Preparing a Game Concept
Every game starts with a concept, an idea of what the player experiences will be—a vision of a world coming to life on screen. The challenge, once this idea takes shape in the creator’s mind, is to fix it and communicate it to everyone involved in the game development process.
In this chapter, we’re going to learn how to write a game concept and your responsibilities as a game designer in the process of doing so.
We are going to cover topics such as the following:
- What is a game concept?
- Structure of a game concept document
- Knowing your competition
- Understanding the ideation process
We are going to use some practical examples from real-life scenarios, and you will be able to follow the tips in each paragraph of this chapter and create your own game concept, based on your own idea or an existing game.
What is a game concept?
Imagine a game that you have played from beginning to end or one that you have loved and played for a long time. Would you be able to write a two-to-five pages short presentation on that game: a presentation that describes why it is fun, how to play it, what it looks like, and for what kind of player it will be a great experience?
Now, imagine doing the same for a game that doesn’t exist yet—a game that you would love to make or play, but that is only an idea in your mind. Would you still be able to describe it? To put the vision on paper… That presentation is known as a game concept.
The purpose of a game concept is to describe a game with enough detail to distill and communicate its vision to the reader. To explain what makes it fun, who’ll enjoy playing it, and why we should make it a reality.
One of the main responsibilities of every game designer is to make sure that, at every stage of development, the vision behind the game is clearly documented and communicated to the team.
The earlier you are in the development cycle, the more abstract this documentation will be. What starts with a short high-level concept will eventually turn into a full game design document that can easily span over a hundred pages. Later on (especially if you work in an Agile team), your documentation efforts are likely going to shift into feature specs (a focused design document that only will be used to explain a single standalone element of the game) and small user stories or tickets mentioned in Chapter 1, Introducing the Game Production Process.
As one of the very first steps in the development process, the game concept is the most abstract document, so it is paramount that it stays focused on the core aspects of the game. After all, you only have a few pages to describe the whole thing. You don’t really want to linger on your main protagonist’s story for four pages and then describe how the game works in the remaining few lines of the last page.
This is your first exercise. If you have a game idea already in your head, try to put it on paper: a couple of pages would be enough. If you don’t have any particular game idea in mind, try to describe a game that you have played and loved enough to know all its rules and secrets.
There’s no need to read the rest of this chapter. Do the exercise now, before reading anything more.
Once you are done, carry on reading this chapter. You will find more exercises to refine your initial concept and expand on it. By the end of the chapter, you will have the opportunity to see what mistakes you might have made in your initial concept and end up with a solid presentation that will serve as a framework for creating more game concepts.
Remember—at this stage, it is not important to come up with solid ideas for the next big blockbuster game or the next indie hit! This is just an opportunity to improve your skills in writing this type of document. Feel free to be as ambitious as you like with your concepts!
Structure of a game concept document
There is some information that any game concept should always contain, as follows:
- Introduction (sometimes called a hook or elevator pitch)
- Description/game overview
- A list of key features, including its unique selling points (USPs)
- Game genre
- Target audience
- Business model
It is clear from this list that your role as a game designer is not about deciding all this. The game idea or hook may come from any other team member, from an external client, from a publisher, or from some lead/director within the company.
The games industry offers a lot of freedom and possibilities; there are companies that make games to make a profit or indie developers that follow their passion and make their games because they have something to say—there are even people working on games in their free time just because they love it.
In the professional world of game development, every game is a commercial software product. This means that, in order to justify the existence of the game, there must be people willing to buy it, play it, and hopefully talk about it. This is why the game concept needs to go beyond a simple description of a game; you have to think about a game concept as a sales tool. Answer questions such as Who is this game for? and Why should people care to play it?
Keep in mind that sometimes people make games just for themselves, to express their art, or to exercise their creativity. These are obvious exceptions to the sale tool concept. Arguably, in these cases, you don’t even need any formal documentation. But even in such cases, writing your document can go a long way.
The audience may vary (and so do the formality and the structure of the document) but the goal stays the same: whoever reads the document must understand and see what the developers want to do and needs to get excited about that...even if it is all for yourself!
The reader might be the publisher to which you are presenting the idea. Presenting really means selling, in this case. But the reader could be the programmer who is going to implement the game or an artist who is going to create all the artwork or graphical assets, or even just a possible player.
