Game design, like every other creative process, starts with endless possibilities. As you go through the various stages, your once infinite options narrow, and the vague initial spark coalesces into a fixed and final form. There are things to like about each step along the way, as well as things you might wish to skip past. But all of these steps are required, so you take the rough with the smooth.
One of the most exciting downsides of the initial stages is the mess and confusion. There are so many possibilities; which to choose?
Personally, I think this is my favourite part of the whole creative process: that early flush of excitement when your Big Idea could go in any direction, and you need to make grand, sweeping decisions. Anything’s possible. This step isn’t about making incremental tweaks in stats for balance, dealing with player experience, or grokking any emergent gameplay. That will all come later. For now, you are deciding where your new creation will fit into the world. What is your story? Who is your audience? And, when you know both of those key things, how will you tell your tale?
Although I write a brief for each game I design, it’s often hard to put into words exactly what I want to do with it. It’s the feeling that I’m trying to evoke rather than a list of rules that’s important to me, and feelings are sometimes tricky to translate into game mechanics. This is why I explore more than one way to get to that feeling. At least, I often do, and this is the case with Project Shuriken. Don’t feel bad if you aren’t right first time every time. Every painter has bad pictures in their closet just as every game designer and every writer has rubbish ideas in their notebooks.
Another cause of these multiple options is changing my mind on what I want it to be. The initial ideas for Project Shuriken that I wrote down on the train ride work as a game. I know that because I’ve made mock-ups and played it. Subsequently I had more and better ideas and developed it into something that I think is far more interesting. However, I’ve thought of three different ways that I might be able to do this next bit, and as it’s probably more important than the initial stuff, I’ve been testing them out. There’s no need for all three as they cover a lot of the same ground. Including them all would be inelegant and unnecessarily complex. So, I’m experimenting at the moment. And this is exactly when I should be.
At the start of this process, before too much is nailed down, is exactly the right time to ask yourself “what if I just…”. You’re not going to upset lots of apple carts if things change right at the start. As the project progresses, this will become less true, and major changes will start to cost lots of time and money. That would be bad.
So, what am I saying? I think it’s two main things:
Firstly, when you’re early in the process, build in some time to experiment. Your first idea may not be as great as you initially thought when you look at it in the cold light of day. Perhaps it needs to be pensioned off before it causes any trouble. Or it may be that it’s no good itself, but it forms the perfect stepping stone to the best idea that could ever be. Either way, now is the time to make the big changes. Mull over things for a few days, or longer if you can. Brainstorm a bit. Can this be improved? Can that? Is this the best way it could be done? Should you just chuck that bit out and replace it wholesale? What are you trying to do with it anyway? Make sure that you’re comfortable with the core of your game; how it feels, what it has to say. Heed those niggles that tell you that things aren’t quite what they should be. That little voice often knows what it’s on about.
Secondly, don’t waste your creativity! You may, like me, think up three ways to do the same thing, and two will end up on the cutting room floor. However, those two are going to be perfect elsewhere, so make sure you’ve noted them down for later. You never know when they might come in useful.
You are making me think. It seems my first steps with an idea might match what you wrote. If a game design gets to a stage where the game is playable I will often rethink things like number of players, good player choices, and length of play time etc.. Once I have a better idea of what a reasonable target it looks like I end up with a new range of ideas to develop and test. Do you typically have a large adjustment that takes place when you have seen your first prototype game in action? Doing things like increasing player choices and exploring new ranges of player count is really changing the mechanics for my current project but I know it needs to be done. I don’t have much attachment to mechanics so that is not a big deal but it is a rebuild and that takes time. First play of a game seems like a milestone but in my case I expect it to be close to the very beginning of the design process. I normally start with just one idea of how to do a game and testing a prototype of it is required before I see multiple better alternatives to move forward with. Testing a prototype and looking at the alternatives that need to be explored seems to be a process that always takes place.
You wrote about a game brief but I am not sure I could do a meaningful one before prototype one has been play tested. I expect prototype one to expose a big screw up of some sort (normally feeling and fun is off) but I guess a new brief could be done if required.
Glad to hear it’s making you think 🙂
There is a huge range in how much things need to be changed after a first draft. It’s anything from not at all to being scrapped completely. Mostly, I’d say that I do enough testing (and working through the maths) of separate parts in my head before I put it on the table to get in the right ballpark first time. Mechanically, at least. Whether this is fun or not is another matter, and is often only discernible by playing properly. I’ve had a number of games which worked fine mechanically, but just weren’t worth bothering with in terms of being fun or interesting to play. That’s a big fail in my book, so they go back in the oven, sometimes never to emerge again.
Your suggestion that first play is almost the start of the process is about right. Undeveloped ideas aren’t worth much.
A brief is a statement of intent more than anything, and something that I find useful for my own focus. I find it helps to write down where I think I want to go with the project to start with as it curbs some of the near inevitable feature creep and keeps me on target. At least, it makes me consider whether I want the feature creep or not, and that’s an important question. I’m very prone to coming up with more “good ideas” as I go along, and the brief helps me focus on what is actually required for the project I’m working on and what needs to go in a notebook for another time.
Note that the brief can change as you go along. That’s fine. It’s just that it should change deliberately and because you want it to. Not by accident.
The title of this article has embedded this in my head:
A classic video.
I don’t remember what put in my mind recently, but somewhere in whatever mentioned it, was the phrase ‘fever dream’. And I’ve not watched the video since possibly back when it was on Top of the Pops. I might have even had the single on vinyl. And yeah, fever dream is a wonderful description of it…
Those were the days.
Possibly coincidentally, the phrase always makes me think of Fevre Dream, by George R R Martin. Published at the same time…