The very first thing before starting to develop the game is to have the actual game idea. Without it, it’s pointless to gather a team. You can’t create a first playable build or make a planning.
If you’re working for a company, you might brainstorm new game ideas after you finish a project (if you’re not working on a franchise that releases sequels every year, but even so each new iteration must have new ideas). I’d like to believe anyone starting on their own already have a game idea they want to develop. Or maybe you haven’t started on your own yet because you’re still trying to find that great idea. Perhaps you did have that idea, and you developed the game, but now you’re looking for the next one.
I you have never designed a game, you might wonder how game designers get their ideas (especially for very original games). The same actually applies to any creative work (books/movies for their stories, or even music). Original work is created in all artistic fields. In computer games in particular, there was the first adventure game, the first platformer, the first FPS, etc.
So how did those guys get those revolutionary ideas? Did they have a muse helping them suddenly spark the idea inside their brains? The real truth for me is that nobody exactly knows. But there are certainly a lot of ways you can ease the road to make it happen. I’ll talk about those.
I’ll start with a quote from Stephen King:
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.“
And he’s totally right.
Translating it into our field, “to be a game developer, you need to play a lot and develop a lot”.
So if you’re in some way involved in the design process of the game, you should always take time to play games, from AAA to one-man indie games, from newer games to the oldest of them, from FPS to Puzzles, from Online Multiplayer Games to Metroidvanias, from Visual Novels to Horror (and anything else in between), and from PC or consoles to browser games or even boardgames. Consider it part of your work (with the plus you’re actually playing games and having some fun).
And I also advise you to actually finish the games (unless you’re not enjoying them at all). At least the main story/campaign, no need to get every achievement. If you just play the first levels, you could potentially miss a lot of useful material, mainly related to player engagement.
When playing games, do take note of the things that you enjoy (mentally or actually writing them down). Use them for inspiration. Think of the things that you would add or things that you’d remove or change. And build your idea upon that.
The more you play, the bigger the database. And the bigger the database, the easier it’ll be for you to connect ideas and mechanics, or use those games as references. Today, between having engines that allow you to roughly put an idea into interaction and having full walkthroughs of pretty much every existing game on youtube, it’s really easy to show others what’s on your mind.
Breaking games apart
One of the first things they tell you when you want to start composing music is to grab a song you want to learn from, break it all apart and then assemble it back: see how the instruments play individually first, and then combined; how many beats until the chorus, how the melody repeats or slightly changes, etc.
You can do the same with all the games you play. Break them apart piece by piece, analyze them separately and then see how they all combine together.
Think about the things you specifically liked in certain games. Could they work on another game? Could they work in yours? Games (as books or movies or music) don’t need to be completely original. In fact,
players today sort of expect certain standard things when playing games that belong to a genre. But every game needs something that distinguishes it from every other game. Otherwise it runs the risk of
being tagged as a cookie-cutter copycat, which usually doesn’t translate well
into sales. If you have that special feature, the rest of the game could be
quite standard and still be a great game.
Let me give you a few examples:
– Art Style. 11-11 Memories Retold has a very distinctive art style, with the whole game looking like a live oil painting. Cuphead, a surprisingly hard and frustrating run-and-gun game, is a love letter to the 1930s cartoons and is visually stunning. Yoshi’s Wooly World borrows ideas from past games but the wooly graphics completely freshen it up. Older games that had innovative graphics at their release dates could be Another World or Star Fox.
– Cool Game Mechanic. The whole game Portal was based off Narbacular Drop. Antichamber, while technically being a FPS, has mind blowing mechanics… which I can’t even begin to describe. Surgeon Simulator was the first “hand simulator” I played and found it extremely original and fun in its implementation. Space Chem is a worthy mention in the puzzle genre, as well as Screencheat for an old school split screen FPS.
– Story. Your gameplay could be the same as any other, but if it has an epic story behind, players will continue talking about it for years to come. Adventure games usually excel at this (Monkey Island, Grim Fandango, The Longest Journey, etc.), but a good story can happen on any genre. Off the top of my head, I can quickly think of varied games like: To the Moon, Mass Effect, Silent Hill, GTA, Hotline Miami, etc. All with interesting stories.
– Novelty on classic gameplay. Basically these are games that belong to a standard genre, but the twist is so good that makes them feel like completely original (even if they aren’t). Games like The Stanley Parable (basically a walking simulator) or Doki Doki Literature Club (a Visual Novel) capitalize on these original genre twists. If you’ve never heard about them, do yourself a favor and play them without even reading what they are about.
