Nobody Cares About Your Idea

Ideaimage

 

There is a fetishization of ideas in our culture.  Everyone is looking for a “million dollar idea” or great new game concept.  When people hear stories about great games or great businesses, a common reaction is “I wish I’d thought of that.”  The search for the million dollar idea, and the feeling that the idea will change everything, is pervasive in our culture.   I want to dispel this myth, and to do that, I’ll let you in on a secret:

You’ve already had a million dollar idea.  You’ve probably had several. You will have many more. Nobody Cares.

I imagine some people don’t believe me that they already have million dollar ideas.  Most likely, this means that you didn’t recognize the idea when it came or you forgot it before you could write it down.  If you want help generating more great ideas, here are some tips:

  1. Write things down.  Most great ideas get lost because you forget them.  Keep a small notepad on you at all times or get in the habit of writing down (or recording) notes on your phone.  Keep a notepad by your bedside.  I even have a waterproof notepad I keep in the shower for when inspiration strikes there.  Write down even half baked random ideas, as these often spawn better ideas later.  Consolidate and review these notes regularly.
  1. Exercise your idea muscle- Start an idea journal.  Write down 10 new ideas everyday.  These ideas can be about anything at all.  (e.g. a game idea, an alternate route to work, a short story concept, a new sandwich filling, whatever) At first this will feel difficult, but soon you’ll have more ideas than you know what to do with.
  1. Read Core Design Loop Step 1: Inspiration– I include a step by step process for generating ideas there.

If you follow the above steps, you will have way more ideas than you know what to do with.  Most of these ideas, however, won’t amount to anything.  If you want to turn your million dollar idea into an actual million dollars, read on.  You’ve got a lot more work to do.  

  1. Don’t Be Afraid to Share your Ideas

In my experience, ideas are only about 10% of the value of any final product. Important, but not as important as everyone thinks. Think of your game idea as the foundation for a house.  If it isn’t solid, the house is in trouble.

On the other hand, without all the planning, labor, and resources required to build an actual house, all you have is an empty lot.  Sharing your idea early helps make sure you have a good foundation before investing in building your house.

I’ve encountered multiple designers who were terrified that someone would steal their brilliant game concept.  So terrified, in fact, that they never showed it to anyone.  Those game ideas may have been brilliant, but no one will ever know because they never saw the light of day.  The iterative design process requires constant testing and feedback.  This is true even before you build your first prototype.  If you don’t show your ideas to others and get input, you are unlikely to make it very far.  Adopt an abundance mentality when it comes to ideas.  You will always have more, so don’t be afraid to share them liberally.

  1. Execution is Everything

A good idea is a critical foundation upon which to build a game (or a company, or anything else), but the heart of creative work is execution.  

There are two sides to this realization.  On the one hand, it is a bummer that you can’t just think of a good idea and make a million dollars.  On the other hand, this realization is empowering.  There is no magic or genius “out there” that you don’t have.  You can make a great game, found a great company, or create a great product.  All it takes is the willingness to do the work of execution.  There are always barriers and roadblocks and the path to bringing ideas to life will often cause them to change and shift far beyond what you initially conceived.  The Core Design Loop works just as well for any creative endeavor as it does for games, but I’ll boil it down even further.  Execution has two basic steps:

  1. Work Hard.  
  2. Learn from your Mistakes.

That’s it.  Get in the habit of capturing and testing your ideas.  Avoid the habit of cherishing them so much they cannot be scrutinized or changed.   That is how brilliant ideas turn into brilliant realities.

Core Design Loop Step 6: Iteration

This post has been updated and posted on steemit!

 

This is the final article in a series describing the Core Design Loop, critical for anyone who wants to design games.  For an overview of the series, click here.

Once you’ve gotten feedback from testing your game, the next step is to evaluate that feedback and then use that information to repeat the Core Design Loop cycle again. Your primary goal in each Core Design Loop cycle is to test your core concept against the realities of an actual session of play.  Keep your ego out of the equation and look honestly at the data you received from your playtest session.  When looking at the data, there are several possible results:

Your core concept works well- If so, great! Now you should begin asking more detailed questions about how to best highlight and support this core concept. What new theory will you test with the next iteration? Continue to refine your core mechanic until it really shines.

