40 ways to be a better (game) designer
Prototype with abstracted graphics or stolen graphics. Or pen and paper, cards, and dice. Art enhances, multiplies, improves. It does not replace missing fun. If you can get to something fun with minimal presentation, it will get more fun with good presentation.
Deciding what your game is “about” can help you cut out the extraneous stuff. Think about simpler games, board games, if it helps you cut to the quick. “A bidding game.” “A territory game.” “A timing game.”
If you’re working on a big game, perceiving your big game as actually being a collection of smaller games that share a setting can help a lot. Excessive interdependence between systems makes a game really hard to balance anyway.
You should be able to pull out key verbs and phrases from your game design concept, and boil down the idea. If you can’t do this, somewhere you’ve gone awry.
The best game is going to have a marriage of theme, mechanic, and presentation. This is what makes a brand strong. Don’t look down on the exercise of branding.
Long meetings suck
Particularly creative meetings, where you want people to leave energized, not tired and cynical. Long meetings trend to groupthink and overcomplication. Keep design meetings tight and relatively brief.
Use a sketchbook
Sketches are an extremely powerful tool for game design. So much information about game state is conveyed via the screen or board that doing quick sketches of user experience early is critical. Draw a quick pic of what the player will see and do. Doodle logos in the margins.
Don’t design in the code/with the pieces
Design on a bike, riding down the street. Or in the shower. Or on a canoe. Design somewhere else. Worry less about what you might lose because you cannot write it down, than about keeping the core essence of what excited you. A change of scenery drives creativity.
Talk and listen
Fresh ideas colliding, or even old ideas colliding in unpredictable ways, is where creativity comes from. You get these new things to rub together by listening. You trade by giving ideas of your own. Ideas are cheap, don’t hoard them.
Every snowflake is different
If you assign twelve people to create “a space-based game about intergalactic trading” you will get twelve different games — it doesn’t matter how specific the idea is.
Think about assets early; doing the exercise of calculating how many sounds, graphics, and so on you’ll need for each given game or system is often eye-opening.
Steal and borrow
Mechanics are not sacred. They are tools towards an eventual game. If open draw card piles is a useful mechanic, use it even though you have seen it in other games. Nobody but you cares if you are sick of the health bar.
Playtest early and often
If your first control mechanic is briefly entertaining even before you have a game, great. If not, worry. If it’s entertaining to lay out the pieces on the board even before the rules are settled, cool. If not, worry.
Different players play differently
Don’t playtest with only the same old group of people. Mix it up.
Don’t say anything when watching someone else play. Just watch and note down all the stupid things they are doing because you were stupid and didn’t make the right thing to do really obvious.
You don’t have to finish the games people are talking about. But you do need to try them. Ten minutes is often enough, but through the first boss is better.
If you have a lot of systems, make each one simple with simple data. If you have one simple system, spend on the data.
Algorithms, not static data
The best games have an algorithmic style of variation, where gameplay emerges out of the possible permutations; this is as opposed to games which rely on a supply of static puzzles you supply. Shoot for the former — you may not make it (which is fine) but you’ll probably be forced to be cleverer.
The sketches, the early draft docs, the old prototypes, the boardgame version, the alternate ruleset. You never know when you will need it.
Don’t marry any art
Once the game is fun, try out an art style on it. Then try another. And another.
Don’t use lossy data
Photoshop layers are your friend. High res is your friend. The link to the website with the free textures. The screencap you cut up. Save the originals!
Have an editor
Someone who can tell you when you are full of crap even though they are a fan.
Six months later, you won’t remember why the magic number is 37.5. Put a comment in the code and explain the logic in a design doc.
Giant design docs are useless
They are usually overelaborated piles of daydreams that nobody will actually implement. A bulleted list of specifics is far more fruitful.
Back to the beginning
Every milestone you hit, go back and compare against your original vision, your original theme, and your original goals. It’s OK to say you want to change them because you really do want to change them; it’s not OK to say you want to change them because you drifted off without realizing it.
Know when to stop
It’s easy to spoil something by adding too much. One more mechanic, one more axis of variables, even an extra row on the game board, and it might all break apart.
Eat your own dog food
Play your own game. If you find yourself playing it for enjoyment, you are onto something.
Learn to see the underlying mathematics of your design, rather than the dressing. See the projection of force, the spheres of influence, the hidden slot machine and the number of keystrokes per second. You will understand the actual play much more deeply.
Learn art. And coding. And marketing.
The more you understand what other disciplines bring to the table, the better you will design. You don’t need to master these — just acquire some degree of basic competence.
Don’t argue with players
They are always right about their experience. Telling them that it isn’t actually that way is a waste of time. The question is why they think it is that way.
Frivolous bits that are there just because they are cool are often what puts a game over the top, making the player feel the enjoymentand passion that went into something.
Tell a story
A prospective player or a prospective funder — either way, you need to sell them on the game, and the way to do that is with a story.
Limitations are good
A lot of creativity comes from working within limits. If you’re stumped, try giving yourself some more limits and see what pops out.
Once it’s out there, it’s not yours. Abandon all notions about how it “should” be played.
Do the work
A lot more people talk about making games than actually make games. Anyone can make a game with some cut up paper and a few crayons. Whatever excuses you are making for yourself are bad ones. You just put one foot in front of the other until you cross the finish line. And once you make one, make another. And another. Keep doing it.
It’s all too easy to be tired and frustrated and accede to something dumb and lower your standards. The impact can be truly massive on the final product. It’s one thing to compromise: compromise is inevitable and will often improve the product. Settling, however, is frequently fatal.
See out of player eyes
When you work on a system, picture the movements the player makes. Envision the path they take. Practice the sequence of actions to reach a goal. Visualize the route they take to reach that goal. See from the player’s point of view, not from the point of view of “it should take 30 kills to reach the next level.” You design for them, not you.
When a player does something right, give them a reward cue. A splash of light, a cheerful sound, a bit of feedback that sticks out.
Use the list
Check against the list of key pieces required for fun: preparation for a challenge mattering, territory/environment mattering, choices in how to solve a problem, variations in the nature of the challenge, risk to loss, skill in execution, no bottom-feeding, and multiple possible success states. You may have your own list, but this is the one that has worked for me.
Eliminate marking time
Anything you do in the game “because you have to do it” should be cut or at the very least get a seriously hard look. Tedium is the enemy of fun.