Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

What Game Design Mojo?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 27, 2014

When I first started in the video game business (and I’m kind of afraid to mention when that was anymore), I was pretty sure of myself. I knew games. I knew what was fun. I was a frickin’ gaming genius.

That didn’t last long. I blame Dunning-Kruger. The more professional game designers I spoke with, the more I worked on games, the more I really began to study them professionally, the more I realized I didn’t have a clue. And now, with an indie world out there full of bizarre and creative ideas that actually sell (and twenty times more that don’t), the even less clueful I feel. The more I learn, the more I realize I don’t understand.

Sure, I’ve got opinions. They’ve changed a bit over the years (releasing your own games and getting feedback from actual customers will do that), but I still hold them. Maybe not as securely as I once did. I still know what *I* like, though I’m no longer certain how similar my own tastes are to that of the general gaming public.

On the one hand, this is probably a good idea. I’m more open to new ideas and willing to “kill my darlings” – my pet ideas. I hope that I’m more able to swallow my pride to make a better game. On the other hand, this can also make me hesitant and indecisive, which is not a good trait in the fast-moving world of indie game development.

The thing is – we’re all born with an innate sense of fun. Real life tries to beat it out of us as we get older, but it is as natural – and as important – as breathing. The joy, the “fun,” is what helps us to discover the world around us, to learn new things, and develop skills. And we all find that fun in different things.

I look at something like Goat Simulator, and I think… that’s just a giant toy-box for grown-ups. For that matter, so is Grand Theft Auto.

The thing is, as kids – the fun comes first, the rules and structure later. Kicking a ball around is inherently fun. But with no goal, nobody to share it with, no way to determine who is better at kicking a ball around, no other skills with which to mix up the ball-kicking, we can lose interest pretty quickly. So we come up with some kind of structure, some rules, some goals, some ways to bring other people and challenges in to keep things interesting.

That’s games.

That’s not something you need a PhD to understand. There’s no special game design mojo. That’s probably why it all seems easy, at first. Making something fun is easy. But making something fun, easy to understand, playable on everyone’s hardware, appealing to your audience’s tastes, marketable, intuitive, polished, accessible, challenging without being frustrating, has staying power, and competitive in a crowded marketplace — that’s what takes all the hard work.

(And that’s why we copy so much from each other – we start with what we know, and what we know works, and hopefully try to improve on it or try something different with it. )

In the end, there’s probably no substitute for just making lots of games. That’s something I’m not doing so great at… I should probably do more game jams, but as a part-time developer, that’s a pretty big time sacrifice. Maybe people in similar situations – who can’t devote a large block of time to a game jam very often – could focus more on things like one game a month, or like my “40 hour” project many years ago.  Or micro-jams, like the “game in 0 hours.”

Because if there anything I have learned over the years, it’s that there’s always a lot more to learn.

Filed Under: Game Development - Comments: 5 Comments to Read

  • McTeddy said,

    It’s funny, the smarter I get the dumber I feel. Every time you learn one thing, you learn about the existence of five more that I never knew existed.
    It’s even stranger in game dev where the rules change daily.

    I’ve recently had people tell me that my board game is the best they’ve played in years and my publisher told me that I’m, and I quote, “The best game designer they’ve ever met”.
    Yet, all I’m doing is guessing. I have no real facts guiding my decisions, I’m just placing wagers and hoping for the best.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    I think it’s more art than science — which is what keeps hurting the big publishers (many of whom really, REALLY want to turn games into a predictable widget factory). Sure, like all art, there are rules of thumb, math, and other factors that go into it. But it really comes down to being good at it.

    I do think design skills between different kinds of games are at least partly transferable. I know some indie video game devs who go to a regular board game designer’s group to learn from the experts there.

    I think the fundamentals – insofar as they exist – are still the same, but the marketplace for indie games sure changes rapidly. It used to be that it was tough trying to predict what the market would be like three years down the road. Now it’s tough to predict three months down the road.

  • Anon said,

    > “In the end, there’s probably no substitute for just making lots of games. That’s something I’m not doing so great at… I should probably do more game jams, but as a part-time developer, that’s a pretty big time sacrifice.”

    I think the “shotgun approach” for a single developer with limited resources (time being among them) isn’t necessarily the best strategy for game design. In other words: Simply developing many games and see which ones stick is gambling, not development. It’s what I blame the big companies like EA, Activision and others for – they only gamble with larger sums.