Your core concept didn’t work out so well- If so, great! Now you have learned something valuable and can focus on a different core concept. Why didn’t the core concept work out as planned? Was there some key component that you didn’t foresee that perhaps could be changed or removed? Was there something about this prototype that people enjoyed more than you expected? Perhaps that should be the focus for your next iteration. You can also go back to your brainstorm session notes and see if some of the other ideas that you didn’t incorporate into the prototype can serve as a focus for the next design. Sometimes, you need to go back for more inspiration before making another prototype. Don’t let an initial lack of success dissuade you! There are many paths forward and your job as a designer is to keep moving until you find the right path for you and your players.

Your core concept worked kinda ok, sorta- If so, not so great 🙁

Uncertainty of result is the hardest situation to handle and unfortunately it is a very common one. Often, your playtest session is neither a roaring success nor a complete disaster. Perhaps the feedback was mixed on your core concept. Perhaps other issues (like an insufficient prototype, or inappropriate audience) muddied the results you were looking for. The challenge here is that the specific path forward is unclear- you don’t know what to try next. This is dangerous territory for a designer, as many games become orphaned designs and end up on a shelf without a plan to revive them. Finding that clear path forward is challenging, but in general there are two approaches to use:

1. Try again- if you don’t feel like your core concept got a fair shake, try with a different playgroup and/or a more refined prototype and see if you get more clear results. Maybe a small tweak to the core concept will solve your problem or maybe the core idea is better expressed a different way.

2. Let it sit– sometimes, the right thing to do is put a design down and start working on something else. First, make sure that all of your game rules, parameters, core concept, and brainstorm ideas are written down and organized somewhere so they can be picked up again. While in the middle of a design process, you have everything in your head, so it is easy to make small adjustments and see the bigger picture. After taking a break from a design, you will be surprised how much you forget. I’ve lost countless designs because I forgot to write things down in detail- don’t let this happen to you! Set a calendar reminder for yourself to come back to the game in a few weeks. Often, returning with fresh eyes can help you see the picture more clearly.

Work your way through the steps of the Core Design Loop until you reach a game you are happy with. If your concept is working, increasingly move through the stages of design 1 to refine your product. If something isn’t working, cycle back to revise and iterate until you find a solution. Keep momentum and enthusiasm going- if you’ve gone through this entire cycle more than once, you are a living the life of a game designer!

I hope you have enjoyed this series exploring the Core Design Loop. Help me figure out what to write about next by messaging me on Twitter @Justin_Gary. Send me your ideas, questions, or just stop by and say hello!

Core Design Loop Step 5: Test

This post has been updated and posted on steemit!

 

Testing your early game prototypes is simultaneously one of the most exciting and most terrifying experiences of being a designer. There is an inherent vulnerability that comes from taking your creation and opening it up to the criticism of others. To get the most out of your testing sessions, you must learn to love criticism.

Your design is a personal creation and an extension of yourself. You were inspired by a *great* idea. You spent the time to set parametersbrainstorm and prototype a game because you believe in your vision. There is a part of you that *knows* this design is genius and when you show it to others they are without a doubt going to give you some kind of award and attempt to buy your game on the spot. Your design is your baby, and you love it unconditionally. This article is about learning to kill your babies.

Every game can be improved. There is always another variant that can be tested, a component that can be tweaked, or a strategy that can be better developed.  I have many games I’ve published (even popular ones) that I now look back on and cringe, but at the time I thought they were the bees knees. Humility comes with experience, and all of the greatest game designers have learned this lesson (usually more times than they care to admit).  Go into your testing session with the certain knowledge that your game is flawed and embrace the opportunity to improve.

The secret to loving criticism is to remove your ego from the equation. Imagine when testing a game that you are not the designer at all.  In fact, you are not even friends with the designer. Furthermore, you are pretty sure the designer is an alien creature that is only just now trying to understand the human concept of “games.” Feedback from testing is not about the game being good or bad, just about helping educate this alien designer. By removing your attachment to the game being “good” or “bad” you can be far more effective in taking in and processing the reality in front of you.

When testing a game, keep in mind the core mechanic you are trying to test. Watch players interact with that mechanic and observe as much detail as you can. You can elicit feedback from your players about what they like and what they don’t like, but there is no substitute for your own observations. Players will often be more kind in their reviews than they would be if they didn’t know you. In addition, they will often complain about things that aren’t a part of the core mechanic you are trying to test. If you are testing the basics of a collectible card game resource mechanic, then don’t worry about the exact numbers on the cards or complaints that your game isn’t “balanced.” But do worry if players get confused about how the resource system works or find themselves unable to follow the game’s progress. Look for facial expressions, mistaken actions, and uncertainty of movement. Do your best to allow players to make “mistakes” by doing what feels natural to them.  When in doubt, the correct action in a game should almost always be the one players naturally gravitate towards.

