I started out writing these design blogs to offer some tips about game design, and I decided to tie that in with what has been going on with Codex Worlds. It is also important, however, to talk about what else goes on in pre-production in addition to design. In the past two blogs, I covered some production, project management, producing, and team evaluation points. Now onto some tactical game design tips ... the whole point of this blog. :)
Game design style is very personal and different for every person and company. Again, my goal here is not to define the ultimate way to design but provide context, experience, and advice for further discussion ... and if you can find something here worth taking away, then great. If not, then at least a different perspective can be established.
I've said it before, and I'll say it again - we must get as much design on paper as possible before the full team is programming, doing art, and providing dialog. Often, the game will morph as it is developed -- playables are made, and editorial is provided -- but people make decisions, not documents. Documents inform and organize. Game development is difficult and complex, so cutting iterations will save the company time and money every time. Of course, it needs to be taken seriously by the team and designers because bad documentation may be worse than no documentation.
- Take the time to really understand and evaluate the genre your team is tackling. The more original the design, the more thought that should be put into the pre-production. For example, an adventure game with GTA-style gameplay is going to need a lot of art and coding in the game. Can your team design a game that's going to stand out in this genre? More important, can you complete it? (Note: This is aside from the art and technical issues. Look at the game development challenge as a design challenge.) Another example might be a side-scrolling 2-D game that has awesome physics. Do players care about this? Do editors mention physics in their reviews of other games? Is anybody tackling this feature? Do your friends care about this feature? Ultimately, successful game design is a lot of asking the right questions and picking the right battles.
- As a designer, challenge your team to hit standards that stand out in the industry. Again, it doesn't have to be scope, like in a MMO, or technology, like that used in Unreal 4; as a game designer, your success is tied to a team that has some strengths and some weaknesses. For indies, scale and technology are challenges, but of course, good designers come up with designs that fit a team's strengths.
- Tactically, it is important to understand the "politics" of the game design process. As much as one may hate the word "politics," it is a reality with creative ventures that are led and often funded by other team members who may or may not be designers themselves. That in itself is not a bad thing. Steve Jobs noted that he went out of his way to listen to nonprogrammers and nontechnical people -- like musicians, calligraphers, and educators -- to come up with his greatest designs. So, in game design, figure out from whom you need to get approval, advice or perspective, and design for those objectives.
- So what happens if the objectives are unclear? This can happen quite often and, frankly, is the nature of the beast. The marketplace changes, the competitors announce new products, production capabilities change, funding changes, and dozens of other things can affect development objectives. Successful game designers have opinions but are able to be creative and flexible in the most "unreasonable" of circumstances.
- Decide on a paradigm or framework for designing. Different genres need different frameworks, but start with deciding an organization and process that is needed for your project. It could be as simple as one person coming up with the first draft, and another person commenting, and then the next draft goes wider, and the first two people have final say ... fine, that's the process. But often, no process is expressed, and as changes and editorial filter in, chaos reigns. I talked about other frameworks, including a funnel approach or gold standards approach ... pick one, or a mixture of both, but clearly communicate that to the team.
- Decide what role the iterative prototype and playables will have in the development process. This is, by far, the most popular way to develop games in my experience, but it is often the culprit for games that never finish! I am the first person to find value and merit in playables, and I also believe lots of changes can and should be made based on feedback and gameplay. (Note: I have a background in game marketing research, so I am often the voice for the consumer on game dev.) Having said that, most indie teams do not have the resources to do it properly or in a timely fashion. So a 6-month project turns into a 2-year project, and it is often of a lesser quality than they initially planned, but they have 20 playables! For Infinium Run, I am practicing what I preach here by trying to get about 80% of the design down before we even have our first playable. Only time will tell whether we hit that, but as a producer, I know if we didn't do that, development would likely be measured in years, not months.
This blog is getting long, and I have a lot more worth sharing. I'll continue to add more comments in the future, so stay tuned for Game Design Part 4.
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