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12 Aug 2014

How to Make an Indie Game Part II: Game Design Fundamentals

Part I: The Beginning

Part III: Art, Audio, and  Outsourcing

Game design – it’s undoubtedly the most important aspect of creating a video game. A poorly designed video game is going to yield a game that simply is not fun to play. Think of game design as the blueprint for a home or skyscraper. Nothing would be built without a blueprint (and if it did, it wouldn’t be functional).

Creating a video game is exactly the same. You need a blueprint for building a video game, which brings us to today’s topic: the basics of game design. What are the fundamentals of game design? What do you need to know about game design before you start developing your first indie game? It’s questions we are going to answer today, but before you read any further, I suggest that you read a post by Spelunky creator Derek Yu. It’s an in-depth look at actually finishing a game, and the necessary steps to get there. It’s kind of like a pocket-sized companion to this week’s series, so bookmark it and refer to it, as it has a wealth of beneficial information.



There are entire books written about the basics of game design, game design theories, etc., etc., etc. Even so, game design is as simple as designing a game that’s fun, because let’s face it: if the game isn’t fun, nobody is going to want to play it. The trick is finding what constitutes as ‘fun,’ and that’s the real challenge of game design.

Furthermore, fun isn’t universal, either. The types of games you enjoy could differ from what I enjoy playing and vice-versa. Thus, the trick to developing a game that’s ‘fun’ ultimately lies in finding out which players enjoy certain types of games, discovering what’s the most appealing and fun to those players, and developing a game around it. This is where the term ‘know your audience,’ is so crucial.

Just as important as knowing your audience is knowing your genre. You need to analyze your competition and successful games in the genre in question to discover the best ideas and mechanics to use in your potential game.

Knowing your audience + knowing your genre = a solid plan for designing your first indie game. It’s as simple as that.


Empower the Player

Think about the best films you’ve seen, the best books you’ve read, and the best games you have ever played. What do they all have in common? They transported you to another world and allowed you to experience something you could never have experienced in real life. Think about it: even if your favorite game is the latest Madden entry or your favorite book was an autobiography about Abraham Lincoln, it doesn’t matter: the work of art transported you to a place/time you’ll never experience in the real world.

What separates video games from other types of entertainment is you also get to feel empowered during the experience. While you may be rooting for the protagonists in Guardians of the Galaxy or your favorite house in a Game of Thrones novel, you don’t actually get to control any of the characters. In a video game? You are actually responsible for the protagonist on-screen.

The best video games allow you to feel empowered; as if you may have a fighting chance against any obstacle that comes your way. Even a game as simple as Tetris achieves this. When playing a game of Tetris, you probably find yourself believing that you are going to complete level after level as you clear the blocks from each table. The reality is you probably will only get a few levels into Tetris before you lose, but in the moment that you’re playing the game? You believe that you can win.

That brings me to a third point…



Empowering players is great, but empowering the player too much? It leads to balancing issues. Have you ever played a video game that became too easy over time? It leads to boredom and gives the game a ‘god mode’ feeling that kills the flow and ultimately, the fun of the game. When designing your indie game, ensure:

  • The game empowers the player and makes them feel as if they truly can make a difference in the game’s world.
  • Ensure there is always the danger that they could lose.
    • In other words, never make the player feel permanently invincible!

And that’s really the basic fundamentals of game design. Make the player feel important, ensure they are having fun, and make certain the game is always challenging to some extent. It’s the basic fundamentals of what makes a game truly great.


Have any questions or comments? Let us know in the comments below!

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