. Based on these questions, you can start to work on improving that weakness.
Once you finished creating and putting your idea to the lens stress test, it's time to sell it and share it!
Pitching is something that every game designer needs to know how to do. These are my basic tips to have a decent, clean pitch:
- K.I.S.S (Keep It Short and Simple): You don't want to overwhelm your sponsor or publisher with a wall of text. Be as visual as possible; pitch with images!
- Get to the good stuff as fast as possible: Try to be as brief as you can and maintain a solid interest curve throughout your presentation.
- Use universal examples to quickly convey what your game is all about: Instead of trying to come up with a complex explanation about what your game is or isn't, try to use examples with known games or movies. For example: "This game is like Django Unchained meets Bioshock", or "This game is like Grand Theft Auto in space".
- Be passionate and humble: But, if you have previous games that have some kind of achievement such as "Top iOS game for a week" or a game with a million visits, it's okay to mention this.
- Make sure that there is time left for Q&A: The sponsor or publisher will generally have questions that they want to ask you that you might not have answered in your pitch. This is completely normal so bear this type of scenario in mind so that you can answer each question
Tip: Remember that there are two main attributes that a game designer must have: one of them is asking questions, the other is listening. When you listen to constructive feedback from different people they can give you answers based on their perspectives. This is crucial to a game designer. Show your game to a spectrum of people, from a hardcore gamer to your mom - that way you can understand what each of them sees in your game.
As you can see over the course of this article we went from zero, to a raw idea, then character development, then analyzing and testing the idea and finally the pitch. Congratulations, you just designed a game! But... this is not something that you can do once and forget about; you have to practice all the time.
I recommend you observe carefully your daily experiences and think "Can I make a game based on this?" Once you have an idea that sounds fun, write it down in your Tiny Game Design Tool and start working on it as soon as possible. Also, don't limit your game design talents to the digital world; you don't need to be in front of a computer to come up with great game ideas. Buy some clay, markers and large sheets of paper and start prototyping board games.
Thank you very much and keep on designing.