As an example, in my deckbuilding game, Ascension, we originally had a mechanic that would remove a card from the center row each turn. The center row moved like a conveyor belt with a new card showing up on one side and “pushing” all the other cards down the line, eliminating the last card in the row. This mechanic seemed really cool to me and I had a bunch of designs that manipulated the functioning of this conveyor belt, creating a lot of interesting choices and texture to the decisions (e.g. the cards closest to the end of the conveyor belt were more precious because they would disappear soon). I found in playtesting, however, that players regularly forgot to move the conveyor belt and I noticed that it was fairly awkward to physically move all the cards each turn. Though many players explicitly said they liked the mechanic, I decided based on my implicit observations to remove it, and the game played much smoother.

Key Questions To Ask

After a playtest session, it can sometimes be helpful to have your players fill out questionnaires to give feedback. Again, this will depend on your audience, but you can often elicit more detailed and honest feedback with a questionnaire. Some key general questions include:

What were the 3 things you liked most about the game?
What were the 3 things you liked least about the game?
In your own words, what would you say this game was about?
Was there anything you found confusing?
If you could change one thing about the game, what would you change?
If you could preserve one element of the game, what would you preserve?

In later phases, you can ask more general questions about the game (these aren’t as useful in early stages).

On a scale of 1-5, How likely are you to recommend this game to a friend?
On a scale of 1-5, How easy was this game to learn?
On a scale of 1-5, How much did you like the theme of the game?
On a scale of 1-5, How did you feel about the length of the game?
On a scale of 1-5, How did you feel about the depth of strategy of the game

Whether you use a questionnaire or just receive direct feedback from your players, remember that the most important feedback is often that which is unspoken. Players don’t always know what they want and will often identify the wrong issues as problems. This is not to say that you as a designer “know better” than your players. Your job as a designer is to engineer an experience through your game. In a fundamental way, player perception is reality. The key distinction is that players often don’t know what will really make them feel a certain way. For example, players of collectible card games will often complain about “randmness” or “variance” ruining games when in reality some amount of variance is critical to making those games fun.1

Your players are the ultimate arbiters of whether your game is fun or not, but the skill of a designer is discovering the specific mechanics and triggers that engineer the player experience you want. You will refine your skills of observation as you look behind the things players say and address the way the game makes players feel. This can be intimidating at first, but becomes easier and easier as you design and test more.  When possible, run your playtest session with a few different groups to get a wider range of feedback.   Sometimes one player’s reaction can be dismissed, but any recurring comments from players is almost always something that needs to be addressed in some form or another.

If you’ve come this far, then congratulations!  This is the nuts and bolts of being a game designer.  The final step is to take what you’ve learned and use that information to iterate on the process again. We will cover that in the next article.

Core Design Loop Step 4: Prototyping

(This post has been updated and posted on steemit)

No matter how great a designer you are, you will never know if your game is good until you prototype and test it. Remember, the goal of prototyping is to test out a core game concept as quickly and cheaply as possible. You should have your core concept from your brainstorm session before beginning to prototype.

The Basics

So what is a prototype? A prototype is a simplified version of your game, intended to test a core mechanic or feature.  As you test different ideas, your prototype will get more and more refined until eventually you feel comfortable creating the final version of the game. To build a successful prototype, you need the following:

Rules– you should have a written set of rules for your game. 1 2

Components– you need to create the individual components for your game needed to play.

Questions– Having a small questionnaire will help focus feedback and should be custom tailored to the core game concepts you are testing.

Key Principles

Principle 1: Your first prototype is going to suck

This is a hard principle for people to accept, but once you do, your life is going to get a lot easier. Trying to make a “perfect” first prototype is a sure fire recipe for never completing your game. Similarly, don’t make the mistake of getting discouraged because players don’t like your prototype or your assumptions didn’t pan out.  Learning lessons cheaply is the name of the game. Even the greatest game designers I know still make crappy first prototypes- you are in good company!

 

Principle 2: Be lazy

Creating a prototype for your game is a lot of work. Whether doing a paper prototype or a digital one, a lot of time and effort will often go into creating an experience that you know is going to to be terrible (see Principle 1). This can get discouraging fast as you go through round after round of prototyping. To help make this less painful, think about the easiest way to test your core hypothesis. If you are making a card game, can you test the basic principles with a normal deck of cards (perhaps with some marker written on it)? If testing a first person shooter, could you mod a current game to simulate the unique core concept you are trying to test? Even better, could you simulate it via a board game? 3

You don’t have to test a whole game to test a core concept. Playing 5 minutes of an experience can teach you as much as playing a 45 min game if you focus on the right elements and that extra time can be used to test out far more iterations. Remember, the goal of early prototyping is to test your core mechanic and then move quickly into the next iteration. Think of yourself like a scientist testing a hypothesis- what experiment do you need to run to confirm or deny your theory?

