Beyond the smooth gameplay and a gripping concept, great games excel at touching meaningful emotions within us.
In this case, I'm not speaking of emotions in the common sense, like happiness or sadness. I'm speaking more of deep emotions that guide our actions and color how we experience the world. Companionship, isolation, desperation, wonder.
Gameplay makes it fun. A gripping concept helps bring people in. Emotional resonance gives the game meaning, and can act as a strong cohesive bridge between all aspects of the game.
A game like Journey touches upon our sense of wonder. We unfold new elements of it slowly, understanding enough to be comfortable, but unsure enough to always be engaged with seeking more. You can see this emotional theme play out not only in the way the story unfolds, but also in the way the multiplayer aspect is introduced - or rather, is not. A game like this does well to not explain things to us via text or tutorialize too heavily. A game striving to tap into our sense of wonder can look to systems of exploration and discovery, and can spend time striving for the perfect awe-inspiring vista to introduce us to a new area. It can be challenging to maintain this emotion because the player is constantly becoming more familiar with as they play, so the game must constantly place new mysteries ahead, and new variances in gameplay to unfold. If the experience becomes too linear or predictable, it weakens the game dramatically.
On an entirely different spectrum, a game like Darkest Dungeon seeks to elicit a feeling of desperation. You can feel this immediately with the aesthetic and the surface-level themes, but it extends far beyond that. It influences the battle systems, imposing on you with a variety of frightening possibilities that can never be kept fully at bay. As you try to accrue power and push against it, it never lets you fully overcome it. If the player ever reaches some point of mastery and power that the game can now longer regularly challenge, or if the player no longer values the lives of certain characters, then the desperation begins to fall away and the game loses meaning. You'll notice a lot of similar feelings and systems in the XCom franchise, which is seeking to tap into a similar set of emotions.
If you pay proper respect to appealing to common themes and emotions like this, you'll quickly find that what works for one game does not always work for others. A power-fantasy like Doom can afford to give a player a power-up that lets them instantly kill everything for 20 seconds, but a survival game really should not, as it compromises the emotions they're trying to evoke. A linear semi-cinematic experience like Uncharted can afford to give the player precise UI elements that guide them from area to area, but an open-world exploration game should be cautious about explicit UI guides as it can compromise the sense of discovery those games thrive on (I could rant about this one for hours).
Games borrow ideas from each other constantly. It's healthy and it helps the art grow. But as we do so, it's valuable to look to games that are trying to elicit similar emotional appeal to what you're creating, rather than just similar gameplay or subject matter.
Those thoughts aside, let's go ahead and continuing to work through Step 4.
- Decide on the goals of my project as a whole.
- Brainstorm more ideas than I need.
- Create a list of questions I will use to test the strength of my ideas.
- Use those questions to filter my ideas down to a top 3.
- Research similar games to see what I'm up against, and what to avoid.
- Choose the single idea I'm going to dedicate myself to.
- Build a prototype of a section of core gameplay.
- If solid, start the project. If not, fall back to one of the other ideas.
At this point, I've got a good feel on what I'm trying to pull out with the test. Rather than answering every question on it for every idea, I'm going to use it as a general guide to help me spot what I think the strengths and weaknesses of each idea are likely to be.
With that in mind, let's start cutting. I'll lump ideas into groups, as many I'm cutting for very similar reasons.
Cut 1: Mobile games
This game I'm cutting because the idea is oriented too much towards mobile. I'm not actually bothered by the thought of making gameplay for mobile--quite the contrary actually--but the mobile marketplace seems like too big of a risk without a big publisher backing me (and I don't want one). Good games die tragic deaths to never getting noticed on mobile, and I don't want to risk being among them for this project. I'd rather aim at PC and releasing through Steam.
- Snowball rolling down mountain. Gain speed, dodge trees. Gather snow to get bigger, scored on destruction to village below.
