Turning Ideas Into A Game

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Okay, so you've come up with a single idea that you think would make a good game. But you can't know if it is a gem until you've gone through the entire prototyping and playtesting process. After all, the only way to know if a game works is to play it.

At this point, many game designers try to take a shortcut. They believe that the best way to come up with a game concept is to begin with an existing game. After all, the game mechanics are evident, and it's been proven to work. This is fine to a limited extent. It is important to have an in depth knowledge of games and an understanding of game mechanics, but if you are going to create truly original material, you have to think beyond the games you've played.

We prefer to have you begin by forgetting everything you know about games for one second. Don't think of replicating the latest hit title, or how to combine existing games to create a better one, or features you can layer upon existing game engines. Instead, focus on what you want to say. Work from a vision of the type of game you'd like to play. The structure should be one element of that vision.

Is your game about Africa? Does it have wild animals? If so, as you develop the idea, ask yourself how those animals might interact? What is the role of the player? Does the player have a clearly defined goal? And what are the obstacles in getting to that goal? You see where we're headed. The game mechanics, for the most part, should stem from the core idea. They're an outgrowth of your overall vision.

As you continue to brainstorm, edit, and revise, ask yourself how you'd like your game to look and feel. What is the tone? How should it function? Let your mind wander free and try not to refer to existing games. Write these ideas down in general terms and use the brainstorming techniques to turn them upside down and come up with fresh angles.

There is no right answer. What we don't want to do is lock down the game structure too early in the process. Give yourself time to play around and experiment with a variety of structures to see which fits your vision the best. Refer to the formal and dramatic elements of game design presented in Chapters 2 through 5 of this book. Think about each aspect of your game idea in terms of these elements. If you've forgotten any of them, please go back and review them before proceeding.

Formal elements of game design

  • Players

    • Number of players

    • Roles of players

    • Player interaction patterns

  • Objectives

  • Procedures

  • Rules

  • Resources

  • Conflict

    • Obstacles

    • Opponents

    • Dilemmas

  • Boundaries

  • Outcome

Dramatic elements of game design

  • Challenge

  • Play

  • Premise

  • Character

  • Story

One stumbling block many novices run into is allowing themselves to be distracted by the dramatic elements. Story and characters are necessary, but don't let them obscure your view of the gameplay. They should remain secondary until you pin down the mechanics.

What we're trying to do here is to help you to think about the underlying structure without copying existing games. Most games share common elements, and you will probably find a lot of overlap between your ideas and the games you've played, but you should also think about that fact that each of these elements can be used to create new mechanics and types of play. Strive to innovate in your designs, even if only one aspect of your game is an innovation.

Critical thinking skills

One way to hone your design abilities is to develop your critical thinking skills in terms of gameplay. In Chapter 1, we told you to become a tester, to take notes as you play. This is a great way to begin observing how games work, but designers should also analyze their own observations. After a gaming session, write down what works for you and what could be improved. It's important to describe how you'd improve specific elements of gameplay.

For example, if you're playing a first-person shooter and the control system feels clunky, get out a pen and paper and describe the problem. Why doesn't it work? How might you remedy this problem? Would you modify the GUI, the gameplay, or the graphics? The same holds true for features you enjoy. Write down what you like and make notes as to why each element works. These notes will become priceless later on, and the act of writing them down will help to hone your analytical skills. That way, when you sit down to design your own games, you can learn from other people's mistakes, while building upon the foundation that previous designers have provided.

Simply avoiding mistakes and improving upon existing games seldom yields groundbreaking game design, however. If you want to push the envelope, don't forget to think beyond the game itself to the fundamental gameplay structure. This is where true innovation lies. If you have any brilliant flashes while playing a game, write your ideas down. And even if you don't have any insights, it's good practice to make yourself think of ways of altering the design to yield new results.

The notes you take while playing games will become the basis for your game bible: a list of every game you've ever played, along with detailed analysis of the gameplay mechanisms. Yes, for a true gamer, one who has played thousands of hours of games, this is an enormous amount of work, and we won't ask you to do it all here, but it's something you should start doing today and keep doing for the rest of your life.

