Game Design: On Ideas

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Often enough I have talked to people wanting to start making video games. And often enough they talk about making the next big game. I have to admire their enthusiasm, as it reminds me of a much younger me. But most often they say one thing which I can’t forgive.“I have this great idea.”

The number of times anyone in the industry has heard that must be innumerable. And I can understand why. There is vision and drive to make something awesome. The belief that this idea can be the next half-diablo-doom-craft. And wanting to be at the front of seeing that idea come to life is admirable.

Unfortunately, when you just start trying to make video games, that great idea is worthless. Not necessarily because it is a bad idea, but because you lack the experience to take that idea from the vision in your head, to the reality that the fanboys drool over. This is because a great game comes down to how the ideas are executed in the game.

To illustrate the difference between idea and execution: Take your favourite FPS, and the one that you hate. Play them. All FPSes have a similar base. A weapon to shoot with, movement, and enemies to shoot at. They have a whole bunch of ideas in common. What separates the two games you picked? Many things: the studio, publisher, budget, platform, and even era. They may some ideas that they share, but what separates them is how they were made.To push the idea point: Every person working on those games most likely had hundreds of ideas. People who play video games have ideas. After all isn’t that where you started? Wanting to work in video games after you played wonderful games and had your own ideas. Even the people who play only FIFA and Pro Evolution Soccer have ideas. Ideas are cheap.

But making something with ideas is not cheap. A game designer could make a great game and never have an original idea to add. This is because the best resource a game designer has is the passionate team they work with. The artists have an understanding of visual aesthetics that you do not. The programmers have an understanding of the computing limitations, and the feasibility to implement features that you do not. People who make games, play games. They also have ideas, and very often good ones, so as a designer it’s your job to listen to them and create the best game you can with the budget you have.

If you are just getting into game development (especially if you enter as a designer), then I doubt your first stop is making some big game. So start small. Take your idea. Examine it; dissect it and see what it is about at its core. I find the best way to do this is to describe your game in a single sentence.

As an exercise, let’s say you want to make a game about a unicorn that jumps on clouds of dreams, and it can shoot rainbows from its hooves to run faster, and shoot lightning from its horn to kill enemies for extra score. In a single sentence that would be “An action platformer”. You can elaborate and say “An action platformer with a unicorn as the main character”. In this case, the unicorn is a defining aspect of the game; it makes it different from Mario.

What does all this mean?

If you want to make games, start now, and start small. Focus on small manageable pieces that you can make. Make the platformer, then add the speed boost, then the attack. Build the game up in stages.

Keep your expectations realistic. Statistically games don’t make it big—failure is common. So if your game doesn’t make you the next Gabe Newell, don’t worry—even some of the greatest game studios release flops. You have just started on a road of learning how to make games.

In fact, I would recommend that you don’t release your first games for money, since you want as much  feedback to learn from. And the best way to do that is to make your game free, post it on forums and see what people think. Look chances are it wont be the best thing ever. It will have a mixture of good points and bad points. You should learn from those.

When starting out, your aim should be to make great stuff. But you should realise that you have to learn how to make the great stuff. So make games and see what happens. Some might be great, and some might be flops. In the end you learn from both, and often enough you can learn more from what went wrong than from what went right.

  • http://www.facebook.com/alexander.laheij Alexander Laheij

    Nice article, it was already pretty clear to me, however good to hear it from somebody else.