A Good Game is One Idea (Game Design, Part 2)

When people find out you're a game developer, a lot of people decide to pitch their ideas at you. So you hear a lot of pitches for games. And the biggest piece of advice I can give to an aspiring developer is this:

A good game is one idea.

It seems too simple to be true, and so people tend to resist it. But when you're thinking of, "Gee, what game should I make?" you have a lot of things to balance.

  1. Scope: This is the big one that most novice game developers can't wrap their heads around. Developing a game is a TON of work, and it's extremely complex. Making an epic RPG that's different from every other game in every possible way is going to take an extraordinary amount of time. And even if you can do it, it doesn't mean you should do it. First, if you make everything different, it means that the complexity of your game goes way up for every novel feature, and it goes up exponentially for every novel feature that interacts with another novel feature. Next, it can also really impact your game's...
  2. Understandability: I don't think that's actually a word, but whatever. The point is that if you change everything, even if it's for the better, if you change too much, people won't be able to understand what's happening. You may have a point that it's better, for instance, to have "Jump" for an FPS be on a shoulder button, so that you can look & jump at the same time. But if everyone else has agreed that Jump is the A button, changing it incurs a cost. You have to teach the player that this new thing is different. That takes time, early in the game. If you diverge from convention too much, your game just becomes confusing and strange.
  3. Competition: Let's say you've got a great game - but it's two totally novel ideas, rather than one. Sure, you may be able to develop that game - it'll be harder, but you can do it. For an example of where that's possible, take Gears of War - different camera perspective AND a new kind of melee weapon. But the thing is, these two things are also part of one bigger idea, which is that it was a game about flanking your enemy. And the point was that the perspective let you get a better view of the playing field, and the chainsaw gun meant that if you properly flanked your enemy & got in a good position, you had an overwhelming (and visceral) advantage. If you have two ideas that don't gel that way, though, they just start competing for attention, and it becomes much more difficult to describe what your game is.

When I say that it's about one idea, I also don't mean that every single thing about your game is derivative except for one tentpole idea. Many, many things may be different - but they're all different because of that idea. Many elements may be recognizable, or conventional - which can be great because it makes the game really easy to understand - but all those conventional bits are illuminated by the one big idea, and made better by it.

For us, we know that we're going to be relying on a lot of conventions. Matchmaking isn't going to be some totally bizarre thing. It'll be fairly normal. We're going to be relying on a lot of normal things relating to how cards work in our game. How turns resolve. How rules are communicated. A lot of things are very normal. But they're also different, because our goal was to make a game that you could play in a very short time that was as satisfying as more "traditional" non-F2P games. And that's changed a lot of stuff. But because we're rooted in a lot of things we understand really well, the complexity of development hasn't gone totally out of control.

A lot of times, people think this belies a lack of ambition, but I disagree - it's about spending the limited resources you have on the most important thing and doing everything else in as easily understandable way as possible.