No Time To Play

Top 3 myths about game design

by on Oct.16, 2010, under Gamedev

crispin board game

I’ve just discovered Raph Koster’s essay on game design (via Lost Garden), and while it’s a classic, I can’t help but think that most would-be game designers stumble long before getting to those advanced considerations. Why? Because of a few myths that endure and keep luring people into mental traps. So I decided to tackle some of them in the hope of bringing them down.

Myth #1: My ideas! My preciousss ideas!

This is the big bad wolf of myths, not just about game design but all creativity: that ideas are somehow rare, unique and valuable. Well, sorry to disappoint you: I have more ideas for games than I can shake a stick at. Most of them are probably bad; the rest are likely to end up unrecognizable when (if…) they’re going to be made into something playable. As for uniqueness, where do you think your ideas come from? The same place as mine: everything we see, hear, play, read and generally experience. Guess what, we live in the same world; our experiences are likely to overlap a lot. Speaking of which.

Myth #2: No need to play all those other games, I’m making my own!

Uh… no. Just as you can’t become a writer until you’ve read a TON of books (and met Real Life™ face to face, but that’s a can of worms I’d rather not open now), you can’t become a game designer until you’ve played a ton of games AND learned what makes them tick. Otherwise, you are doomed to at best reinvent the wheel all over again.

You wouldn’t believe how many times I had to interrupt someone from whispering his latest great idea to me (in big secrecy, of course) in order to ask, “Have you played X? It’s exactly what you’re describing.” And they’ll go, “Er… no? But surely my idea is different. Listen…” Believe me, it’s sad to see them deflate as I point out that every single one of their concepts has already been executed, better than they can ever hope to. Don’t be that guy; know your art. Besides, it’s execution that matters. By the way.

Myth #3: If only I could find a good programmer/artist/musician…

Now you’re just making excuses to avoid working on your game design. Mind you, I understand perfectly, being lazy as a cat myself. But you need to start somewhere. Learn a little programming; heck, learn to use a spreadsheet. Many browser games are little more than that anyway. With minimal knowledge of HTML you can prototype dialog trees, and so on. As a bonus, your prototype could turn out to be the game!

But don’t let the computer limit you. Tactical maps can be drawn on paper and explored with miniatures, which you can make yourself from card stock; playing cards can simulate inventory. Dice have been used for randomness since antiquity. You can play dozens of different games with a Reversi set: an 8×8 rectangular board and 64 disks that are white on one side and black on the other. If that’s not a lesson in game design, I don’t know what is.

Working with physical objects can also help put things in perspective: if you can’t design the next Risk, what makes you think you can design the next Civilization?

On to reality

I started by trying my hand at making board games, learning from various books on the subject, around age 13. My time on the ZX Spectrum was divided equally between playing games from tapes, typing them from books and trying to make my own in Basic. Not counting those, I have as many games started and never finished as games actually completed, and while none of them is original (then again, what is?) they all have distinct personalities. Most importantly, I still play them myself now and then, which I can’t say about many titles.

What’s left when the myths are gone? Plain old work, of course! Seek inspiration wherever you can, bang ideas together and bounce them off other people. (I never said ideas weren’t useful). Experiment a lot, and be ready to throw away failed experiments (but learn the lessons). Seek help when you need it, but not earlier. Last but not least, love what you’re making, because if you don’t, why should anyone else?

(Illustration: Crispin board game, by Anne Norman; CC-BY)

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Top 3 myths about game design by Felix Pleșoianu is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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