Game Design 111: Concepts

Most game designs start with an idea and a concept. An idea is the spark of creativity that launches you into the game design process. It’s the fleeting image which spurs you to undertake the great endeavor of game design. The concept quickly follows. A concept is like an outline for a game design, but less structured. It’s the core group of ideals you want to follow when creating your game. It’s your unspoken set of objectives and core design principals. A concept includes the ideas for your game, the purpose of the game itself, how you want the players to interact with the game, the feeling the game should create, and the overall tone of the game. An idea is a wild scheme you dreamed up at 2 am. A concept is a plan of action.

Good concepts share a few ideals in common. Some of these ideals can include: faster game-play, simpler mechanics, fun, a wickedly awesome setting, new ideas, and at least a few things which have never been done before. While many good game designs share goals in the concept, no two game-plans are alike. Everyone’s idea of a perfect game is different. Even those who can agree on what a good game needs will argue about the best way to achieve it. Take imagination, for instance. Most game designers will agree that a good RPG needs imagination. However, some will argue that less rules will yield more imagination, and others that cooler rules will spur the imaginations of the players. Approaches to achieving your design are as varied as the people who create games. Here are a few good practices most share in common:

1. Have a Plan: It makes sense that you have an awesome idea(s) for your game design. That’s why you’re creating it. Having a good outline, core concept, or at least an idea of how to implement your ideas effectively is great. For example: creating a game which is more fun than a combination of Transformers and Star Wars is a cool idea. But, how are you going to achieve that idea? What rules, approaches, and techniques can you use to accomplish that end goal?

2. Hit the Basics: There are some good concepts that most successful games share. It’s okay to leave them as background elements, but ignoring them completely can cause you serious problems no matter how cool your ideas are. Brevity, formatting, fun, simplicity, logic, and balance are a few things you should always consider. If you miss or forget any of these basics in your concept you can inadvertently shoot down your design.

3. Concepts Change
: Just because you came up with a plan doesn’t mean you need to follow it to the letter, or even at all! Feel free to change your plan at any time, or turn it around 180 degrees. Sometimes the best game ideas are the unexpected ones. Other times, you’ll start building a game with a dream goal and eventually find out the game can’t achieve that dream goal, but it ‘can’ achieve something else. At the point you realize this, your game-plan has changed and so should your focus.

4. Always Question your Concept Ideals
: Most of us have certain concepts we apply to all the games we design regardless of the genre. We don’t always have a logical reason for this, sometimes it’s just experience. Most of the time this is a beneficial reflex. Part of good game design is unconsciously learning from mistakes and applying your instincts to future projects. However, if you have some concept ideals you use without question, take a second look at them. Why exactly are you always doing this? Is it really necessary? What would happen if you ignored that concept ideal for a single, minor game? Is this concept ideal blocking you from achieving your game’s original ideas? Making your game fun might seem like a no-brainer. However, what happens if you’re writing a gritty and realistic sci-fi and keep throwing in clown guns and bad puns because fun is your number one priority? The point is not to ignore crucial design concepts, but to continually self-evaluate your strategies. It’s always good to know why you’re doing something. It could be good, it could be bad. The point is knowing.

5. Figure out your Concept Goals: Most concepts boil down to: the steps I need to take to create a totally awesome game. However, it’s good to examine the routes taken to achieve this end. Are your concepts serving your game ideas, or is it the other way around? Is your concept attempting to achieve the goal of game sales, or game fun? Are you trying to create a light game when you really need more rules, or a huge rule-book when you need a simpler approach? Are your concept ideals geared to serve the game master, or the players? Is your game designed to be the best game ever, or the best at what it does? Does your concept play to the game’s strengths, or does it attempt to achieve something the game isn’t suited for? Because game designs don’t always pan out how we imagined, the concept goals your originally came up with might need to change radically. If you set out to create the ultimate, best-ever, universal, all-era RPG and ended up with an awesome card battle game—your concept goals will need to change.

6. Evaluation: After your project is finished, it’s good to evaluate how well you achieved each of your concept ideals. If your project was at all realistic, you probably met some goals, exceeded others, failed at some, and didn’t quite do as well as you wanted with others. This is totally normal. You don’t immediately need to scrap a game which didn’t meet all your goals. Sometimes it’s just good to learn how and why you failed at certain points and succeeded at others. Some of the best game designs mess up some goals while surprisingly succeeding at others. A game meant to cover every skill in conceivable existence might end up meeting the simplicity goal instead. After evaluation, you might want to make another attempt at building your dream game, or you might realize that your goals were impractical. Either way, you’ve taken a crucial step in becoming a more experienced game designer.

7. Approaches: Mostly, we just throw a load of rules together and hope for the best. Sometimes we have a few tricks in our arsenal, or wake up with a few killer steps to take to achieve our goals. It’s always good to consider what concepts have been used in other professional game designs, and how our approaches compare to theirs. If our approach is very similar, it will probably yield similar results. If it’s very dissimilar, we might get something a lot better or a lot worse. For instance, most games try to achieve a fun factor. Traditional games might do this by including leveling up, cool magic items, encouraging role-playing, and including massive battles. Your approach could be far different. You could achieve your fun factor through tactical planning, resource management, a cool story, or something incredibly hilarious. This doesn’t mean your approach is bad, it’s just different.

Whatever your concepts are, realize that many game designers out there share some of the same goals as you. Your approaches to achieving those goals will be what sets you apart. If you have some really crazy design concepts, that’ll work too. Ideas are still at the heart of good game designs. Concepts are the plans used to bring them to life.

Bonus Section: GM Fiat #1

Have you been looking for something really crazy to throw at your players? Something which will make them groan and throw popcorn at you? Have you been looking for an excuse to do such a thing and blame it on someone else? Well, we here at ‘GM Fiat Studios’ have come up with a few ideas for you. You can feel free to use them on your unsuspecting players, and then blame them on us when the corn flies.

Narcolepsy: Have a player roll an unmodified Wisdom check and when he inevitably fails you can inform the player he’s unfortunately suffered a relapse of narcolepsy at a key point in the story and fallen asleep with no save. If the player inquires as to why such a vile thing should affect his character, you can explain that the odds of you reading this article equal the odds of his character suffering the condition. If he somehow made the Wisdom check, turn to the player on his right and try the below.

Insomnia: Have the second player roll an unmodified Intelligence check. If failed, this character is actually an insomniac because of the crazy ordeals he’s suffered as an adventurer, and can no longer sleep. Not only that, he repeatedly dozes off for about 5 minutes before waking up screaming. Naturally, he should receive severe penalties to all rolls from fatigue and receive a special chance to misfire spells.

Parental Control: When the two players you unfairly singled out for sleep disorders ace their rolls with triple 1’s, you can have their characters visited by parents who seek to control their actions in the game. The parental characters must command undying respect or wield huge amounts of power (for obvious reasons). They must also force the player characters to do arbitrary things like go to bed early and brush their teeth. You need never explain your reasons for putting such a strange element into your next adventure. If all of their parents died in orcish raids, you are, sadly, out of luck.


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Radiating Gnome

In any writing project, I find #6 (Evaluation) by far the hardest step to do, especially to do well. It helps to get some distance from the project as much as you can -- even a night's sleep helps. But it's best to get input from other people -- people you trust to be critical and honest with you -- who understand your concept, but won't just tell you it's great.


Challenger RPG

First Post
Thanks, Radiating Gnome. You're so right about that! And, it doesn't just apply to game design either. With any writing project, I find that to be one of the trickiest parts, as well. Sometimes it's even easy to get the honest critical feedback, but then making it past my own prejudices becomes the problem.

All the Best,


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