6.2. Ideas & Constraints

So where do we start if not with a story or technology? I also recommend you do not start with a game genre. Saying “I am going to create a platformer” with no other real direction is likely to end up in a really bad Mario knockoff.

Instead good design tends to come from picking an idea and then thinking about what mechanics can be used to explore that idea. The rest of the Extra Credits video from the previous stage introduces this methodology:

Unfortunately Mike and James are a little fuzzy on what they mean by an idea. What you are looking for is a concept that you will explore in your game. Friction. Anger. Evolution. Any of these could be a leaping off point that could lead to some interesting new ideas. Although a game based on “I’m going to make a platformer” is likely to be a bad remake of familiar games, a game based on “I am going to make a platformer based around evolving” has the potential to spark some interesting ideas. Maybe you are collecting energy to evolve your character into new, more powerful forms. Maybe your character is constantly morphing, changing how it moves and forcing the player to adapt.

Game competitions frequently have a theme like this to help drive creativity. One such game design competition called Ludum Dare takes place online - you can view a list of the themes for prior competitions here. In addition to seeing the theme, you can follow links to all the submitted games and the winners to see how people interpreted the theme.

Embracing Constraints

Part of the thought behind picking an abstract idea as a starting point is to provide yourself with a constraint on your design. A counterintuitive bit of human psychology is that constraints (up to a point) increase creativity and your ability to come up with ideas. This sounds unintuitive; after all, isn’t a new constraint just one more thing you can’t do? With more roadblocks, shouldn’t a task be harder? Not always, in the case of game design.

Constraints can provide a useful anchor for your ideas. Told to “go make a game” with no constraints, many people would just sit there like a deer in headlights, wondering where to begin. By adding a constraint (such as “all your graphics must be circles” or “your gameplay must focus on manipulating gravity”), the question is no longer “where do I start” but rather, “what do I do with this?” And that is a much easier question to answer.

If you have trouble getting started designing a game, or stuck on how to improve one, generate some constraints for yourself.

It can be completely arbitrary, but if you are stuck and don’t know what direction to take your game, go ahead and just choose an extra constraint to get yourself moving. (With iteration, you can always remove that arbitrary constraint later if you find it’s holding back your design.)

Materials on this page adapted from:
Game Design Concepts by Ian Schreiber (CC BY-NC 3.0)