Game design tips for indie devel­op­ers. Part 1

The first part of a new post series where I share some game design tips for indie devel­op­ers as well as my own experience. 

I know, I know — “who the f*ck am I to be in any posi­tion to give advice?”. You’re right — I’m vir­tu­al­ly nobody, and you’ll prob­a­bly bet­ter off lis­ten­ing to some gamedev vets who have many suc­cess­ful (or fin­ished, at least) games in their port­fo­lios. But think about it — we learn from our mis­takes. And who bet­ter to give you tips about what to avoid than the per­son who’ve made all of the mis­takes? I failed so many times that I can prob­a­bly teach the course called “Game Devel­op­ment: What you def­i­nite­ly should not do”.

I want to share my expe­ri­ence with all of you. To those who just began their jour­ney — heed my warn­ing; and those who are more expe­ri­enced — well, you can mock me if you want.

Ready? Let’s get to it.

1. Don’t try mak­ing your dream game on the first try

Seri­ous­ly — just don’t. I under­stand that hav­ing your dream game in your mind is prob­a­bly the very thing that got you into think­ing about devel­op­ing games at all. But the chances are (unless you are INSANELY skilled in all of the areas) you will fail mis­er­ably. Almost nobody made their big hit as their first game; even if they did — they prob­a­bly had lots of expe­ri­ence before that.

The first game that I tried to make was an open-world CRPG. A mix of Goth­ic and The Elder Scrolls, with my own set­ting and plen­ty of new mechan­ics. It all start­ed dur­ing school, where I and my friend decid­ed we should make a game. After sit­ting down with pen and paper for a month or so we had plen­ty of paper­work, but we were no clos­er to cre­at­ing the actu­al game. We tried “hir­ing” enthu­si­asts for free on the inter­net. You know those threads that every­one hates — a boi comes and says he’s mak­ing an UBER MMORPG SANDBOX SURVIVAL FPS PUZZLE game and he wants every­one to work for him. There were no tools like Uni­ty or Unre­al back then so you can imag­ine where that left us. 

All we end­ed up with was a cou­ple of sketch­es and plen­ty of paper­work. After a few years, I tried pick­ing this idea up and mak­ing this game in Uni­ty. That was my first time using that frame­work. Here are a cou­ple of ear­ly (back from the school days) character/monster con­cepts and a few lat­er screen­shots from Unity:

Looks at least okay, right? But did it work? Was it an actu­al game? Or even a pro­to­type? Not even close. All I did was a very basic char­ac­ter move­ment and moved assets around the scene a lot. Hon­est­ly — I see too much young lads who announce their “big project”, while in fact, all they have are a few assets places on a scene.

In this case, every­one sug­gests mak­ing a super-sim­ple game. But that did­n’t help me much. I got bored with a small game every time even before it was ful­ly playable. But I’m not say­ing you should­n’t do it. While mak­ing sim­pler things, I learned. I still con­sid­er myself a begin­ner, but through­out the course of aban­don­ing project after project, I learned things. I sug­gest you just try a few things, and even if they don’t pan out — it’s okay. There’s no point in forc­ing your­self to devel­op a game if it bores you to death. Soon­er or lat­er, you’re going to find a project that you can actu­al­ly do, and the one you also like doing. Besides get­ting bored, I aban­doned some of my projects because I real­ized they were too com­plex for my cur­rent knowledge.

That’s why with the cur­rent project I’m try­ing out some­thing new. It’s pret­ty sim­ple (yeeeeah, espe­cial­ly shoot­ing *sar­casm*) and I feel like I’m okay with the lev­el of com­plex­i­ty of imple­ment­ing dif­fer­ent mechan­ics and sys­tems; and I also don’t rush — I’m tak­ing one step at a time. I’m patient­ly mak­ing one small thing after the oth­er. And it works. I ain’t grow­ing tired of the project (a whole month, almost every day — and I’m still going strong! That’s new for me) and I can actu­al­ly see the progress. It’s so much bet­ter than mov­ing assets around.

You might ask, why the f did I sug­gest mak­ing a sim­ple game if I am devel­op­ing some­thing that does­n’t look like a min­i­mal­is­tic mobile 2d hyper-casu­al game? Well, I’ve been at it for a few years now, and I have found my own gold­en mean, my own pace; the game is not too sim­ple to get bored and not too com­plex to aban­don it. I have plen­ty of stuff I want to add to the game. But if at any giv­en moment I’ll real­ize that *this par­tic­u­lar* thing is mak­ing the devel­op­ment process too tedious, I just won’t add it to the game. Don’t be afraid that your first game might not be that great. It’s total­ly okay.

2. Learn and under­stand game design

What? Learn­ing stuff? Are we at school? Well, unfor­tu­nate­ly, you can’t go around mak­ing games with­out under­stand­ing first how they work, what do they con­sist of and every­thing in between. On some basic lev­el, you might know game design already: after all, you’ve prob­a­bly played games in your life and, sub­con­scious­ly, you were tak­ing notes of how par­tic­u­lar things are made and how they work togeth­er. This par­tic­u­lar skill — the “reverse-engi­neer­ing” of the games you play, is very impor­tant for a game design­er (I’ll talk about it fur­ther) and it comes with practice. 

