Game Design: love to the maybe

Game design is not easy. But it’s not hard either. It’s a problem that is only solved by cyclic repetition between idea-forming, prototype-making and prototype-playing. It’s weird in that way: Nobody can escape that process.

And I love it.

Anyone can think of an idea for a game but not everyone can discern if their own idea is any good or not. Most of us just merge, combine and in the best of cases extrapolate different individual game components to find something new, something awesome and surely something that has never seen before.

Skyrim with guns! Mario with Guns! Racing with Guns! Football with Guns!

Ok, that last one sounds interesting in a tongue-firmly-planted-in-cheek kind of way, but I digress.

We (as in, people who play videogames and like to think of new game ideas) have a tendency to ground all of our ideas in the things that are tried and true, the things that have already been proven to be fun, engaging, and some other adjective that sounds good but is so non-specific as to be meaningless. We need to ground ourselves because thinking about something that has never been done is not only difficult, but it doesn’t click automagically in the brain by connecting previous experiences together. The possibility space for a new gameplay idea will never be well-defined in our brain unless one of two things happen: Either the owner of said brain gets to play around with at least a prototype of the idea in question or he/she/it needs to spend a tremendous amount of time parsing through every little detail to formulate and bring the possibility space into focus.

Let me give you an example.

Imagine you want to build an arkanoid game, but in 3D space. How would you move in such a situation? Where would the camera be? Should the movement be restricted to a line, a plane or the full 3D space? Should this space be straight or curved?

My first answer for something that has never been done would be …. second person view of the arkanoid ship, looking through the back of the semi-transparent ship (maybe a wire frame?). The movement would be confined to a sphere around a target object/enemy, with the additional option to move closer or farther away from the target. Changing targets would in turn change the sphere in which the arkanoid ship can move. Gameplay would consist of bouncing back enemy projectiles unto themselves, maybe with an ikaruga-inspired mechanic to distinguish bounceable bullets from harmful bullets.

Awesome! Except …. well … yeah, something’s off. That kind of movement would be useful for bullet-bouncing but really annoying for space traversal. Now that I think about it, this kind of movement would work like in the N64 zelda games. Those games would have been horrible with Z-targeting movement 100% of the time but would also suffer if it was missing entirely.

Now, if we implement free 360°movement in 3D for space traversal and then enter Z-targeting mode only for bouncing bullets this could work. Or not. Maybe. I don’t know. Depending on a few little details we could end up in puke city if we’re not careful.


That’s how my brain works when thinking about game ideas. Inevitably, I’ll make a connection to some other game or mechanic that I’ve fully explored and suddenly things become more clear as to what could go wrong and what would be the best course of action. But even then, I’m not able to fully grasp how such a game would play because of the multiple levels of movement that I haven’t experienced before (that is *I* haven’t, there’s probably a game that does this), and so my next step would be to investigate if there exists a game with similar characteristics to what I’m thinking.

After a few rounds of refining and fine-tuning of the idea it should be time to build a prototype of it as fast as possible, because you can do so much with imagination, memories and logic. Sometimes it’s literally impossible to envision which parts of the idea are going to be engaging and which parts are going to be in the way. Maybe the movement feels really great but the bullet-bouncing clashes with it (going fast: yay for movement, boo for precision and vice versa).

That’s where it hurts.

Building something up just to find that it doesn’t work is not the happiest feeling in the world, but with time you get used to it. Some ideas go all over the place and end up spawning several distinct ones. Some others just plain don’t work and must be therefore discarded unceremoniously in the pit of tears and sadness.

And you know what? I love this. I love this creative process. I love exploring possibility spaces and finding new and interesting combinations that I haven’t seen before. I love the mental gymnastics one must go through to find inspiration. I love the infinite possibilities I have as a game designer.

If I didn’t love doing this I guess I wouldn’t be here, almost 7 years after I began writing in this here blog of mine.

So here’s to another 7 years of idea-having game-making blog-posting fun.




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