In this chapter, you will learn about the process of creating your game concept. It's usually called the preproduction stage where designers will plan out all of the game details ahead of time, that is, before entering the production stage where developers, such as programmers and artists, will start doing their works based on the game concept provided to them.
In this chapter, we will cover the following topics:
Job roles in game development
The gameplay design
Writing the game's story
Choosing a visual style
The characters' concept
The environment concept
Before we dive into the process of creating a game, let's take an overview on some of the roles in game development. We are looking at the general level, where each of these roles can be further split down into more specialized roles:
Game designer: A game designer is a mastermind who designs the core elements and gameplay mechanics of a game. They not only need to understand how to design an interesting and fun game, but they also must have the creative and technical capabilities to communicate with the artists and programmers in order to make sure that both the artistic and technical processes comply with the game design.
Scriptwriter: A scriptwriter is someone who helps to construct compelling scenarios and dialogues for in-game cinematics based on the storyline and direction set by the game designer. A good scriptwriter knows how to make the players emerge into the game world through storytelling techniques and esthetic wordings.
Programmer: A programmer is a technical person who implements game features that run and control the game, as well as develop tools for the team to speed up the development process. They know every single bit of what's happening behind the game and occasionally turns coffee into code, too. Some of the specialized roles of a game programmer are a gameplay programmer, a toolkit programmer, a network programmer, a graphics programmer, and so on.
Artist/Animator: A game artist is a creative person who designs and creates art assets for a game, such as concept arts, 3D models, textures, sprite sheets, particle effects, and so on. A game animator specializes in creating animations for the game characters as well as producing the in-game cinematics.
Audio engineer: An audio engineer is an expert in creating the soundtrack for a game, including music, sound effects, character voices, and ambient effects. The audio engineer must be able to get the feel of the atmosphere of the game and create a suitable soundtrack accordingly.
Tester: A game tester helps to playtest the game during the development phase to ensure that it's free of a programming bug and complies with the requirements set by the publisher. They will also make sure that the gameplay meets the expectation of the game designer and that it's fun to play with.
There are many other job roles that we have not covered here, such as an AI designer, a level editor, a lighting artist, and so on. Specialized roles like these are normally only available in big studios, which have the resources to ensure that every aspect of the game they are creating is at its highest standard.
For a smaller game development team, an individual team member can handle multiple roles, and more than one person can share some roles in order to split the workloads.
Different people have different approaches in designing a game. Some designers like to start with the characters' design or storyline, and only after that, they will decide what type of gameplay is suitable for it. On the other hand, some designers like to start with the gameplay instead. There is no absolute rule on how to start designing a game; it's entirely dependent on what inspires you in the first place: Did a good story suddenly pop up in your mind? Were you inspired by a game you loved to play during childhood? Or were you inspired through silly conversations with your best friends? Write down your initial ideas; who knows, it could become the next popular game one day.
For me, I like to start by choosing the game genre and designing the gameplay right before anything else. I find that it's quite important to design a gameplay early on so that it can be tested repeatedly and to check whether the gameplay is fun or not. Otherwise, all the time we spent on writing a good storyline might be wasted if only to find out the gameplay simply doesn't work the way we had imagined. You can try to experiment on different approaches and see which method suits you more.
One mistake made by most of the newbie game developers is neglecting the importance of a game design document (GDD). A GDD is usually a collaborative effort within a development team to organize ideas and help convey the designer's vision to the rest of the team. It also helps to make sure that everyone is working together at the same page, avoiding assumptions, and conflicting workflows.
Besides this, GDD is also very helpful for solo developers. It allows you to see the bigger picture of your game and easily spot any major flaws in the game design. Other than this, you can also look at the list of every aspect of the game and decide what needs to get done based on its priority.
Most of the time, a common office suite, such as Microsoft Office, OpenOffice, or LibreOffice, is sufficient for creating the GDD. If you're in a team, however, it's best to use an editor that has the capability of real-time collaboration between team members. I personally find Google Documents very useful for this purpose, especially during brainstorming sessions where every team member can contribute their ideas and let others to see them during discussion. Try to pick the most suited tool for you and your team.
Picking a game genre early on is also very important. It gives you a sense of direction, and it lays down the foundation for you to further improve and innovate. There are many different types of game genres, such as first person shooter, role-playing, real-time strategy, adventure, action, and puzzle.
Alternatively, you may also invent your own genre if you are the type of person who likes to try out new ideas and always think out of the box. Although this may sound overly ambitious, but this is actually doable, as game genres are being invented all the time. However, following this path requires a ton of prototyping to prove that your idea is workable and fun as you're trying to create something that no one has even seen before.
If you have no idea which genre to pick at the moment, you might want to look at the statistics of the best-selling video game genres, and hopefully it will give you some inspiration:
It's important to decide on the genre early before you start working on the game. Basically, switching game genres during development means starting all over again from scratch.
