7 Mistakes That Will Make You a Better Game Designer

You can’t always do the right things, but neither can you stand back and be a spectator in life. If you want to become a better game designer you have to take action no matter what.

Here I present to you 7 mistakes and the lessons I learned that made me a better game designer and a better person.

Excessively and Negatively Criticizing Other (published) Games

I’m talking here about the extremely negative criticism that is closer to mocking  rather than serious case study. It affects a lot of gamers that wish to create games some day. I’ve been there …

If you hear these people, it seems that the game they’re talking about is complete rubish. They stay at a very high level and seldom discuss game mechanics and what weaknesses/strengths the game design has. But the worst they could  possibly do is blame developers for not being smart enough while claiming that they can do a lot better.

Improving an existing game involves many things. For example, you need to know the design decisions that were made and the ones that got rejected, the software architecture that has been used and how the different components of the game work together. Then you need to use that knowledge and make improvements where they should be, that’s a difficult job even for a seasoned developer !

After realizing that this behavior was not going to help me improve, I started to give credits to developers. Any game has strengths and weaknesses, and you can learn from both.

Even if a game is as bad as Duke Nukem Forever, at least the guys behind it did publish it. It takes balls to finish a game, many great hits stay in development hell for years and never see the light of day, some of these games are just too huge and even pros can’t finish them, so don’t …

Design a Huge Game That Has Everything in It

Many gamers choose game design as a career in order to make the game of their dreams. A game that provides all the satisfactions that existing games fail to give. Big mistake !

Huge games that try to implement every imaginable game mechanic will usually have a lot of shallow features and no identity at all. Specialized games are better because they have a strong identity and powerful features, it’s normal that they have more chances of becoming hits.

“Wow that game is super fun because it has everything in it !”

No one ever

Successful games focus on one main feature or idea, and build everything around it. Let’s take for example the game Mark of a Ninja, the main concept is : “you are a ninja”, every feature in the game enhances the feeling of stealth and the whole idea of being a black suited super sneaky warrior.

You need to find your key feature, and build everything around it.

Focusing on the Plot From the Beginning

I like games that have elaborated plots and narrative elements, playing them makes me feel like I’m an actor inside a movie. I’m amazed by the ability to actively participate in a story. Examples of this kind of games are Max Payne and the Metal Gear series.

These games were developed by huge teams where each member focuses on a specific area in the game. As a beginner, it would be overkill to do that all by yourself.

For beginners, focusing 100% on gameplay is the best way to go. A great storyline is good enough for a movie, but to make a game you need fun game mechanics that work.

There are very successful games out there that have no plot at all, here are some examples :

  • Minecraft
  • Tetris
  • Pacman
  • The Sims / Sim City
  • Racing games (except some Need for Speeds)
  • Sports games (tennis, football, soccer, wrestling, … etc.)

Overestimating Your (or your team’s) Technical Skills

You may fantasize about wonderful worlds, extraordinary gameplay, and stunning effects, but at the end of the day, your game will be made out of lines of code.

If you, or your team, can’t implement a feature, it simply won’t be included in the final product.

Some may argue that game design is a purely artistic endeavor and that you must feel free to imagine anything you want. I agree to a certain extent, because you or your team can always learn new skills if you have enough time and resources to do so. But in general, your design decisions must take your technical skills into consideration.

The best way to go is making a lot of prototypes during development. It will show you how much you can achieve technically and can help you enhance your initial game design.

Crossing Genres for Your First Game Ever

Yeees I get it, you have so many ideas that they don’t seem to fit in a single genre. So you decide to go the cross-genre way.

One of my first games ever was an action shooter with real-time strategy elements like tower-defense. I had no experience in making action shooters nor strategy games. The development was very hard and I ended up with a game that had no identity, it didn’t provide the pleasure of destruction found in action games, nor the pleasure of elaborating tactics and strategies found in RTS games.

Choose one genre for your first games and stick to it.

Comparing Yourself With the Big Guys In the Market

If you take commercial games as a model and try to keep up with them, you’re going to have a hard time and end up disappointed.

Most developers had humble beginnings. For example : Epic Games, the developers behind the Unreal Engine and some games that use it (Unreal Tournament, Gears of War) made (or published) Epic Pinball and other small games during the nineties when they began.

The games that you see nowadays on the shelves, or AAA titles as some folks call them, are the result of many years of improvement. Those games use state-of-the-art engines and are made by a team of experienced people working full-time, not beginners.

To become a skilled game developer, you need to work on several small to medium projects at first. Knowing that each project will take from one week to 4 or 5 months, it will take you from 2 to 5 years to reach a good level in programming and game design.

Of course if you have money and leadership/management skills, you can hire people to help you make your game in less time. Make sure to hire the right people for the job, because you can end up …

Recruiting People That Have No Interest In Making Games

When I was a software engineering student, I gathered some classmates and presented my game idea to them. We created a team and worked together to make the game. After a month and a half they all gave up for numerous reasons, but mainly because they were not game developers at heart. They were seduced by the idea of making their first game but they were not ready to get serious about it.

I’m against recruiting when you are a beginner. But if you want to do it, at least recruit people who know how to make games and pay them to do so.

Bottom Line

My advice to you is to keep making games no matter what. Keep trying even if you fail, and make a lot of mistakes, because it’s the best way to learn.

In writing this article, I was inspired by The 7 Worst Game Design Mistakes and the No Twinkie Database by Ernest Adams.

Keep in touch !

by Zouhair Serrar