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How can I train myself to come up with simpler ideas?

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My game ideas are too ambitious and complicated. Whether I'm thinking about designing a video game or a board game, I always start with a 50,000-foot-high view of a complex experience that would take many interrelated mechanics working in unison to create.

This makes it difficult to give myself opportunities to grow step-by-step as a game designer. I'm a great software developer, so if I came up with simpler ideas like "Tetris but with X", I could implement them without too much trouble and learn from that experience. But instead, my ideas all sound like "Civilization but in space with procedurally generated storylines and custom tech trees and, and, and, and..."

I know that one thing I can do is pare down those complex ideas until I have an "MVP". But I feel like I'm missing out on a whole universe of possibilities. I see simple, elegant games like Carcassone, Limbo, Braid, or Thomas Was Alone, and they're clearly novel ideas that don't come from thought processes like my derivative one described in the above paragraph.

Has anyone else struggled with this? How can I give myself a zen-strike-on-the-nose to shake off some of the derivative patterns of thinking I've grown into over the years?

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You are not alone on this, this is much more common disease than you think :) I think there could be several cures, the one that worked out for me was a deadline. When I set up a deadline (very short one) and actually completed a game the first time (exceeding the deadline several times, but that's a minor detail :D ), I felt so great that I was willing to simply ignore my bloated ego in further games :)

But I feel like I'm missing out on a whole universe of possibilities.
It's not a feeling, it's a fact. Making games is about sacrifacing 99.99999% of the possibilities. It's unavoidable, do yourself a favour and get used to it.

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well you know the saying: something is perfect as soon as you can't take anything away from it, not when you can not add an additional thing. just try to be.. really "honest" and ask yourself "would it be still the same idea/game/mechanic if i took x away?" repeat over and over ^^

all the best!

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Start with a very simple goal. Very simple. Something like "Tertris with X" Then look at the base features. Rotating Shapes. Making shapes fall. Making shapes break when in a line. Then when that's done, add X. Then win and loss conditions. Then expand on your game. Some features are easier to implement than others.

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Explore the EPICurean way of game design, I would start with scaling down level design. Consider what the game Alquerque means to the game Chess. There are historical aspects that seperate them but short of this, there is a simpler lvl design and unit control with much more linear gameplay. By starting with level design the limited space shrinks the game mechanics quickly (if exploration is one of your priority game mechanics skip this step;).

Then look at your character and the player's control of the character(limited by the peripherals which also helps scale down the design), the interaction between the player and the character (or main units of interaction) needs to be solid or the rest of the player experience won't matter and it will all feel like filler. After the player feels connected to the character(s) and the level design feels right (dynamic, worth exploring, and re-exploring, employs many good visual cues and focal points to lead the player as well as a good number of ways to interact with the world) its time to focus on primary mechanics. These will be limited by control of the character which is good, this limit is important to keep the design focused.

Now its a matter of challenging the player with goals, puzzles (math, spacial, language, tactile, ect), story arcs, covert, tactical, operational, strategic, diplomatic opponents or sensory problems to solve, etc. Picking only the ones you absolutely need to keep the player engaged for the amount of time you expect the player to be actively facing these challenges. This depends of course on the games target, be it casual, competitive, serious gamer or somewhere in between all that mess. The mechanics you choose will also create pacing since well known mechanics will speed up the pace for the average gamer while new ones will slow it down (this is important too). Give it brag worthy ending(s). The more players that can brag about finishing your game or parts of your game the better "word of mouth" you're game will get (the most meaningful advertising since this happens internally for a player as well creating replay value).

If this worked you should not only have scaled your idea down but also created a better game, since these were the priority choices you took from the obese mess of a game you started with. IMO its best to start with a big hunk of a game though, then you can cut chunks off instead of trying to glue pieces to a game that didn't have enough to start with. Glue wears off too quick.

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When we teach at game development workshops for high school classes we always teach them not to make a game. One of our most used (and useful) guidelines is to make a toy not a game. In other words think of a single game mechanic you like, test it, and if it is fun make a game out of it. That way you ensure to always start with something fun, and then you can add story line and other elements afterwards. Preferably as an iterative process.


You are not alone on this, this is much more common disease than you think smile.png I think there could be several cures, the one that worked out for me was a deadline. When I set up a deadline (very short one) and actually completed a game the first time

Yes! And the best place to do that imho is at a game jam! Seriously DO IT you don't have to go to a physical one, there are plenty online.

