I know that everyone who plays video games have at one point said: “You know what would make this game better?” Those people have also at one point said: “I could make a better game!” or “what on Earth were they thinking?” If you’re one of these people, then perhaps you secretly (or overtly) want to be a game designer. You and I have something in common, but being a game designer is more than just criticizing other people’s game design choices (that’s what reviewers do). It actually requires you to come up with games yourself and do that you’re going to have to be inspired.
But before you go off to be the next Shigeru Miyamoto you should realize a few things first (besides understanding that the line starts behind me). The first is that the industry is finicky. Depending on the type of game designer you want to be, you’re either going to have a lot of work on your hands or a lot of unsatisfactory games to deal with. If anyone ever told you that being a game designer requires you to think of brand new ideas and that gamers hate derivative work, they’re only partially right. In reality, gamers love being fed the same thing over and over and over again but always demand new and exciting things. Reggie Fils-Aime, president of Nintendo of America, said it best: “Gamers are insatiable.”
What does that mean for you, the budding game designer? It means that game design is actually hard work. To make a successful game, you can’t make what YOU think would be the coolest game in the world and design it so that YOU love it because chances are, only YOU would ever play it. You have to know what other people like and be able to remove yourself from the equation. It’s something that is sometimes called “zen game design”.
But what about actually coming up with an idea for a game? Since all I’ve talked about so far was what kind of mindset you have to be in, lets talk about three common ways that game designers become inspired. The first is to base a game off a fun or interesting mechanic.
Do you know the origins of Super Smash Bros.? Series creator, Masahiro Sakurai, wanted to make a 4-player fighting game but also wanted to make it completely unique, since he knew fighting games weren’t top sellers. Ultimately, he came up with a simple mechanic of a making his game very sumo like, where your goal is to knock people out of a ring rather than drop their life meter to zero. It was only as a test and eventually a way to make the game more appealing that Nintendo characters were added in.
Smash Bros is an example of how a game can be made starting off from just a core mechanic. Ideally, what any game designer would want to do is to find a very versatile mechanic and see how many different ways you can utilize it. A good exercise for coming up with these versatile mechanics is to limit yourself to a theme. Design jams, which is the making of a game in a certain amount of time is another good exercise for making a game based around a single mechanic.
Video games are a story telling medium, so having a story to tell is often one source of inspiration. Of course, this comes with one major problem: why even make a video game? Why not a movie or novel? Now, I love some of my linear story-based games such as Uncharted 2. But why not make that game a movie?
The issue I see is that you’re going to get people like me who aren’t going to see the cutscenes as something completely different from the gameplay. They’re going to be part of one big story and when game and story are confused, it creates some rather interesting alternate interpretations. I believe that when you want to tell a story in the form of a video game, and have it be your main focus, you need probably approach it in one of two ways. The first might be to not make a story in the traditional sense, but build a world where something is happening. If we look at Fallout: New Vegas for instance, the story isn’t crafted like a novel or movie. The story is about how the Legion and the New California Republic are at war and Mr. House of New Vegas is plotting some kind of way to make sure Vegas stays prosperous and independent. The game is crafted to react to how the player immerses himself into that world, allowing them to join any faction (or none at all) and be either peaceful, violent, righteous, greedy, etc.
The second approach is to create a linear world with a set character and story but again, have it cater and respond to how the player plays. A good example is Deus Ex: Human Revolution, where there is a story that is being told, but how the player goes about it is acknowledged by the game and is effected by their strategies.
Again, you could also create a linear story with an action-movie tone, but it’s something I would like to see phased out. Games can be so much more than just another version of the movies, they can be about creating experiences and adventures that’s wholly unique to everyone.
The third is to take advantage of new technology. This is why game developers are VERY excited when the Wii, Wii U, Kinect, and such came out. A game like Skyward Sword just wouldn’t be the same without motion controls and really once we’re no longer limited to button inputs for control over a game, the more interesting experiences that can be made.
But controllers aren’t the only new technology to take advantage of. When I first heard of LA Noire, I thought it was just going to be Grand Theft Auto meets Phoenix Wright and while I enjoy those games, I really didn’t see the appeal. Then I saw how they used the subtle facial animations to make the game a whole lot more deep and I was first in line to get it.
This is how I imagine the planning went for LA Noire: Someone said “Hey, we have such advanced graphic technology that we can capture facial animations a whole lot better than before. What kind of game would require reading faces? I got it, a detective game!”
Overall, every game you design should be focused on creating a fun experience for the players. Many different people like different things. Some people like to be challenged, some like to be powerful, while others like to be weak and scared in order to persevere. As a game designer, it would be your job to make players feel a certain way. You can’t make them scared if every gun they have is a one-shot kill. You can’t get the excited and pumped if the game move’s at snail’s pace. Its the hurdle that the game designer must clear, but only one of many. The first of course is to just be inspired.
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