Generating and Refining Your Game Idea

October 11, 2012

You might have a very clear idea of the kind of game you’re interested in making, or you might have a number of sketches waiting to be fleshed out, or you might have no idea at all. No matter what state your ideas are in, if you spend some time brainstorming and refining your plans before the jam begins, you will almost certainly have a better experience during the jam itself. Here are some areas to consider:

1. Genre and core mechanics

Deciding on genre is essentially answering the question: what kind of game is my game? Is it a racing game, a maze, a puzzle, a platformer, a point-and-click adventure? Each genre has a set of conventions associated with it. The genre relates to the core mechanics: what does the player spend her time doing in the game? If your game is a platformer (like the early Mario games), the core mechanics will probably be running and jumping. If it’s a racing game, the mechanics will be turning corners and speeding up/slowing down.

You can find a handy guide to the most common game genres here.
From the excellent Playful Design: Creating Game Experiences in Everyday Interfaces by John Ferrara

Games with simple mechanics can have a surprising amount of depth. Think of Angry Birds. for each bird, the player only really has two decisions to make: how hard to throw the bird, and at what angle. But the game can eat up hours of your time!

2. Point of view and player interaction

What do the players see while playing your game? What does their window into the game world look like? Are they looking down at something from above, or from the side, or are they looking at the world through the character’s eyes? Are the objects 2D or 3D?

Think about how your game can give feedback to the player. How will the players know if they have moved closer to the goal, or if they’ve made a mistake? There are lots of ways to do this, including score counters, sound effects, and visual indicators.

Consider what factors will make the game more or less difficult. Much of the pleasure of playing games comes from learning a skill and then being given the chance to use and improve it in increasingly difficult situations. How will the difficulty or intensity increase over time?

3. Characters, setting, story, aesthetics

Many games have a central character, controlled by the player, who moves through the game world. What does the character look, sound, and move like? What is the character trying to achieve, and what are the obstacles stopping her from getting it? What world does the character occupy, and what makes that world interesting? Will your player spend any time reading text? If so, what writing style will you use?

Even in games without a central character, the visuals, music, and other aesthetic factors are a big part of the game experience. For an example of this, see Une semaine de bonté by Julia Ediger.

4. Scope

As you flesh out your ideas, you’ll probably find yourself wanting to incorporate more and more mechanics, features, story elements, or layers of depth. Unfortunately, you probably won’t be able to implement all of your ideas in No-Jam’s short time frame. A worthwhile question to ask yourself is: what is the simplest possible version of my game? By distilling your idea down to its essence, you’ll have a clear and reachable goal for yourself, as well as room to grow. The rest can come later.

5. Common Pitfalls

Since your time is very limited, try to avoid games that are a collection of mini-games (for example: a game where level one is a maze, level two is a sliding block puzzle, and level three is a shooting game). A game with three mini-games is triple the work for you! Stick with one set of core mechanics for your entire game.

Also, remember that this is a 10-day jam game, not your magnum opus. You probably won’t be able to realize your ideas exactly as they exist in your head, and you’ll be making many compromises to get the game finished on time. Try to think of ways you could simplify or alter aspects of your game if necessary.