The hero of Heed - one of the author's games

Heed

I’m sure that anyone who has played a game at some point in their life has wondered “I wonder if I could do this?”. While I don’t often make a habit of discussing game development with people outside of the various online communities I frequent, I know that people have at various points mentioned to me that they’d love to have a go at making their own game – just that they don’t feel that they have the time or skills to take the first step.

Seeing as you’re reading this, I feel it is safe to assume that you’ve already considered making a game. You’ve probably already come up with some ideas, maybe even started building a few into code and graphics – heck, for all I know you may have finished more games than I have.

I’m not here to tell you why you should build a game, or how you should build your game. I’m not going to discuss the best way to immerse the player in their environment, nor lecture you about how your interface should be intuitive. I’m not going to rant on about games as an art form or a cultural phenomenon. I’m merely going to tell you about the mistakes I (and others I know) make as a game designer all the time that lead to the development process grinding to a halt, and the various ways I try to avoid repeating these mistakes.

There are two concepts I am going to be repeating a lot here: Focus and balance. Focus helps us keep a clear idea of what we should be doing now, what we’ve already done and where we need to be going next. Balance is important to make sure that you don’t spend too much or too little time on each aspect and leave other areas lacking or having you feel overwhelmed. These are important in any project we undertake, but I’m going to keep reinforcing them as they apply to almost all of the things I’m going to mention.

We’ve got a lot of ground to cover, so get comfy in your seat, and let’s take a look at the road ahead before we take that first step.

Chapter 1: Planning the Journey

It can’t be denied that building a game is a very rewarding challenge, and that there are probably a dozen cool exciting things you’re already hungry to get working on. But hold on a minute, have you sat down and really thought about this before jumping in and going “I’ve got an idea for a game”?

I’m not one of those people who can sit down and plan every aspect of their game before they start, and then go along and implement these things one by one until they reach the last item on their list and then release. To me, a game is a growing, evolving thing, and nothing I start ever finishes in exactly the same way I pictured it when I first came up with the concept. Instead of treating a game as a building, where one designs a blueprint and then proceeds to construct things according to the blueprint I like to think of it as a recipe – where we keep adding bits of each ingredient according to a rough guide until we end up with something that tastes good and leaves us satisfied. However, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t certain things that I do try to plan – as a complete lack of planning means a complete lack of focus, and this is a sure way to get overwhelmed by your project before you even get started.

The very first step to creating any game is an idea. Ideas can be about anything (a character, a style of gameplay or a general message you wish to convey), and they can come from anywhere. But we all get that time when we’re stuck for ideas and goodness knows there have been times when I’ve sat staring at the ceiling waiting for an idea to appear. You can’t just sit there and expect a good idea to come easily (although it can happen), however there are various methods you can try in order to get inspired, and these are a few that often work for me:

Re-assess your ‘bad’ ideas: I’ve become a firm believer that there is no such thing as a ‘bad’ idea. All ideas have at least one aspect that we can find merit in, otherwise we wouldn’t have even considered them in the first place. Instead of dismissing the idea completely, focus on this good aspect of it. I don’t like to think of an idea as a fixed object; instead of treating each idea like a painting that you make and hang up on the wall so that when people come around they can look at it and say “Nice idea”, I like to treat an idea as something like a musical part in a song, to which we can add other parts from other instruments. Something that sounds odd by itself may sound lovely when combined with something else. Don’t get stuck in the rut of thinking “None of my ideas are any good”. Take your old, boring ideas and twist them, shape them, look at them from other directions. You may find you’re able to get use out of them after all.

A scene from Annie Android: Automated Affection

A scene in the park from Annie Android: Automated Affection

Self analysis: As far as I can tell, most people who write a story always put little elements of themselves into each character they write into the story – whether consciously or subconsciously. If you’re stuck for an idea for a story or a character, why not think about an aspect of your personality you dislike and put it into your game. Make fun of it, take it to extremes, see if you can come up with interesting situations that could arise from someone having this personality quirk. I often come up with my most interesting ideas when something has gotten me depressed and I think “I wish I wasn’t this way” – I take that idea and make a character who has the problem much worse than I do and either show them overcoming it or poke fun at it. 90% of the comedy I came up with for Annie Android: Automated Affection was me taking things about my personality and didn’t like and making robots who could only ever have one of these personality attributes and took it to extremes. Various people I’ve mentioned this to feel that this may be something I unthinkingly use as a form of catharsis – all I know is that it is an effective way of coming up with an idea when you’re drawing blanks.

Talk. By which I mean: Listen: Real people are really interesting. If it weren’t so, how on earth would reality television shows still be popular? But I’m not suggesting you need to tune into dysfunctional celebrities, overweight people or rich young twenty-somethings. I’m saying you can get a plethora of ideas by letting the normal, boring people in your life share their experiences with you. If you’re stuck for inspiration, see if you can get someone you don’t usually talk to much chatting. Don’t turn it into one of those discussions where you’re waiting for the other person to finish their part so you can jump in and give your opinion. Just sit and listen to what they have to say. Every now and then someone will tell me a story or an experience that is incredibly inspiring, and thinking further on these ideas can turn them into a whole bunch of concepts I can apply to a story or a game. The entire story for my current project, Featherweight, was inspired by a single odd sentence I accidentally happened to overhear someone saying at work one day. If you can’t find anyone to talk to (unlikely, folks) then try listening to the words in a song or reading a book. And hey, even if you don’t find an idea you like, you’ll probably enjoy the conversation, song or story anyway.

Upcoming game: Featherweight

Upcoming game: Featherweight

Try something different: Sometimes, if none of these other ideas work, you have to be the catalyst for inspiration. Instead of sitting around waiting for an idea or trying to get one off another person, get out there and do something you normally wouldn’t. People are a reactionary species, so give them something to react to and watch what happens. Sing really loudly so everyone can hear. Be extra generous when you give a homeless person money. Show your friends one of your terrible dance moves in both fast and slow motion. Explain your crazy ideas about light occurring in octaves to the girl you like. Don’t be afraid to embarrass yourself! The four examples I’ve listed here are real things that I’ve done at various points to try and get a reaction, but do whatever you feel comfortable enough with doing whilst still pushing your pride to one side. Keep it safe, legal and don’t upset anyone, but get out there and go a little crazy.

Get focused: So, you’ve got your idea and you are ready to start. But hang on a minute – take some time to think about why you are making this game. Sure, you’re making the game because you love games and you want to try your hand at your own, but surely there are other reasons? Maybe you think you can do something fresh. Maybe you’ve got a message you’d like to share. Maybe you’re treating this as a learning process, a stepping stone onto bigger things. Whatever the case, stop for a minute and think about your reasons for making the game, so that you’ve got a clear goal to aim for before you start laying down the groundwork. Find these goals and focus on them. They’ll help give you direction when you start to get a bit lost.

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Chapter End

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Go to  Chapter 2: Taking The Plunge

A tea scene in Heed

A tea break scene in Heed

About The Author:

Ben Chandler (aka Ben304) is a prolific creator of freeware adventure games specializing in Adventure Game Studio. He is best known for: Awakener; HeedMan Boy vs Doctor Sock; Annie Android: Automated Affection; Shifter’s Box: Outside In; Trance-Pacific (in collaboration with paolo); and Shoot, I Got Abducted!. You can visit Ben Chandler’s own blog full of writings on gaming, game design, and creating graphic art here.