But you should not rely only on your “insight” abil­i­ty, and should actu­al­ly read books and arti­cles about game design. The more — the bet­ter. For now, I don’t have a post about books on game design, but I’m think­ing about writ­ing one. But in the mean­time, just go on google and search for game design books. There are plen­ty of them out there. Just pick one you like the most and start read­ing it. Two of the most pop­u­lar ones are Jesse Schell’s “The Art of Game Design” and Scott Rogers’ “Lev­el Up!”.

Even if you start read­ing and real­ize that you some­how already know some of the stuff — keep going. Infor­ma­tion in such books is struc­tured in a log­i­cal and easy to under­stand way, and will put your thoughts and knowl­edge in order. Some things there are pret­ty obvi­ous, while oth­ers are not so much. Any­hoo, it will give your game design­er’s mind a foun­da­tion for fur­ther development.

Game design is what dri­ves every game. There is not a sin­gle game that does­n’t fol­low one rule or the oth­er. Yes, some of the games bend those rules or com­plete­ly break them — but that’s the whole point of cre­ativ­i­ty. In order to break and bend the rules, you must first under­stand them and acknowl­edge that they exist.

3. Play a lot, but not for the sake of playing

I’m not say­ing you should not play for fun at all. But when you play var­i­ous games, take notes of dif­fer­ent stuff. What’s the core loop? Is there a sin­gle mechan­ic at the base of the game or are there sev­er­al that work togeth­er? How is UI set up? And many, many oth­er things that make the game a game. Write out ideas and imple­men­ta­tions that you liked. Take notes of what makes one game dif­fer­ent from its com­peti­tors and so on. With time, you will learn to reverse-engi­neer the game design of any on the fly.
While play­ing, you might not even think about these things, but there are there. And with time, you learn to see them.

This has a draw­back, though. With some games (espe­cial­ly mobile), you can quick­ly lose inter­est in them after fig­ur­ing out how they are built. The most recent exam­ple from my life is The Elder Scrolls: Blades. After a cou­ple of hours, I did quick math and fig­ured out how much I would be actu­al­ly play­ing and enjoy­ing this game, and how much I will be grind­ing for resources and bat­tling timers. The lat­ter seems to take most of the game­play time, so I was huge­ly dis­ap­point­ed in this game even before it start­ed frus­trat­ing me.

But it some­times can be a bless­ing as well. When you’re play­ing a game and see some game design trick and you’re like — “WHOA! Now that’s an awe­some thing they did”. With time, you will learn to under­stand not only that games bring out cer­tain emo­tions, but HOW they do it.

4. Use the “Ana­lyze and Improve” method

Con­tin­u­ing on the pre­vi­ous tip, there’s a neat trick you can do while devel­op­ing games. Let’s imag­ine you want to make a cer­tain game. Find its clos­est alter­na­tives and sim­i­lar games, and play them. While play­ing — ana­lyze: what you like and what you do not. 

Then, when design­ing your own game, take what you liked and improve it in any way you think is best. Maybe the change of set­ting would be good for this genre, or maybe mak­ing move­ment ver­ti­cal instead of hor­i­zon­tal would do the trick. Then try avoid­ing the things you did not like in those game you played. But don’t ignore them alto­geth­er — again, think about how to improve them in such a way, that instead of cons they become pros.

I know it’s tempt­ing to just make a straight­for­ward rip-off of some pop­u­lar game. After all, “Clash of Clash­ing Clans: The Clan Clash”-like games are very pop­u­lar and earn mil­lions of dol­lars. But I think that’s just an ill taste. You’ll have to think twice whether you want to be an artist or sell your soul to the god of microtransactions.

5. Keep a ‘jour­nal’ of your game design ideas

Hav­ing a piece of paper or a phone with a note-tak­ing app with you at all times is a must. You don’t know where inspi­ra­tion will strike you and you got­ta be ready. Any idea that comes into your head may be a valu­able gem (or com­plete trash), but nev­er­the­less — write it down somewhere.

If you’re busy with some project at the cur­rent time, you might revise your ideas after you fin­ish it, and pick one (or even com­bine sev­er­al) for your next game. The best thing about revis­ing your idea lat­er — not at the moment it hit you — is that you can crit­i­cal­ly review it and see whether it is real­ly good, or not so much.

This hap­pened with my game (the one I talked in the begin­ning), Are­sera. Com­ing to the notes sev­er­al years lat­er felt very weird. But it was very insight­ful to look at what I cre­at­ed some years ago and review it with the cur­rent knowl­edge and expe­ri­ence. Some of the ideas were SO lame — you won’t believe it. But some of the ideas which we came up with and did­n’t see in any of the games at that time — we saw lat­er in some of the pop­u­lar games. So it was­n’t all that bad, huh?

There’s a very cool web­site called “Three Hun­dred Mechan­ics” — def­i­nite­ly check it out. A guy wrote down (or still does?) his game design ideas. Some are very thor­ough and detailed, some are just a short notions — but you can see how such idea jour­nal can look like. Or even find inspi­ra­tion there.

I guess I’ll end this arti­cle here because it’s pret­ty big already. At first, I want­ed to make a list of 20–30 tips, but as you can see, it would be real­ly huge, and nobody in their right mind would read this. 

Any­way, I hope you had a great time and found some­thing use­ful among these lines.