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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…

Try.

Success.

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

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Forests vs Trees (also: Hot-Air Balloons)

Hexagon forest with one dead treeI wonder what the first guy to come up with the idea for a passenger-occupied hot-air balloon did when he finally sat down to start working on this bizarre idea of his. I wonder if there was a moment of thinking, “This is crazy. What was I thinking? It can never be done.” Actually, I’m pretty sure there might have been. Someone eventually did make one though, thus proving all those fears irrelevant.

I suppose it’s almost always scary to do something new – whether it is just new to you, or whether it is entirely unique to the world. That’s most likely because new things provide us with no internal frame of reference. There’s nothing we can compare it to in our past. And so it is with ideas. Even great ideas can suddenly seem impossible to execute when you start looking at the “how” of it.

But I think that’s precisely where we need to believe in a little “magic”; a little “suspension of reality” and just go with it. I’ve seen so many times how people kill great ideas prematurely because immediately after having the idea, and before giving it a chance to settle down and ruffle its feathers a little, people start questioning the “how”. And so often, because they can’t find an immediate answer to the “how”, the illusion gets shattered and all faith in that big idea is lost (it’s a bit like the Buddha’s parable of the poisoned arrow – worrying about who shot the arrow, what it’s made of, what kind of bow was used – before focusing on the fact that there’s a damn poisoned arrow stuck in your leg).

While doing a stint in design school, we were faced with some or other project one day and almost all my classmates (who had infinitely more experience with Photoshop, Illustrator, Flash, etc. than I had) seemed to just calmly sit down and start working on their ideas. I must have looked somewhat panicky and the lecturer came up to me. I told him I didn’t have enough confidence with any of the software packages yet – I had no idea how I would execute this idea. Then, he gave me some of the best creative advice ever – really simple, but absolutely brimming with wisdom: “Worry about the idea, not the tools. The tools are merely there to help you execute the idea and it doesn’t matter what tools you use.” Basically – worrying about the how is entirely the wrong way around to start working on anything creative. It will most likely depress you if you start worrying about the how before worrying about the what. It will most likely kill the what. It will most likely get you right back to where you started from in the first place… Continue reading Forests vs Trees (also: Hot-Air Balloons)