LESSON ONE: SIMPLICITY

So it’s been a little while since I started this venture (if you missed it, see how it all began here) and I’ve learnt a few things in that time. For one, many people believe I’m biting off more than I can chew. Fair enough, it’s going to be a challenge, but it’s the second fact that intrigues me more … and that’s the poll result. But first, a lesson.

james cameronYou may have one of the greatest concepts you’ve ever thought of just waiting to be made real. One that’s full of amazing stories and characters that would make James Cameron burst into rage and demand he buy them from you for his next Avatar movie (another lesson: don’t let anyone buy anything off of you, unless it’s on Ebay). Truth be told, you may be going down the wrong path if, like me, you’re starting from the beginning. Your idea may be great, there’s nothing wrong with that, but how much complexity is involved? If the answer is ‘well I’ll have to learn 3D and AI design over the next two years at a local Uni’, perhaps you’re going down the wrong path when the answer could be a lot more simplistic.

When I was younger, my Dad once coached my basketball team. Through that, he taught me a valuable life lesson and skill; The KISS mentality. No, not the face paint wearing super band that’s made for loving you, baby. KISS stands for ‘Keep It Simple, Stupid’, meaning you don’t always have to create the most detailed of moves on the court in order to be effective. Good basketball fundamentals? That’s just common sense, and the same can be applied to game design.

Simplicity means two things:

A) Having a concept that’s simple to create

and

B) Having a concept that’s simple to play

The simplest ideas can become the most engaging and thought provoking pieces of art, when done right. Almost every big arcade hit from the 80’s and early 90’s were simple enough in execution, not requiring a massive amount of production budget or time for example. That’s not going taking away any of the hard work it took to make them, however, since the tools we have now certainly didn’t exist back then. My point is, all it took was a concept of ‘a gets to b, takes c, win and repeat’, which was the entire concept of Donkey Kong, for example.

undertaleYou don’t need to have massive backstories, complex character relationships or highly detailed graphics in order to win over an audience, especially in an age where the retro aesthetic has gone from strength to strength. Games like Undertale and Stardew Valley are perfect examples of a visually appealing game without going overboard. So too do these games provide enough content (and context) to their existence without involving motion captured cut scenes or endless amounts of text based dialogue just to get their point across.

Having said all that, sometimes a game can look incredibly basic from the outside whilst hiding a much more detailed and meaty core, the perfect example of balance. A good platform game can hook you with its charms and then frustrate you with delight in its challenge, all thanks to some clever level design (Badlands, for example).

In her article titled ‘A Beginner’s Guide to Making Your First Video Game‘, Zoe Quinn (creator of Depression Quest) suggests the concept of ‘scoping down’ i.e. don’t put too many mechanics into your game. She goes on to say that your first game should be focused on a particular mechanic:

…like “navigate a story by selecting your actions from a menu” or “keep an object from dropping”. Think Pong, not Call of Duty. It likely won’t be the next big thing, but it will be a prototype, and it will be something you can build on in the future, if you desire. Some specific things you may want to avoid putting in to your first game include multiplayer functions, online scoreboards, or working in 3D.

The most important part of all this, of course, is knowing your limits. For all the hoopla about the game itself, it means nothing if you choose the wrong tools to make your game or design a concept that’s just going to take far too long. You’ll want to learn the right skills and have the right kind of mentality before you even begin to code or draw anything, but more importantly, you need to understand your limitations. Whether that’s if you can’t draw at all, or you struggle with coding, that will play an important part in your decision making.

In my case, I’ve set myself the task of creating this video game because I want to learn everything I can about what it involves. So yes, it’ll probably turn out to be a prototype, nothing more than a square moving a few inches to chat to another square. But I do know my limitations. I’m half decent when it comes to drawing things, though I’m certainly not talented, and I don’t know anything when it comes to coding or animating. Which means, more than likely, my first video game will focus on what I can do, not what I can’t (as I mentioned in part 1, writing and world building will be my greatest strength).

I’ll be taking utmost care to not push myself to a point where I break down or see it as something I cannot do. In order to do that, I have to set myself some simple early goals.

GOAL #1: SETTLE ON AN IDEA

You’ll see the results of the first poll a little further down this article, and that was the first step. By having a genre locked in, I can use that as the framework for the rest of the project. It will decide what’s created (characters, worlds, themes) and why, plus it will allow me to narrow down my research path on existing works in order to sample and be inspired by those that came before me. Within that idea I’ll also focus on said mechanic that corresponds appropriately to the idea … you know, to make me sound smart and stuff.

GOAL #2: CREATE AN ONGOING DESIGN DOCUMENT

Even if it’s one page or a hundred, a design document is your Bible, your guide. Everything that exists once all is said and done starts here. This document evolves over time until the project pieces are in place to begin coding. Even then, things are constantly fluctuating, so this document will probably have more edits over time as new ideas take shape, or old ideas are edited out for various reasons.

GOAL #3: CHOOSE A CREATION TOOL

Once I’ve built the world I’m willing to create, I then need to decide upon which tool (or tools) I will use to help build my game. Now that’s easier said than done, since there are so many programs out there that are worth looking into. I’ll have more on that at a later date.

So to wrap up this first lesson:

  1. Choose a genre
  2. Choose a simple mechanic to focus on (KISS)
  3. Understand your own limitations
  4. Set some early simple goals
  5. Don’t freak out …

Not sure how well I will do with that last part but okay, onto the poll results! With 29% of the vote, RPG (aka Skyrim) has come up trumps, closely followed by Platform with 23% and Puzzle with 17%. Which means the first game I will be making will be a traditional role playing game!

So what does this mean? Well for starters, I’ll be creating a world and populating it with various characters and places, with a story that maybe harks back to the classic RPG’s like Baldur’s Gate or Icewind Dale, the most recent Skyrim, or perhaps a little Final Fantasy. The good news is, this allows me to work on that key strength I was telling you about, writing and storytelling. So thanks for that … I guess.

No, seriously, thank you all for voting, it means a lot to know there are people out there who are keen to have their input on this little project, but guess what? There’s a new poll! Now that I have a genre to work on, there’s a few other key questions that need to be asked. Ready? Alright, so what setting should this RPG be based within? To be a little creative, I’ve added a few ‘scenarios’ out of left field. Choose wisely.

Secondly, should this video game be based in a real world or an imaginary one? Real world being Perth, Chicago or London, whilst Imaginary could be Gotham City and the like.

Why so many polls? Because it’s my project, that’s why! Both of these results will be added to the next edition of ‘If I Were An Indie Dev‘, where I will also write up some early story ideas, decide on a mechanic (with a little help) and share a few ideas and suggestions from the best storytellers on the planet. Until then, take care and I’ll see you all online.

Mark Isaacson is a freelance journalist and hopeful game developer who wants to rock and roll all night and party every day.

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