As you dissect more and more games, patterns will begin to emerge. This is how you train yourself to think of games in terms of systems that can be deconstructed, manipulated, and transformed. Your goal should be to look at games from a mechanical perspective and take each one apart, much as an auto mechanic works on a car. By taking parts out of numerous game engines, you can learn how they function and eventually construct new, groundbreaking machines.

Focus on the formal elements

Once you have decided on a concept you'd like to develop into a game, you should sit down and lay out the formal elements (or game mechanics). This is easier said than done. For first-time designers, it can be difficult to know where to begin. A good rule of thumb is to go back to your vision of the game and try to derive the mechanics from the subject matter. You may even want to set up separate brainstorming sessions for every element in the design.

As you begin to fill in the elements one by one, you will see a structure emerge. This will become an actual system that you can model and test. At any point, if you get stuck and don't know how to define a particular game element, go back to your game bible and look at other games. See how they function. What devices do they use to solve similar problems? Can you innovate on their approach? Play around with their rules and see what you come up with.

Fleshing out the game structure

  • Define each player's goal.

  • What does a player need to do to win?

  • Write down the single most important type of player action in the game.

  • Describe how this functions.

  • Write down the procedures and rules in outline format.

  • Only focus on the most critical rules.

  • Leave all other rules until later.

  • Map out how a typical turn works.

  • Using a flowchart is the most effective way to visualize this.

  • Define how many players can play.

  • How do these players interact with one another?

This is the very beginning of a process of prototyping. We won't go into detail here because Chapter 7 will take you through every aspect of

Questions to ask yourself

  • What is the conflict in my game?

  • What are the rules and procedures?

  • What actions do the players take and when?

  • Are there turns? How do they work? *How many players can play?

  • How long does a game take to resolve?

  • What is the working title?

  • Who is the target audience?

  • What platform will this game run on? What restrictions or opportunities does that environment have?

The more questions you ask yourself the better. And it's okay if your answers are rough and messy at this point in the process. In the beginning, you can only guess, and you won't know ifyou're on the right track until you actually play the game and see how it works. But don't let this stop you from conceptualizing the game. You may be working blind at first, but soon the game will materialize before your eyes. prototyping a game. Suffice to say, that the brainstorming process, as it evolves, naturally segues into prototyping and then playtesting.

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Designer Perspective: Bill Roper

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Title: CEO, Flagship Studios

  • Warcraft: Orcs and Humans

  • Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness

  • Starcraft

  • Starcraft: Brood War

  • Diablo

  • Diablo II

  • Diablo II: Lord of Destruction

  • Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos

How did you get into the game industry?

I have always been an avid gamer, ever since my mom and dad introduced me to cribbage and black- jack (respectively) to teach me quick addition skills at the age of five. I was doing desktop publishing on the 4:00 P.M.-1:00 A.M. shift for a company called Lasertype when a good friend of mine told me about an opportunity at the small game company where he worked. They needed someone to do the music for a port of one of their games onto the PC because the regular music guy was busy working on their first self-published title. The company was Blizzard and after doing music for the PC version of Blackthorne, I was fortunate enough to stay on to do the voice-over work, world design, and manual for WarCraft: Orcs and Humans. The day I started in the game industry and turned in my resignation to the desktop publishing company was one of the best in my life.

What are your five favorite games and why?

This list changes slightly every time I think about it, due in great part to the sheer number of games I play. Also, these are from an all-time list, and not necessarily the ones I am playing right now-some of which may be on this list if I wrote it out again in few months.

  • Wizardry: One of the great early gaming experiences on the Apple II, I can still remember marveling at the fact that it looked like you were actually walking down a hallway to fight the monsters. The dungeon designs, the puzzles, the interface, the items (Cuisinart the Vorpal Blade) and the story were all fun and exciting. Wizardry was definitely a defining title in my high school gaming days on the computer.

