Until the 1970s, just about all game-playing that had ever taken place had been done using physical means, such as pen and paper (in the case of role-playing games), cards and dice (in the case of boardgames), or balls and sticks (in the case of sports). Once computers came along, they opened up a whole new world of possibilities. We could now track hundreds, or thousands of numbers and have them simultaneously calculating themselves in real-time, providing new kinds of gameplay that just literally wouldn't have been possible ever before.
Often referred to as the first videogame, Spacewar! was created in 1961 at MIT. It was a top-down two-player shooter game that had physics-based gravity around a central planet, projectiles you could fire, and even a “warp-space” teleport function which got increasingly more risky to use as you used it. Spacewar! was one of the first examples of what could be done with videogames, that could have never existed before.
In the early era of videogames, we see many examples of games that fit that bill; innovative, interesting, and new games that no one could have even conceived of before the existence of the computer. Pac-Man had four ghosts chase you around a maze, each with their own unique personality, in real time. Space Invaders' alien mobs would move in patterns that would increase in speed as the game would go on. Donkey Kong may have been the first true “platforming” game, creating a dynamic, physics-based tension and release pattern as a player tried to leap over flaming barrels.
However, since those early days, that innovation has slowed. Genres quickly hardened in the 1990s, and since then we've been largely cruising. You have your brawlers (or their modern equivalent, the 3rd person action game), your sports games, your racing games, your FPS games, RTS games, turn-based strategy, RPGs, fighting games, platformers, abstract match-3 type games, and maybe two or three other genres and that's pretty much it. Games are generally expected to be minor tweaks on these existing designs, rather than new ideas from the ground up.
But it doesn't have to be that way! In this article, I'll be giving a few pieces of advice to game designers who want to make more interesting, innovative, and memorable designs.
A lot of designers essentially start with a genre, slap a theme on it, make a few tweaks, and are done. For instance, they may say “I want to do a game like Street Fighter, except you're Pokemon, and you have a new Super Double Max Combo meter that you have to use up to perform combos.”
While this can be an OK approach for a new designer who is just learning the ropes, anyone who is serious needs to drop this habit. There are two significant problems with this method: one, you're limiting how new and interesting your game will be. But more significantly, you're going to be copying old problems. Every genre that I know of in video games has some problems that it tends to have, and most of them cannot be solved if you don't start from scratch.
So what should you do instead?
Instead of thinking “I want to make an adventure game set in the fantasy world of Morgararrk, where you play the mighty hero Boorbus the Mighty”, think about what you want the gameplay to be like. When you're describing the gameplay, keep it abstract: think about space, resources, and interactions, not thematic expressions of these. So, if your gameplay is about “fighting”, that could mean several things on the abstract level. Is “fighting” just reducing enemy HP? Maybe “fighting” is pushing an enemy back until they reach a certain point (like Sumo Wrestling or Super Smash Brothers). Maybe “fighting” is all about getting the first strike. Maybe “fighting” is actually an act of compromising territory, like in Go.
Games are about gameplay; it is what makes them special, and so you should start with an interesting, new gameplay from the ground up. There are millions of untapped ideas when you start to think this way. After you've found a good gameplay idea, select a theme that will help express that gameplay, and help players to learn how to play your game. That's one downside to a truly original game that video gamers aren't used to dealing with: they'll actually have to learn to play it!
The computers greatest strength – its near-limitless capability to keep track of so much data – is also its biggest game design liability. Less is more. You should try to achieve your game design in as few strokes as possible: as few guns, as few spells, as few levels as possible. Start with the smallest amount you could possibly imagine the game working with, playtest it, and only add more if more is actually needed.
The problem with adding more stuff to a system that doesn't need it is that your existing stuff starts to lose identity. Further, it becomes much more difficult to balance all of the elements. It's far better to have a smaller number of things, but have each thing be more different from each other.
If you're a video game designer, and you don't know about the incredible world of designer boardgames that has popped up in the last 20 years, you absolutely need to go do some research right now. Go to boardgamegeek.com, and browse all of the games. Watch video reviews. Put short, these designer boardgames, mostly of European origin, have been having something of a Renaissance and are pushing the boundaries of game design all the time. We video gamers have so much to learn from them!
Beyond that, look to sports, card games, and even things which aren't games for inspiration. Sometimes a great abstract gameplay concept can come from something thematic. Perhaps something at your job, something in the newspaper, or even something like a household cockroach infestation could spark a fantastic new gameplay idea.
Above all, you need to be courageous. Maybe that new RPG you're making shouldn't allow saving games, to make your decisions actually matter. Maybe the kart racer you're making should have randomized levels, for more replay value. Maybe that football game you're making should be 5 on 5, so that it's easier to control and visually clearer. Don't be afraid to make radical changes and ignore what's expected, if it would make a better game. Making the best game you can is above any and all other priorities!
Game design is often overlooked, and many small game development teams don't even have a “game designer” role. It's very sad, because game design is absolutely the number one most important element in game development. Don't let your team be that way: make sure that your game design – your actual gameplay itself – is something you can be proud of!