 

Principle 3: Find the right audience

Initial prototypes are going lack a lot of the polish that will be a part of your final game. Pretty art work, expansive worlds, and balanced mechanics are all huge parts of a successful final product, but have no place in your first prototypes. Your best case scenario is that you have an initial audience of fellow game designers to try out your first prototype. Other game designers are usually able to look past the clunkiness of the prototype and see the core engine underneath. If you don’t have a sophisticated audience, you will often need to spend more time on the prototype in order to get them to experience the game in more detail. Even without a fancy prototype, however, you can still get useful feedback out of unsophisticated audiences, but it will require more careful Testing and Observation.4

The easiest games to make are ones that you and your friends like to play and I highly recommend that if you are new to game design, then you start with those kind of games. Starting with games intended for your social group will make for easy to find audiences and it will be more obvious when things aren’t working. If you are making games for other demographics (e.g. small children), then you will have to put in effort to find those audiences in order to get the most useful feedback.

 

Principle 4: Mental Walk Through

Before finalizing your prototype, do a mental walk through of the game. Very often, when we think of concepts, we don’t always follow through on all the key details. Mentally put yourself in the position of a player and imagine yourself playing the game. What do you see? What are your immediate incentives? How are you keeping track of relevant information? A simple mental walk through a game can reveal core missing components before subjecting yourself the the harsh light of outside observers.

 

Principle 5: Have flexible tools

The easier it is to make modifications to your prototype, the less resistance you will have walking through the iterative cycle. Prototyping with cards and pieces on a board that can easily be swapped out or written on with marker is far easier than having to recode a level that doesn’t work. As you move through each iteration cycle, and thus become more and more confident in key pieces of your design, you can invest more in more detailed, harder to change prototypes (and thus reach out to wider audiences for feedback)

Useful Tools

Everyone I know has a different favorite set of prototyping tools, so you will have to explore to find the ones that work best for you.  Here are some useful ideas to get you started.

Physical Games and Toys

Keep a war-chest of Game supplies. Your first goal should be to use tools that already exist and only build something yourself if you absolutely have to. I keep the following around at all times for playing with new ideas:

Multiple decks of playing cards
an uno deck
a go board
a variety of classic board games (monopoly, scrabble, etc.)
dice of all different sizes
glass beads
a hex board with some movable tiles 5
small figurines of a variety of shapes and sizes 6
Pens, markers, and sharpies of a variety of colors
Large pieces of paper
Post it notes
Protective Card Sleeves 7

Graphics Programs

If you have any skill at all with graphics programs, they can be a huge asset in prototyping:

Photoshop + Indesign- both great for making cards if you know how to use them.
Simple Word Templates

If you don’t have any graphics skills (I don’t), then you can use a word doc template like this one for cards:
Card Game Creators

There are many programs designed specifically for mocking up and printing out cards. There is a great list here:

Digital Game Creators

I don’t personally use these, but I’ve heard good things about using these tools to quickly mock-up a digital game:

For 2-D Game Mockups: Game Maker Studio
For 3-D Game Mockups: Unity

Print on Demand Services

There are many print on demand services available for making “nicer” versions of your prototypes. Don’t do this for your early prototypes, but they can be useful for later iterations. I like:

http://www.drivethrucards.com/joincards.php

Go Make Something!

You now have all the tools necessary to make your own game! Don’t get hung up on making “the perfect prototype” or finding “the perfect tool.” Just get a prototype made as fast as possible and worry about improving it later. Once your prototype is complete, you are ready to put your game in front of actual players! We will talk about how to run a great testing session in next week’s article. That gives you a perfect amount of time to build a prototype of your own.  8

P.S.- If you have any great prototyping tools not listed above, please share them in the comments!

Core Design Loop Step 3: Brainstorming

This article has been updated and posted on steemit!

Brainstorming is one of the most fun parts of the game design process.  If you’ve followed the steps up to this point, you have a core inspiration and a set of initial parameters you are designing around. 1  Today, we are going to take those tools and use them to generate a staggering number of ideas in a very short period of time.  The brainstorming process is fundamentally broken down into three phases.  