– High Difficulty. It’s been a trend in recent years. Games like the Dark Souls series, or Super Meat Boy are difficult and punishing, which normally doesn’t work well for most games as it’s just too frustrating. But it’s an interesting (and potentially popular) choice to build a game upon, if done well. Other great examples of high difficulty games are web-based QWOP, GIRP and Notpron. And more recently, Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy (who is sort of a master of frustration).
– Nostalgia. There are many players today that actually started playing in the 70s-90s. That’s 30 to 50 years ago! There have been numerous games that are well regarded by all these gamers, and they’d be willing to pay big bucks to feel the same way they did when they originally played those games. This could be in the form of remakes, but considering I’m writing this for indie developers, I actually mean games that can instantly be associated to classics. Examples could be DUSK and Project Warlock (Doom, Quake), Ion Fury (Duke Nukem 3D), Pillars of Eternity (Baldur’s Gate), Thimbleweed Park (Maniac Mansion), Legend of Grimrock (Dungeon Master, Eye of the Beholder), Sublevel Zero Redux (Descent), etc. You can definitely capitalize on nostalgia today, and make a modern version of your favorite childhood game. In fact, Gravitators is exactly that: Thrust from Commodore 64 is one of my earliest favorite games. I loved that game since as far as I can remember.
– New (or revolution of) Genre. This one is a bit more difficult to pull off, but it can happen. Guitar Hero / Rock Band, with their custom hardware (guitar/bass, drums, keys and mic), basically revolutionized the rhythm games. Later on, Rocksmith took it a step further and actually developed an interactive guitar/bass class. DOTA was born out of a Warcraft III mod and it created the MOBA genre from nothing. Considering the amount of PC Games available today, and how established is the medium, it is a rather daunting task to create a new genre. Most revolutionary gameplay innovations will probably come from VR or online interactions.
What all the games above have in common is 1 single feature that outshines every other game that was available on the market at that time. This is what you should be trying to find. That game that has been missing on stores.
Ask yourself “What if”
Another interesting thought that comes from book/script writing: Any new story should start with a “what if” question. Things like “what if the world was invaded by aliens?”, “what if we discover a huge
asteroid heading towards Earth?”, “what if all the animals and plants in the world start dying?”, “what if newborn humans have extraordinary mutations?”
The answer to those questions is what kicks the stories off.
A similar question can be asked about games, but including mechanics or features:
– “What if I could realistically interact with every object in a room?”
– “What if I could track down, hunt and collect different kind of monsters?”
– “What if I could fight battles in space?”
– “What if I create an RPG with deep story but using deck-building card game mechanics for combat?”
– “What if we do a fighting game but using stop motion (with real pictures of the characters and scenarios)?”
– “What if several people use their own cell phones to interact with a server based game?”
You can mix genres, art styles, technology, etc. By doing an unusual combination, you might find yourself developing something that feels completely original.
Everything can be a game
Games are simulations. They follow rules, and doing certain actions will cause certain reactions. With that in mind, try to “gamify” what you see in the real world, and how you’d adapt it into a game. It’s a very interesting exercise to do as a game designer. Examples:
– Being a customs officer. When you go to another country, there’s always a guy checking your passport and stamp it to let you through. Sounds like a rather boring job, but there are plenty of things he needs to check: if you’re allowed to enter, matching photo with your face, check other countries you’ve been for potential red flags, etc. etc. You build upon that and you end up having a game like Papers, Please.
– Surgeons go through years and years of study and practice to do what they do. However, if you try to simplify their work (cutting, stitching, extracting, replacing, etc.) you can do games like the Trauma Center series for Wii (which also took great advantage of the Wii’s controls). You can even go beyond that and make a parody of it, like Surgeon Simulator.
– A lot of people hate going to the supermarket, and would avoid it if they could. But throw in a VR headset and some wonky physics and you can get a fun experience like with Supermarket VR.
The list of menial activities can go on indefinitely: “Assemble food ingredients into a meal”, “Prepare drinks as a barman”, “groom or take care of your pet”, “learn to write code”, “live a regular average person’s life”, “date people”, “plant and harvest fruits and/or vegetables”, etc. etc. You wouldn’t think much of them on their own. But all of them have corresponding (and sometimes very successful) games.
As you can see, there are plenty of methods to get inspiration. Something I like to do when I think of a story snippet or a potentially fun mechanic is to write it down. You never know when you might need it again. And once you open the “creativity gates”, you might get more ideas than you can remember off the top of your head. Better to secure them somewhere you can access later.
I hope this new entry has helped you find new ways of coming up with game ideas. I’d love to hear you actually released a game that was initially sparked by something you read here (and do let me know if it
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