All these people will look at the document in a different way, but one thing is for sure: if they get what the document is trying to present, they will get excited about the project and look forward to whatever it is they have an interest in, from giving the money needed for its development to working on it or to just playing it!
Try to compare the work you have done in your first exercise with what you have learned in this paragraph. Does your concept include information such as genre, platform, or target audience? Add these details to your concept or write a new one with these new elements in mind.
Read on to understand what we are talking about and why these things are as important as a mere description of the game.
The hook or elevator pitch
You have a couple of sentences, for example—three at a maximum—to describe what your game will be. The introduction has to condense all the information that you will expand on in the rest of the document. This is your first page, and if it doesn’t catch your reader’s attention, nothing else you have to say will.
It’s not only that; by stripping your whole game down to such a fundamental description, you are focusing on what’s really important. It’s like a mantra you will have to follow during development because that’s your promise to your players.
It’s called a hook because the reader wants to know more. Some call it an elevator pitch because it’s what you can say to a stranger in a 30-second elevator ride. A great example comes from a well-known game developer, Rami Ismail. He and his team, Vlambeer, made a game called Ridiculous Fishing, a hit mobile game from 2013.
What is it? In his own words, it’s Fishing with machine guns.
In just four words, this sentence tells a lot about the game, but also makes you wonder how? (and, probably, why?). You’re hooked. You want to know more. Great introduction!
There are no strict rules on how to put together your introduction. Some games are introduced with a short video, a set of mood boards, or concept art—even a montage from existing videos or cuts from movies. These are all powerful tools that can be used to communicate the game vision. Don’t limit yourself to just words on a page; after all, a picture is worth a thousand words. At the same time, keep in mind your audience—be sure that the person who is going to read your concept can clearly understand your intentions. As your audience changes (from peers to high-level executives), you might need to change things around and adapt your concept.
- The core gameplay mechanics
- The narrative
- Mode and setting
- Information about the characters and the game world
The idea is to give the reader a clear picture of how the final experience is going to be. This is also the section with more space for multimedia. Concept artwork can juxtapose text to reinforce it, but also to give directions about the art style.
Sometimes audio and soundtracks will be a defining part of a game concept (just think about musical games), and for games that would require extensive use of audio, such as narrative games with voice acting, including these details early in the concept is as important as defining the core gameplay mechanics.
A common mistake while writing the description is to include too specific information or yield to the temptation of exaggerating. Describing the game combat as driven by a revolutionary artificial intelligence is not a good idea if developing AI is not part of the plan (or the budget). And in case it is, there’s no need to go into the details of how such an AI will work, even though a few words to describe why it’s defined as revolutionary might be required.
Key feature set
This is a list of the features that make your game a great experience for your players. There’s no need to include all the systems you will be designing, but it is expected that a game concept includes all the main ones. This means that a healthy development cycle starts with a fundamental feature set that remains largely unchanged (unless things don’t work out as expected and you find yourself in dire need of a big design pivot).
Some common key features are game modes, multiplayer guild systems, battle systems, playable characters, progression systems, and technical features (such as advanced AI or particular graphics). The list is as long as a designer’s imagination can go, so make sure to include only the ones really relevant to your game.
To look at some practical examples, the App Store gives some very good insights. Most App Store descriptions contain a list of the game’s key features. Hearthstone, for example, markets itself with the following messages:
- JUMP RIGHT IN: Fun introductory missions bring you into the world of Hearthstone’s intuitive gameplay.
- BUILD YOUR DECK: With hundreds of additional cards to win and craft - your collection grows with you.
- HONE YOUR SKILLS: Play in practice matches against computer-controlled heroes of the Warcraft universe. Thrall, Uther, Gul’dan - they’re all here!
- COLLECTION TRAVELS WITH YOU: Your card collection is linked to your Battle.net account - enabling you to switch your play between tablet and desktop with ease.
- AND FIGHT FOR GLORY: When you’re ready, step into the Arena and duel other players for the chance to win awesome prizes!
As you can see, Blizzard did an excellent job of mixing technical and gameplay features, describing them with taglines that make players excited about their trading card game. These messages were obviously written by the marketing team for the finished product, but they are a perfect example of clearly and efficiently communicating the key feature set to the target audience.
