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  • Minimal Risk Designs: How to Design a Game When You Don't Have the Time

    [08.06.09]
    - Brent Ellison

  • Guaranteed Fun

    With some concepts in mind, you need to evaluate their feasibility from the usual perspectives, with art and programming time being the obvious ones that come to mind. But evaluating design risk is always a bit more nebulous and hard to nail down. The key is to focus on "guaranteed fun" -- designs that, even if not implemented to their fullest possibility will still result in an enjoyable, memorable game. All of the specific mechanics that guarantee a certain amount of fun, some examples of which will be given in detail below, can usually be generalized as:

    • Don't depend on depth
    • Don't design complex controls
    • Don't be subtle

    The first two points relate specifically to minimizing the amount of gameplay testing required to make your game fun. It's difficult to make a deep game with lots of interactions between systems if you don't have time to test and balance them, so you need to make sure your basic mechanic is the game's big selling point and it works on its own. You can also save yourself a lot of time by keeping your controls simple from the start to reduce the amount of changes you'll make down the line, as refinements to control schemes can typically only come from lots of testing - which means time you may not have.


    Death Worm - Rock solid concept and mechanic that's immediately entertaining.

    The third point, however, should be in your mind from the moment you sit down and start brainstorming your concept. There are surely some great games to be made that are wonderfully nuanced with multi-layered stories to tell, but to maximize your chance of success, everything about your game needs to make an immediate impact. Subtlety takes resources and, more importantly, requires polish to succeed, and when it fails it fails in the worst possible way for any design mechanic to fail - it hides crucial information, meaning, or content from the player.

    Guaranteed Fun Example: Think Big

    In a way, the fact that indie and student games are invariably shorter than most commercial products works to your advantage: you can pull off big and crazy gameplay without having to find ways to sustain it or continually top yourself over 8+ hours. You can always plan for adding greater depth, but your first priority should be ensuring that the game is fun at its most basic level. Whenever you think of a gameplay concept, your first thought should be "How can I make this as impressive as possible?"

    For example, let's say you have an idea for a brawler where you walk down the street and beat up thugs. This could be a fun game with a complex block and counter system that rewards players for really learning the system, and maybe you could even put together a great system on paper during pre-production. But if all you end up implementing are the basics - one punch, one kick, and a block that reduces damage, or if you implement more systems but don't have time to balance them, the game will be pretty forgettable.

    So instead of being a normal guy fighting a street gang, you can make your game's protagonist into a super-powered spirit of vengeance, battling hundreds of goons at once, with each megaton punch sending a dozen of them flying 50 feet into the air. You could still design some interesting and complex mechanics to add greater depth, but if all you end up implementing is the basics (which likely have about the same cost in programming time as the above), you'll still end up with a pretty fun game.

    Thinking big shouldn't just apply to the player's abilities; you should try to make every aspect of the game as big as you can. You can even create grand and epic environments without blowing your budget if you're careful. The key is to start with a layout in mind (preferably with a lot of verticality), or a shape, rather than a specific look or locale. Don't get stuck on details, because the goal should be to make the overall feel of the space impressive, and that comes more from planning and design ahead of time rather than hours of toil in Photoshop and Max. If you're willing to make sacrifices, focus on the big picture, and use some repetition in the models and textures, you can find a way to make impressive environments with limited resources.

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