1. Creation – During the first phase of brainstorming, the goal is to get as many ideas down on paper as possible. During this phase, my motto is: “There are no bad ideas.”  Everything is fair game. 

Use your initial inspiration and parameters as a jumping off point, but let your mind go wild from there.  Each idea you write down will spawn other ideas that will in turn spawn even more.  Continue to write things down for the entirety of your allotted time.  Even if one of your ideas is totally impractical (e.g. This game requires zero gravity to play), it may help lead you to an innovative practical solution you haven’t thought of (e.g. I could use magnets as game pieces that repel each other).  In addition, even if you have one idea for how a specific part of your game will work, keep writing until you come up with three or four more- you want to get past the obvious solution and dig for hidden treasures in your psyche.

If you stop writing for more than 20 seconds, you are most likely still being too critical with your ideas.  If you hear that voice in your head saying “That will never work” or “That’s stupid” just tell the voice to be quiet and stand in the corner.  You’ll have plenty of chance to censor and edit later- don’t let your judgmental mind restrict your creative mind during this phase.  It may help you to think of this as play- nobody but you will see these ideas and its ok to be as ridiculous as you want- have fun with it! 2 When you finish this phase you should have a massive list of ideas in a random jumble on your page- ready to be organized into something useful.

2. Organization – After finishing phase 1, you should have a giant list of ideas on paper in front of you.  Now, step back and look at the whole image. Let your mind find patterns between the different ideas and start to group them together into like categories. 

Mind mapping tools are incredibly helpful here. 3  There are many ways to group ideas, but when working with games, you will typically want to have categories for things like: Core Mechanic, Setup, Theme, Game Resources, Components, etc.  You may also have crazier categories for ideas like: Requires Nuclear Fission, Solid Gold Psychic Aliens, Edible Game pieces, etc.  As you do this organization, other ideas will come to you to “fill in the gaps” in categories you are building.  Go ahead and add those in as well. Look for ways to connect where you are now to some of the ideas you’ve written down.  How would you get from here to there?  What other components would need to exist? How would a player experience this idea?  When you finish this phase, you should have a relatively organized set of concepts- some great, some crazy, some unfinished, and some that seem close to executable. You are then ready for the next phase

3. Elimination – This is where your inner critic turns back on.  Start filtering through the ideas and find the core elements that can be prototyped.  Whereas your goal in phase 1 is to get as many ideas as possible, your goal in phase 3 is to prototype as few things as possible.  Ask yourself what the best part of your design is and figure out the cheapest, fastest way to test it.

We will talk more about prototyping in the next article, but the key principle is to try and test your assumptions in the form of real gameplay as quickly and efficiently as you can.  Don’t worry about leaving great ideas on the table at this point- you can always come back to them in the next cycle.  You are trying to find the gem that will form the heart of your design and the minimum number of additional things required to test and iterate on that gem.

For practical implementation of the above ideas, I recommend setting aside 20 minutes for each phase.  If you feel like you are on a roll and want to run over, that is ok, but don’t spend less than 20 minutes in each phase. This is critical as each phase uses a very different part of your brain, and it takes time to ramp up to maximum efficiency. 4

Brainstorming Tools

There are great tools out there that can help you with this process.  The most basic tool is a piece of paper and a writing utensil.  This can be a journal or a notepad, but I recommend that you use big pieces of paper for the creation process in particular. Big space = big ideas.  You can also use different colored writing tools (markers, pens, even crayons) to make the process fun and to help stimulate different kinds of thinking.  A white board is also great for this purpose.

For those that want to use more digital tools, mindmapping software can be very effective.  For those unfamiliar with it, mind mapping is basically just a mechanism for organizing information visually, with ideas being connected by lines to other similar ideas as seen here: 

mindmap

There are no rules to how you organize your ideas in mindmapping, just get all your ideas down on paper and see what natural patterns emerge.  Using digital mindmapping software is great because it makes reorganizing and moving ideas around during the organization phase much easier. 5

Outlining and Mindmapping tools are available for free everywhere, and you will have to find out for yourself which tools work best for your creative process.  Because the brainstorming process outlined above is so short (only an hour to complete 1 cycle) you can go ahead and try several different brainstorms with different tools to see what gets you the best results.  There are no objective right and wrong answers here- just what works best for you.  6

Group Brainstorming

Often, you will be working on a game project with other people, and group brainstorming can be a great way to get more ideas than you would ever come up with on your own.  There are several risks associated with a group brainstorm, however.  Finding the right people and enforcing the right kind of discipline are key to making the most out of a group brainstorm.  I recommend that you go through the brainstorming process individually before bringing in a group so you have a sense of what to expect.