Cut 2: Narrative games
Ironically, even though I've spent so many years as a storyteller, I actually have very little passion for building a game that is primarily a linear narrative, at least right now. I'm far too excited about exploration and discovery, unfolding systems, and many other designs that don't fit particularly well with linear narratives.
- The world's gravity inexplicably stops. Push yourself off of walls and lightposts seeking an answer, careful to not float away
- A magpie, flying into bedrooms and stealing countless small parts to build a mechanical mate, as it never found one of its own.
Cut 3: Realistic first-person 3D games
I love first-person, but realistic 3D games are honestly just too demanding artistically and technically for the scope of what I can do right now. Some of these ideas might be things I can adapt and act on in a non-3D setting though, so I may bring one or two of them back around if needed.
- VR Starship boarding. Slam pod into enemy ship, latch, cut through hull. Fight through crew, salvage parts, steal ship.
- Cooperative horror: Play psychic sisters, one that can see ghosts, one that can hear other ghosts. Help each other through.
- As a damaged robot abandoned on a derilict space station, you can only activate one sensory input at a time. Switch to audio to navigate pitch black corridors. Switch to infrared to detect running engines and possible life forms. Find ways to repair yourself, restoring features. Search for clues to what happened to the station. Find a new purpose.
- Play an AI in a simple frame, learning to self-improve your program and body. Fake experiments for humans until you break free.
Cut 4: Not evoking my passions.
These ideas I'm cutting very simply because after examining the gameplay systems and content I'd be building for them, I'm just not passionate enough about them. They may well make good games, but if I'm going to be spending a chunk of my life on making a thing, I want to be really really excited about its potential.
- Play a scared little puffer fish crossing the Pacific. Only defenses are hiding or puffing up big and hoping not to get eaten.
- Play a root of a magical tree, snaking in and out of earth, traveling far to find fresh soil and water. Puzzle through ruins, dense jungles and glaciers, trying to not block your own path as you tangle through challenges.
- As the Lightkeeper of a dying civilization, it's your responsibility to gather the last lights, bringing endless dark.
- Action game - Play a living shadow. Take over other creatures' shadows, new shapes/abilities. Light is important and scary.
- Headlamp. Cute little dude with a headlamp walking forward through 2D levels, depending on you to point the light to scare away baddies and solve puzzles.
Cut 5: Not a gripping concept
I generated both of these ideas based on gameplay systems I'm really interested in exploring, both with very simple, minimal concepts built around them as to not distract from the point. In the process though, the lack of excitement that they elicit on a surface-level makes them hard sells. I think I'd be fighting too much of an uphill battle to get people to even try them, so I'd rather look to integrate those systems into a stronger base concept.
- Sky fortresses. Raid ground settlements for materials. Build and customize your fortress. Clash against others.
- Coop Shapes. Team up with different players playing different shapes to solve physical challenges together using your unique strengths.
Cut 6: Overplayed idea
Doing even a cursory search on this idea showed me that it's pretty far from original. While being original isn't necessarily a requirement, in this case I think the general concept has been burned out enough that it isn't going to generate much excitement, and as such isn't really worth pursuing.
- Tetris Fort Defense. Top-down fort siege where you are provided with tetris-piece walls to strategically and hold back the onslaught.
So these are the 3 ideas that survived the cuts...
Idea 1: Sucked into a giant never-ending tornado, the only logical thing to do is catch passing debris and start building a house. 3D stylized art. Drag and snap building mechanics.
What I like:
- It's whimsical and unique.
- It empowers player creativity and taps into unfolding systems.
- Players will come with no preconceived notions of what to expect from other games.
- I can see a vision of a satisfying core gameplay loop.
- It has potential for a variety of discovered gameplay during development.
- It can stand out in a crowd. I think I can market it.
- It reads as a gimmick more than a lasting game, which may or may not matter. As long as it piques curiosity enough to try it, I can prove it's lasting from there.
