Nine step recipe for good independent game design

Steps VII-IX

By Damon Brown

This series is meant to help beginning game developers (particularly solo) keep in mind the basics of good game design. It is set up differently, however; the nine principles are set up like tips on cooking- a rather unusual, but applicable parallel. This isnít meant as an end-all, and I certainly have a lot to learn. However, I do have game design experience as a solo developer, so this is meant as a simple guide with solid design principles.

As I mentioned in my other articles, I have had difficulty as a solo game developer changing hats (sound engineer, level designer, lead programmer, artist, etc.), particularly with game programming and game design. For a period of time, I thought game programming and game design were the same thing.

"I programmed the guy to walk across the screen? Great! Now I can make Zelda!" Not quite.

Game programming requires analytical skills, logical creativity and patience. Game design requires psychology- it is a simple as that.

The best way to explain this psychology is to quote Dave Perry, head of Shiny games, describing Shigeru Miyamato, the highly-regarded Nintendo game designer (the Mario series, Zelda, etc.) He said, in Arcade Magazine issue 3, "Miyamato knows what youíre thinking at every momentÖ When you think youíre being smart, or you do something unexpected, or even go the wrong way, heís already there with you."

To design well, you have to be the user. You have to get in the playerís head. How many times have you played a game and said "Wouldnít it be cool if you couldÖ"? Thatís how many times game designers have missed an opportunity to expand their game universe. Donít be that designer. J

Easier said than done. We will never reach perfection, but I hope that my guide with all the other sources out there will help you achieve your personal best. If you have any questions, e-mail me at the address above or visit my webpage above.

Finally, as a warning, I have a dry sense of humor. Youíve been warnedÖ




I. Get Your Ingredients Ahead Of Time

II. Make Sure Your Ingredients Mix Well Together

III. Let It Marinate

IV. If The Flavor Is Good, Let That Flavor Come Through

V. Enjoy Experimenting Ė If It Goes Bad, Start Over

VI. Too Many Cooks Spoil The Broth

VII. Spice Is Nice

VIII. Two hours at 500 degrees isnít equal to four hours at 250 degrees

IX. Savor The Meal


Spice Is Nice

This might sound insane, but there are relatively few games that I play on a regular basis Ė and one of them is a one-stage demo. I love Carmageddon by SCI/Interplay. No, really, I love Carmageddon by SCI/Interplay.

This isnít an advertisement. Heck, I havenít even bought the full game yet (I plan on buying it next month Ė I donít get paid to make games or anything L ) but I have played at the demo least 1000 times since its release in 1997. Over and over. And over.

To quickly summarize, you drive a hot rod through a city, racing against other opponents in a demolition derby way. The whole city is explorable, from the rooftops to the tunnels (there is no racetrack), and the only way your game ends is if you get to all the checkpoints or you run out of time. Time is collected by ramming the mess out of your enemies and by hitting bystanders, like people and grazing cows.

Many of you might not like the sound of it Ė it sounded bad to me, too. But if you give it a try, youíll understand the following point:

We like being bad. We like trying to hit the referee in a boxing game. We let our hero get hit by the falling hammer just to see what happens. We try to drive our video game car backwards so we can go into oncoming traffic.

The more of this you have in your game, the better. It makes the gamer feel special. For each restriction you put on the game player, that is one notch of freedom and fun your game is losing.

This, of course, needs moderation. As noted in the first two sections, too much stuff is too much. However, it usually doesnít hurt to give a little more freedom Ė if there is a restriction in your game, ask yourself "Why not?" If there is no logical answer, maybe it should be reconsidered.

Two Hours at 500 Degrees Isnít Equal To Four Hours at 250 Degrees

I have four or five game ideas that Iím sitting on right now. They range from a few pages of drawings to full scale design documents with demos. Like every designer, I know theyíre all great (yeah, right). But, Iím sitting on them. I sometimes hate that fact, but, believe it or not, this is good.

Early on, Iíd have a game idea on Monday morning, a sketchy demo by Monday night and by Wednesday morning I wondered what the heck I was thinking. In the beginning I was hot, but Iíd lose my focus. When game development is a passion it burns inside you, and that burning can burn you out.

Like mentioned in section III (Let It Marinate), take your time on your game. Planning saves so much time (and frustration) later. For my latest idea, I came up with the concept in November of 1998, played with the idea (and lived my life!) until April 1999, when I then wrote up a budget, a timeline and an official design document, and, as of late April, am debating if I want to continue. In a word, I have patience now.

I think it parallels what people tell you about relationships. Date your heart out and sow your oats when you are young; get it out of your system and youíll be ready to settle down. Not counting my hit or miss years, during the first two years of serious game development (1996 Ė 1998) I created over 40 games, most only demos. Now I can settle down.

Enjoy playing with different concepts, but until things get more organized you may want to regard it as only playing.

Savor The Meal

The most important step. Enjoy your work.

As mentioned in section V (Enjoy Experimenting), my favorite game of mine was the weirdest. Itís been available on my webpage for a while now, and people have been rather silent about it. I donít understand it completely either (Iím kidding).

However, after working on a game for a month and realizing it isnít going to work, or having a half-baked concept that just wonít grow or running into the same program bug for the umpteenth time, I fire up my game BoB and Iím peaceful.

I definitely donít expect people to get the same feeling from my game, but, if we are lucky, we have a "cornerstone" project that we consider home. Iím a writer, and I have a 20-page essay I wrote freshman year of college that I believe is still my best work.

We are in a tough, thankless field. You can slave away at a game for months or years and get nothing but negative responses Ė or even worse, no response at all. Your hard work can become obsolete as the next big thing comes from a major company Ė a company with an actual budget, mind you. You may work on a concept for weeks and plan and plan Ė just to have a big gaping hole in the game you didnít notice until it was almost done.

So when you do something and you complete a game, you better celebrate.


Thanks for listening to my rant. I definitely donít have all the answers, but I hope my series has helped you think. I am a lonewolf, but I also believe that everyone has a piece of the answer and only by sharing can we become better game developers. Our virtual community needs your insight, no matter how experienced you are, because you may be the bridge between a developer and a masterpiece.

Also, if you decide to quote me on something, please give me an email Ė even if it is to bar-b-q my work.

As a final note, I would like to draw again on my favorite designer, Shigeru Miyamoto. His games very much symbolize the nature of game design. Super Mario 64 is just Super Mario Bros. on a Nintendo 64. The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time is just a 64-bit Legend of Zelda. Game design is independent of the system Ė always remember there were hits on the Atari 2600, too.

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Date this article was posted to 9/7/1999
(Note that this date does not necessarily correspond to the date the article was written)

See Also:
Game Design

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