Picture a mess of thoughts

Game Design Theory: You have an Idea, But what’s the Game?

 How do you get from an idea to a practical game design? I wanted to write a very basic article to give new designers a feel for how to start “game designing”. As a game designer I come across a lot of people pitching game ideas to me. A good thing, because I love hearing someone talk about their ideas and inspirations. But an “idea” is not yet a game so… what’s the game?

Some people tend to think a game designer is the one who comes up with the entire game concept. Some sort of all knowing concept guru who can solve any problem. This is in my personal experience, and for those in the games industry, far from the truth. I love brainstorming and coming up with ideas. However, when it comes to generating ideas or concepts I always advocate everyone can have great ideas. And as such, especially in an creative team, everyone should be stimulated to pitch in their ideas.

A concept or idea could be as broad as “an space MMO”, or as specific as “Players gain political power with which they recruit soldiers. Then they fight other players over control of the most territories”. And yet if you would ask a developer to start developing your game based on that alone, they probably wouldn’t know where to begin. Even if you are just a solo indie gamedev, its good to have clear what your “game” is, before you just start developing. Don’t get me wrong on many occasions have I just started making a game, but I can’t remember an instance where I didn’t end up redoing code or altering designs.

And that’s where a game designer can truly shine. I often explain what I do as “Turning an idea into an develop-able game”. As a game designer, next to shaping the experience of your player, you are responsible for working out the nitty-gritty details of how a game works. But where do you begin, how do you turn your/an idea into a proper game design?

Research…bla bla bla

Forget the research, let’s jump right in and do this! Who needs research anyway? Sadly you do, and more so probably lot’s of it. My experience has thought me most creatives don’t really thrive on research. But believe me, before you start always do your research!

As Roy always says “Everything is already invented, just not now and not by me.”. There are literally millions of games made, and before you can make one that is unique, you’ll have to know what is out there. As a game designer you should always strive to come up with interesting new ways to tackle problems, excite and engage players, but it’s not a bad thing to get inspired or informed. Know what players are looking for in the type of game you are making. If you trying to make a space MMO, look at other space games. Read articles and reviews about these games, learn from their mistakes and their success. If you feel lost and don’t know where to start, try to create several keywords for your idea (rpg, space, mmo, character building etc…) and research games matching 1 or more keywords.

 Think Mechanics…

When we look at what a game truly is it, if we strip away story, art and flavor texts we are left with mechanics. Mechanics describe everything that influences the way your game is played and the way a player interacts with it. Because of this, mechanics have the power to invoke specific feelings, and convey certain ideas -Game designer Ian Bogost called this “procedural rhetoric”, an entire topic off it’s own- to players.

Coming up with mechanics should be easy enough, after all you have done tons of research, right? But throwing a bunch of mechanics on a pille and calling it a game is not how things work. Take a step back and look at the mechanics you came up with for your game. Examine their interactions with your game and players. Make sure they don’t contradict each other, the goal of your game and how you want players to interact with your game. Think about the behavior your mechanics envoke in the players. Is this something you want for your game?

…and what they do for your game.

Think about mechanics as mechanics. Look at every little rules, feature or system in your game as a cog. Ask yourself if they all fit together and make your game turn. How hard it may be, if the answer is no, you must “kill your darlings”. Scratch out the mechanics that don’t work or invoke unwanted behavior in players. You can and (believe me) will find a new project or idea to make that mechanic work.

A trick I picked up is to just visualize yourself playing your game in your head. It’s a thing I constantly try to do when designing. Really try and visualize for instance opening up the box and setting everything up, playing a few rounds or  running a tutorial. It sounds silly but I found it helps me keep focused on how the game actually works. If you ever get stuck you know where to work on next. Its therefore a great “tool” to figure out what the areas are you haven’t thought about enough.

Writing a Game Design? Do I need to?

Yes. Now that you came up with an idea, did your research and played around with mechanics you should (if you haven’t already) start writing a game design document. Writing a game design document is not only good practice it also will help you get your thoughts in line. Many times you will come across things you haven’t thought through or forgot completely (like with the visualization exercise). It will also help you communicate your idea to others. If you managed to structure your thoughts and write them down it should be easier to clearly share your ideas with other devs and players.

I personally like to differentiate between a game design document and content document whenever I can. A game design document would only hold how the game works and interacts with the players. Story, level designs, card designs, script and everything else would be written down in the content document.

Fine… but how do you write a game design document?

Writing a big game design document can seem daunting, especially when you don’t know where to start. So where do you start? Frankly, just start. I too struggle sometimes with what to put down on paper first. So I just start writing. Sometimes I start writing a summary, or I start to list and explain the main mechanics, or I describe the main player interaction. At times I simply start with the table of contents, organizing and thinking of every subject I want to write about. Slowly you will start to notice everything will come out.

Then after I think I put every thought on paper I start restructuring and rewriting the document. I know this probably isn’t the best, most organized way to write a document, but hey it works for me! After I restructured and rewrote everything I like to read the document as if I don’t know my own concept. This takes some getting used to but can help you spot the first mistakes. If you are a single gamedev, and feel you have covered everything you could leave it here. If you are working on a creative team however this is the time to let everyone involved read your document. Be open to their feedback and be prepared to rewrite some sections again. If everyone (read: most of the people) think it captures the concept and answers development question for them you are good to go!

Just start…

If experience thought me anything it’s you can’t think about everything. At some point in the design process you should have figured out what it is you want to make. That is the best time to start playtesting and just try stuff out. Make a (paper) prototype and “play” with it. Test your theories, and mechanics you are unsure about or just go play with how your game feels. Usually only after I make a prototype I get a really good feel of what I need to or want to change.

It’s also very useful to have others play your prototype. Ask what they think, what they would improve or change. And be prepared to take their brutally honest opinions. This is what will make your game, your game design and your game design skills grow. However hard it may be. Remember when you show other people your prototypes or demo’s to always make clear what they can expect. What it is they should focus on. Also tell them what you want to get out of them playing it. Be specific what kind of feedback you’re looking for, and where they should comment on.

Go back to your Game Design document…

Again? Yes! Your game design document should be a “living” document. There is nothing worse than reading through a year old game design document that isn’t updated to the latest rendition of the game. I know creatives want to create and get their hands dirty, and don’t usually want to do the “paperwork”. But when you don’t keep your game design updated idea’s and work will get lost.

Keeping a well updated game design document also helps your team stay on the same page. Nothing worse then people working and checking different documents, causing problems down the road. Again, even if you are just an solo indie gamedev, this is so important. I learned this the hard way. I have “lost” many games by not updating or writing an game design at all. All that was left is just some scribbles an vague memories of what a great game it could have been.


There you have it, an idea of how to get from an idea to a game design. I would love to hear your workflow and game design tips for new game designers. Post them in the comments and give us a follow on twitter or instagram!

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