Finding your USP
The USP determines that unique mechanism or take on your genre that is going to make your game stand out from the competition, the reason why players out there would be interested in dedicating their valuable time to your game instead of the many others that they already have or are interested in trying.
To help you understand the idea behind the USP, sometimes also called breakthrough, let’s have a look at some widely popular and successful games. The Assassin’s Creed franchise came out in 2007, and it revolutionized the action-adventure game genre by introducing its famous parkour mechanic. The ability to traverse on the vertical axis by freely climbing buildings was a fresh and innovative feature and helped set the game apart from its competition. The public response was immensely positive, and despite some major flaws in that original game, Assassin’s Creed became one of the biggest game franchises in history.
Another famous example, on a different platform, is Supercell’s Clash Royale. The core gameplay is based on collecting cards and battling with them in an arena with other players. The game is full of fresh takes on different mechanics, but it has one very clear USP: real-time Player versus Player (PvP). When the game came out in mid-2016, very few mobile games were relying on synchronous PvP.
Most titles at the time were either turn-based or real-time versus AI (the other player being controlled by an AI). Clearly, it was a consequence of the technical challenges of creating synchronous PvP games on mobile.
Let’s have a look at another interesting example: FromSoftware’s Elden Ring. It is the last in their Souls-like game catalog. If we look at its features individually, nothing stands out as a unique, never-seen-before game mechanic. The biggest USP for Elden Ring is that is an Open World game, a feature widely available in a plethora of other games.
But for a Souls-like game, Elden Ring is the first that offers an Open World experience, and it was such a unique new element for this type of game that it made it one of the most successful games in modern times!
As in any market, an unexplored area is both a risk and an opportunity. Supercell was successful in pushing the boundaries of mobile multiplayer games toward synchronous PVP and created a billion-dollar game in the process, while Ubisoft and FromSoftware designed games that offered a novel and unique experience, spawning entirely new game sub-genres!
You might think that USP concerns marketing and sales more, rather than game design. Indeed, the two questions Why should I buy your game? and Why should I play your game? have very similar answers. It is the game designer’s responsibility to provide an answer that can satisfy both!
Is it unique enough to make the concept stand out from similar games?
Do you know any other examples of game franchises that owe their popularity to a specific USP? Think about a few of them and compare their USPs with yours.
This refers to the hardware on which the game will be played or a particular distribution platform. Hardware such as PCs, games consoles, mobile devices, and virtual reality (VR) headsets are considered platforms, but also specific environments such as Facebook or iMessage are platforms themselves. Each platform brings a unique set of requirements and opens very different possibilities on both the technical and creative sides.
Choosing the right platform for your game must be one of the earliest decisions. The platform on its own can have an immense influence on the game design, from the target audience and business model to controls, user interface, and performance requirements. Platform choice sets certain expectations for the game you’re making. There’s a good reason why match-three puzzle games are not swarming the console market.
From an audience perspective, a card solitaire game may work well on smartphones but is unlikely to be as popular on consoles. Similarly, but from a hardware angle, a strategy game that relies on precise controls provided by a mouse and keyboard might not translate very well to the console or handheld input methods. There are many unspoken rules to game design, and knowing when to break them is part of the art.
Introducing a complex strategy game to the smartphone market and tackling the challenges offered by the platform head-on might result in a very innovative and interesting product. But remember—such experiments are risky, so make sure you know the rules before you try to break them!
We hope to pass some of this unspoken knowledge to you with this book, but you will have to keep learning by researching and playing games throughout your entire journey as a game designer.
Each platform also has a very tangible impact on how the game will be designed. The most evident example is about input controls: an action game would pose completely different challenges on a mobile device than on a console controller...
Those differences in design are not limited to the platform technology; the way the player expects to interact with games on different platforms is important too. A mobile game would usually be characterized by short sessions where the player is able to complete the whole game loop in just a few minutes, while a PC game could require the same amount of time just to go through a single cutscene.
Defining the audience is part of the initial creative process. Even if it seems a natural consequence of the kind of game you want to make, it is important to spend some time thinking about it and having a clear idea of who is going to play the game.
The kids/adult example is an easy one, but identifying an audience means asking yourself questions such as: Who is interested in this game? Which similar games do they play? What are they expecting from a new game in their favorite genre? What is the common behavior when interacting with a game for your selected audience? How much time do they spend playing? What are the undelivered promises of the competition?