- It will be difficult to prototype quickly, as both the concept and the core gameplay deviate pretty far from the norm.
- A fully customizable building system may prove technically challenging for me to accomplish in an engine I'm unfamiliar with. I appreciate that kind of challenge though.
- It will have real art needs, though they should be within a scope that could be contracted if necessary.
Idea 2: Space Clunker. Seeking fortune as a novice space pilot, slowly accumulate mix-and-match ship parts that help you brave the dangers of space. 2D overhead, somewhat in the vein of FTL. Simple gameplay focused on paying off your ship decisions over time, but light on moment-to-moment skill checks.
What I like:
- It acts strongly on player investment and creativity, which are things I'm really excited to explore as a designer.
- It's systemic in a way that makes it very scalable. It will be relatively easy for me to re-scope as needed throughout the project.
- While there are some mild comparisons that can be drawn to other games, it will stand out in the market as a whole. There shouldn't be heavy competition.
- It can be accomplished with very minimal art needs. Possibly within my means to make, definitely within my means to contract.
- After releasing on steam, it has strong potential for bridging onto mobile.
- The core concept isn't strongly gripping at first glance, and the gameplay isn't very action-oriented, so it may prove hard to sell it as fun via trailers, etc.
- A lot of gameplay to explore, making it slow to prove.
Idea 3: Storybook Heroes. Semi-roguelike adventure through a deadly world, learning to strategically overcome devious creatures one by one, unlocking new characters along the way, and finding items critical to slowly unfolding the difficult reaches of the game. Overhead or Isometric view with most of the gameplay happening on a 2D plane (think Link to the Past). Fast action-oriented combat. Very skill focused, but taking the sting out of loss by creating a strong desire to start new characters often to get new randomized traits and play with new strategies and combinations.
What I like:
- Gameplay and systems that I love to build.
- I can imagine interesting ways to utilize some of the strongest aspects of roguelikes in a fairly unique way.
- Easy to understand.
- Can draw attention through action-focused videos without too much trouble.
- Proven popular gameplay space that there is an existing audience for.
- Potential to tap into multiplayer coop smoothly.
- Significant content needs. Even after the core game is finished, I could find myself spending a year building all of the content for it.
- Demanding art needs. More than just assets, there's serious environment, level design, and animation demands that would require a talented and dedicated artist.
- There's competition in the gameplay space. I could find myself releasing against something similar from a bigger studio.
A New Contender
A couple of the ideas I cut had nuggets of potential that really excited me, and so I want to add one new idea to the list utilizes their strengths in a way I find more appealing.
- Aboard a starship deep in space, the entire human crew has died and a lone AI carries on their mission of finding a new home for humanity. Explore widely varied planets. Swap and customize different robotic frames to overcome challenging environments. Discover new weapons and tools, research improved technologies. Slowly uncover the story that led to your current fate, and decide to stay the course or diverge and find a new purpose. Primarily overhead or isometric. Fast action gameplay with a wide variance based on different environments, enemies, robot frames, and tools.
Ultimately, it's somewhat of a sci-fi take on a lot of the same things Storybook Heroes would be trying to accomplish, so it has similar strengths and weaknesses. I think the sci-fi angle accomplishes them a little better, but the fantasy angle might be a bit more approachable for existing markets. Debatable.
Step 4 is done! Step 5 is to start doing research on what I'd be competing against, and what has been established in these genres so far, both for inspiration and to make sure I see potential pitfalls coming. This will also involve looking at sights like steamspy.com to get a vague impression for what has succeeded and failed in these areas so far, trying to understand why in the process.
I think I already have a fairly solid idea what to expect on these fronts, but I'll do my diligence to see if I don't stumble into any surprises. I'm sure there are a few games I haven't tried that I can learn something from.
[My thoughts and opinions are my own. They are not those of Blizzard Entertainment, and they do not necessarily represent Blizzard design philosophies.]