Good Idea, Bad Idea

Once you have the framework of a game, ideas can be judged within that framework. But how do you judge that framework?

That might seem like a deep navel-gazing question, the sort that ends with vague “you just have to trust your gut” platitudes.

But, as with most things in life, there’s a trick. Here’s the trick: there’s always a framework.

First Framework
Even when you’re starting a game from scratch, never pretend you’re staring at a blank canvas. The game is already bounded. You have goals, along with strengths and weaknesses.

It helps to articulate the goals, writing them down. Sometimes a list of goals will end up being two or three games. Other times, a few lists of goals will click together and become one game. But there’s always something you want to do with a game, even if it’s just “make a lot of money” or the classic “out-D&D D&D.”

On the flip side, it’s even more important to figure out your limitations. Do you have art resources? Can you do UI design? Writing? Editing? Layout? Balance design? Prototyping? Testing? How much money do you have on hand? Can you pitch a Kickstarter? What languages can you program in? Know any good printers? How are you at building teams?

Anyway, once you’ve done that, you have a framework that ideas can be judged against. A design that fits your goals while playing to your strengths is a good idea. A design that misses your goals or depends on your weaknesses is a bad idea. That’s basically it.

Case In Point: Metroplexity
I was thinking about developing a web game that captured a bit of the spark of tabletop roleplaying. And it’d be nice if you could play it between helpdesk calls. That’s a pretty high order, but that was my goal starting out.

Even back then you had quite a few options for web games: PHP, Java, Flash, and others. That’s where my limitations come in. I’ve never really liked Java or Flash. And I wasn’t about to put this much effort into something I don’t like. So, PHP it was.

Another limitation, one common to many developers, is that I’m not an artist. So I either needed a way out of needing art or to get an artist on board.

If Puyo hadn’t come on board, Metroplexity would be a very different game.

A World Without Art
As a thought experiment: I can produce frankly childish line art. But that level and style of art would demand a very specific tone.

Alternately, it could be all text. That demands its own changes: a totally different combat engine and text-based navigation through the overworld. But that game is also even easier to play at work. So perhaps there’s something there.

Or real world pictures for zones with text-based combat. Or fingerpainting, telling the story through the eyes of a little girl in the Slags. Or doll-like templates, colored with crayon, for much the same effect.

These are all things I considered, by the way. So that’s what I look like trying to design around my own weaknesses.

The point is that those ideas can be judged within the framework we just established. Going forward, pretending that I can provide the level of art Puyo can is a bad idea. But, with a bit of vision, you can design around just about anything.

Frame of Reference
So there you go: you start with a simple framework, adding pieces as you go, judging them based on the framework you’ve constructed so far, and including that addition when you judge future changes.

I think the real lesson is to remember we don’t need to judge these games against their hypothetical ideal selves. Instead, we judge them based on our goals for them… nothing more and nothing less.