Game Design: Focus Your Concept

I’ve been ruminating on a few game design thoughts for a bit, as I tend to do when I haven’t tweaked Dinosaur Cowboys in a while. Those creative energies have to go somewhere! Then I realized I had a few topics I wanted to talk about, so I figured I’d make some posts covering each.

Execute Your Concept
focus-upThis could similarly be titled “Fulfill Your Vision” or “Have a Clear Design” or the blog post itself of “Focus Your Concept”. But basically when making a game decide what you want that game to be, what it should do well, and who it should appeal to.
To me the worst games (both virtual and table) are those that try to appeal to everyone, or are a mishmash of unclear ideas. The best games realize a laser sharp vision the designers had. In some ways good games should be divisive: either you like the topic and concept and thus the game, or you don’t. There should be no middle ground of “I didn’t like the shooting but I had fun capturing animals”, because you know neither of those executions were as fleshed out as they could be.

ets2On the video game side you might know I play a lot of Euro Truck Simulator 2. If you aren’t familiar with the game you drive a semi-truck around Europe, completing jobs and tasks for money which you use to buy different trucks/upgrades/garages and so on. When I talk to people about this game I get a lot of strange looks, like “How is that fun?” or “That seems boring”. And to those people ETS 2 probably IS boring. But that’s because they don’t like the topic and concept, and the game isn’t designed to appeal to everyone. Whereas I love the romanticized road trips of semi-trucks, so ETS 2 fulfills that niche very well. Let me list your options in ETS 2:

– Drive, buy, and upgrade a semi-truck
– Sleep in the parking lot of hotels and gas stations
– Take your truck on a ferry
– Do quick jobs in a company truck or choose your cargo
– Buy garages and hire drivers

Notice how the list entirely relates to truck driving and the simulation of supporting tasks? You can’t get out of the truck and choose food at a restaurant and have it affect your character. You don’t have an option to drive a car instead or walk around a town sight seeing.
So if you LIKE simulated truck driving, you’re in for a real treat. And if you don’t the game is CLEARLY not for you, and you move on.

gta5-just-stuffOn the opposite side would be a lot of open world games, namely Grand Theft Auto 5. GTA 5 tries to appeal to everyone, and ends up with a foggy concept and half-hearted implementations of mechanics. First of all imagine an elevator pitch for GTA 5, and what you’d say the game is really about. Then let me list a few things you can do in the game:

– Play tennis, golf, or darts
– Go base jumping off a mountain or for a skydive
– Manage real estate properties
– Go hunting for deer and other animals
– See short films at the movies
– Go for a ride on a ferris wheel or rollercoaster
– Run a triathlon
– Play in the world as a bird or cat
– Fly an air blimp
– Go out for a drink
– Go scuba diving or for a jet ski
– Complete the storyline missions and watch all the cutscenes
– Play the stock market
– Drive around listening to the radio
– Rob a convenience store
– Steal cars and from people
– Shoot people

Is the hunting of animals as good as a dedicated, single purpose hunting game? No, of course not, because it’s just one of twenty bullet points. Do you think riding the rollercoaster is as neat as Rollercoaster Tycoon? Yet again it’s just another feature to make the game seem like it has a ton of depth. In fact this type of game has very little depth, but a lot of breadth. And in this way the game can somewhat appeal to a lot of people, while not truly satisfying anyone.

super-meatboy-not-for-me-but-for-someSo where am I going with all of this? My summary would be if you’re going to design a game choose your concept and stick to it. Do one concept really well, per game. If you want a realistic modern military shooter you might have bullet drop, armor penetration, cover vs concealment, gun attachments, etc. But you don’t tack on zombies and a survival mode and laser guns. You don’t throw in robots after the fact because deep in your heart you wanted to design a robot game. Keep your concept, delivery, and execution of a vision as clear as possible.

Apparently I’m not some genius who is the first one to think of this (imagine that!). Read some similar articles written by actual journalists with talent (found accidentally when searching for images for this post). Note the issue I’m talking about is not just for open world games, I just happened to use GTA 5 as it’s well known, and most of these articles happened to be about similar games. There are plenty of messy, unfocused, confused linear games too.

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