A game s focus is the designer s idea of what is most important about a game. In this chapter I encourage designers to write their focus down in a short paragraph, since putting it down in writing can often clarify and solidify a designer s thoughts.
Furthermore, having it in physical form opens it up for discussion with the development team. However, it is the idea of the focus that is of paramount importance. In a way, a game s focus is similar to a corporation s mission statement, assuming such mission statements are actually meaningful and used to guide all of a corporation s decisions.
As a game designer you should start concerning yourself with your game s focus from the very beginning of the project. When the project is in its infancy, before work has started on the design document and the project exists primarily as an idea in your head, you should ask yourself a series of questions about the game you are envisioning:
What is it about this game that is most compelling?
What is this game trying to accomplish?
What type of experience will the player have?
What sort of emotions is the game trying to evoke in the player?
What should the player take away from the game?
How is this game unique? What differentiates it from other games ?
What sort of control will the player have over the game-world?
By going over these questions, you should be able to determine the core nature of the game you are planning to create. If you have trouble answering these questions, now is the time to think about the game until the answers to these questions become obvious. Now ” before there is anyone else working on the project, before burn rate is being spent and driving up the game s budget, before the marketing department starts trying to influence the game s content and direction ” is the time to focus. Only by firmly establishing the vision of the game early on will you have any chance of seeing it carried out.
If you do not have too much trouble divining answers to these questions, you may have written an entire page or more delineating the game s points of differentiation. But a page is too much. The focus that we are striving for needs to be succinct ” a few sentences, a short paragraph at the most. Some would go so far as to say it should be a single sentence , though I personally prefer something slightly longer than that. What is most important is that it be something you can quickly read to your colleagues without their eyes glazing over. You should take whatever notes you have in answer to these questions and whittle them down until they are short enough to fill only a few sentences, a mid- sized paragraph. Keep only your most compelling ideas. You do not need to list every single feature of the game, or even everything it does differently from other games. Keep only what is most important to your vision of the game, only those points which, if you took them away, would irreparably weaken the game.
You do not need to include the fictional setting of your game if that is not inherent to the actual focus of the project. It may not matter if your game has a fantasy, science fiction, or 1920s crime fiction setting if what is really at the heart of your game is exploring the relationships between characters in a stressful situation or the subtleties of siege warfare . If the setting is not vital to what you want to do with the game, leave it out. Of course, your primary motivation for working on a project may be hopelessly intertwined with the setting. If you actually started with a setting you wanted to explore in a game, such as costumed superheroes in small-town America, and your vision of the gameplay formed around the idea of these characters in a certain environment, then you will want to include it in your focus. The focus is exclusively for the concepts that are most central to the game you are hoping to develop. All that should remain in your focus are the elements without which the game would no longer exist.
Your focus should be something that grabs you viscerally, stirs your creative juices, and makes you feel absolutely exhilarated. If it is not something that thrills you, even at this early stage, it is going to be hard for you to muster enthusiasm when your deadlines are slipping, your budget is skyrocketing, you still have three levels to create, and your lead artist just left for another company. Chris Crawford touched on the idea of a game s focus in his book, The Art of Computer Game Design , as he was discussing what he called a game s goal: This is your opportunity to express yourself; choose a goal in which you believe, a goal that expresses your sense of aesthetic , your world view It matters not what your goal is, so long as it is congruent with your own interests, beliefs, and passions . If you do not believe in your game, it is not going to be the best game you can make.
Even if you are working under the constraints of a license, a domineering publisher, or a prima donna lead programmer, make your own goals for the project. If the game you have been assigned to work on is not one in which you are interested, figure out some way to transform it into something you can get excited about. No situation is so bad that, given enough time, you cannot make something out of it that you find personally compelling. You want your focus to be something you will fight for intensely until the game finally ships.
Much of this chapter is written in a fashion that implies that you are in charge of your project, at least from a game design standpoint. Of course, this may not be the case. You may be one of several designers on the project. You may even be one of seven and you were just hired last week, so you are at the bottom of the seniority ladder. This does not excuse you from determining what your game s focus is and doing everything you can to keep the game on track. Hopefully the lead designer has already determined what the project s goals are and should have included this information in the introduction to the design document. If you cannot find it there, you may wish to go talk to your lead. Ask him what the project is really trying to do, not in a confrontational way, but just so you get a good idea of where the project is going, and how your contribution to the game can be properly aligned with that direction.
If it turns out the design lead does not really have a focus in mind, it may be held by another member of the team, say a lead programmer or lead artist. However, if despite your best research efforts, the project seems to be goal-less, you may need to take matters into your own hands. Try to figure out where the project seems to be heading, and start talking with people about it. Chat with the other designers, artists , programmers, and producers . Try to talk to them about what the game is all about, and try to get everyone to agree. Meetings may be a good place to do this; when everyone is present, any conflicts between different perspectives or personalities on the team can be found and addressed. You do not need to be in a lead position in order to keep your project on track. As a designer in any capacity on a project, it is ultimately your responsibility that the game always has a clear direction and that a fun game emerges at the end of the tunnel.
