Design Essentials: From Ideas to Games


A look at the process of coming up with ideas for games and adventures, both new and in progress. Come discuss starting points, things to consider in building on ideas and methods to improve the overall mesh for optimum results.

Previous: [ I ] | [ II ] | [ III ]

Basic Starting Points

Chapter 3 of my topic-guide of choice Game Design: Theory & Practice (GD:T&P), is "Brainstorming Ideas: Gameplay, Technology, and Story". Although GD:T&P is focused specifically on computer games, a much more limited focus than the scope covered here at Gamegrene, many of the considerations are similar.

The three starting points presented for game ideas are: gameplay (game type), technology, and story. It is emphasized that no matter the starting point all of the points are interconnected and each will have an influence on the game's ultimate design. If the parts do not mesh well, the game is likely not to be very good, or at least as good as it could be.

There may be other legitimate starting points to add to the basics offered. Capcom's former satellite Clover Studios released a title Okami which could very well have started with art as the focal point (although story is also possible). As technology advances allow similar reproduction on different platforms, other sense-bases, such as auditory, could become legitimate starting points. Other motivations may be potential starting points, such as education or political messages.

Any one idea for a game is generally only a portion of the whole, as there are a number of conceptual parts to any one game. The many parts interact with one another and with implementation challenges like schedules, capabilities and budgets. Skillfully integrating all the considerations in one package requires some finesse. Similarly, an idea for a tabletop RPG campaign needs more than just a story hook, NPC stats and level map; they must all be coordinated to pull off a complete adventure.

Veteran GMs, like experienced game designers, can often handle the requirements on the fly. One purpose of this discussion starter is to extracting and defining those skills for others to use. Share the wealth!

Rouse claims "a good game designer, at any given moment, will be able to come up with no less than five solid ideas s/he would like to try to make into a (computer) game." Are you up to the feat?

Gameplay Start

In general terms this means the broad category the game; action, RPG, RTS, shooter, race, etc. Tabletop and boardgames may be considered of various sub-types broad enough for distinction within variations such as miniature, puzzle, mystery, etc. Dwarven Dig is technically race game for example.

Within a finer scope of definition, such as a campaign of specific GURPS or D&D adventures, it could mean a greater focus on investigating the story, tactics and strategy, or some of the other varieties discussed in various threads*1. The emphasis on specific parts of gameplay can give adventures very different feels and is obviously interrelated with the Story facet.

List out how many different Gameplay start iterations you could develop from one idea or property (e.g. Pogo-action, Pogo-racing, Pogo-the-Gathering, Pogo-RPG ... ).

Story Start

Story-starts may mean a setting or characters the designer wants to introduce and expand upon, such as the driving feature of the game being a backdrop of ancient Rome or the first Martian colony, as well as meaning a more standard tale to tell. A "story" can also be an exploration of a general topic, with several viable perspectives from which to pick and choose whether the players uncover the information or participate in its outcome.

Table-top RPGs excel at all kinds of stories mentioned above. Other formats, console, PC, and online, have struggled as the technology focuses more on visual displays over information. Text-based RPGs are yet rivaled by their graphical imitators in story capacity. It could be argued that the limiting factors are technology-related or budgetary, but considered rationally, technology is capable of handling more data, not less, thus the lacking must be due to game makers' decisions.

Rouse touches on games "with no story at all", of which he states there are many. The thought goes completely against some design schools of thought for which a story is mandatory piece of game design. Whether that story is conveyed to the player during gameplay or not is of secondary consideration. The core belief is a story will enhance other parts of development. It can draw together graphics and gameplay in a meaningful way and give insight to creating a richness in design.

The arcade shooter Xevious was known for many firsts, like cutting edge graphics and gameplay Easter eggs, but it also had a rather detailed background story. Very little was conveyed during play, but it not only existed, it played a part in the mesh of the game's traits.

Rouse later comments about games with a "lack of involvement in any real story telling" in referring to classic arcade games. While it is a more accurate statement in and of itself, it appears he may be confusing "having a story" and "story-telling". Don't make the same mistake!

Pick a Story starting point and describe what would / would not fit into your game design. Commercial kudos for better ideas than have actually been released in retail games.

Starting with Technology

Developments in the years since GD:T&P was first published have brought technology considerations to traditionally unplugged and offline RPGing. Applications such as Cyberboard, Battlegrounds and jDip legitimize the same starting point considerations for tabletop game discussions. All the tools accent messageboards and email capabilities and blur the lines between "manual" and fully automated server-run RPG and boardgames.

