in Game Design

My Next Game

Stick 2No, this is not an announcement of my next game (I wish). Rather, it’s a brain dump of my struggle with the process. It seems that in the game development community we often share the process of making a game and how it did afterwards. But it’s rare having some insight into what goes on before the project gets started. Where do ideas come from? Why do we pick one and not another? These are semi-coherent notes about the things I’m struggling with right now.

Brewing

A new game for me starts as an idea somewhere, sometime, that got jotted down into my “game ideas” personal wiki page. I have that page accessible 24 hours a day on my computer, iPhone, or iPad. Only while I’m running/cycling or in the shower am I away from that page (and unfortunately, that’s the time when most ideas seem to spark). I make a point of not censoring any ideas: If I thought that something would be neat (not just gameplay, but a setting, a visual, a mechanic, or anything), I jot it down.

Over time, I accumulate quite a few ideas. Every so often I review them and I might expand on some and flesh out sub-ideas. Or they might spark different ideas of their own and I jot them down too. I never delete any of them, because I’m consciously trying to not censor anything yet. This is purely brainstorming mode. I’ve even sent emails to friends about possible game ideas straight out of this list, crappy ideas and all.

During this time I’ll rearrange the list. I’ll move more likely ideas up, or ones that I’m more excited about. That has the effect of a kind of bubble sort, so the better ideas somehow rise to the top (except for the brilliant ones hidden in the depths somewhere).

This list is particularly useful when I’m in the middle of a project and I have what seem brilliant game ideas. Do I put the project aside to do this great idea instead? No. Instead, I add it to the list with all the others. If I’m really excited about it, I’ll flesh it out as much as I can, but it needs to wait its turn. As you can imagine, after a few days, the idea doesn’t seem so shiny anymore, so it was a good thing it didn’t derail the current project.

Struggling

Eventually the time comes when I need to pick a new project, and this is where the fun and the pain start.

You would think a good approach might be to read the list and start evaluating ideas. In a way, that’s what I do, but before I evaluate ideas, I need to some frame of reference to decide what’s a worthwhile idea and what isn’t.

In the past my criteria for considering a project involved the intersection of three requirements:

  • The game must be interesting for me to work on. I want to learn something new and be excited about what I do. Not interested in cloning something or making a derivative game.
  • A game I can realistically implement with the resources at my disposal. I’m not an artist, so that usually means not having a content-heavy game, and relying on code as much as possible (like the procedural geometry in Flower Garden–no artist modeled those flowers by hand).
  • A game that has potential to sell well on the target platforms.

Unfortunately, meeting all those three requirements at the same time isn’t easy, especially given the astounding number of games already on iOS.

Before I go any further, I need to step back and ask myself a very important question: Why do I want to make this next game? This is a question we indies have the luxury of asking (and answering). I think most big (and small) studios are too busy staying afloat to be able to ask anything like that (besides, the answer is almost always “make more money” for them).

It turns out the indie life is treating me very well, so making lots money isn’t one of the main reasons to make this next game. That means I can safely remove that requirement from my previous list, which grants me a lot more freedom.

I’m probably going to spend the next 6 to 10 months working on this project, so it needs to be worthwhile. Does it need to be innovative and break new ground in a way no one has seen before? Does it need to make hard-core FPS players cry to be worth considering? Does it need to be radical, pixelated, mash up 5 different genres, an win the IGF and respect of my peers?

It turns out none of those are the reasons that drive me to make games. In the end, when I look deep down, the reason I want to make games is for the pleasure of taking a vision from the initial idea to something people can play. It’s the creativity involved that drives me. I imagine it’s the same reason people are driven to write or paint. If along the way, some of those games manage to be innovative, make money, or win an IGF award, that’d be fantastic, but in any case, the development process is its own reward.

Given all those factors, I can go down the list of games and evaluate each one. Does it have potential to meet those requirements and be a satisfying project? This might not come as a surprise for those of you involved in creative activities, but this is hands-down, the most difficult time of development for me. As long as I don’t have a project picked, my mind is constantly going over this. Anything I read, see, or hear is filtered and analyzed thinking of how it would fit in a game. During this time I’m often moody, volatile, and prone to depression if this goes on for too long.

Even though it seems I’ll never going to be able to come up with an idea worth doing, eventually something comes along, and the next phase starts.

