So you want to make games? – Design

Game Design

Ideas will come and go, as will potential indie developers. It’s completely normal for someone to focus on their greatest strength, and for many that’s either programming or graphic art. I’ve seen great programmers and amazing artists build some really bad games, and I’ve seen some mediocre skilled people make some fantastically addictive romps through digital wonderlands. The difference between the ones who do well and the ones who don’t always seems to come down to a single, though somewhat large step… the initial game design.

This section is part of a larger compilation of articles on independent game development. More topics will be included over the next few weeks. Please see the primary article for ongoing updates and the table of contents.

The realm of possible games to develop is a vast and busy universe, and without at least a simple design to guide you, you may very well get lost in it. I myself have spent countless hours (days, months even) droning on, adding unnecessary components to a game engine because I thought I might just need it for some new idea that popped in my head while I was programming.

Imagine if you will, a construction worker who starts building a skyscraper without any plans or blueprints. He could very possibly forget to put any bathrooms in until the last floor, causing all of its future occupants to crowd the elevators and stand in long lines just to take a potty break. Imagine the chaos and complaints that would come in! If he’s working with a team, some might decide to make one floor bigger than another, or go off on their own ideas all together.  This is why architects are paid, and why big game development companies have dedicated teams of designers.

Leaning Tower of Pisa

Plan a solid foundation!

Lets continue with the skyscraper analogy… How many floors (levels) are you planning to make? Where will the bathrooms (saved games) go? What will the lighting be like? How about the ambiance of each floor? Plumbing? Telephone or communications systems (networking)?

There’s a lot to consider when making an entire game. So lets break it up into chunks and go into detail with each:


Do you plan on having one? A story isn’t necessary in the strictest definition to a make a solid game, but a sense of purpose is positively required. Whether you give the player that purpose via following a tale of adventure or by dangling rewards as carrots in front of them, this is all considered story.

Terraria is a good example of how to make a great game without a deep storyline. There’s virtually no dialogue or cut scenes, yet there is a solid sense of progression as you dig deeper and defeat bosses at different levels. The player travels through a steady increase of difficulty and is rewarded with new visuals, along with minerals and supplies that help you craft better gear to help you defeat greater enemies. By the end, you have a definite sense of accomplishment and investment in the game, leaving the player feeling warm and fuzzy, and with a desire for more.

Then you have your strictly story games like Half-Life where the player follows along in order to reach the end of a mystery or journey with various rewards thrown in along the way. These games are generally left to the triple-A companies to develop, as the sheer amount of resources needed for cut scenes and the swath of static content can be daunting and extremely costly.

Most independent developers choose the former or something between the two. Don’t be discouraged if you really want to make a game based entirely on story progression though. I have seen some amazing indie games accomplish this in a more “artistic” way than the traditional videos and massive graphic infusions. One such example would be Revenge of the Titans by Cas and Chaz over at Puppygames.  By using simplistic cut scenes with written dialogue (and some really cute artistic flair), the game tells a fun story as it goes.

Whatever you choose, flesh it out in detail. Write down the different experiences you want the player to have, along with big climactic moments and character backgrounds. This will come in handy later.

Choosing a Platform

This would be your skyscraper’s foundation. Although it might seem insignificant to have to decide between concrete or wooden stilts, your decision of what platform to build for will have a significant impact on your game’s play style.

Not all games translate well to all platforms. Some games need a keyboard and mouse, while others need an accelerometer or touch screen to be enjoyed without frustration. I’m personally a big advocate of cross-platform development, but the reality is you’ll need to pick something and stick with it, at least initially, if you ever want to finish.

The more popular platforms are:

  • Personal Computers (keyboard and mouse)
  • Consoles (gamepad or motion controller)
  • Tablets and Smartphones (touch screen and accelerometer)

Long term developers know other platforms and input methods I haven’t mentioned, but this list will give you some good starting points. Keep in mind, certain systems (like Apple’s iOS or Xbox) will require money in order to publish your game when it’s completed. The platform with the lowest price-to-entry is far and away the personal computer, so you may want to consider starting there if this is your first foray into game development and don’t have some big bucks tucked away under your mattress.

Now that you know the kind of input and controls your players will be stuck with, you can continue on.


Every game has mechanics that make it fun to play. Generally this is something that requires skill on the player’s part. Most people are conditioned to having obstacles in their lives that need to be faced, and oddly enough that’s what we look for in games as well. In the age old classic Space Invaders, the primary mechanic is to shoot down enemy aliens for points.

Space Invaders

Good Old Classic

If that were the only mechanic though, Space Invaders wouldn’t have been all that fun to play beyond the first few minutes. The game is actually filled with additional mechanics that make it increasingly fun as it progresses:

  • You begin with a few shields to keep you safe from an occasional alien laser attack.
  • The aliens approach can be slowed by thinning out their numbers on the edges, because they only get closer once the entire group has reached the side of the screen.
  • As you reach higher levels, the aliens move faster, can fire back, and are worth more points.
  • You can earn extra lives by reaching a set score.
  • After so many levels, the shields start to go away.
  • Aliens movement is not hampered by shields.
  • It only takes one hit from an alien or their laser to kill the player.
  • Flying Saucers will randomly cross the top of the screen for a chance at more points.
  • Two players can compete by alternating turns after someone dies.

Do you see how these additional mechanics can add up to a more compelling experience? By writing these down as part of the initial design, you’ll have a good list of things that need to be implemented during the programming and graphic art phases of the project.

Of course, it’s not always easy to tell if you have enough (or too many) mechanics in place. Generally you want to start with the games primary mechanic, like shooting aliens.From there, slowly add to it, such as: the player can only move horizontally. You can play it in through in your imagination and realize that it still wouldn’t be a terribly fun game yet, so you add something else: the aliens slowly approach the bottom of the screen to squash the player. You then keep adding one mechanic at a time until you feel like there’s enough to make a varied and fun game out of it.

There will undoubtedly be revisits to your design throughout the entire process, so don’t worry if later down the road you decide that more or fewer mechanics are needed. Your blueprints will be edited and reviewed throughout the entire process.

Continued on next page…

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