Let us suppose you have a vision for a game involving a winter carnival. What is it about winter carnivals that excites you? Is it the ice sculptures? Taking a block of ice and converting it into a snow-themed mammal? No? Perhaps what is really exciting to you is going to winter festivals, with their combination of frozen art, ice skating, snowman competitions, skiing, snowball fights, and championship ice fishing . Indeed, you always wondered how they kept those festivals going so long even with the threat of warmer weather constantly looming on the horizon. Since the winter carnival component seems fairly central to your idea, you will need to include it in the focus. So your focus can start with a sentence that explains this: The player s experience will revolve around running an ice carnival, with the player responsible for maintaining as long a season as possible, despite uncooperative weather.
Now, what is it about running an ice carnival that grabs you? You see a relentless battle against the elements, racing against spring to keep your operation running as long as possible. Something about harnessing the cold is uniquely compelling to you. Perhaps you enjoy the feeling of running around in the snow, not quite being in control of how fast you can stop and the slapstick moments that may result. This particular appeal of the elements may be unique to you and may not be the most commercially promising new game to come along, but at this stage you re trying to capture your personal thoughts about the game. Do not self- censor your ideas until it is absolutely necessary. So include a few more sentences that serve to illustrate the feeling of your game: The game will capture the excitement of playing in the snow, including the simple physics that make that fun, through a central character who must move around a somewhat hazardous environment and keep multiple displays, rides, and other attractions operating smoothly. The player s main source of conflict will be the weather itself. Throughout, the tone will be light and whimsical.
What else about your winter festival game is a central part of your vision? Do you want to realistically simulate the injuries one might sustain by falling down on ice? Is going to the hospital and waiting for your surrogate to heal an intrinsic part of your game? Not really; it seems that though that feature could be added to the game, it is not absolutely essential to your vision. Indeed, such a level of simulation might detract from the light and whimsical tone. Will the game be in 3D or in 2D? Well, actually, the game could work in either. To be commercially viable in today s marketplace it will probably need to be 3D, but that is not central to your vision. In your focus, do not include aspects of your game that are more about getting the project funded and published than making the game you want to make. You can worry about commercial considerations later. As I stated before, right now you are concerned with your vision, and if you start compromising your vision before absolutely necessary, at the end of the day you are going to be blind. So you do not need to specify 2D or 3D. Indeed, maybe you have everything you need for the focus. Remember, the focus should not be very long.
Now is the time to put your two sentences together in a paragraph and name the game. Though it may seem premature, naming the game is actually a good idea at this point. You want other members of your team, the marketing department, and the business people to start liking your game as soon as possible, and having a name they can refer to it by is fairly important to that process. Can they really discuss it seriously as this game idea Richard had ? Giving your game a name makes it real instead of just an idea, as ridiculous as that may seem.
Try your very best to come up with a name that you like and that could end up being the final name for the game. Often whatever name is given to a game early on will end up sticking with the game forever. It is especially important not to pick a purposefully idiotic name, since those are the kind most likely to stick. For instance, let us say you name it Egyptian Rumba . As your team keeps referring to the game as Egyptian Rumba, they will start to associate your cool game with this idiotic title, and your idiotic title will start to sound pretty good through association. Someone working on the art team may start giving the characters an Egyptian color scheme. Team members who are working on the story might spend a lot of time trying to figure out why the game should be named Egyptian Rumba , and will develop an especially clever story line around the name. If you later try to change the name they will be sad and possibly angry that their story no longer makes any sense. Even the suits will start to like your Egyptian Rumba title. They will think of how they can capture both the adventuring archeologist market and the Cuban dance market. And soon, if you even remember, you will say it is time to change the game s title, and everyone will say, Why? We like Egyptian Rumba ! It s a great name! And then you will really be stuck. Then the public will see it on the shelves and will think, What the heck is that? It sounds stupid, and quickly pass on to games with more reasonable titles.
So you finally choose Winter Carnival Whirlwind . Perhaps a more exciting name will come up later, but you can live with this one. Now, assemble the pieces of your focus into one paragraph, and try to write it cleanly and succinctly. Refer to your game in the present tense, as though your game already exists. Winter Carnival Whirlwind is an exhilarating instead of Winter Carnival Whirlwind will be an exhilarating This lends your game a more concrete existence in the minds of those who read your focus. It is not just a game that may come about at some point in the future; it already is a game, if only in your head. Something else to avoid is using generic descriptions that do not actually provide the reader with any useful information. For instance, Winter Carnival Whirlwind is a high-quality , fun game that Of course it is supposed to be fun. Does anyone set out to create a boring or low-quality game? Edit out any sections of your focus that do not communicate important information about your game.
Putting together the parts of your focus, you will end up with the following:
Winter Carnival Whirlwind is a fast and furious character action and theme park management hybrid game. The player s experience revolves around running an ice carnival, with the player responsible for maintaining as long a season as possible, despite uncooperative weather. The game captures the excitement of playing in the snow, including the simple physics that make that fun, through a central character who must navigate a somewhat hazardous environment and keep multiple systems operating smoothly. The player's main source of conflict is the weather itself. Winter Carnival Whirlwind has a light and whimsical tone throughout.