Make sure that everyone understands the “No Bad Ideas” rule for the Creation phase.  If the group dynamics support each other to keep making more and more ideas, then a group brainstorm session can be a huge asset.  If, however, people are afraid to say ideas for fear of looking stupid or being embarassed, then they will self edit and you can miss a lot of great ideas.  As ideas are shouted out, write them on a white board or some other large visible medium.  One great tactic can be to give everyone sticky notes and have them write down their ideas individually for 10 minutes, only then adding the ideas to the wall and using them to spawn more group ideas.  Keep group brainstorms small (2-5 people)to help encourage participation and prevent people from “hiding” in a larger group.

Once you’ve finished brainstorming, you should have a whole bunch of ideas written down and a have identified what you perceive as the core of design ready to move into prototyping.

 

Core Design Loop Step 2: Set Parameters

Once you have your Inspiration, you need to set parameters for your design.  One of the biggest challenges of designing a game is how open-ended the process can feel.  Especially at early stages, everything feels in flux and the limitless possibility can be very intimidating. To solve this problem, you need to set parameters.

Create More by Changing Less

Game systems are delicate creatures- changing one part can have ripple effects on the whole design, so it is helpful to define parameters that keep you focused.  Deciding to hold some things constant allows you to be most effective with the changes you do make.  Staring at a blank page with no limitations can be very daunting, but knowing that you want to make, for example, a $14.99 retail card game for 8-12 year olds, can immediately start you down a path.  Limitations breed creativity.

Be Your Own (Tough) Boss

One of the benefits of designing games for hire is that parameters are often set for you.  You will usually be told who your game is for, what the theme will be, and when the game needs to be complete.  These things (especially the deadline) do a wonderful job of focusing your attention on what really matters.  When you are just starting out or designing games on your own, you need to be your own boss and define these parameters for yourself.

Key Questions to Set Parameters

Here are some helpful questions that can guide you in this process.  Answer the below questions for your game and hold those answers constant through your first design cycle.  You can change them later if need be, but there is value in wrestling with the limitations you set for yourself before you relax them. 

1. Who is your target audience?

While we all would love to design games enjoyed by everyone, you need to pick a smaller target to aim at when designing your game.  What key attributes define members of your ideal player group? Try to think about their age, hobbies, interests, etc.  Create a mental picture in your mind of someone in this group. What activities do they engage in?  What motivates them?  What types of things do they buy?  What kind of games do they play now?  Why do they play those games?

Answering these questions and keeping a mental picture of your target audience in your head will help guide your design process.  Don’t try to make your audience too broad, especially at first.  It is a common mistake amongst designers to think their game is for everyone- if you are trying to design something for everyone, you are really not designing for anyone.  Keep your focus small- envision one member of your target audience and design a game for them specifically.

The easiest target audience to design for is yourself. Being able to create games that you yourself love to play has the wonderful advantage of it being obvious when you succeed or fail.  Even if you are targeting yourself, however, make sure that you find others who also fall within your target audience to playtest your game and provide feedback.  We are often blind to our own shortcomings and only the harsh reality of playtesters outside of your design team can truly give you the feedback you need.

2. What is your hook?

Every great game has a hook. Each year, hundreds of games are released and available online and on store shelves.  What makes yours stand out?  There are lots of possible answers to this question, and hopefully you have developed yours during the inspiration step, but its worth thinking out and writing down explicitly. 

There is a principle in business called the “elevator pitch”- imagine that you just so happen to be in an elevator with a wealthy game investor.  You only have a minute to convince this person that you are worth their time after the doors open.  How do you do this?  There are many approaches, but the easiest is to connect two exciting things in a unique way (e.g. Angry Birds with Star Wars characters, Digital Trading Card game plus Tactical RPG, Deckbuilding Game using Dice instead of cards, etc.).  

The same principle will apply with your customer as they browse past your game in a store or ad.  How would you describe your game in one or two sentences?  What differentiates it from other games?  Note that this doesn’t mean your whole game needs to be described in two sentences, just the unique hook that gets someone interested.  If answering this question takes more than two sentences, you need to refine further.

3. What restrictions do you have?

Every design process has to have some restrictions- some of them more severe than others.  Think about what you must work around and what will constrain your design.  Do you have a deadline? Do you have a brand or intellectual property you have to design for?  Do you have cost limitations? A programming language or platform you must use?  As counterintuitive as it is, even if you are designing for yourself and have no immediate restrictions of time and cost, it can be very helpful to artificially create these restrictions.  Remember, limitations breed creativity.  Placing deadlines on yourself 1 forces you to focus on what matters and helps you to rapidly move a game forward, rather than endlessly refining and tweaking and procrastinating.  Write down your restrictions and use them as guidance for the next phase- you can always come back and change them later.