Mere demographics are still an important factor in defining an audience, but in our modern world, amazingly, pretty much everyone plays video games, and there’s no such thing as a young hardcore gamer or an average casual gamer.
These are concepts from the past that are important to leave behind. Everyone is a potential gamer in today’s world, but each and every gamer is interested in very different game experiences. Internet and online communities give game developers an incredible tool to find out about people’s desires and fantasies in terms of what they’d love to play. User research is done by many developers, submitting rough concepts, trailers, or marketing materials of games that don’t yet exist to test and learn from those desires.
Video game audiences are also constantly evolving. There is a great article written by Meg Jayanth (the writer behind 80 Days from inkle) for The Guardian in 2014 titled 52% of gamers are women – but the industry doesn’t know it (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/sep/18/52-percent-people-playing-games-women-industry-doesnt-know). Give it a good read! Industry reports available online can also give you a great idea of the different (and, sometimes, unexpected) types of audiences out there.
When you define your target audience, try to go beyond a generic definition. Define your audience by their interests.
Casual players who have a few spare minutes on their commute are incredibly more accurate than an average casual gamer.
Hardcore players who grew up playing strategy games such as Dune II and Fallout Tactics are not quite the same as hardcore strategy game players.
A more precise target audience definition is extremely helpful because it gives you something to design around already. Just look at the information gleaned from casual players who have a few spare minutes on their commute. You don’t only know that your game is for casual players—you also know that the average game session should last no more than a few minutes and that the game might have some problems working online, as commuting usually means unstable mobile networks.
Age rating systems
You have surely heard about Pan-European Game Information (PEGI) or Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB). Age-based rating systems are important in the game industry, and they should be taken into consideration by developers. Knowing beforehand that you are developing a game that is supposed to be PEGI 7, for example, already says a lot about the game design itself.
The same goes for mature-rated games. Sometimes, the very fact that they are mature-rated is part of the concept. In fact, the idea of including an expected age-based rating in the concept might help in creating a game suitable for that age restriction.
There is an everlasting debate about these systems and how they are (or are not) useful to consumers, especially parents choosing a game for their children. As will often be the case in this book, we strongly recommend you explore the topic on your own; but for now, keep in mind that they are not just tools to rate a finished game, but also useful guidelines to keep a project on track so that it’s suitable for a particular audience.
Since games are an interactive medium, talking about a war game doesn’t really tell us much about it. Therefore, in games, the genre is more informative than the theme and the setting. And so, our genres, such as First-Person Shooter (FPS), are heavily related to the gameplay at hand. An FPS can take place in different settings and explore different themes: from historic to present-day or even sci-fi.
The genre tells the players what kind of game they will be playing, and it’s a very useful way to classify games. There are quite a lot of genres, and each genre might have many sub-genres. Also, smart game designers are constantly redefining genres and pushing the boundaries of what a genre means. Nonetheless, it is safe to say that some genres are universally recognized by both developers and players as standard.
Some examples are FPS, platformers, role-playing games (RPGs), sports games, massively multiplayer online games (MMOs), multiplayer online battle arenas (MOBAs), strategy games, and simulations. The list goes on and on.
How many genres are you familiar with? Make a list of all the genres you know and then highlight the ones you have never played. Get yourself some games in those genres and familiarize yourself with them. Everyone has their favorite genre, but by becoming a game designer, you can’t afford to ignore the genres you don’t like to play. You are not a mere video gamer anymore!
The business model (or revenue model) is simply a system by which the game is going to make money. Remember—a game is ultimately a product that needs to be sold, even the most artistic one; surprisingly enough, even the ones that will be given away for free. As we already mentioned, a game concept is not a one-man job by the game designer.
Just as with game design, creating a game concept is collaborative work in which the whole team participates, and there might be also requirements coming from outside. This includes the business model, and the team needs to have a clear idea of how it will work.
You might think that this is something about marketing that doesn’t really concern you, but the business model will have an impact on how the game is designed; therefore, it is absolutely your concern and has to be clear from the beginning.
Some developers think that business models are some kind of virus that infected the game development world in recent years. Those great games are going to sell because they are great, so there’s no need to think about it. Or maybe, that smaller games made by a handful of developers don’t need to waste time on marketing stuff.