Try to keep your focus from referring to other games. You want the focus to describe the essence of your game, and if your focus is, Voltarr is like Tomb Raider , but set on the whimsical planet Dongo and featuring many intense laser gunfights, it is hard for someone looking at your focus to understand immediately what parts of Tomb Raider you are hoping to emulate. Take a look at Tomb Raider itself and determine what you think its focus may have been. Then take that focus, remove whatever parts are not necessary for your game, and add in whatever new ideas your game will incorporate . Chances are your idea of what was compelling about Tomb Raider will be different from someone else s understanding. When members of your team read, It s like Tomb Raider , they are probably reminded of some different aspect of that game s gameplay than you are. That s assuming that they have played Tomb Raider at all. Since the focus is designed to guide your team members as well as yourself, it needs to communicate the same ideas to everyone who reads it. Even if the focus is primarily for your own use, the process of analyzing Tomb Raider to determine what about it you want to replicate will help you to better understand your own game. You need to have a properly streamlined focus that can stand on its own, without demanding that the person who is reading the focus understand any other particular games. All the relevant information that is important to your focus must be contained within the focus itself, without outside references. Often when designers set out to create It s like Game X but with games, they tend to lose sight of what made the game they are imitating so compelling in the first place. Then they proceed to make their own game top-heavy with tacked-on features that exist only to hide the fact their game is just like Game X . Removing references to other games from your focus will help expose the true nature of the project you are undertaking. If you add sufficient description revealing what it is about another game that you are trying to capture in your new design, it may be OK to leave in the reference to that original game since it can provide a helpful starting point for readers. This is a matter of individual preference when writing your focus, and I personally prefer to leave out other game references of any kind if at all possible.
Establishing a focus for your project does not need to limit the scope of your game, and is not intended to do so. Your game can still be a massively complex game with an epic sweep. In fact, if appropriate, this complexity and depth should probably be mentioned in your focus, but you should still be able to describe the game in a few sentences in order to succinctly communicate what is most important about your undertaking. Your game can even include multiple styles of gameplay within the same game. Suppose your goal is to simulate the life of a pirate. You might want to include an exploration mode for navigating the seas, a tactical mode for engaging another ship in battle, a sword-fighting mode for fighting an enemy captain one-on-one, and even a trading mode for selling off booty. (Indeed, Sid Meier already made this game; it is called Pirates! ) But having this multiple game structure does not mean that the focus could not still consist of, This game recreates the many different facets of a pirate s life through numerous different campaign modes, all designed to evoke the spirit of being a cutthroat. The player is able to explore the nature of being an outlaw, including the economic and physical risks involved. If your game is to have multiple separate modes, your focus should apply to all of the different sub-games within your project.
If you are working on a project solo or with a small team, you may think it unnecessaryto actually write down your focus. After all, if you can just explain it to everyone who needs to know, what s the sense in writing it down? I would argue that writing it down is key to truly coming to grips with the nature of the game you are planning to develop. There is a world of difference between an idea that is kicking around in your head and one that is written down on paper in front of you. When it is on paper you can look at it and make sure that what is typed is really the core of your idea, and that those sentences represent everything that is most important to you about the project. Unlike when you describe the project to someone, on paper you cannot say, Oh, yeah, and there s this part, and this other aspect over here, and I really mean this when I say that. If it is not down on the paper, it is not part of the game s focus. Someone who reads the focus on paper should be able to understand your vision without further explanation. I find that writing the focus down really helps to clarify and solidify what the game is attempting to achieve.
When I worked on my first game, Odyssey , I had no grand plan to have a focus. Nor did I sit down and purposefully think it out. On the other hand, I recall the primary goal revolving around a story. It was the story of a mad scientist-type character, a powerful sorcerer who performed experiments on hapless humanoid creatures . These were not biological experiments, but rather social ones ” experiments where he would see how these humans would treat each other when placed in certain circumstances. Really, he was exploring the evil side of all sentient creatures. So Odyssey s focus was to explore the mean and vicious ways different groups of people can treat each other in certain situations and to set up scenarios where the players witnessed this first-hand and would have a chance to make a real change in their lives. Non- linearity and multiple solutions were also at the forefront of my mind, so I set out to make sure players would be able to pursue different tactics to solve the problems they were presented with, with no solution being designated as the right one. And so I had my focus. Without really thinking of it in terms of a focus or vision, I had determined what I wanted to do with the game, and I was able to stick with that for the duration of the project. Since I was basically developing the project solo, I did not have to communicate this focus to anyone else, and if I had needed to I doubt that I could have without considerable reflection. Though I knew in my head what I wanted in the game, at the time I could not define my goals in terms someone else could understand. Now, looking back, I can come up with the following:
In Odyssey , the player explores a rich story line about the evil nature of mankind, and sees under what circumstances groups will treat each other in morally reprehensible ways. This is a simple RPG/adventure game. Though sword-and-sorcery combat will be involved, it never overtakes the story line. The story line allows for multiple solutions and non-linearity whenever possible, with the player able to effect real change among the NPCs he encounters in the game.