Prototyping

I’ve already talked about prototyping at length before. I take the idea I’m considering and I try to answer the key questions in the shortest possible time. This is the time to shoot down any bad ideas, or prove why they’re not feasible or just boring.

The prototyping phase is a big high for me. It often involves manic activity and I can get a prototype done in a day or two from the initial excitement on the idea. The bad part is that most prototypes prove not to be that great, and they go back to the drawer of game ideas, and I’m left scrambling for another idea.

Struggle. Prototype. Discard. Repeat.

I usually repeat this cycle multiple times. Each time around I get more anxious, and the lows and highs are a bit more extreme.

Fortunately, at least so far, eventually I find a prototype that seems worth doing. Something I can see spending the next X months of my life doing. I usually run it by a few friends whose opinion I value highly, and if they’re excited about it too, then it becomes an internal green light and I move on to the implementation phase.

Tips

Apart from asking yourself why your making a game, here are a couple of things worth keeping in mind when picking a new project. They’re not new things and I’ve heard them before in one form or another, but they’re worth reiterating:

  • Don’t compete with big companies. They can throw a lot more resources, and, most importantly, lots of marketing behind their titles. Don’t try to take Zynga head on. Do your own thing.
  • Don’t chase trends. Take risks. Be different. You’re indie and have low overheard. Take advantage of that and do things the big boys would never dare risk $50 million on.
  • Keep the scope of the project small and focused. It will be bigger than you envision anyway. By being small, you can come up with new ideas faster than big companies.

How about you? What’s your process for deciding to work on something? Do you struggle until you pick the project? Do you stick with an idea, or do you change and restart?

  • Oh, man, I recently went through this gauntlet. When I finished my last project my idea list was pretty empty — talk about hitting a brick wall.

    I spent days just sitting, thinking and sketching — trying to find that next project that met my requirements. I even started running  just to give myself time to focus (pushed over 50 miles in a month at the height). Anyway, when I thought I had something, I’d whip up a prototype and find something wasn’t feeling right. After my second prototype I decided I needed more time to think about what I was going to do next. I couldn’t keep investing in this idea and prototype phase — I needed to start something. 

    I decided to pivot, give myself some time to think and work on a Mac OS app based off of something I’ve wanted.

    So, it worked (time cures all). My next game isn’t going to be a full-blown game with the depth I wanted or the uniqueness. Trying to find a gem like that just takes R&D time I don’t have. So, I’m sticking with what made Colorflys successful (casual, niche, purpose) and things that I really care about (learning).

    Find what you really love because that’ll help drive your motivation. For me, I really love alternative learning methods. I also love simulations. If you’re trying to make a distance game because distance games are all over the app store, but you don’t really like playing them, you have a tough road ahead. It’s not likely you’ll really be able to add the value you think. If you don’t add the value you think you’ll lose motivation quickily. Lose purpose, all bets are off.

  • David

    My struggles is that I have too many ideas, too many games I would love to work on so it’s hard to focus and decided on what to work on. You have a hit with Casey Contraptions, but I think it would be unfortunate if you don’t try to reach a larger audience, the so called critical mass. Be a staple in the app store top 25.

  • My struggles is that I have too many ideas, too many games I would love to work on so it’s hard to focus and chose the one thing to work on. You have a hit with Casey Contraptions, but I think it would be unfortunate if you don’t try to reach a larger audience, the so called critical mass. Be a staple in the app store top 25.

    • Anonymous

      That’s the thing, not every game can be in the App Store top 25. I don’t think that every game should even try to be in the top 25. This one probably won’t be, or if it does, it will be a nice surprise.

  • I like the idea of having of having a personal wiki page to store your ideas. What wiki software do you use?

    • Anonymous

      I’m using pmwiki, but that’s because I set that up years ago. If I were to do it today, I would use something with native clients on Mac/iPhone (and maybe a secondary web interface). Heck, maybe Notes would do it or something like that.

    • Jetro Lauha

      Also Google Docs is worth trying. For many, many years I used to just have a text file on my computer, nowadays I have switched to just a single document in Google Docs for that.

      • Anonymous

        Google Docs is tempting, but I’d want something I can acess easier from a mobile device. Do you know if they have any kind of native client apps? That’s my main complaint about the wiki.

