Good game design doesn’t necessarily mean describing every aspect of your game in advance. That would be a huge waste of your time.
You need to work efficiently, especially in early stages of development. There are a few important questions that your game design should answer, you can figure out the rest later.
What is the General Concept of Your Game ?
Create an initial concept starting from your initial game idea. It’s a brief description of what the game is about and how it’s played. Then develop this concept as you develop your game, but not too much.
The general concept must remain almost the same throughout development of your game. This will allow you to remain focused on the essential without overflowing too much.
Believe me when I say that many developers, even the best, can overflow dramatically. They call it “development hell”, it’s supposed to be your worst nightmare as a game designer. In dev hell, some games never see the light of day, but when they do … Duke Nukem Forever !
A general or high level concept is expressed in one sentence or two, here are some examples :
- Grand Theft Auto (GTA) : You play as a criminal who wanders freely in the city and you must complete missions to advance the main plot.
- Angry Birds : You throw not-so-happy birds using a slingshot on pigs who stole their precious eggs.
- Minecraft : You must survive in an open world that you can transform to your liking and where creepy monsters come out at night.
- Call of Duty : You play as a soldier who’s involved in a world-wide conflict straight out of a Hollywood action movie.
Your short description may also come in handy in case a friend asks you : “So, what are you working on ?”.
What Can Players Do in Your Game ?
Having defined your concept at a high level, now it’s time to give more details about what players do exactly to play your game.
You can list player actions and their effect on the game world. Here’s an example : the player can destroy monsters using his/her magic wand, a destroyed monster drops 5 gold coins. Using gold coins, players can improve their magic wand and destroy more monster in a single blow.
Notice how these mechanics can be used with many high-level concepts. In the example above, the concept could be “You play as a warlock/witch” but not necessarily.
To help you even further, you can also answer these two sub-questions :
What Does the Player Control ?
The player can control a single character, a group of characters or even an entire army. In some games players can even control a city, a country, a planet or even a galaxy.
How Does She/He Control It ?
In short : what’s your human-machine interface ? Describe how it can be used to play.
For example, in most First-Person Shooters (FPS), players move using WASD keys (ZQSD for AZERTY keyboards), jump with Space, look and shoot with the mouse.
You can also talk about your graphical user interface (GUI), which is part of your user interface (UI). How each label, button, text field … etc works and what does it represent for the player ? For example : Is it a health bar ? How does it animate when player regains health or loses it ?
UI can also evolve gradually with the game so you don’t need to know everything in advance.
What Are the Pleasures Offered by Your Game ?
Many people, including myself, appreciate video games because they offer a variety of pleasures that profoundly affect us as human beings. They trigger deep emotions and give us opportunities to express them in a healthy and safe way.
You can predict what pleasures your game will offer, and you can discover new pleasures throughout development. It’s important that you identify these pleasures so you can use them to build a better and more result-oriented game design that will more successfully hit the sweet spot with players.
Here is a list of pleasures you can get inspired from :
Also called “role-play” or “experience”, it consists of giving players the opportunity to do something they can’t do in the real world, unless they’re completely out of their minds !
For example, the player can become an adventurer who’s not afraid to go into the most dangerous places on the planet (Tomb Raider), pilot an aircraft (Sky Acrobat), steal cars (GTA), have a girlfriend (for some :D), become a great warlock/witch (almost in all fantasy rpgs : Skyrim, Diablo, Torchlight, …) or a secret agent who operate in the shadows (Thief, Splinter Cell, Metal Gear Solid), explore the galaxy in a sci-fi novel (Mass Effect).
It’s very pleasant to discover new content, especially if a game is really good. New content means new maps, levels, toys, characters, people, cities, or new modes/rules like when fighting bosses or switching from single-player to multi-player.
For example, in Skyrim, I spend most of the time travelling through the game world, I rarely do any quest, and it’s crazy how much fun I can have in this game.
This pleasure is very common in skill-based games, players are expected to display great skills if they want to maximize their score. Players feel a growing pleasure as the game becomes more and more difficult.
There’s a simple pleasure in collecting all bonuses in a level, collecting gold coins in Temple Run is a concrete example.
In the same train of thoughts, destroying all monsters, doing all side-quests in a RPG, or revealing all the unexplored areas of the map gives the same pleasure.
Gotta catch’em all !
Some games offer unique items like the different parts of a legendary armor. Players can have fun collecting these items especially when they provide unique bonuses over the ordinary loot.
Examples of games that focus on collection : Pokemon, Need for Speed, Borderlands 2.
Create something from nothing. That’s the whole idea. It’s the same pleasure that artists feel when they create a masterpiece using a pen and an empty canvas. Players will be proud of they creations and will feel a special connexion to the game.
Some games like Sim City build everything around the pleasure of construction, other games use it as an aspect of game play : in RPG games (or MMOs like World of Warcraft), players can get this pleasure by gradually building their character.
Destroy anything that moves ! My favorite kind of pleasures.
Basically it’s making the player feel her/his supremacy by giving her/him tools (weapons, tanks, battleships, …) to destroy monsters, enemies, bring down buildings, or completely destroy the game world.
As a game designer, I started exploring this pleasure in my Top-down action game, but I experience it in a lot of games as a gamer.
How are Your Levels Organized ?
This question is very important and should be addressed as soon as possible because several technical and artistic decisions depend on it.
For example, after defining your levels’ organization, you can start developing a level editor and create prototype levels. You can also start programming saving/loading levels and saving/loading player progress. Many important development steps will change according to the way you decide to organize your levels.
Here are some ways you can organize your levels, this is not an exhaustive list and you can always innovate by combining many approaches or coming-up with a new one :
No Level at All
You can choose not to have levels in your game. Players will always play in the same game world.
This kind of organization is commonly used in board games like Monopoly or Chess. In Chess you always play on the same 8×8 grid with the same black or white pieces. This is how I organized levels in my card game Pairwise.
To make your game interesting, you can include some randomness, changing some parameters or giving many levels of difficulty.
Independent and Replayable Levels (with score and stars)
Several mobile games take this approach : Angry Birds, Cut the Rope, and also browser games like Kingdom Rush or my own game Sky Acrobat.
The levels are played independantly from each other, when players win, they move to the next level. Levels are replayable to give the player a chance to get a higher score and eventually get more stars.
This type of organization is ideal for skill-based games where the maximum score is difficult to reach, but players can still win with an average score.
This is similar to the previous approach, but the player doesn’t have the ability to replay levels. These games usually have a main plot cut into several levels, they are played one by one until you finish the game. Some examples are : Half-Life, Gears of War, Call of Duty, Splinter Cell.
Open World With Missions (or quests)
GTA games and some Need for Speeds adopt this approach, it’s the same idea you find in RPGs like Skyrim, Fallout, Stalker, Diablo, Oblivion.
The player is free to roam the world as she/he wants, and can do missions/quests in the order she/he chooses.
In a previous article where I talked about some game design tools, I insisted on the importance of having a game design document. In fact, the document itself is not very important, and it may not be very detailed, but it should at least answer the questions that I have exposed here :
- What is the general concept?
- What are the possibilities of the player?
- What are the pleasures offered by your game?
- How are the levels organized ?
Based on my experience so far in game design, I’ve summarized the most essential points you shoud consider when you’re starting to work on your game. I found that almost all my previous designs revolved around these 4 questions. I explained how you could find answers and have a playable game on paper. Now it’s just a matter of time before you can put the game in the hands of players.