    What makes it worse is developing many games in short periods of time – which then minimizes the thinking part even further (and I don’t accept cheats like thinking long about a game concept and then only implementing it in a jam).
    Next month you get another jam with a totally different theme – which proves to be more popular even if you don’t like the genre. What then? Oh, yes, try again next month?

    IMHO, game jams are for people who want to code much in short amounts of time regardless if the result proves popular and for curious gamers who want to play short games or “one trick ponys”.

    But what about the “think more and longer strategy” that other products characterize?

    Recently, I read an eBook called “Dreamcast Worlds” which analyzes three popular Dreamcast games, the first Shenmue episode being among them. What is it that makes Shenmue – a very polarizing game – very popular with lots of gamers?
    Perhaps the author overanalyzed it bit here and there but the argumentation still made a lot of sense in that the structure of Shenmue was developed with (and reflects) the coming of age of the main character Ryu in mind:
    – The dramatic opening placing some responsibility (for himself) into Ryu’s hands who is simply a pupil up to this point.
    – The more or less care-free exploration part of the home and the village part around it. These are the last moments of childhood with carefree exploring and fun as he is given a fixed amount of money regularly without having to do anything for it.
    – The partly confusing part with some fights and lots of learning and some decisions in the small town next to it: Puberty.
    – The dull work in the harbour – mirroring the life of a regular adult person.
    – The breakup and boarding of a ship to Hong Kong to really target his goal (=meaning of life): Avenging the death of his father.

    No, Shenmue isn’t simply a sandbox game as many reviewers wrote back then but it’s a very structured game which is subdivided in different locations with different meanings. Some parts more nostalgic than others and the playfulness (like collecting action figures) surely add to the appeal.
    The later parts, when the simply joys that attracted many players are largely over, are more serious and more focussed, culminating in a large fight with many opponents.

    What’s important is that I don’t see randomness at work here but a formula that rings true with many people that played Shenmue – and therefore love it as one of the best gaming experiences they ever had (of course you can’t please everybody).

    Of course Shenmue is a game that cost several dozen million bucks – but the money was mostly sunk into the presentation and the creators’ perfectionism but not the concept behind it. An indie title can operate with a similar concept and be successful, IMHO.

  • chris said,

    I love Shenmue, but eveything you mentioned is world design, not game design. On the latter front, Shenmue is a pretty mixed bag, overly easy with long stretches of non-action, and the stongest elements of its design lifted straight from Virtua Fighter. I suppose some might make the argument that some elements of the world design affect gameplay, and I do see your broader point that simple games with tons of love and care added can be transformative – but I would counter that, had they managed to pack Shenmue into a cheaper 2D, iterative format, they may have had the chance to focus on more gameplay elemrnts that would have reached a wider audience – e.g. replacing some of the aimless walking around with snes rpg-style “nice job here is the next quest, win these fights to proceed”. I imagine you, like me, enjoyed the aimless wandering quite a bit – but a huge number of people specifically did not, which basically bears out the quandary Jay is talking about here, to my eyes.

  • Anon said,

    > I love Shenmue, but eveything you mentioned is world design, not game design.

    The point of the author of that book was – and I agree with him – that the world design influences the game much more than on a superficial level. You actually “live” a (very limited) life in this small world.

    I agree that if you only view the game mechanics as such (=what the player can do) that you have an “adventure part” (plot & quests related to it), a “sandbox part” (optional stuff like collecting and playing a tourist = wandering around aimlessly) and the fighting game part.
    Nothing sensational, really, if you look at these parts but the sum of it – including the world design – is what makes up Shenmue.

    I agree, though, that they should’ve used a less costly approach to make all intended sequels possible. They could’ve actually saved a lot if they hadn’t given their “star designer Yu Suzuki” so much free reign. There are downright disturbing examples in the book how they wasted resources (modelling stuff correctly in 3D even if it will *never* actually be visible on screen, for instance).
    I suspect, however, that a 2D version wouldn’t have been automatically more successful. A lot of the fascination of Shenmue comes from the level of immersion – a 3D game is still the best choice, IMHO.

    Finally, my point was that the developer should give his/her creation some direction – even if it appears like a sandbox game without goals.
    I admit that my post was too ambitious to cover the essence of the book in such limited space. 😉