Sometimes, indeed, this is true, especially because there are many reasons to make a game that are not just profit!
That said, though, the rest of the time (which is most of the time), games must be sold, and the job of the professional game developer is to make games for a living. So, keep the business model in mind, and design around it from the beginning. Create something so great that players are willing to pay for it, and respect the value they give to your product.
- Premium: A premium game is paid upfront, and then it can be played virtually forever by the player. It is still the dominant business model for console and PC games. Some examples include The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, The Sims, and The Legend Of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
- Subscription: Games with subscriptions require the player to pay a monthly fee in order to continue to access the game. The most popular subscription-based games are MMOs such as World of Warcraft or Eve Online.
- Free to Play (F2P): F2P games can be downloaded and played for free and rely entirely on optional microtransactions. Extensive information on this business model can be found later, in Chapter 14, Mastering Games as a Service.
Sounds simple enough, right? As with every aspect of game development, there’s a whole lot under the surface! Each of those three main models can be implemented in a variety of different ways and also intertwined with each other.
Premium games can be given out for free as a demo (only a limited amount of content is available for free) or for a limited amount of time (free weekends are really popular for competitive multiplayer games such as Overwatch). Premium games can also be enriched with further content releases of downloadable content (DLC).
This is new and fresh content (levels, characters, game modes, and so forth) made available later to keep players interested and engaged in a game. Usually, DLC is sold for extra money, but sometimes it might be free (for everyone or just for players who purchased a particular edition of the game). The Total War franchise from Creative Assembly is a fantastic example of premium games, with the addition over time of many DLCs containing new factions, campaigns, game modes, and characters.
A great example of an innovative business model is episodic games, popularized by Telltale Games, with their series of licensed titles such as The Walking Dead and Back to the Future. This is essentially an evolution of the old shareware (demo) or trial model but naturally divided and reinforced by the narrative. Usually, the first episode is given away for free, and the player can decide to purchase each additional episode individually or subscribe and gain access to the entire season.
Supermassive Games is another game developer that excels at this. With their series The Dark Pictures Anthology, they have evolved the episodic game concept even further, moving away from narratively connected episodes of a single story to a framework of different stories that share a general theme (horror) and certain game mechanics (quick time events and branching narrative, for example), but are otherwise disconnected from each other.
F2P games can generate revenues in even more creative and new ways. Offering virtual goods or in-game currencies for real money is just one possibility. F2P games can make money through advertisements (yes—just like TV shows!) and then sell players the ad-free version, or they can ask players to watch an ad to get an in-game reward, or maybe to subscribe to the game to get the same reward without having to watch any ads.
There are many possibilities, but regardless of the business model you chose for your game, one thing must not be forgotten: the business model and the game design are intertwined.
Creating a game and thinking about its business model as the last step before release is a huge mistake. Switching between vastly different business models in the middle of the development process (for example, turning a premium game into an F2P one) is a very dangerous move that can seriously derail the product.
This is why the business model is an essential part of the game concept. As with anything else in it, it sets important guidelines for the entire development.
Did your initial concept include something about the target audience, genre, and business model?
Think about it and include these in your concept. Does it change your idea of the game? What are players going to pay for?
There is another reason why a game concept is such an important milestone in starting to create a new game. Once your game genre, audience, and platform are defined, it is possible to take a look at what’s out there in the market: your competition.
Knowing your competition
Understanding similar games to the one you will be developing is crucial to the project’s success. It is very likely that the developers of those other games have already faced and solved (or maybe not!) many of the problems you will encounter at some point during development.
Communities of players already playing those games might be discussing them in depth. This is an invaluable resource for you, as you will be able to fix known problems or add features to your game, based on what real players are willing and hoping to play.
Other ways of gaining insight into the competition include game postmortems (first-hand reports on what went right and wrong on a particular game project), user research, analytics, and industry press. Some great starting points for you to find this kind of material are the Game Developers Conference archive at https://www.gdcvault.com/ and the following website: https://www.gamedeveloper.com/.
Your competition also defines the state of your game’s genre, giving you a clear direction regarding your design. Once you have analyzed your competition, you can ask yourself questions such as the following:
- Is my game too similar to what’s already out there?
- How is it different?
