As someone who helps people bring their game designs to life I run into a lot of misconceptions about game design. Today I'd like to talk to you about a misconception a lot of aspiring game designers have. That bad behavior is picking and choosing your favorite mechanics or systems from other games and putting them into yours. It kind of makes sense that good + good = great, but that is usually not the case when it comes to game design. This is the equivalent of cooking a recipe with seemingly random ingredients. Read on to learn how to focus on a game's core gameplay.
Most people have a strong opinion of what they like. I can tell you my favorite game genres, and my favorites in those genres. I can tell you the games I don't like or mechanics I absolutely hate. I'm sure you could tell me the exact same thing. We may agree that we like certain systems or mechanics in a particular game. Most people don't think about how a particular mechanic works within a context, it's one part of a complex system. You can't just take things you like from other games and bring it to another. That mechanic or system worked in that game the way it did because of many other things in that game.
A skilled game designer can bring almost any set of ideas together, but it requires the knowledge of the core mechanic(s). The core mechanic is a complex thought, In a game like Batman: Arkham City you go around fighting guys, and you also fly around the city, you can swoop down and pounce on a guy mid fight and then start punching him in the eye. The core mechanic could be identified as both moving around and fighting because they are so well blended and given equal weight. Running, flying, punching and kicking is what the player spends most of their time doing in Batman: Arkham City, and it is the core of game-play.
Other things come in and reinforce this: stealth-fully sneaking up on guys, eves-dropping, picking up collectibles, unlocking gadgets, using new gadgets. These are all things that happen during normal game-play, they are re-enforcing the core mechanic. You want everything in your game to come back and re-enforce whatever players spend most of their time doing. All of those systems work excellently together because they all come back to that core.
Mini-games can even be seamlessly integrated. Another good example in the Arkham games is when you have to use that special tool and find a frequency to open a lock. That's a mini-game, but because it's so seamlessly integrated.. nobody will notice. A bad example of a mini-game would be having a game of Fruit Ninja in between levels in your platformer game. This does nothing but serve as a distraction, if you want to develop a Fruit Ninja style mini-game that badly, make it a different project. A seemingly random mini-game only takes away from your platformer.
This needs to be said again, video games are an interconnected series of systems, all systems need to be connected intelligently. It's fundamental to good game design that you know how to focus the experience. I often have an aspiring game designer come to me with a wishlist that looks something like the following.
Jim's awesome game needs to have...
- Randomly generated worlds that the player can change and build in. (like Minecraft)
- Randomly generated levels of increasing difficulty. (à la Spelunky)
- Ability to build a space ship and travel to other worlds.
- Tons of loot dropped by mobs, and a deep crafting system!
- Huge bosses (like Shadow of the Colossus)
- The main character should use spells to do awesome attacks.
Though this was thought of with the best intentions, it is just a series of thoughts without a focus. The game designer needs to focus on what this game will be about and give the game direction. As of right now, #1 and #2 are in direct conflict. And a few of these other ideas aren't placing nicely. A good game designer can force almost anything together, and they will if you pay them enough. The end result will be a bad game without a focus.
You need to take the path of least resistance and figure out what is important to the game. What do you want this game to be if you had to describe it in a sentence? Sometimes taking a more narrative view of the problem will help the designer decide what is important to them. Let's say I decide that it's very important that the player is a wizard with cool spells. I want to make a game about a bad-ass wizard!
I'll walk you through my process on filtering out these ideas and coming up with a quick idea for this imaginary game. In this process you should see why it's often better to abandon some of your wish-list in favor of a more cohesive whole. Let's see what items on the list are a good fit for a bad-ass wizard game.
1. Randomly generated worlds that the player can change and build in. (like Minecraft)
Is this any good? Minecraft is an excellent game and it lends itself well to building stuff. Does a bad-ass wizard need to build a log cabin? No, he does not. He needs to annihilate his enemies with fireballs and ice tornadoes. Minecraft doesn't need to be in your game! Unless you are 100% focused on building a similar game to Minecraft, you are going to end up with a second rate building system. Don't be a second rate Minecraft, be a first rate Bad-Ass Wizard Adventure™! If we take one thing from Minecraft, let's take that you can pick items up off the landscape (flowers and plants and such.)
2. Randomly generated levels of increasing difficulty. (à la Spelunky)
Now that I have decided what is important (being a bad-ass wizard.) I need to ask myself if I need randomly generated levels. One clear advantage of randomly generated levels is re-play value. One clear disadvantage is in the narrative department. You are giving up control of your environments to a 20 sided die, making it extremely difficult to place events such as story scenes or bosses. If you want a game with a story and random levels, you will probably have to end up with something like Diablo III's version of randomized levels. (in this room there can be 2 or 3 spiders.) In addition to that, I also have crafting on this list. Crafting in a randomly generated environment vs crafting in a controlled environment lead to very different results. Ok, it's decided! I want this game to have a strong story, so let's have regularly designed levels of increasing difficulty.
3. Ability to build a space ship and travel to other worlds.
Do I really need this? The original thought was to have the player warp to different random worlds. We could change the space ship to magic portals so it's inline with the narrative. That's kind of wizardly right? Where would they go? Now our levels are deliberately designed, so we can't warp a player to any random position. It needs to be thought out. Right now I can see this as a sort of plot device that happens during the game. You need to craft something that takes you to another dimension or a "Dark World" so you can get something else and then return. I like it!
4. Tons of loot dropped by mobs, and a deep crafting system!
Yes, we want this for sure. The wizard can craft wands, robes, and magic potions. He'll get the ingredients from the deliberately designed levels and monsters the player will face. The designer has total control over all the drops so we can give the player only the crafting options we want to. If you want to see this done right, check out The Witcher 2.
5. Huge bosses (like Shadow of the Colossus)
Now things are getting interesting. We know we want this one. Good thing the game has controlled level design, this would be difficult if it were random. So we'll have huge bosses that you can climb up and attack their weak points. This will mean we will need to add all kinds of climbing and jumping animations to the wizard, so let's make sure we use that in our level design. Let's put rare flowers and stuff growing out of these bosses. This will allow us to craft powerful potions and other things at the boss fight.
6. The main character should use spells to do awesome attacks.
This is the idea that led to our core mechanic, Wizardly action! It only makes sense that this would have some kind of leveling up and/or skill tree.
OK, so we worked our way backward through a list of random ideas and came up with the basic idea for a game, let's see the end result.
This game is about a bad-ass wizard in a fantasy universe. He fights monsters and huge bosses in a carefully designed environment. The wizard will grow more powerful as the game progresses. The player will be able to choose new spells from the skill tree. Loot for crafting can be found in the environment, as monster drops, or growing on a giant boss. At some point in the game our hero has to collect rare ingredients for a device that allows him to travel to another realm.
We could have easily come to a similar conclusion in reverse. We could have started at "I want to make a bad-ass Wizard game!" Then just add complimentary stuff.
I hope this gave you some insight on why it doesn't work if you just choose things from other games and put that into your game. You need to start with a basic idea of what your game is, and work your way up from there. Games are a series of systems that interact. All systems increase development time, resources needed and overall complexity. It is best to use your time in a way that matters and doesn't distract from the focus of the game.
Stay tuned for more articles and exciting announcements! We have lots of great stuff on the way!