      • Evernote is great for writing and saving ideas, you can included images and text, it also stores audio.  The only downside is: when you have a ton of ideas and research information, it can be slow. But I doubt there will be many people with  9,000 entries. I’ve also been using workflowy and gimmebar as I try to reduce the thousands of content in my Evernote account. 

    • Boon Chew

      When I am not in front of the computer, I use Idea Organizer – an iPhone app I made for the purpose of keeping track of ideas.  When I have my computer, I use Yojimbo with Dropbox sync, it has its limitations but for the most part it works.

  • UseCase

    Good game ideas…Check!
    Concept proving game mechanic prototype…Check!
    Reasonable assumption that I have a good game premise…Check!
    Ability to finish ie work though menu design/implementation, scoring, Facebook/Twitter integration, and polish the heck out of my game………………………………

    I have become an habitual prototype creator, with some sort of completion aversion….

    I spend alot of time up front going from idea to unique and interesting gameplay prototype but then I let that ball fall with respect to “productization” (is that a word?) and pick up another one.  

    Is there a three step program for this?

    BTW: I use a black hard cover PiccaDilly graph paper notebook initially and then EverNote for idea storage.  I have a youtube favorites group of things that interest me for each game idea and a safari link group for each idea.  I also formalize each idea with a 2 to 3 page initial design document word document with scans of my notebook as I near prototyping phase.  If the idea makes it through all of that before I decide its not worth the effort then I consider it good and start writing code.  I keep the PiccaDilly notebook and a fine point pen next to my bed in case something comes to me in the middle of the night, in fact that notebook is generally not far from me most of the time.  My wife hates it!!  I even have pocket one…  I am really excited about the new Wacom Inking because I think I will expedite my process….

    • Making software alone is a pretty daunting task. Simple games can easily turn into a beast of a project– imagine what a mid-to-large game would turn in to. Focus on a creating a simple game. To keep yourself sane you really need to leave the 10,000 foot level, where you’re thinking about everything, and zero in on an area/feature of your project. Only visit that 10k foot level when things are not feeling right and you need to re-evaluate. 

      Self-dicipline. You’ve got to master yourself and not let your mind dictate your actions. If you want to finish X, suck it up, break it into steps and take each one as a step toward the finish line. Make sure those steps are all listed (text editor, things, notepad). Marking off tasks will show you the progress you’re making visually and will help tremendously.  

      Be passionate about what you’re doing. Define a purpose helps. That passion is going to get you through the dumpy times. 

      You can do this.

  • Boon Chew

    These are some of the questions I ask when deciding on which idea to pursue:

    • What are the similar apps out there? How do they stack up to this idea?
    • Does the idea, when realized, have a chance to be #1 in what it sets out to do? If not, can I carve out a niche space in which it can? In my opinion, if the idea can’t turn into a product that’s the best in its space, perhaps the energy should be put somewhere else for now.  Obviously execution is very important in order to achieve this.  So here I am working on the assumption that I have the skills, people and technology to make it happen and thereby making the quality of the idea be the only variable.
    • Will people be excited about it? What’s the chance of Apple featuring it?
    • Can it be out the door in 2 months?

    For some ideas (esp. those that requires more time/energy commitment), I don’t do anything to it until it has a chance to sit in the idea bin for some time.  I want to make sure it is just a love at first sight kinda thing.  If I still feel excited about it after a few weeks or if I find myself being drawn back to it, then I give it a more serious look.

  • Here’s a Fun-Ability-Market scoring system we came up with to help us evaluate our game ideas http://www.markj.net/fam-score-evaluate-game-ideas/

  • Anonymous

    when you say 6-10 months for the next game, is that working on it 100% of your dev time, or does that factor in supporting other projects?

    • Anonymous

      That’s full time. I wish I could make games faster, but apparently not.

  • Emma

    Hi Noel, I just read your post on what you need to master to go into games development and would really appreciate further counsel, as I’m conscious of how quickly this stuff changes. I’m teetering on the edge of learning a new language and considering Python, C++ or Java, but have no idea where to go first. I’ve read that Python is a good place to start (but that advice was from 2003) and your recommendation of reading up on C++ is from a while back – would you still say learning C++ is the most appropriate starting point for someone wanting to try out making a simple game? (I already write HTML5, CSS3, intermediate PHP and a little C with an Arduino)