- Does it offer a better and more novel experience to its target audience?
- If I was a fan of my competitor’s game, would I be interested in trying out this new game?
We have already explored defining and communicating game ideas to others through the game concept document; now, let’s pose a more fundamental question. How do we generate the game idea in the first place? How do we get to the point of having something to write down in the concept document?
Understanding the ideation process
Before we begin, let’s make it clear that the game designer is not the ideas person. It is not their job to have a constant flow of new game ideas. These can (and should) come from anyone within the team or even from people outside your organization. It’s very common in our industry to have publishers commission a game idea to the developers, an owner of an intellectual property (IP) such as Star Wars or The Witcher to seek out licensing, or game studios themselves providing outsourcing services to other developers.
A game idea could be driven by market research, a game vision, or even, in a more artistic way, by the urge to say something or tell a story. What is important for you as a game designer is to have what I like to call a designer mindset. A designer mindset allows you to process raw ideas analytically.
You should be able to imagine a finished product being played by your audience. You will need to predict any major problems and issues, have a clear idea of the competition, and have some intuition about possible USPs.
There are no shortcuts to developing this mindset; you must play games and create them, know what works and what doesn’t, to keep a critical eye on everything you play and see. Ideally, you will strive to become a true expert in the genres you are most interested in (both as a designer and as a player), but to do so, you’ll often need to explore all sorts of games.
You might not be keen to play certain types of games, but you must still try to understand what makes them fun for their intended audience. A truly great designer can point out good and bad design decisions in any game, from a pony-nurturing simulator to a horror shooter.
Every developer (not just game designers) dreams of working on their dream game, but as a professional who’s trying to make a living, you will have to adapt your skills and career goals to what’s required of you. Shift your expectations to the available opportunities and embrace the challenge of working on something that isn’t your forte. Your job will rarely allow you to create a perfect representation of your dream game; until that time arrives, be resourceful and make the best possible game, treating your constraints as interesting problems rather than depressing limitations. Learn from your mistakes and do the best you can for the players and the team!
Coming up with ideas
- Play tons of video games, especially ones outside your favorite genres.
- Watch movies, TV, and theatre, and read books.
- Think about how to turn your interests outside gaming into a game (bricolage, wine, fitness, art, music, traveling, and so on).
- Analyze the market and think about unique games that are not there.
- Ask people what new game they would like to play.
- Deconstruct your favorite games, focusing on what would make them better.
- Go to game jams (where you will have a very restricted amount of time to create a working game!).
- Give yourself a theme, and try to make a game around that in a short time.
- Learn the basics of a game engine and do some stuff! Anything: follow online tutorials, try to recreate some game mechanics—just mess around with example projects.
Twisting familiar mechanics
As a game developer, your goal will always be to create interesting new games, but as we can learn from other game developers’ success stories, a successful game is always a mix of novelty and familiarity. If you think about most of the games available today, you can clearly see how each of them is an iteration of an older game or well-known mechanics. Very few games are completely new and with never-seen-before core mechanics.
In fact, your role as a game designer is not to invent a completely new set of mechanics every time but to pick a set that works well with the game you are making. Using existing mechanics, refining well-known concepts, and falling back on clichéd settings is totally fine (if you think about it, many multimillion-dollar franchises do exactly that). Just make sure that you have a very clear goal of what you want to achieve and how the mechanics you picked are helping you deliver on your vision.
Don’t be afraid—there will be plenty of space for innovation and creativity, even working on proven mechanics. More importantly, there will be plenty of occasions to work on truly innovative games in your career. Just keep in mind that, as a professional game designer, your goal is to design compelling game experiences and not to do something new and different at all costs.
It must be clear at this point that everything that goes into the game concept will have a direct impact on how the game is going to be designed. This is why it is so important that it is defined as the first stage and must be kept in mind for the whole development process. It must act as the ultimate reference, a guide to keeping the vision clear and the project on track during the difficult and exciting times ahead when the proper development begins.
We are going to discuss in depth the process of creating and adapting game mechanics in Chapter 6, Designing Systems and Features.
Creativity through constraints
The main risk of defining and refining a game concept during the ideation phase is underestimating the project scope or the actual ability of the team to accomplish its goal. The fact that these limits exist is all good news, though. Imagine having a blank canvas and being told to draw a beautiful painting or having a blank page and having to write a short story. This is when artists experience the so-called artist’s block: the inability to produce any new work or let their creativity flow.
