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So... You Want to Make Video Games? Part 1: Concept

Nick Pendriis explains how to cultivate strong ideas
So... You Want to Make Video Games? Part 1: Concept
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Game designer Nick Pendriis has introduced us to the world of game design, and how the entire process can be whittled down into these distinct phases:

  1. CONCEPT: Find a strong idea.
  2. DESIGN: Make test versions and create a blueprint.
  3. PLAN: Organise the project carefully.
  4. BUILD: Create the computer code.
  5. ASSETS: Create visuals, audio and words.
  6. TEST. FIX & PUBLISH: Look for problems, resolve them, release the game to the public.
  7. PROMOTE and SUPPORT: Announce the game and respond to feedback.

As we continue with this exculsive look inside his inspired ebook, Nick offers valuable insights into the first stage of your new project: concept, and building ideas into workable plans.

#1: The initial idea

Before you even get near a computer you're going to need the main ingredient in a game – a good idea.

“As long as you’re going to be thinking anyway, think big.”

- Donald Trump, business magnate.

The game development process starts with a creative spark. This might be a “eureka moment”, where the idea flashes into one person's head very clearly, or it could be a team effort where thoughts are bounced around until the idea finally takes shape.

Either way, the fundamental idea – or “concept” - influences every single aspect of the development process.

Whose idea is it anyway?

Before we jump into this, please hang your ego up at the door. Coming up with concepts and new ideas goes a lot more smoothly when everyone is aiming for the same goal and not trying to claim ownership of things.

Unless you’re flying solo, the game will be a collaborative effort. Everybody involved is responsible for the final product.

The best idea generators are the people that throw ideas out without getting clingy, or feeling hurt when their ideas get shot down. They always have more in the chamber. They are also effective communicators, just as good at listening to others as they are at explaining their own visions.

Professional development teams often have group idea meetings called “brainstorms”, to collaborate on concepts.

#2: Brainstorming

This first step is one of the most enjoyable because it’s all about being imaginative. Let yourself think of the craziest ideas, explore them, discuss them and take plenty of notes.

Even the best ideas may not fit the current project but keep a note of them anyway. You may come back years later and realise that one of those shelved ideas would work well in a different game.

“Necessity is the mother of invention.”
– 17th century proverb.

It’s good practice to have someone guiding the brainstorm, to keep the focus on the subject when everyone starts drifting or arguing. Equally, it’s important for everyone to be heard. Shooting down stray or weak ideas is perfectly normal but it must be done fairly, with diplomacy.

Always go with what excites you, moves you or makes you grin. At the end of the whole process, that buzz of excitement is the feeling that players should have when they play your game!

The concept needs to grab you and keep you hooked, or you’ll lose interest too quickly and so will players – if you actually finish making the game. So learn to follow your instincts and follow the fun.

Try and sketch out some example screens if you can. It doesn’t matter how ugly these concept sketches are. What matters here are the ideas. A picture will jog your memory very quickly and help you to explain your ideas to other people.

#3: Control freaks

At this point, while you’re throwing ideas around, remember which system your game is intended for. What features does it have? How do players interact with it? A touch-screen, for example, is very different to a keyboard, a mouse or a gamepad. So a different mind-set is needed.

Design 101:
Function dictates form.

How the player controls the game is a fundamental consideration. For many designers, it’s also an inspiration. Ideas can come from anywhere and everywhere but it’s always vital to keep the final platform and user in mind.

In the words of Jeff Bezos, billionaire founder of Amazon, “Start with the customer and work backwards.”

Player controls -
the most important aspect of any game.

Over the last few decades, each new control method has brought new game ideas with it. Pong (the granddaddy of games) only had a rotating dial for up and down movement. The options were limited but then new games appeared with buttons and sticks. Horizontal freedom!

Then gamepads arrived, followed by analogue sticks and vibration feedback. Next came dance mats, cameras, wands, musical instruments, sports equipment, fitness boards touch screens and virtual reality headsets. So many new ways to play!

