Creative Game Design Part II: Making a Plan

“…this disappointment [occurs] on the threshold of every human endeavour. It occurs when the boy who has been enchanted in the nursery by Stories from the Odyssey buckles down to really learning Greek. It occurs when lovers have got married and begin the real task of learning to live together. In every department of life it marks the transition from dreaming aspiration to laborious doing.”

– C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

Last time we investigated the brainstorming process in creative video game design. Today we’re going to continue the series by exploring the next step: planning. This step is all about taking the wild tangle of raw ideas you produced in the last step and deciding the shape you want them to take.

I find this step more difficult than the last. Whereas brainstorming is all about letting ideas run free, planning is about corralling them. There is certainly fun to be had here, but there is also a lot of tedious work.

This step also introduces the first taste of disappointment. You may find that a lot of the ideas you were excited about are unworkable together. You may even find that the direction the project takes looks very different from your initial concept.

All that said, this step is even more important than brainstorming. It is the first step in the process that separates daydreamers from developers. Anybody can come up with interesting ideas for a video game, but those fanciful thoughts are a waste unless you turn them into something real.

Fresh Eyes

The first step is to shove your brainstorming notes into a drawer and not look at them for at least six weeks. This may feel extreme, but it’s important. You need to objectively evaluate your ideas, and you can’t do that if they’re still aglow with the exciting halo of the new.  The mind needs time to sober up so that these ideas can be seen with fresh eyes.

You may continue to contemplate your project, but do so passively.  Leave your ideas to simmer on the back burner. If you think of an important idea during this time it can be recorded to add to your notes later, but resist the temptation to pull them out and read them.

Keep any work you do on the project during this time general purpose. Work on tools that your project will need no matter what direction it ultimately takes. Keep things flexible, and don’t lock yourself into any big decisions.

Once those six weeks are up it’s time for the planning stage to begin in earnest. Take your brainstorming notes out of their drawer and give them a read through. This can be a shocking moment. You will likely find that you are less confident in these ideas, but that’s natural.  That was the whole point of giving yourself space to begin with.

Finding the Focus

Your next goal is to figure out your game’s focus. You must dig below the flashy fun of your raw ideas and find what your project is all about. The best way to explain what this means is by example.

Shigeru Miyamoto spent his childhood in rural Kyoto exploring the wilderness. When he developed the very first Legend of Zelda, he decided that he wanted to give the player the same contrasting feelings of freedom and danger. He wanted the player to feel the exhilaration and fear that he felt peering into the darkness on the threshold of a strange cave.

Satoshi Tajiri wanted to create a video game that transmitted the things he loved about his childhood hobby of bug collecting. He wanted not only the satisfaction of building a collection, but the further pleasures of discovery and learning. He wanted players to thrash excitedly through every bush in the hopes of finding something rare and interesting.  This resulted in the original Pokemon games.

Sift through your notes and divine a focus from them. Perhaps you will find an obvious answer staring at you from within the notes themselves. Perhaps the concepts they contain will remind of you something from your own life. Maybe you’ll find a different link: a philosophical concept you find compelling or a fear from your nightmares.

A focus can come from anywhere, but it can’t be anything. It must take the form of the answer to this question: “What do I want my players to feel when they are experiencing my game?”

You are creating art, and art’s job is to stir the thoughts and emotions of its audience. Your art will say something whether you intend it to or not. Deciding what your game’s focus is now will ensure that you have some control over what that message is.

Spooky Scary Skeletons

Once you’ve decided where you’re going, it’s time to start moving in that direction. In order to do that, you’re going to need to build a design skeleton.

A design skeleton is a guideline that determines the shape of your design, just like an animal skeleton determines the shape of that animal. By itself it isn’t a plan, but it is the shape that your plan will take.

Decide what elements your game will contain, and how many of each type. How many playable characters do you plan to include? How many areas, items, abilities, enemies, puzzles, obstacles?  What genre conventions will your game emphasize or defy?

The classic example, wherefrom I stole the term, is Magic: The Gathering set design. Before a single word of card text is written, the team decides how many and what type. How many cards will the entire set contain? How many cards of each type, color and rarity? How much representation will the key mechanics get?

To be absolutely clear, you are not actually designing all of these elements yet. You are only deciding how many of each to include. You don’t need to know exactly what spells your wizard can cast at this stage, only that you will have a wizard, they will be able to cast spells, and you plan for their spellbook to eventually be about twelve spells large.

Put Some Meat On Them Bones

Once your design skeleton is complete at last it’s time to flesh it out. Take to the empty spaces on the design skeleton and fill them in.

Now is the time to consult your brainstorming notes again. Find all of those cool one-off ideas you came up with and see if you can make them fit. Figure out which of these ideas are the most important, and which you could stand to lose. What you want to prioritize will depend on your game’s focus and your design capabilities.

This step has a huge impact on every part of the game, so it is important to consider the entire game holistically. You aren’t just making an inventory of variables and items, but also plot elements and set pieces. If you fail to coordinate now, your game will never mesh. Even if you do a good job with everything else you’ll wind up with something like the end of the first Devil May Cry, where the excellent brawling mechanics fall away and the game inexplicably turns into an on-rails shooter for the last fifteen minutes.  Nobody wants that, least of all your players.

It is okay to leave some empty spaces for now. You’ll have plenty of time to fill them in as the rest of the project takes shape.  Flexibility is necessary, and things will inevitably change before you’re finished.

Murder Your Darlings

Sadly, we are at the stage of things where we must become practical. This means that some ideas are not going to fit regardless of their quality. Even ideas that you have an emotional attachment to may not make the cut.

It is understandable to get too attached to an idea even though it flatly contradicts the game’s focus or clashes harshly with other, more important elements. It can be so tempting to try to force these things to work.

But this cannot stand.

If you value your art, if you want to impact your audience, if you want to make your project the best it can possibly be and create something that you can always be proud of, then you must do your duty. As much as it pains you, as much as you wish it didn’t have to be that way, you must excise the element that shatters the harmony. You must protect your purpose, even though you love the intruder. In the words of Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch: “Murder your darlings.”

You don’t have to completely abandon a good idea just because it doesn’t fit this project. Save it for a later day. Perhaps it will even inspire a project of its own, built just to house it. But today is not that day, and you have work to do. Grit your teeth, pull the trigger, and make the world a better place.

And get used to it, because as the project proceeds, you will be doing this a lot.

Conclusion

Planning is the first step toward making your awesome dreams into an even more awesome reality. It is also a lot of work, tedium and heartache. They keys to a successful planning phase are to step back from your work so that you can approach it with fresh eyes, find your focus, construct a design skeleton and flesh that skeleton out with ideas.

When you are finished, you will have a design document that you can use as a road map for the rest of your project. When you have enough to work with, it will be time to roll up your sleeves and dig in to the real work. Join us next time as we discuss the production phase.

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