Your blank canvas is your ideation space. The more constraints you can identify, the more that space will shrink, allowing you to focus on ideas that could work! The size of your team, the expertise on the platform, your budget, the available technology...
These all help to inform what you can and cannot realistically do. Every design decision you make will be somehow constrained. You must embrace those limits and create something that works within them. Game design is problem-solving, which usually means compromising.
Finding the fun
What do you think about this?
A game where you play as an astronaut who watches planet Earth being destroyed from a space station.
An augmented reality (AR) game in which you use your phone to find clues and solve mysteries.
These may sound like good hooks for a game concept (if you think about that first one, that could be a hook for a book or a movie as well), but the most important thing when you are ideating your game is: How can this be fun? What do you do in that game? Is the space station game a survival adventure or a horror FPS? Is it about managing resources or solving puzzles? Is it a space shooter? Think about the games you love—what makes them fun? And what is fun anyway? Is it the joy of learning and mastering new systems, exploring and interacting with virtual worlds, and making interesting choices?
We’ll be exploring the connection between fun and game mechanics in further chapters while trying to avoid any unnecessary deep dive into the theory. That said, it doesn’t mean that you don’t have to! There are entire books and articles dedicated to the topic of fun. Raph Koster’s Theory of Fun and Nicole Lazzaro’s Four Keys to Fun are just two of many noteworthy examples.
Good designers are fluent in practical game design techniques and well-informed in theory. Excellent game designers are experts in both. Fun in games comes from the player’s experience, which is ultimately related to the core game mechanics. As you can imagine, if those core mechanics are not fun, no one will be interested in the game.
There’s only one answer to this question, and it is by prototyping.
We will talk about prototyping in detail in Chapter 7, Making Prototypes; for now, let’s just understand the basics:
A prototype is an early sample, model, or release of a product built to test a concept.
Only 15 years ago, building a prototype for a video game concept or just trying out some mechanics was out of the question for most game developers. Today, with tools such as Unity and other accessible game engines, prototyping is extremely quick and efficient, and, most importantly, not only a prerogative of game programmers.
Imagine that you want to make a 3D game where two armies clash in battle. Developing a playable demo of such a game, with 3D models of every soldier, the battleground, and the rules behind movement and fighting, is a massive amount of work.
And what if after everything is ready, you find out that the battle is not as fun as you thought it would be?
Prototyping means focusing on the essentials and answering gameplay questions. Once it is clear what we want to test out with a prototype—in this case, whether the battle mechanics are fun—we realize that we don’t need fully rendered 3D models for soldiers and accurate terrain. We probably don’t even need soldiers.
By abstracting, we might find that we only need some 3D cubes moving on a flat plane. Setting up a plane and some cubes requires 5 minutes of work in Unity. Eventually, you might find out that the concept of two armies fighting is simply too generic to have a meaningful or realistic prototype.
In this case, you can start by adding more details and asking yourself more questions. What kind of battle are you trying to represent? A medieval battle is very different from a battle between tanks in the Second World War.
If you’re planning to show the prototype to a less imaginative audience, you might want to replace the abstract cubes and shapes with some basic models and images found on the internet. The likes of Unity Asset Store can be a great source of effective prototyping assets! Just make sure that the audience realizes that you’re not trying to represent the final look of the game.
While prototyping, you essentially iterate on the concept, stripping it down to its core. For example, you may find out that the essence of the game you’re trying to make can be described as your unit charging the enemy in a medieval battle.
That’s your next direction for prototyping; just focus on the charge element, on the enemy’s reaction. They can flee if you’re charging their flank or react by firing arrows or standing their ground if you’re charging the front.
All you will see on your screen is just colored cubes chasing each other. But that’s already a great start. The sooner you have something playable, the sooner your vision will become more tangible, and you will have real feedback not only on its playability but also on its feasibility.
Armed with feedback and data, you can refine your work, add or remove details, or completely change direction. Game design is not about getting everything right the first time, but constantly improving what is there until it becomes the best it can be.
A common association of the word fantasy is with a fictional world populated by magic and fantastic creatures. Let’s leave that idea of fantasy behind for now. By fantasy here, we mean the activity of imagining things, not necessarily things that cannot happen in our real world.
