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.