User interface 101:
Nothing should be more than three taps away.

In every instance, game designers have thought deeply about how the controls should behave. The control system is the gateway into the game world, the sole connection to the player’s virtual avatar. If this connection with the game is wrong, the entire game is broken.

Concept image for swipe-based aquatic shooting game, which sums up the idea very quickly.
Concept image for swipe-based aquatic shooting game, which sums up the idea very quickly.

#4: Simply better

The most common idea I hear from people about the dream game they want to make, is some kind of colossal adventure set in a richly drawn fantasy world, with over a hundred hours of complex gameplay.

Seriously, it’s more common than you think!

Some of my dream projects are crazy huge but I’ve got a long way to go before I can make them happen. I’m realistic about my wildest dreams. You should be too. So before you go any further, don't expect your first games to be huge. Or complicated. Or even amazing. You can tackle the blockbuster epic once you've mastered the basics. For now, let's just start small!

Keep All Things Simple.

The ideas behind even the biggest games are actually very simple.

  • Bejeweled: Sparkly action puzzle game where players match gemstones to increase their scores.
  • Fable: Classic fantasy action adventure in which the player makes moral choices.
  • Gears of War: Gritty first-person sci-fi shooter, setting players as soldiers fighting a brutal war against alien hordes.
  • Grand Theft Auto: Urban themed open world jack 'em up, in which players rise through the criminal underworld.
  • Super Mario Bros.: Cutesy action platform game where players run and jump, avoiding hazards, to rescue a princess.

Paring your idea down to the basics like this is vital. Always start simple and then build on it but never lose sight of that initial, simple idea.

My preciousss

The most important thing to remember about ideas is this: Everyone has lots of ideas, all of the time.

They’re free. Most people just don’t have the patience to make them real because turning your ideas into reality takes time, work and dedication. So pick only the very best ideas.

Ideas are a limitless resource –
but the dedication to realise them is rare!

It’s easy to think that your latest idea is the finest ever and cling to it blindly but that’s a good way to fail. If you attack your idea hard and it survives, then you’ll know it stands a chance!

Try to ask yourself the most difficult questions right at the beginning of the project. It’s better if you do it right now, before you invest your time or do any work!

Example questions:

  • “What is the main point?”
  • “What’s new or different about this idea?”
  • “How will it work?”
  • “What makes it fun?”
  • “How will it make money?”
  • “Is it obvious and intuitive?”
  • “Does it suit the hardware?”
  • “Do I want to put heart and soul into making this?”
  • “Does anyone else want to play this?”
  • “Has it been done before?”
  • “What problems could arise?”
  • “Am I being honest with myself about this?”

If you’re not feeling sure, play with some other ideas until you do feel sure of one.

This all sounds rather harsh but it’s just practical. You’d be amazed at how many brilliant ideas are thrown away every day!

The hardest part of having a new idea...
is Googling to see if anyone got there first!

However, for your first game it really doesn’t matter too much. You just need a fun little idea. The aim is to find something that you want to make and want to play. Never let the serious stuff dampen your enthusiasm!

#5: Skill boost

In times past, people needed to learn and remember information. That was the primary skill to have, because there was no Wi-Fi or Wikipedia.

Schools filled people with facts and traditional wisdom from books, preparing them for life in a much simpler world. Research was hard work and mainly for academics.

Focus. Find. Filter.

Now we all have access to the web and it’s lightning quick. There’s no excuse for not researching facts.

The new skillset to master is accessing relevant information. Whoever you are, skim reading and smart search engine use are necessary survival skills. It’s also very important to check your sources and judge if the facts are really trustworthy.

Check your facts.
Then get a second opinion.

I cannot stress the importance of research and fact checking enough. This book wouldn’t be much use to you if I simply guessed at everything or made up some names and numbers. It would be vague and extremely unhelpful.

Instead, I’ve researched just about everything I can – even stuff I already know very well. You are free to visit the links and check what I’m telling you. This way, you can trust the information I’m passing on.