Forging a Path

For my own design, Solforge, I knew I wanted to create a digital card game that was playable on PC, tablets, and phones.  Since I partnered with Richard Garfield, creator of Magic: The Gathering, the pitch was “Magic, for mobile, for free.” 

I wanted to take advantage of the cool things that could only be done in digital gaming, but I self-imposed a restriction to make mechanics that could still be tested with paper cards.  This was in many ways a paradoxical and challenging restriction to work under: Do things that only digital cards can do, but find a way to playtest them in physical-only format.  This forced our design team to come up with clever ideas that let us quickly prototype and iterate without all the expense of implementing a digital version before we were ready.  We came up with the primary mechanic of cards leveling as you played them, which was a big hit with our players. 

To test the game physically, we used “stacked” papers in a protective card sleeve, that could be changed out as the card was played to show that it had leveled up.  The playtesting process was painful (especially having to “reset” all the cards after the game). We knew that once we had something that was fun, even with all the pain of physical testing, that the game would be great once the digital took care of all the hard parts.  Once we took the idea to kickstarter and had backers, suddenly an enormous number of restrictions and deadlines pushed us forward.

Remember, parameters you create are not set in stone, but they are going to help you through the rest of your first design cycle.  The above example illustrates how holding some variables constant can help drive your creativity and move you quickly into the prototype phase.  Those creative leaps forward come during the next phase of the design cycle 2Brainstorming.   

This article has been updated and posted on steemit!

Core Design Loop Step 1: Inspiration

While many people would love to make their own games, most don’t even know where to begin.  If you are someone who has always wanted to make games but doesn’t know where to start, this is the article for you.  Moreover, even if you have made games before but want a process for coming up with more ideas, then you’ve come to the right place. 1

The Art of the Steal

All creation is theft. Creativity is about taking concepts you have encountered before and combining them in new and innovative ways.  Don’t be afraid (especially when just starting out) to borrow liberally from other creative works you admire.  The key to creative design is to unite two concepts and present them in a way that is novel and creates a new experience.  So how do you best go about this?

1. Review the games that you love– Hopefully, if you are interested in designing games, you’ve played a lot of them. Find what got you passionate about gaming in the first place and bring it to your first creations.  Take a piece of paper and create as long a list as possible of your favorite games and gaming genres.  Spend at least 20 minutes on this and try to make your list as complete as possible. Include games you played as a child and categories of play you wouldn’t generally think of (video games, board games, role-playing games, drinking games, etc.)

2. Review the games you hate– Any game that has some popularity has something to teach you and has some core elements that may be valuable in design. Think about popular games you’ve played or games your friend’s play that didn’t hit the mark for you.  Take a few minutes and add these next to the list of games you love.

2. Find the gems– Spend time thinking more granularly than a player does.  What features of your favorite games really bring them to life for you?  What mechanics, components, themes, and external factors lead to the experiences and feelings that you most enjoyed? Create a new list of as many of these elements as possible, and highlight the ones that most intrigue you.  Pay close attention to your intense feelings during play – try and identify what about the game triggered those emotions.

3. Find the crap– Now think about the elements you don’t like.  Look not just at games you don’t like overall, but look for ways that the games you love fail.  Think about ways that these games could be better.  There is a tendency for new designers to want to add components to their favorite games, but think also about what could be subtracted.  The best designers are focussed not on adding new things, but removing that which gets in the way of the true core of the design.  Add this list of crap next to your list of gems.

4. Look for patterns– If you’ve followed the above steps, you should have two pieces of paper in front of you, one with a column of games you love and one with a column of games you don’t love as much.  The second paper should list specific mechanics that you love or don’t love.  Glance over these lists and see what jumps out at you.  Is there anything that you can combine that hasn’t been combined before?  Is there anything you can remove to make a game or formula more successful?  Spend 20 minutes jotting down 1-2 sentence ideas for a game concept.  Don’t censor yourself, just keep writing during this period so you can get as many ideas on paper as possible.  If you stop moving your pen for more than 30 seconds, you are doing it wrong.

5. Pick your favorite concept and start working on it!- The next steps of the Core Design Loop are where you begin to refine your concept and bring it to life.  Choose 1 of the ideas above and begin fleshing it out. This is the soul of design- get yourself into a state where you can prototype and test as quickly as possible so you can start learning and improving. I’ll talk more about how to do this in the next articles of this series.