You can fantasize about being a doctor, an athlete, or a gangster. That’s what we mean by fantasy. Defining fantasy means establishing imaginary settings and environments for the game world and the actions the player is able to do in it.
Fantasy is not something that needs to be explicitly stated in the game concept, as it emerges from how the game is designed around the initial vision. In the example we made previously while discussing prototyping, we were creating a strategy battle game in a medieval setting. Through iterations, we stripped the game to its core, imagining the fun of issuing orders to our units and commanding a charge through enemy lines.
What we did there is come up with a fantasy—the fantasy of being a general ordering troops to charge into battle and conquer enemies. Note how the genre influences fantasy. A strategy game with many different troops to command implies the player is the strategist, therefore the fantasy is being a general of a medieval army.
If the concept were about a first-person action game where you command a knight during a charge on the enemy lines, we would have a completely different fantasy (the player being the heroic knight leading the charge). Different fantasy, same setting (and the same battle).
Other common fantasies in games include being a hero through someone’s journey to save someone (from Super Mario to The Legend of Zelda) or controlling a team in a specific sport. Again, a fantasy always suggests a genre, but it describes something more telling: a bigger story about the player’s actions. Clearly, defining a fantasy means setting up more guidelines that will drive the entire development and any design decision down the line.
Creating a fantasy through game mechanics
Let’s go back to the charging knight example we just made. You want that charge to be spectacular, tense, and ultimately satisfying for the player; that means designing the enemy’s reaction and behavior (and even the game physics) in a way that is meaningful for that fantasy.
Imagine if the combat system didn’t include any physics and the knight simply stopped in front of his target after the charge and began a static fight where both he and his enemy just swung their weapons until one was defeated. Wouldn’t it be so much better if the momentum built by the charge sent the enemy through the air and the knight continued advancing until the momentum was gone (and many enemies knocked out)? Creating such a game requires the design of the core mechanics to be built around a very specific fantasy.
The mood, or how the game looks and feels
Part of the identity of any video game is how it looks on screen and how the combination of its mechanics, visuals, and audio creates the aesthetic of the game. This combination evokes an emotional response from the player and defines the mood of a game.
The mood is very much part of the design, as with any other element, as important as gameplay or story. Games such as Limbo and Journey are essentially designed around a mood, with the specific intention of evoking certain emotions in the player as a central part of the experience.
Defining the mood of a game is a collaborative effort from the entire team, often under the direction of a specific person (or multiple directors, in the case of bigger productions). Artists create amazing content that can define the mood and the aesthetic of a game, and sometimes it’s the designer’s responsibility to put it together.
Designers are likely to be the first ones to actually see it in-game. Keeping in touch with the art team is crucial to the final quality of the game; designing new content that the art team will have to create is not unidirectional. Make sure to get as much input as you can from the art team about any work they will have to do based on your design!
It is time to go through the document you have written, taking into account everything we have been saying. If you chose to create a concept for your own game idea, try to write a new one for an existing one and vice versa. Try to have someone else read your game concept and give you some feedback. Did they understand the game? Did they get the vision you had in mind while writing? Discuss your results online or with other designers or developers. Don’t be afraid of sharing your ideas. Yes—there might be a chance that someone would steal them, but there is a far greater chance that someone will like them and might even hire you because of them!
We have learned some basics about how to conceptualize a game idea and present it to other people, as well as understanding the importance of early prototyping and iterations. We have discussed how having a game idea is only the tip of the iceberg and how the role of the game designer is to communicate ideas that might come from anyone inside or outside the team.
We clarified the importance of marketing your game from the very beginning and finding the correct audience for what is, above all, a product that has to be sold (even if it’s free). We had a glance at some practical techniques game designers use to develop and create games, which we will explore in more depth in the next chapters.
We also did some paperwork. The time you put into creating a sample concept document is time well spent, I guarantee you that. Learning game design is about getting hands-on experience, and there’s a lot you can do only with a text file or even just pen and paper. Keep doing it. I hope you are able to go back to all your homework someday and meditate on how far you have come.
In the next chapter, we’re going to discuss the importance of understanding the size of a game project and how the scope determines the constraints you will have to consider in your design decisions and will have to respect if you want to complete your game.