Gameplay is something that connects players' actions with the purpose of the game and its main challenges. Gameplay will define what the player can or cannot do in the game, as well as conditions that allow the player to progress through the game. Gameplay design involves a wide range of designing aspects, such as a level design, gameplay balancing, player behavior prediction, and choices planning. All of this can be incorporated into something called game mechanics.
Game mechanics are constructs of rules that make up the gameplay of a game. It determines what actions the player can take, how the actions interact with the game states, and how other game entities respond to the player's actions. Gameplay defines what a game is to the player, whereas game mechanics are the parts that define the gameplay itself. In other words, gameplay is nothing more than a set of game mechanics. Oftentimes, gamers are popularizing famous games for its game mechanics. For example, Gears of War was famous for its cover mechanic when it first released in 2006. Prince of Persia blew peoples' minds away when first showing two of its famous mechanics—the parkour mechanic as well as the time manipulation mechanic. Angry Birds would not have been downloaded by two billion times across the globe if it didn't feature the slingshot mechanic!
We can split a set of game mechanics into two main categories: core mechanics and sub-mechanics. Core mechanics are the most important mechanics in your game. You cannot simply change your game's core mechanics because it will break the nature and essence of your game. For example, take away the shooting mechanic from Counter Strike, and the game would simply become something else, but something other than Counter Strike. It will not make any sense at all to play Counter Strike without a shooting mechanic. Sub-mechanics, however, can be taken away without breaking the game. Again, we use Counter Strike as an example, but this time, we will take away just the jumping mechanic. Now the players can no longer jump, but that doesn't make Counter Strike a different game; it's still a first person shooter, you can still make the headshots. It's important to determine what are the core mechanics of your game early on, but not so important for sub-mechanics. You can add in sub-mechanics later on during the production stage because, as previously mentioned, it won't break the game. A strong and solid core mechanics will ensure the success of your game, so focus on it first before anything else. After this, you can try to experiment on different sub-mechanics to enhance the gaming experience.
In short, proper planning will ensure that the gameplay is balanced, unpredictable, and makes sense to the player. Even an experienced game designer can hardly design a perfect gameplay in one shot. It takes a ton of testing and iterations in order to get the gameplay to feel right and fun to play with. The formula is simple: test, test, and more tests!
A level is the venue where a player interacts with the gameplay elements. It can also be called as a map or stage. As a level designer, you're responsible for designing the layout of the levels to comply with the purposes of your gameplay: Does this level carry missions? Is this level for multiplayer purposes? Roughly how long do you expect the user to play this level? You need to ask yourself all sorts of questions before you start designing your level.
One important aspect of level design is flow control. Game level with good flow control can direct a player toward the goal of the level and prevent idling or moments of unintentional confusion from occurring in game. You need to be clear about the intent and purpose of the particular level and then by using the elements within the level, such as lighting, props, and items. You can subconsciously lead the player toward the goal. You will learn more about this later when we design the environment.
Let's have a look at the sample level I designed for this book. Players must search for the key in order to open the gate and fight the final boss. While exploring the environment, player will occasionally encounter monsters and involve in intensive battles. There are also some items aligned randomly across the path for the player to pick up, restore health, and help progress the game. Here's an image showing a simple level with simple gameplay in mind to demonstrate what a map layout looks like:
Rapid prototyping is a good way to quickly test out your game idea and see if it works the way you want. Sometimes, a game idea might sound good only on paper, but it just doesn't work out like how you'd imagine it to be. The last thing you want is to only realize that you have been working on a bad idea in the middle of the development phase. Rapid prototyping not only saves you from this situation, but also allows you to think out of the box and freely experiment on all kinds of random ideas. If the idea works, then it is great; if it doesn't work, just scrap it and try the other ideas.
When you rapidly prototype your game, you should stop worrying about the graphics and just focus on the gameplay mechanics alone. The character could be just a cube, a sphere, or anything simple. The level could be just a plane or with more cubes on it acting as obstacles. You also shouldn't worry about the storyline at this stage because you might be scrapping the idea minutes later.
Unity Game Engine, the game development tool that we will be using in this book, is built for rapid prototyping in mind. It's extremely easy to just throw in some primitive shapes, applying some scripts to the shapes, and you are good to go. You can instantly start playtesting your ideas without much effort spent on setting up the game engine. In addition, you can download sample game assets from the Unity Asset Store, including 3D models, animations, and even sample scripts to kick-start your prototyping process.
Besides this, there are also plenty of plugins available at the Unity Asset Store, which provide extra tools for you to rapidly construct a demo level or create game mechanics without the need of writing any code. All-and-all, Unity Game Engine makes rapid prototyping even more rapid with the features mentioned previously. You will only be learning how to use Unity in later chapters.
Almost every video game has a storyline behind it. Even a game that has neither cinematic features nor a single line of dialogue could still contain a background story that defines the world of the game. Oftentimes, video game storyline is parallel to the progression of the gameplay. The further away the player progresses, the more they will learn about the storyline of the game.
You don't necessarily need to present your game's story through narratives or cinematic features unless you're making a story-heavy game, such as Last of Us. For a simple game, it's better to let the players discover the background story themselves by playing through your game. This is much more rewarding than directly telling them everything!
