Believe it or not, I’ve been playing computer games for the last 30 years. I began as a small child, playing counting and spelling games on an 8-bit BBC Micro. I then graduated on to the XT PC computer, moving to a 286, 386, 486, Pentium I through to III and now finally I’m on the XBox 360 (I gave up on PC gaming just because I’m tired of constantly having to splash out on hardware). Why do I play games? Because the essence of the game mechanic fascinates me. I want to discover the art of engaging gameplay.
I’ve long wanted to design a game that can be enjoyed by mobile users on low-end phones. This is Africa after all. I’ve been toying with the idea of a text-based adventure and I’ve even developed a simple game engine in Python. Would your average South African cellphone user participate in a text-based adventure on their phones?
I believe that gameplay that has users coming back time and time again has nothing to do with graphics, sound, or motion capture. Truly brilliant gameplay is based on simple mechanics. Take Angry Birds for instance. Worldwide success. Why? The gameplay mechanic was incredibly simple. This kind of easy to slip into game is the kind that every indie game designer aspires to create.
The problem is that I’ve seen so much budget being blown on graphic design for social based games and almost zero budget being used to create awesome gameplay. The irony is that developing a great gameplay concept means that you will save money on design because you need less elements and will need to rely less heavily on graphics and will probably end up with a far more successful game.
Social gaming is the way of the future. Getting the population to participate in a game en masse, share their accomplishments, and challenge each other is part of what makes social gaming great. The other part is gameplay. You cannot rely on graphics, sound or a brand name to drive interaction. You need to create a polished set of gameplay rules to ensure that your end user is engaged.
So how do you build these rules? Firstly, begin by defining the resources you’re going to be using to build your game. The amount of resources will determine the genre of your game. Don’t attempt to develop games that are outside the scope of your teams specialities. For instance, if you don’t have any writers on your team, avoid story-based games. If your developers don’t know anything about physics, avoid physics-based games.
Once you’ve determined your game genre, you need to come with the game concept. This is usually a one liner that describes the gist of your game. An example would be : In Asteroids you pilot a spacecraft armed with lasers that allow you to blow big rocks into smaller pieces while using your thrusters to avoid them. This might seem like an unwieldy sentence, but it serves its purpose. We have just described the Asteroids game fairly accurately.
Next you will need to determine how your player will stay engaged with your game. This usually means defining several important mechanics. Firstly, the difficulty factor. What will make the game increasingly challenging. Secondly, the take out factor: What will your player get out of the game?
Is it an adrenaline rush?
Is it a good story?
Is it helpful information (edutainment)?
Is it the satisfaction of successful resource management (RTS)?
Is it bragging rights?
These are important questions to ask. If your user gets zero benefit from your game, he/she probably won’t keep playing it. In the case of Asteroids, it’s the adrenaline rush and the high score bragging rights.
Along with engagement piece, you will need to determine the mechanics for several smaller (yet extremely important aspects of the game). The questions you need to ask are :
How does the scoring system work?
What kind of control system will the game use? (Keep in mind that there are a number of touch devices out on the market, keep this in mind)
How will the user acquire the game? (Is it a mobile app? Is it a native application? Is it a web based game?)
How will the user share the game with others? (Facebook functionality?)
These are just some things to think about to get you started on your first game. Make sure to document your game idea extensively. It is important to think about every single aspect of the game before you even begin development. Having a decent game design document will make sure that your budget is realistic and that you and/or your client have realistic expectations.
Just remember, in the land of the limited budget, gameplay comes first.