11 Lessons from a Fundamentals of Game Design Course

In the last few months, I have taken some courses in game design and development. The first course, titled Fundamentals of Game Design, introduced basic principles to think about when getting started.

While simple in theory, the principles are much more complex in practice. The following post brings together 11 lessons from that four-week course.

1. Keep it simple.

In game design, the temptation exists to keep adding more and more to the game like a soup or a stir fry. Sometimes the additions seem fun. Other times the additions seem interesting. But designers should resist this temptation — the game’s design needs to be as simple as possible. That simplicity need not mean the game is boring or easy. Consider games like Angry Birds and Tetris as examples.

2. Have a clear goal.

Every game requires a clear goal for the players. That goal should answer some key questions, such as how do players win the game? and how do they lose?

3. Keep revising.

Too often there is a temptation to stick with the first idea that comes to mind. But game design requires revision. And more revision. Sometimes that revision requires rejecting the original idea altogether. Better to become comfortable with the revision process than to cling to what seems like an amazing starting point.

4. The game design document is a living document.

Every game should have a document that details its development, such as key story, characters, rules, and gameplay. That development will require changes in the documentation. It is better to treat the game design document as an evolving one instead of a fixed one.

5. Get out of your head.

Game design ideas can be fun and can be easy to get lost in. Instead of just chasing the ideas, create a prototype. Make a board game. Revise a deck of cards. The point is to do something with the ideas. Get them out of your head and actually play — literally — with them.

6. Balance is key.

In game design, no one character should have a clear advantage. If so, players will choose that advantage every time. Instead, balance skills across the different characters so that no one choice is a clear winner — or loser.

7. Provide some hope.

Gains and setbacks should happen to characters throughout a game. Avoiding setting up a situation when a character loses in the second level without any possible chance of winning. Otherwise, what incentive do they have to continue playing?

8. Chance, skill, or both?

Skill refers to the player’s abilities to progress through a game. Skill might appear in a first-person shooter game wherein the player has good aim and a steady hand. Chance refers to something within the game determing how the player proceeds. Chance might occur through drawing a card from a deck or rolling a dice. Some games rely on chance, some rely on skill, and some rely on a combination of the two. Be sure to know how each functions within your game.

9. Write rules.

Rule are essential in game design. Rules define everything: gameplay, game world, character behavior, and especially winning and losing. If the rules remain unclear, gameplay will remain unclear. Spend much time writing and revising the rules until they are lucid.

10. Develop a creative process.

Games connect with everyday life in a key way: Both involve some risk in exchange for a reward and perhaps even a victory. That connection means that game ideas are everywhere. Developing a creative process, such as journaling each day or regular brainstorming, can help with establishing a regular flow of game design ideas.

11. Test, test, and test again.

Game design and game development require playtesting, and not just before the game’s public release. Test at multiple stages of development, even in the earlier stages. Ask people not your friends to provide feedback as they will be more honest. Be prepared for much criticism. Use that feedback to make your game even better.

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