When I was a young boy I believed that people were capable of incredible feats if only they had enough determination. I was partially right. Whilst you need the will and time to make good games, both are useless without a method to apply them.
With each game I design I have developed a specific way of thinking about and making them, which helps me work quicker and better. They’re a little abstract, but I’ll try my damnedest to make them make sense.
COGS IN THE MACHINE
Forget about thinking of games like film or TV – this is the biggest mistake in design. They are most like machines, with the single purpose of making humans want to use them. They function via the use of rules, which can be considered as cogs.
As a games designer I see myself as an engineer – a digital Fred Dibnah. My first job is to plan out what my limitations are – how the machine should work and which cogs to use and how to place them.
At first they’ll seem to fit, but as I build and bring my machine to action, the cogs begin to affect one another, introducing unforeseen complexity. The machine may be inefficient or even jam, with the whole thing failing.
I can use other games as reference designs, either from direct comparison or a lifetime of studying and building them, to minimise the amount of problems I create.
However, I never get the design right the first time, because the interactions are so complex. The further I go from existing references and their proven solutions, the more likely I am to run into problems.
So I advocate that it is better to build small sections, test, fix and then append them. Designing everything upfront, in a GDD say, is only worthwhile if you understand that you will have to throw most of it away because you are wrong, otherwise you’ll build something broken.
The human mind likes to understand and organise patterns; a phenomena known as the gestalt effect.
You can teach someone to play chess in under an hour, yet they could spend a lifetime learning its strategies. Seeking to understand a strategy and then feeling validated when successfully using it is what makes chess so compelling. That there is infinite strategy is what makes it addictive.
Similarly, good stories introduce unknowns, get you speculating, then surprise you with a resolution. Your brain uses this resolution to retrospectively organise the events and motivations of characters, giving you a nice buzz. Bad stories, of course, are predictable.
All games need some kind of enigma, because understanding them gives a sense satisfaction. Although you may not find out what it is first, when you discover it, bring it to the fore and make it better.
THE CORE OF THE MACHINE
Alongside enigmas, every game has a core loop. These are repeatable sequences of effort and reward – do something, get something. In chess it is jump a piece, or capture a piece. You will be familiar with shoot an alien, get some points and kill these zombies, get some story.
At the point in which you feel you have a pretty solid concept start to ask yourself what this core loop is. These are the first cogs you will fix in place. If you struggle to understand your core loop, so will your audience. Likewise if the effort seems too much or the reward isn’t enticing, the game will unlikely be compelling, so change it.
PEOPLE VERSUS MACHINES
There are very few auteurs in games. This is because their construction is complex and requires multiple people with specific skills and outlooks. The designer may envision and describe the game, but the specifics of how they are built is in the hands of many.
The design process can be broken by too many people, not enough people, and ego. In my experience the best number is two – one person has ownership and the second sanity checks the first to ensure things aren’t missed or won’t work. If the second person is technical they bring a unique perspective.
A COMPELLING CONCLUSION
One designer once told me games should make people feel cool. I disagree. Games can tackle real issues and be thought-provoking or saddening. Yet what they always have to be is compelling. If they aren’t, they have no player and are totally useless.
Building a game’s core loop and setting its rewards and mysteries is how to keep a player engaged. In good games these are obvious.
Yet they are complex, so considering them as constructed of smaller, interconnected parts is the best way to understand and create them. A designer must accept that they are too big to comprehend on paper so they can never be right every time.