“Listen to your game’s system”
Most game designers these days follow a formulaic approach to making games. They use preexisting systems and fill in the missing gaps. For example, if I were to make a platformer, the conventional approach would be to make individual levels, then put these levels into “worlds”, and lastly make an overworld-like area where the player can access these “worlds”. There is nothing wrong with this approach, if anything it’s a tried and true way of going about things and is a great way to practice trusted game development. But there’s something lacking. By using preexisting structures, we’re limiting ourselves from exploring new ways to tackle these issues designers have faced since the dawn of games. The way I make games is quite unconventional, but I hopefully believe it will create games that are more rich and meaningful. I hope to share my current design process.
A video game, in its most simplest form, is a system. It’s an intricately designed system that the player is able to explore, play around in, and master using a variety of inputs (Keyboard/Mouse, gamepad, etc.) Good games often use these systems to convey meaning or a message. For example, the game ‘Papers, Please’ uses its paper checking system to express the stress and calculative darkness that being a passport inspector is like in a dystopian society. Not only did ‘Papers, Please’ express emotions through its system, but it was also able to express a narrative as well. If you don’t work fast/efficient enough, the player receives less money which in turn gives you less money to keep your family warm and well fed. If you make a lot of mistakes and take too long to do your tasks, your family dies. The mechanics of the game spoke for itself, and didn’t need bothersome cutscenes to convey emotion and narrative. These games, I believe, are the right way to go about designing a game. These games have confidence in their systems which in turn expresses meaning.
The first step I take when making a game is I start with an idea. Just to get this silly argument out of the way, all games are art. Journey, as well as Call of Duty, are art, although they may convey their messages in varying degrees. One of art’s purposes is to convey a message or meaning to the viewer, so when I make a game I start with the meaning/message itself. Once I have a message that’s personal to me that I want to share with others, I start to design a system.
Now comes the hardest part, in my opinion, of making a game. I now have to create a system that is well designed enough that it can express the meaning I want to express on its own. The creation of a system that voices a certain meaning I want takes a lot of time. There’s no step-by-step way in creating a well designed system (that I know of), but that’s completely okay. I just start to experiment. I come up with crazy ideas, even if I think they’re “bad”. If anything, some of today’s best games come out of “bad” ideas. This way of design is very difficult and time consuming, but I believe that it is necessary in making a well designed system. This step of design honestly takes me weeks to complete, but I believe it’ll be worth the effort.
Once I have a system that expresses the meaning I want to convey to the player, then I fucking pat myself on the back. I just accomplished something amazing that not many game designers even think of. From here on out, the creation of the game is all about exploration. I need to listen to my system, and try to explore the idea space. I start to closely examine the mechanics of my game’s system, and try to come up with a narrative. I start to ask my system questions. What is my system trying to say? What mechanics can I add to my system to make it better? How many layers does my system have? How can my system express a narrative? If so, what kind of narrative will it be? How can I mesh together the meaning that is being expressed by my system with a narrative? Once I have at least some answers to these questions, then I start to notice something… I see a narrative unfold right before my eyes. Sure, it’s not a fully constructed 500 page story, but it’s a start.
So, at the moment I have a game system and a light narrative that it’s trying to express… That’s about it. There is still plenty more to do, but this is currently all that I have learned so far and have used on the game I’m working on, and I plan to share the design process as I get further and further into it. Honestly, this is probably all bullshit, and maybe my game will be horrible. Maybe I’m going about design in all the wrong ways, but we’ll just have to wait and see.
I’m currently in the process of adding layers to the system I’ve created. I’m also trying to flesh out a narrative as well as a level structure that is well suited for the game’s system. My next write up will hopefully try to answer some of these issues. Until next time!
Here is a screenshot of a very dirty build. Hope to post more soon, alongside the third person platformer I’ve been working on.
Also here’s a vine of it in action.
So I’ve been working on projects which is why I haven’t posted in a while.
I made a prototype of a third person platformer which I posted earlier, and dubbed it ‘Waver’ (no idea why). I decided that it was fun enough to make into something bigger, so I started hacking away at it. I’ve been working on that game and it’s been coming along slowly. About 2 weeks in, I realized that I wasn’t working on the game seriously enough. This was because the gameplay itself wasn’t that serious, and it’s mostly just a fun game, a game ‘candy’ of sorts. Something I’ve learned about myself recently is that it’s really hard for me to work on something I don’t have an emotional connection with.
This makes sense though; I simply don’t want to waste time on something that isn’t worth doing. Regardless, I’m still going to finish up this third person platformer, along with its terrible programmer art, and just call it a day. I’ve learned (and still learning) so much while making it, so it may not be worth making for the players, but it’ll be worth it for me as a game developer.
But wait, there’s more.
I’ve also been working on another project called The Museum. I firmly believe that this will be the game. This will be the game that will take me more than a year to complete, and will require me to go out and find a talented artist. I’ve spent weeks designing it, and everything is coming together beautifully. I’ve posted some random pics of some early footage on my twitter, but it’s still very early.
While designing The Museum, I’ve learned a lot. I’ve been thinking about level design/structure, narrative expression, gameplay meshing with an overarching narrative, and much, much more. I’m putting to use everything I’ve learned from the countless Jon Blow lectures, as well as other ones, that I’ve been furiously studying. It feels very fulfilling putting to practical use all the things you’ve learned, and every time I work on The Museum it feels great.
I don’t want to say too much about The Museum other than it’s a first person exploration based puzzle game. Being me, I was heavily inspired by footage of The Witness that I’ve seen. I’ll post more about it as I get further in development, although it may be a while since I’m still a solo developer at the moment. Exciting times!