The key to finding good inspiration is to have a lot of raw material to draw from.  The more games you play, the more gristle for the mill of creativity you will have.  As you can see above, the goal is more than just to play your favorite games, but also to play games in categories you don’t necessarily like.

Inspiration can come from anywhere– not just games!  Explore your passions in unrelated industries and use them to find inspiration in making games.  Do you love sewing?  How would the mechanics of sewing turn into a game?  Perhaps an exotic destination you travel to can provide the setting for your next game.  Even experiences you hate can provide inspiration.  Next time you are stuck in traffic, think about making a “racing” game where you race to work at rush hour.  Is there a rage meter you have to manage to survive the trip?

Inspiration is all around us, and as a designer you need to train your eye to pull out the little elements that make games (and other aspects of life) tick.  Keep a journal and take down notes whenever you think of them to add to your lists and review them periodically.  With the above tips, coming up with ideas for games should never be a road-block to you.

The idea, however, is only a small part of the overall picture.  Driving your game through the core design loop takes courage, determination, and a willingness to sacrifice the parts of your design that you love, but that don’t serve the overall game.  Now that we have our inspiration, we need to start setting some limitations to direct our efforts.

Check Out Part 2: Setting Parameters

(This blog has been updated and posted on steemit!  Check it out here.)

How to Become a Game Designer

If you are the kind of person who likes to play games, at some point you’ve probably thought “Wouldn’t it be sweet to make games for a living?”  My goal is to show you how to do just that.  This journal will cover all of the steps of game design from first idea to publication.  This article is going to cover some fundamentals:

What is a Game Designer?

A game designer, like any other artist, aims to create an experience for the audience.  Game designers have several features to consider that are unique to games:

  • Games have players
  • Games have rules
  • Games are interactive

A game designer, thus, uses the interaction of players and rules 1 to create an experience for the audience 2

What Makes A Great Game Designer?

To be a good game designer, you must be able to predict the emotional response of your players to the rules you design.  This requires a degree of empathy and the ability to understand why people play games.  A great game designer must both predict actions that players will take within a given game and understand how those actions will make players feel.

How Do I Become a Great Game Designer?

Game Designers become great mostly through practice and attention.  Playing games and closely watching other players play games will over time develop a strong intuition that will make your designs better. Developing a habit of observing your players and taking in feedback (both explicit and implicit) will allow you to over time transform your initial concepts into great games.

Where Do I Start?

No matter the type of game you eventually want to make, one of the best places to start learning the art of game design is through traditional board games and card games.  The reason for this is that those games have a very low iteration cost 3.  You can try out an idea, test it, get feedback, and repeat the cycle with very little overhead, allowing you to learn quickly what works and what doesn’t, thus allowing you to get more valuable information on how to improve your design skills.

Playing other games (even bad ones) is a valuable tool as well for learning more about game design.  A great place to begin is with your favorite games. Figure out what it is about those games that attracts you. Pay attention to those moments when you notice yourself or other players having intense emotional responses to games (both good and bad).  Take note of what lead to those emotions and think about how you could evoke them in your own designs.

The Most Important Concept In Game Design

The most important concept to understand as a game designer is what I call the Core Design Loop. This is a fundamental creative process, that every great designer uses in one form or another.  Even if you think you are “not creative”4 this process will get you creating in no time.  The Core Design Loop has six steps:

  1. Inspiration– decide what type of game and experience you will create
  2. Set Parameters– assess your limitations and guidelines
  3. Brainstorm– get your ideas down on paper
  4. Prototype– bring your best ideas to life
  5. Test– learn what works and what doesn’t
  6. Iterate– Use what you learned to improve the cycle next time


As a general rule, the faster you can move through the above cycle (and the more iterations you get), the better your game will be.  That being said, I still strongly recommend that you put a deadline on when you want to move your game to completion, as each successive iteration will have diminishing returns – don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good! It is far better to have a good published game than a perfect one that never sees the light of day.

In the next few articles, I will dig deeper into each part of the Core Design Loop and give step by step instructions on how to maximize how much you learn in each loop.  I hope readers of this will be inspired to create more awesome games.  The world is a better place with more games in it, and I will provide practical and concrete tips to help you make that happen!

This blog is an experiment and like with game design, feedback and iteration are critical!  Please leave feedback in the comments.  And, to make sure you don’t miss an article, Sign up for my Email List and you can get these updates (and more exclusives) directly to your inbox!