  • Carcassonne: This is a fantastic boardgame out of Germany that centers on the construction of cities and roadways. It changes every time you play it, thanks to the system of people playing a randomly drawn tile on their turn. The game has a lot of social aspects as well since each piece is flipped up and the entire table is supposed to give their advice on how best to play it. I can, and have, played game after game after game of this for hours on end.

  • Diablo II: Although I worked on this game, it (along with the expansion set) still holds my interest. It is a wonderfully fun romp where just about everything is random, so it simply never gets old. A great community of gamers has grown around the game and hooking up to play over battle.net is so easy, it all makes a terrific package for single- or multiplayer fun, whether I have fifteen minutes or an entire weekend to spend on it.

  • Grand Theft Auto III: Whether you agree with the edgy premise of the game world, the mechanics and thoughtfulness that went into this game are undeniable. I have played this since it came out, and I am still finding new, fun things to do. The openness of the design and the sheer fun of driving around at breakneck speeds keep this high on my list.

  • Poker: I honestly think this is perhaps the perfect game. It has simple rules with a limited and easy to understand number of pieces, has innumerable game variations that don't require an expansion set, is played by both core and mass market gamers, is portable, has a scalable risk to reward ratio, and is equal parts skill and luck. Throw in the fact that it is a multiplayer game, and you can hopefully see why it has all the pieces of puzzle for being an amazingly good game.

What games have inspired you the most as a designer and why?

The short answer is every game I have ever played. I think that everything we do in life can act as inspiration for making games, whether reading books, watching movies, listening to music, traveling to different places, playing sports, or just simply living your life. I have always believed that you have to play games to make games, just like a chef eats at a lot of different restaurants to better understand and refine his own craft. I can look to games from Civilization to Monopoly to EverQuest Mario Bros. to StarCraft to Bard's Tale to Half-Life to Madden NFL and find elements that either really make that game work or could have been done better. The real challenge comes in being able to just sit down and play without completely analyzing every minute element, but I suppose that comes with the territory.

What are you most proud of in your career?

It would be easy to just list the games that I have worked on, but more importantly are the people I had the honor of working with to make those games. I have been privileged to be a part of some simply amazing teams over the past nine years, and the people with whom I am starting a new company are some of the best. Our industry is constantly evolving, and it is rare to have such a good run over such a long period of time. I firmly believe that it was possible because of the dedicated and talented group of developers who had a true passion and respect for what we were doing and who we were doing it for.

And that is the other thing of which I am most proud-having the chance to be so deeply involved in the community of gamers around the world. Staying focused on the players is so vital to making good games. It is easy to become enamored with technology or art or the business side of our industry, but making games that are fun for people who want and escape from the rigors of daily life is really what it's all about.

What words of advice would you give to an aspiring designer today?

To quote a popular ad campaign-'Just Do It.' You can't get good at making games unless you make games. Use the level design tools that are a part of many of the best selling titles to work out game ideas. Tear apart boardgames to prototype your ideas. Play around with existing games by changing rules or goals or the strengths and weaknesses of the individual components and see how the balance works. Most importantly, never stop playing.

For now, the goal is to have an outline of where your game is headed, both in terms of a written treatment and a rough sense of the game mechanics. Whenever you get stuck or feel you can improve upon a particular element, remember to go back and utilize the brainstorming techniques described previously.

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A Roper Collage:
Diablo (below)
WarCraft II (right)
WarCraft III (lower right)

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Practice, practice, practice

The first time you go through this process will be the hardest. Each time you do it, however, you will become more capable of generating workable ideas. Every accomplished game designer has developed many more concepts than he or she will ever produce. The key is to be persistent and keep practicing.

Exercise 6.9: Write a Treatment

start example

Take the description you wrote in Exercise 6.8 and expand it into a three- to-five-page treatment for your game idea. Ask yourself questions about the formal and dramatic elements as you write. Remember that this is just a draft-when we go on to the prototyping stage we will address these questions again in more details.

end example

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Game Design Workshop. Designing, Prototyping, and Playtesting Games
Game Design Workshop: Designing, Prototyping, & Playtesting Games (Gama Network Series)
ISBN: 1578202221
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2003
Pages: 162

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