Before we start designing the characters and environment, we need to set a visual guideline in order to ensure a consistent design throughout the game. When you place the characters together with the environment, they should fit with the background, and they should not have too distinctive art style and quality from each other as if the characters and environment were taken from different games.
Generally, visual style can be split between two categories: realistic and stylized. It's entirely up to you what type of style you want to pick for your game, whether it's ultrarealistic, extremely stylized, or somewhere in between. It depends on the vision you set for your game as well as your team's capability in delivering the art style. Discuss with your teammate what type of visual style they are comfortable with and make sure that you understand your team before you start, which will prevent a lot of troubles from happening during production stage.
The characters concept usually refers to the concept arts, which display the design of your game characters. Concept artists have to come out with dozens of sketches and color thumbnails before a final design is selected by the art director. Once the character concept is confirmed and finalized, 3D artists start working on the 3D models by referring to the concept arts provided for them.
It's not as difficult as you think to design a character from scratch. Make sure that you truly understand the game you're trying to make. If you don't, try to read through the GDD and the storyline repeatedly until you are very familiar with each character's background story, personality, and their roles in the game. Once you're familiar with the game characters, try to imagine how they should look like in the visual style you chose earlier.
When designing characters, it's best to start with the silhouette. Try to define the character's personality using only the silhouette and ignore all other forms of details. We don't need to worry about the color, texture, facial expression, clothing, accessory, and anything else at this stage. Focus only on the body shape, size, contour, and posture that can easily make a player recognize the character and be able to tell the roles of the characters by simply judging from its outlook.
I prepared an image showing three characters' silhouettes. Try to guess what their personality is by judging from their respective silhouette.
Let's take a closer look at this diagram:
Character A: The first character looks small, cute, and vulnerable. He is probably harmless to you, don't you think so?
Character B: The second character looks like an ordinary person, but his uneasy posture infers that he could be a sly character with bad intention. Better not to get too close to him.
Character C: The third character looks extremely dangerous even from afar! Does he bite? I'm sure he does more than that!
Once you have chosen the silhouette of each character, you can now start adding detail! However, no color should be used at this stage. Use only lines to sketch out the appearance of the characters. Concept sketches should be fast, and it's okay for the sketches to look messy at this stage because we want our brain to continuously come out with different ideas without being distracted by small details. Don't be afraid to experiment with different ideas you have, you might be surprised how creative you could be!
After you've done a dozen or so rough sketches, pick one that you think most suitable for your game. Redraw the characters with fine lines and make sure that they look clean this time because we are going to put some colors on it!
The following image shows the sample characters' concept that I used for this book. I have chosen a more manga-ish, chibi style for my game characters. I skipped the silhouette and rough-sketching steps because well, the game demo I'm showing in this book is just a very, very simple game, so it's exceptional.
Now, let's take a closer look:
Character A: Block out the character with simple shapes, only simple shapes!
Character B: Start adding detail.
Character C: Clean-up and finishing.
After you have done all the clean-up jobs, we will proceed to the next stage, which is adding colors to your characters! Use only plain colors to fill in the design at this moment. No lighting or shadow should be allowed because again, we want to focus on experimenting different sets of color pallets on our characters and not be distracted by elements.
Be cautious when deciding the color palette for your characters. Choosing the wrong color could influence your player's interpretation toward your character's personality and role. Wrong color could also affect the visual focus of your character, making it hard to be seen on the screen (for example, a green character standing on a grass field).
Character A: Although red color looks really nice on him, it looks way too aggressive and that doesn't suit my faint-hearted character.
Character B: Blue color looks more calm and friendly, which is suitable for my character.
Character C: Totally, not my cup of tea.
The same method is used for the monster design as well. Eventually, I picked the one with red/pink patterns on its body. The color is more aggressive and at the same time contradicts with the main character's color. Also, warm colors, such as red or orange, often represent caution or danger. In order to speed up the process, I will just pick monster C as the final boss.
Finally, create a scale comparison chart to let everyone in your team know exactly how big or small should the characters look like. This information is extremely important for the 3D artists as well as gameplay designer. Make sure that everyone in your team is aware of this chart.
The environment concept, as the name implies, is the concept design for your game's environment. The difference between level design and environment design is that the latter is more about the art—how to use artistic elements to make the scene look more interesting. Many important guidelines will be given to the concept artists before they start using the environment concept. Artists need to know the visual style, color mood, detailed description of the environment, and most importantly, the level layout.
Here is the environment concept I did for this book. I split the layout into several parts and illustrated each of them based on the visual style and color mood I picked earlier. Note how I use lighting to guide player toward the correct path.
In this chapter, you learned all the important aspects on how to design your own game as follows:
Introduction to important elements that you need to include in your game design, such as game genre, game mechanics, level design, storyline, and visual style
Explaining what is rapid prototyping and how it helps establish a solid game idea
The process of creating concepts for your game character and environment
In the next chapter, we will gain knowledge on how to turn our characters design into 3D models using Blender.