Edit: This technique is probably not well suited for larger game projects, but it is a great training exercise if you want to make simple games.
Edit2: Examples: Gravity gun, Portals, Bullet time, etc. Edited by VildNinja

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Wow, my favorite thing so far is the Pac-Man Dossier.

It reads the way most functional specifications should read!

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Hi, registered just to answer this! I have three pieces of advice which saw me through Ludum Dare 24:

  1. Write down the first six game ideas in your head, then discard them. They're too broad.
  2. Write down another three game ideas, and discard those. Everyone is doing those already.
  3. It should now be pretty tough to come up with game ideas. You've really got to dig deep for them, which means that they're more likely to be original. As you write more ideas, consider the things you're good at doing. I am good with arrays and poor at animation and art, so my LD game was a puzzle game.

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My game ideas are too ambitious and complicated. Whether I'm thinking about designing a video game or a board game, I always start with a 50,000-foot-high view of a complex experience that would take many interrelated mechanics working in unison to create.

This makes it difficult to give myself opportunities to grow step-by-step as a game designer. I'm a great software developer, so if I came up with simpler ideas like "Tetris but with X", I could implement them without too much trouble and learn from that experience. But instead, my ideas all sound like "Civilization but in space with procedurally generated storylines and custom tech trees and, and, and, and..."

I know that one thing I can do is pare down those complex ideas until I have an "MVP". But I feel like I'm missing out on a whole universe of possibilities. I see simple, elegant games like Carcassone, Limbo, Braid, or Thomas Was Alone, and they're clearly novel ideas that don't come from thought processes like my derivative one described in the above paragraph.

Has anyone else struggled with this? How can I give myself a zen-strike-on-the-nose to shake off some of the derivative patterns of thinking I've grown into over the years?


I think most designers struggle with this at first, The hard part about game design is not to come up with ideas, it is to strip them down and make them feasible to implement with the skills and resources you have available without losing the fun.

I'd recommend starting not with an idea for game but with an idea for a single gameplay mechanic, If you got a fun solid core for your game it becomes alot easier to control the scale of things, (You can then add features incrementally rather than stripping things down) Edited by SimonForsman

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I think the largest challenge is boredom. It'snot that one can't come up with simpler, more realistic ideas; it's that the simpler, more realistic ideas are just so boring and uninspiring. Tetris but with X definitely sounds like a good project to learn from, but that one good thing about it is also the worst thing about it: Who wants to work on something that they know is just for practice? What's really exciting is working on something that you'll want to show your friends, or family when they ask you what the hell you're doing on the computer all day. That's the kind of stuff I try to work on, because I know that as soon as I find something boring (either because it's too easy or too hard) I'll procrastinate and never get to it or finish it, if I've already started.

That's what I'd like to add on top of what everyone said. Take big ideas, pare them down, impose restrictions, but make sure the project you're making is something you honestly, truly believe you'll want to show to friends, families, strangers, possible employers. I know that makes it even harder, but when you do find something worthwhile, you'll be absolutely stunned at how devoted you are to it.

One more thing: Get some friends who design. Maybe at your school, but most likely online at a place like gamedev.net. Find people you can compare ideas with. Sometimes the mere act of witnessing someone else do something can make you ten times better at it. This applies to anything from sports to programming, and of course game design.

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When we teach at game development workshops for high school classes we always teach them not to make a game. One of our most used (and useful) guidelines is to make a toy not a game. In other words think of a single game mechanic you like, test it, and if it is fun make a game out of it. That way you ensure to always start with something fun, and then you can add story line and other elements afterwards. Preferably as an iterative process.


Yeah, I followed this for designing a simple game myself. Now I have a pretty good working game mechanic but have to figure out how to make the next step to turn this simple "toy" into a full fledged game. Piece at a time I guess, real game development quickly becomes a job :)

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You could also limit the game to exclude certain themes or genres, stick to certain mechanics, only use a limited number of inputs, etc.

I find this is a very effective way to reduce complexity. Imposing harsh restrictions such as 'game can only use one button', or 'gameplay occurs along a single axis', or even 'game can only use 2 colours', really makes you distill your ideas into their most basic form.

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