Questions to ask yourself before you design a game

I once answered a question in the game design section of the Gamemaker (GM) forums regarding how to go about starting a large game project; my answer was that the person should ask themselves several questions before they do anything else.

My reply received 3 upvotes.  The person who asked the original question then took my answer and used it to write a whole topic based on that – and their post received 5 upvotes!

I did contact them about the fact that they had basically copied and pasted my answer, with a few minor edits, and asked for a bit of credit – to which they did and I got a thanks in their post.

For this article I will take my original post and expand it .

When starting a game the first thing you should do is ask yourself several, critical, questions – WHO,WHAT, WHEN, WHERE, WHY and HOW.

Now let’s look at those questions one at a time.

WHO – Who is this game aimed at?

You simply cannot make a game that appeals to all walks of life, so don’t even try.

I personally try to make games that my five year old daughter would enjoy playing, the reason for this is that it keeps her happy and if you have a child then you will know what I mean!

So I like simple puzzle games that have easy to use controls, easy to learn and presents a simple challenge that everyone can enjoy.

Therefore my target audience is people who like simple puzzle games; my main source of revenue will be players who enjoy a challenge and parents who wish to keep their child happy playing (and there is a big market there, trust me as I’ve bought several $2 games just to keep my child happy for the day.)

One of my long term projects is a Dungeons & Dragons style game that plays like the old game of ‘Wizards Crown’ (my game is called LOBAG, short for Land of Blood and Gold).

My target audience will be completely different from my puzzle games as it targets those who like strategy, character building, RPG games. This game won’t be playable by my kids as it is too complex, but the target audience for this are willing to pay big money for expansions – just look at WoW, Ultima online or Everquest!

The next question is to ask what are the graphics going to be like? Cartoon style graphics will allow you to aim at children while realistic blood splats will be an instant turn off for that same demographic.

WHAT – What is the game about?

If you can’t describe your game in one sentence then you have either made it too complex or you yourself don’t know exactly what it’s about.

Describing it can be a simple ‘A puzzle game where Danika must rescue her father’ all the way up to ‘a strategy city building game with a first player shooter component where you will need to control your armies’.

A basic outline of the game is important for you and to others, if you describe it to a friend and they have no idea what is going on then you need to either rethink the idea or reword it.  Actually you may think your friend is an idiot and ask someone else, but remember this, if a second friend has the same problem then it’s most probably YOU!

You also start needing to know what the basics of the game will be, ‘what setting is this? Future, medieval, outer space?’, ‘what game style are we going to use? Isometric, first person perspective, overhead?’, ‘Genre?’ e.t.c

You also need to take into account your target audience, if the game is for everyone then you can’t have a realistic war game (you can have a war game with cartoon graphics though!).

WHEN – When will all this happen?

If you are working on this yourself then the simple answer might be ‘When it’s finished’. But how many hours are you going to spend on this each week? I have a large family so I try to spend an hour a day but even that’s not possible some times.

The time you really need to ask yourself this is when you are working with others. What time frame are you looking at? This allows others to see if they can do it or not, if you want the game finished, and polished, in three months then you need full time workers – so people like me, who can only spend an hour a day, are out.

One of the biggest problems I hear with teams is that someone is ‘not committed enough’; are they?  If they are like me, as in they can only spend a certain amount of time on it each week, and they are trying their hardest then you are not all on the same page.  If a person works and spends all their spare time (even if it is only an hour a week) and produces fantastic artwork – they are going to be really offended at being called ‘non committed’.

If you are not paying people then you will not get any full time workers; students can sometimes work full time for several weeks if on holidays but even that can only last several weeks – they need to go back to school sometime.

WHERE – Where will the game be released?

This is important so you can set up revenue streams from the beginning. It doesn’t matter what your target platform will be but you need to know the target audience of that platform. For example Linux users are, usually, highly knowledgeable computer users (I can use the word ‘Nerd’ here because I use Linux as well :p ) – so a simple puzzle game isn’t going to go too well.

Once you have worked out which platform you are going to release your game on you can then work out which programming language to use; while game maker would allow us to cover most platforms there other languages out there that may be more efficient.

I used to program in PHP which was a browser based language which isn’t going to work in ios or Android (and very inefficient to use as a browser game on either of those) and that is the main reason I now use GM.

WHY – Why are you making this game?

Another serious question that you need to ask is WHY you are making this game.

To gain experience?

You may be trying to get a professional job in the industry and wish to create a game to show potential employers what you can do.

Or you might wish to create the best RPG game on the market but realise that this shouldn’t be your first project, so you start with a small project to learn how it all works and what your capabilities are.

To make money?

And why not? Making money allows you to do this as a full time profession; working for a games company is the same thing except you make the money for someone else!

Please note that people don’t care whether you make money or not but they they can get upset on HOW you try to make your money – if you charge for a game and still put advertisements in it then people will get upset!

For yourself?

If you want a game that allows you to fly a Dragon around the open air then you go for it; if there is no challenge then others might not enjoy it but if that’s the way you want to play then it’s all yours.

My game Lobag is made for my entertainment because of my love for the game Wizards Crown – but I can only play that so many times and I am yet to find a replacement!  If others play the game and enjoy it then that’s good but it’s mainly for me.

For someone else?

The flying dragon game I talked about just then is actually a game I have a design document for; but the game isn’t for me, it’s for my daughter.

She has gone on and on about how there is no game where you can simply fly a dragon around the skies, so the game will be made for her.  If others enjoy it then that’s good as well but I wont lose any sleep if no one else wants to play it, just as long as my daughter plays it and gives my wife and I five minutes of peace and quiet!!

This is not a full list; you may be making the game to learn a new programming language, for a school project e.t.c

A final word on WHY – there is no wrong answer as to why you wish to make a game.

I know of people who made the game Tetris in C++, they didn’t make it for any other reason than to learn C++ and they succeeded.  From there they can use their newly acquired experience to create bigger and better (hopefully profitable) projects.

HOW – How are you making this game? And HOW are you going to cover your costs?

If you are making the game in Game maker (GM) then you have the question answered on HOW you are going to make the game and that’s a huge step in the right direction.

But what if the project cannot be handled by GM?  There are a lot of choices out there and the final decision will be dependant on what you wish to produce.

Another aspect of HOW is the covering your costs.  Unless the game is for family and friends then there will be a cost involved; costs could be hosting fees, bandwidth fees and many others (many of these you have no idea about until you have been through the process).

Try to work out how you will be getting revenue from your game as you will need to put this into your design document.  An example would be a game where the game is free but the extra characters need to be paid for; if you make this decision at the start of designing then you can work with it, but if you finish the game and THEN decide to implement this idea it could cause problems – what if you made a character that was critical to the plot into a paid character?  It could make it too hard to finish and players would be spiteful.

After the questions

After you have gone through these questions (at least gone through them in your head) you need some simple drawings of potential screenshots – I can’t draw at all yet I have no problem doing very simply diagrams that others can understand.

Don’t be afraid to draw ideas on paper, Dangerous Danika started with one piece of paper where my daughter and I drew a game she would like to play 🙂

The next step in creating a game is creating a design document.  In the next issue I will tell you WHY you need this document and WHY you need to treat it as your bible! 🙂

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