Like many arts there is no one clear method for game design. You can find books, articles, and videos on the best approach but ultimately your own process is going to develop and shift as you create more and more games. You will be proud of some and wish you could get others to play better. For this post I’ll be going through a snapshot of my own personal design process.
Note: feel free to do these points in any order/simultaneously with multiple games at the same time (that’s what I do).
First: Play LOTS of Games
Sounds fun, right? For the most part it is but you should also play games you don’t necessarily enjoy to understand why others do. While playing games you should be analyzing them. What makes the game unique? Are there elements of the design core present to make the game play out differently from other games in the same genre? If its more of the same, what is appealing about the copy/pasted elements?
Understanding not only what makes the game tick but also why other gamers enjoy playing it is key to developing fun and interesting games yourself. The game is no good if only you and a few others like it and want to play it (unless this is your goal; I have one or two of those myself). One thing to make this easier is to find the genre of game you enjoy that is also trending or has a large following already. Then you are not only enjoying the game you are developing but it will make it more marketable. On that note…
Identify “The Gap”
The fact I’ve gone through academic research practices is probably going to be most obvious with the next statement: do enough “research” (playing games) to identify “The Gap” in the genre you are attempting to create.
Let’s take Sanctuary Saga (shameless self-shill; my space, my rules) for example: I’m at the stage in my life where my partner is also the primary gaming companion, so much so this probably should have been in our vows. She doesn’t mind competitive games but cooperative ones are so much more interesting for her. Deckuilders are fascinating to me so I knew I wanted to create something unique in the relatively crowded design space. Several exist but everyone I tried, even the good ones, had random mechanics in their core that either made different parts of the game feel like a chore/grind fest or ultimately came down to random chance at later stages in the game even if you made the “correct” decisions along the way.
So, there is my Gap: a cooperative deckuilder that engages the players from beginning to end and rewards micro-decisions along the way.
Top-Down or Bottom-Up Design
Most people who have dabbled in game development have at least heard these terms in use with game design. I’m not going to do an exhaustive overview of the concepts but wanted to provide a brief summary and how they play out in my own design.
For those unfamiliar: Top-Down design generally refers to starting with a large overview of you entire system (themes, mechanics, general flow of play) and then breaking it down into core components for further development. Whereas Bottom-Up is, as you would expect, the opposite: start with smaller subsystems and gradually build upon how these subsystems interact with each other.
As you would expect from many designers, my personal approach is a blend of the two. I am more or less constantly thinking about games. Sanctuary Saga was a combination of several ideas that were formed at different times where the pieces just seemed to fit. The Top-Down portions (theme, genre/play pattern, victory conditions) seemed like a natural fit for some of the Bottom-Up pieces I had brainstormed for other games (mirroring 4X video game elements in a board game, JRPG-style Job System, Legacy-style elements). Once I had the epiphany I had already designed the separate pieces by assembling mechanics and themes from my favorite games across my entire gaming identity I knew I had identified something special.
Some people also develop the skin (theme, IP, lore, etc) of the game following the same process or incorporate it into the core of the design.
Themes. Themes everywhere.
*queue Buzz Lightyear Meme*
The Intellectual Property of your game includes not only the unique way in which the mechanics play out but also your setting and lore. I took the genre of JRPGs from my childhood and combined them with elements from a D&D campaign I’d run in the past. The core flow of the game’s narrative chapters also follows not only the 4X flow of play but also borrows heavily from a book trilogy I outlined. Many of us gamers have already done a lot of work throughout our hobby so borrow on the elements that are most salient not only to your game mechanics but also you as a gamer. I personally love tropes so don’t be afraid to embrace the obvious channels. Just know when to deviate from them for dramatic effect.
That’s all for today! I’d love to hear what your design approach is. Feel free to leave comments or questions below. Next post should have a spicy announcement so don’t forget to subscribe for updates!