Handling technology is often an exercise in trade-offs. What can be displayed and what must be left out or left to the imagination. For designers joining a design team it is a common challenge, as is picking up a project in mid-development and trying to make it work.

Tech Challenge:
Pick a Technology starting point and describe how you would fit in other design-parts. Bonus points for building a killer game atop the Drupal GameAPI module!

Pizza with Everything

No matter the starting point, ultimately all the considerations will need to be addressed as the game design fills out. The considerations should be honed to work together in support of the focal design point. It is no coincidence that "honing" implies grinding off. Sometimes less is more. A simple hodgepodge of features will rarely make a passable game much less a good one. Trying to force too much into a design, making the "Game to End All Games", will surely doom it. Focused synergy between the different parts is key to great game design.

Myth of the 24-karat Idea

Chapter 3 actually begins with an attack on the myth of "the million dollar game idea". The myth is held by countless game designer hopefuls as a treasure to break into or sell to the industry. It is a depressing way to kick off a discussion so it has been saved for last.

Rouse offers that the main problem with the golden idea is there is a glut of ideas for new games in the industry, being filled with game designers and all, and what is more valuable is the ability to skillfully implement the ideas in the form of a finished game. That doesn't mean the ideas are not golden or automatically worthless. Far from it, the amazing number of lousy retail games shows that ideas are still much in need. But to promote those ideas into their full potential value, other skills as addressed above are critical.

    Questions to consider:
  • What are other starting points besides: tech, gameplay, story?
  • Is art a legitimate starting point?
  • What starting point do you prefer to play / design?

*1My "search-foo" is weak. Links to relevant discussions are welcome!

I am definitely of the opinion that story must come first. The finest graphics and interface is of no value if your creation has the plot of tetris. "You all are different shapes trying ot fit together to make coplete lines to prevent the mass of characters from overflowing the hall."

I think that generally tech would come next, but is usually quite limited with respect to choices. No matter how good my concept is, I cannot put my plan into code, so will generally stick with Tabletop RPGs or board/card games. I could I suppose sell my idea to a development company, but I could as easily sell it to a publisher.
Also, I don't know that tech is the correct term for this venue. Format or medium might be closer.

As for gameplay, that is largely a result, rather than a start point. A game I run goes smoothly (or not) based on my knowledge of the system and game, combined with the communication skills of myself and my players. Electronic games are playable or not becasue of controls and audio/video. Card/Board games are dependent upon the recognizability of cards, spaces, etc. and clarity of effects.

As for art starting the process, I see no reason why not. As art allegedly reflects reality, and there is no doubt that reality can be a start point, it is certainly possible for art to be a start point. The question is, will the players grasp the same ideas from the art. Many games have been founded on media.

I believe it is also possible for a game to designed around a gimmick. Deadlands is roughly, a games where the results are from poker hands. The western motif follows from the Old West tradition of Poker. In Nomine uses 3d6 for its mechanic with 666 being the worst possible roll (66, being a sure failure and 6 being the maximum result). There is no real reason the game couldn't be played with other dice combinations, but the gimmick adds to (or possibly spawned) the game.

I think background is also reuired at about the same level as story, especially fot rpgs. Action games require it to a much lesser degree and some of the background will be designated becasue of the story. If the story revolves around solving the queens murder, immediately it is known that the background must contain a queen and the fact that she is dead. The background need not be global (universal) in scope, but should include anything that is not intuitive and be available to players.


I'm not sure story should neccesarily come first. Tetris, after all, was a very successful game, and so are similar attempts.
Furthermore, gameplay CAN be a starting point: say I want to design a card game in which collections of cards (armies?) are built, or one where cards change hands between players, or a board game where the formation of a player's units is very important and so on.

Thanks for the input gents. I'm having one of "those" weeks at the day job game so I'm slacking at the important amusement here.

I've been struggling with "terms for these venues" myself, as I'm looking for the fabled universal solvent of alchemy fame, that will let me talk about games generally across formats without getting hung up on syntax and semantics.

Whut's idea of centering around a gimmick is intriguing. Something I never considered. It could be rolled up into terminology and I just need to spend the time to unravel it a bit but I think there's a great concept waiting to be introduced.

zipdrives' example does a much better job of illuminating the idea behind starting with gameplay, or game mechanic, than I pulled off. Some designers are serious fanatics about their core gameplay.

Thanks again both, you've given me food for thought between ... less entertaining activities.