13 The Design Process: Game Ideas

One way to create a game is to take a bunch of elements, throw them together, and call it a game. The results of this type of design can be expected to be hit-and-miss. Some games created using such a process might be ok but many of the games will be terrible.

Is there a process that can be followed that will lead to better games? There is the iterative process that we saw in the previous chapter, but we have not gone into detail on any of the iterative steps (design, playtesting, evaluation). How exactly do you come up with an initial design? What is the most effective way to playtest? When evaluating a game, what do you look for, and how do you know what to change? These are the things we will be concerned with throughout the rest of this section of the text.

Generating Ideas

The first thing that happens in a design is that you must come up with the basic core of an idea. This isn’t necessarily fully-formed, but just a basic concept. There are many different starting points for a game’s design. Here are some examples, in no particular order:

  • Start with the core “aesthetics” — what do you want the player to feel? How do you want them to react? What should the player experience be like? Then work backwards from the player experience to figure out a set of rules that will achieve the desired aesthetic. Think about the best experience you’ve ever had while playing a game; what game rules led to that experience?
  • Start with a rule or system that you observe in everyday life, particularly one that requires people to make interesting decisions. Look at the world around you; what systems do you see that would make good games?
  • Start with an existing, proven design, then make modifications to improve on it (the “clone-and-tweak” method). This often happens when making sequels and ports of existing games. Think of a game that you thought had potential, but didn’t quite take the experience as far as they could; how would you make it better?
  • Start with technology, such as a new game engine (for video games) or a special kind of game piece (like a rotateable base for miniature figures). Find a way to make use of it in a game. What kinds of items do you have lying around your living space that have never been used in a board game before, but that would make great game “bits”?
  • Start with materials from other sources, such as existing art or game mechanics that didn’t make it in to other projects. Design a game to make use of them. Do you have an art portfolio, or earlier game designs that you didn’t turn into finished products? What about public domain works, such as Renaissance art? How could you design a game around these?
  • Start with a narrative and then design game rules to fit, making a story-driven game. What kinds of stories work well in games?
  • Start with market research: perhaps you know that a certain demographic is underserved, and want to design a game specifically for them. Or maybe you just know that a certain genre is “hot” right now, and that there are no major games of that type coming out in a certain range of dates, so there is an opportunity. How do you turn this knowledge into a playable game?
  • Combinations of several of these. For example, starting with core aesthetics and narrative at the same time, you can make a game where the story and gameplay are highly integrated.

When you think of new ideas for games, what kinds of ideas do you have? What are your starting points? What does this say about you as a designer, and the kinds of games you are likely to make?

Other Methods of Idea Generation

If you are stuck with “designer’s block” (the game design equivalent of “writer’s block”) there are a number of strategies you’ll see mentioned in various places. Here are a few:

  • Keep a permanent collection of all of your ideas for games, mechanics, stories, and everything else. Look back through it from time to time to see if there’s anything from years ago that you can use. Add to it whenever an idea occurs to you that you can’t use immediately, but that you want to return to later.
  • Think of something random. Try to find a way to integrate it into your game.
  • Do some research. Learn about some aspect of the game in more depth, and you will likely find new ideas.
  • Go back to the basic. Think of the formal elements of your game. What are the player goals? Rules? Resources? And so on. Note that you’ll need to define these anyway in order to have a game, so by focusing on these one at a time it may give you new questions to answer.
  • Formalized brainstorming, either alone or in a group. Some people swear by this method, while others say the results are questionable. The best I can say is that the results are highly unpredictable… as is the case with most R&D.
  • Think critically about games. You may have my textbook on game design that contains some of what Brenda and I have learned over the years, but you should write your own book over the course of your lifetime (whether you publish it or not, at least keep it for yourself). When you discover something that does or doesn’t work in a game and you think you can identify the root cause as a “law” (or at least a guideline) of game design that is broadly applicable, write it down! If you don’t know why, write that down too, and come back to it periodically until you find the answer.
  • Play lots of games! But… play as a designer and not just a player. Don’t just play for enjoyment. Instead, play critically. Ask yourself what choices were made by the designer of the game, and why you think those choices were made, and whether or not they work. Play games in genres that you don’t like or have never tried, and try to figure out why other people find them fun. Also, published hint guides can be useful to read — they are basically glorified design documents that detail all of the systems of a game!
  • And lastly, practice. Work on your own projects. The more you make games, the better you get at making them… just like any other art form.

This chapter was adapted from Level 4 of Ian Schreiber’s Game Design Concepts course.

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Creating Games by Cathie LeBlanc is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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