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Game Design: Winging It

I Have No Idea What I'm Doing Meme

So here’s a confession: I know nothing about game design.

I was never even very good at web design (and so I always went to great pains to refer to myself as a “web developer”, should someone see something I made and go,”Ummm…” Easy to bow out then by sticking on the “developer” side of the fence :P)

What on Earth then has made me think that I can design a game? From scratch…? Well, actually… Nothing did. I don’t know that I can. I do know that I want to try it though, and I do know that I’m busy trying it. And I do know what I do like in games.

I know that I want games to be mentally stimulating and challenging, but not to the point where they frustrate me so much that I want to throw the controller at the screen. I imagine dudebros would refer to me as a “casual” gamer. As such, I’m usually very grateful if a game has a difficulty setting. If I get just a little too frustrated with “Hard” or “Normal” mode (as “Hard” seems to be called nowadays… o_O), it’s nice to know that I can scale it down just a notch and still get a good degree of enjoyment out of a game.

But, I’m finding it’s really difficult to figure out what differences there should be in difficulty levels… I’m starting to suspect that even the basic idea of my game would prove to be rather difficult to complete, so a varying degree of difficulty is almost compulsory if I want people to play the thing and not give up after the first level. I just don’t even know how to go about it thinking about it. Because what I’ve also realised, is that it’s nearly impossible to work this out on paper. And I suppose that’s where that apparently well-known (?) gamedev wisdom (that I’ve obviously only very recently heard), “Make a prototype as soon as possible,” comes from.

I don’t think it matters in the least how well your game works as an idea, or on paper – it needs to work as a game. As Erin Hoffman said, “A game isn’t really a game until someone is playing it.” (Please also refer to this article that I reblogged on my tumblr earlier this week – if you’ve read this far, it’s something you really ought to read as well.)

So how am I ultimately going to design a game without having any experience in game design? I’m going to implement these ideas I have in a real thing, a non-paper thing, a semi-playable thing, and just see if they work. And if they don’t – reboot, rewind, redefine. Or possibly even scratch them entirely and come up with new ones (I had some metaphor in mind all week about pillars and the Mines of Moria or something, but it became all muddled up in my brain and it makes no sense any more…).

I suspect most people think that the programming is the hardest part of making a game, probably followed by the graphics and animation. They may be right. But I – ridiculously inexperienced as I am – firmly believe that by far the hardest part of making a good game, is game design. So suddenly, the significant concern that has plagued me about how to make these hexagon-things actually work in Unity, doesn’t seem quite as terrifying any longer. I’ve started thinking of it as that thing that will actually be assisting me with the part of making a game that’s even more complex. Trial and error, until I get it right. I’ve got the time…

Thus, in the end, I think that the true difference between a professional artist/musician/programmer/whatever, and a newbie, isn’t really measured in skill – it’s measured in efficiency. Someone who’s been doing whatever you’re doing for years and years doesn’t necessarily have more talent or better ideas – they’ve just become “well-oiled”. They can generate ideas far quicker and execute them in far less time than you probably can. And that doesn’t mean they’re better than you are. It means they’re more efficient than you are. And the only way you’re going to reach that level, is by spending lots and lots and lots of time doing that thing (what’s the thing about 10,000 hours…?) Basically – you have to suck before you’re going to get good. Unless you were conceived by an Atari and an NES and your first words were, “Here’s an idea: There’s this Italian plumber…” For everyone else – we have to learn by doing. And failing.

Try. Fail. Try. Fail. Try… Ummm… No… Not quite… Try. Fail.

And maybe… someday…



That’s the formula I’m going for with my “game design” at this point.

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Resources: Stickies for your notebook

sticker_iconsI’m a very big fan of capturing ideas and thoughts using pen and paper (I’m absolutely addicted to Moleskine journals – I’ll show you a picture sometime). It’s great to have something with you that you can quickly scribble or draw ideas in when a thought strikes you.

The one think that I don’t like about paper notebooks so much, is that it can easily become difficult to organise ideas in cohesive sections. On computer, you can cut and paste all your scattered pieces into different categories. Not so easy in a notebook…

I’m faced with that exact problem in my development notebook at the moment – new ideas that aren’t necessarily directly related to the ones that came right before them, show up whenever they feel like it. And if I don’t write them down immediately, I lose them. So I thought – if I had little “icons” that I could stick next to these unrelated ideas, it would be much easier to come back later and see which ones belonged together, even if they were scattered throughout the notebook.

I decided on a couple of categories that I figured I’d need a lot, made some icons for them and then bought two sheets of sticker paper to print them all on.

I’ve also decided to share this document. I’m not sure how useful these would be to anyone else, but feel free to do with them whatever you want to. (The “RPG” category in my stickers might not be applicable to all that many people, for instance, but I’m sure most of the others would have a use, regardless of what kind of game you’re working on.)

As an overview, the category icons I’ve included in the PDF (and what I intended them for) are:

  • icon_set_settings_gear  Settings – Actual game settings. This could include rendering options, display settings, sound & music volume or any ideas that you have and think should be included in your game/project’s global settings.
  • icon_set_mechanics_spanner  Mechanics – The way the game actually works. The bits under the bonnet. This could be anything from physics ideas, how things should move, if it’s a puzzle game (as in my case) – how exactly do the puzzles work? Should tiles just match colours, should things slide or rotate, what happens in empty spaces on your game board, etc.
  • icon_set_rpg_helmet  RPG – Role Playing elements, since their will be a fair bit of RPG-based ideas in my game. For me, this would include things like – what base skills are available, what sub-skills do they affect, what exactly do these skills do and how do they affect gameplay and game mechanics, which skills can be trained, which can be “bought”, etc.
  • icon_set_difficulty_mountains  Difficulty – Is your game going to have more than one difficulty level? If so, what are the differences going to be and how are you going to implement them? This ties in with Game Mechanics, but specifically when related to changing the ease of playing.
  • icon_set_interface_mouse  Interface – This isn’t just the menu and points/skills display. More importantly – how will you interact with your game and your game pieces/characters/sprites? Mouse? Keyboard? Click and drag? Single-click only… Scrolling wheel… Touch-screen… I think you get the picture.
  • icon_set_music_note  Music – I’m extremely optimistic about this and hope to compose the music for my game myself o_O. But – I’m not exactly sure what kind of music to go with yet. For me, this icon will probably be used more for references to artists and music that I hear that sounds like the kind of thing that could work.
  • icon_set_sound_waves  Sound – Basically everything that’s not music. Clicks. Drags. Slashes. Pops. Bangs. Slides. Opens. Power-ups. Are you going to get someone to do these for you, or will you create them yourself? What could closely resemble the sound of a heavy stone door being opened down in a dungeon…?
  • icon_set_other_star  Other – I don’t really know… I just wanted to fill up the sticker sheet (and was having a lot of fun creating the icons), so I figured whatever other category I haven’t thought of yet, could probably be covered by this. Notice how it’s actually a chaos star…? But it also sort of resembles an asterisk, commonly used for footnotes…? Clever, no? ;P

So there you go! Stick away! Of course, there’s an uncomfortable amount of time cutting out little circles and legends ahead of you before you get to that though…

If you can use these – awesome! I’m happy! Use them for whatever you want to (and tell me about it – sharing is caring). It would just be kind of nice of you if you didn’t sell these to anyone else and pretend you made them… Church? Okay 😉

Oh, and don’t steal my logo! It took me like a whole ten minutes to come up with that!

(If you went “TL;DR” and missed the link up there – you can get the PDF here)


PS – If anyone wants the original featuring my sloppy SVG work, drop me a line or shout in the comments below. Peace!