Sometimes we need to use guesswork but it’s best to make informed guesses. In the world of computers and in business, being precise and accurate is mandatory. It’s the difference between success and failure. Not only for technical details but for more artistic matters, like atmosphere and emotion.

Making a game set in space? Watch some archive footage of NASA astronauts on various missions. Get a feel for how weightlessness appears on screen. Get used to the sounds. Study the experience from different angles.

Then you’ll know how things should behave in your game. Players will feel that effort and appreciate it, because your game will be a better experience. They may not be aware of it consciously but they would certainly notice if you hadn’t done any research!

Making an underwater game? Do whatever you can to be underwater. Take some diving lessons. Go snorkelling in a pool. Watch nature videos.

Keep an open mind -
so ideas can be transmitted and received!

You get the idea. Research can be practical and fun! Every experience you have and everything you learn, makes you a better game maker. Do as much as you can to be better informed, about everything. Winners never stop learning and applying what they learn!

Concept for a 3D variation of the classic Snake.
Concept for a 3D variation of the classic Snake.

#6: High-level concept

Whether you are pitching your latest game idea to studio bosses or making your first test app, it all starts with a “high-level concept”.

Basically, this is where you define your idea in a single sentence. If you can't, there's a very strong chance that your idea is way too complicated and needs a rethink.

Let’s create a high-level concept for “Giant Zombie Pets, the video game”.

Bad high-level concept:

“The world’s pets have all turned into giant zombies and they’re attacking their owners and the whole city. You have a helicopter and you use rockets to down the giant zombie pets. You get points for that. It’s awesome! You can also earn power ups and enhancements for your gunship. There would also be a sequel with vampire pets.”

Where to start with this one? It’s too long and it simply doesn’t make a clear point. Nobody cares about the sequel because the original idea isn’t even polished yet.

Good high-level concept:

“Players pilot an upgradeable helicopter gunship, saving the occupants of a realistic sandbox city from waves of attacking monsters.”

That’s a little more focused. It doesn’t matter if you're making a mobile app or a blockbuster console game, simple ideas are always best – and being able to explain them in a simple format is crucial! Try to refine your concept until it’s tight.

The high-level concept is your guiding star. If you’re not sure of something or you can’t make a decision later, always choose the answer that fits the high-level concept most closely.

Let’s say your high-level concept is “An action puzzle game for children.” After a brainstorm, you decide that players will shoot something. So it’s a puzzle-shooting game for kids. That sounds like fun but it needs water jets or birds in catapults, nothing too violent. Perhaps firing jelly? Kids like mess! Stick to the concept and see where it goes.

Now you can refine the high-level concept a little more. Eventually it becomes “An action game, primarily for children, where players fling jelly at various silly targets, including friends from Facebook and famous people on Twitter.”

Ultimately, this first phase is where you can play with crazy ideas and get really clear on your concept. Once you’ve got a strong idea and you’re confident that it will work, you’re ready to start designing a game around it. We’ll explore this in the next section.

'Be yourself and figure out something you love other than games. Everyone in the games industry loves games - that's not going to separate you. It's my love for contemporary art, punk rock music, fashion, the process of creativity, badminton, The Boy Scout Handbook, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez that makes me different from other developers, not that I've played World of Warcraft or Call of Duty. Figure out what makes you unique and focus on getting that into your games.' - Drew Murray, Creative Director at Insomniac Games.
'Be yourself and figure out something you love other than games. Everyone in the games industry loves games - that's not going to separate you. It's my love for contemporary art, punk rock music, fashion, the process of creativity, badminton, The Boy Scout Handbook, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez that makes me different from other developers, not that I've played World of Warcraft or Call of Duty. Figure out what makes you unique and focus on getting that into your games.' - Drew Murray, Creative Director at Insomniac Games.


Next: Part 2 - DESIGN: It really doesn’t matter how creative you are – without clear logic, your project will fail...