Game Design – Going Deep, Not Wide

It’s Easy To Be Lazy

Like most people, my game design experience is limited. Relatively few people have ever designed a game from scratch and seen it through to completion. I did build and release a game around 9 years ago, but I spent far too much time thinking about programming and artwork and very little time really thinking about game design. I did what I suspect a large number of indie developers with a mostly programming background do and borrowed a lot of design ideas from other games. I got some decent reviews, but that project wasn’t very successful.

In the modern torrent of content that is the PC games market, even getting your game noticed has become a huge challenge. Developers have to invest a lot of their energy into standing out from the crowd. In this environment, does that mean the box art, game title and having a novel concept is now more important for sales than actual gameplay? I’m not sure, but I also don’t think they have to be mutually exclusive.

It’s too easy to be lazy and steal ideas from other people. Personally, I’ve decided not to let game mechanics be an afterthought this time.

Invest In Design, Pray For Returns

With a healthy dose of cynicism  I started building a game engine around 3 years ago, starting with some level editing tools and thinking about art styles. Game design was secondary for quite a long time. I knew I was building a platform-based shooter, but whether that would become a roguelike, metroidvania, or something completely different didn’t seem too important at the time.

There were some things I did know for sure when starting out:

  1. I wanted to make something I could look back on with pride. I want to put everything I have into this game because realistically it could be the last game I make. I don’t want to look back and wish I’d done things differently, regardless of how many people buy it.
  2. This project might crash & burn – that’s just the nature of the games market. Yes it’s nice to dream that this might turn into a long-term, successful business, but on the other hand I’m not prepared to take any needless financial risks.
  3. I wanted to make something truly unique and individual. Games have largely evolved into genres and sub-genres, and those genres have certain rules and expectations. It’s far too easy to say “I’ll make another one of those”. Of course I’m very happy to use gameplay elements that have already been established, it would be crazy not to, but I also want to create unique experiences that players can’t find anywhere else.

I’m happy to invest the time and effort in gameplay design to know that the final product will be my a result of my own effort – for better or worse!

Going Deep Not  Wide

I read about the idea of going ‘deep not wide’ a few years ago and it really seemed to make a lot of sense. The general principle is to spend more time on creating interesting gameplay mechanics and less time adding more & more content. Thinking this way has made a huge difference to how I’ve approached level design in The Lost Resort.

For example, there’s a room with a locked door – the player is trapped. Maybe we could place a key in the room and they could pick it up and unlock the door. That’s not deep at all and won’t require much effort from the player. It’s simple and obvious and frankly not much fun.

So instead I added some flowing lava to the room. The lava would burn through the wooden door, but can’t reach it because it falls though a gap in the floor. If only we could plug the hole the lava might reach it. We can see that there’s a tank of water and a metal block on a platform too high to reach. What if the player were to use an ice arrow to freeze the water, expanding it so it shatters it’s container and falls into the lava, creating an updraft of steam that the player floats on with their umbrella to reach the high platform. Then they could push the metal block onto the gap in the floor to allow the lava to reach and burn through the door.

Making this possible has meant designing quite a large set of items that interact with each other in interesting ways. A lot of my time has been spent making sure that every interaction is accounted for and more importantly, logical. Lava melts ice creating a steam updraft, ice freezes water, lava burns wood etc. The Lost Resort will have quite a large variety of these different elements and they’ll all interact with each other in different and interesting ways. My hope is that when all these elements come together players will have a lot of fun experimenting and trying different thing, and that the result will be something quite unique and engaging.


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