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Approaching Game Design Through System Creation
by Sunil Rao on 09/07/13 06:30:00 pm

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Listen to your game’s system

Most game designers these days follow a formulaic approach to making a game. They use preexisting systems and fill in the missing gaps. For example, if I were to make a platformer, the conventional approach would be to make individual levels, then put these levels into “worlds”, and lastly make an overworld-like area where the player can access these “worlds”. There is nothing wrong with this approach, if anything it’s a tried and true way of going about things and is a great way to practice trusted game development. But there’s something lacking. By using preexisting structures, we’re limiting ourselves to explore new ways to tackle these issues designers have faced since the dawn of games. The way I make games is quite unconventional, but I hopefully believe it will create games that are more rich and meaningful. I hope to share my current design process.

A video game, in it’s most simplest form, is a system. It’s an intricately designed system that the player is able to explore, play around in, and master using a variety of inputs (Keyboard/Mouse, gamepad, etc.) Good games often use these systems to convey meaning or a message. For example, the game ‘Papers, Please’ uses it’s paper checking system to express the stress and calculative darkness that being a passport inspector is like in a dystopian society. Not only did ‘Papers, Please’ express emotions through its system, but it was also able to express a narrative as well. If you don’t work fast/efficient enough, the player receives less money which in turn gives you less money to keep your family warm and well fed. If you make a lot of mistakes and take too long to do your tasks, your family dies. The mechanics of the game spoke for itself, and didn’t need bothersome cutscenes to convey emotion and narrative. These games, I believe, are the right way to go about designing a game. These games have confidence in their systems which in turn expresses meaning.

The first step I take when making a game is I start with an idea. Just to get this silly argument out of the way, all games are art. Journey, as well as Call of Duty, are art, although they may convey their messages in varying degrees. One of art’s purpose is to convey a message or meaning to the viewer, so when I make a game I start with the meaning/message itself. Once I have a message that’s personal to me that I want to share with others, I start to design a system.

Now comes the hardest part, in my opinion, of making a game. I now have to create a system that is well designed enough that it can express the meaning I want to express on its own. The creation of a system that voices a certain meaning I want takes a lot of time. There’s no step-by-step way in creating a well designed system (that I know of), but that’s completely okay. I just start to experiment. I come up with crazy ideas, even if I think they’re “bad”. If anything, some of today’s best games come out of “bad” ideas. This way of design is very difficult and time consuming, but I believe that it is necessary in making a well designed system. This step of design honestly takes me weeks to complete, but I believe it’ll be worth the effort.

Once I have a system that expresses the meaning I want to convey to the player, then I fucking pat myself on the back. I just accomplished something amazing that not many game designers even think of. From here on out, the creation of the game is all about exploration. I need to listen to my system, and try to explore the idea space. I start to closely examine the mechanics of my game’s system, and try to come up with a narrative. I start to ask my system questions. What is my system trying to say? What mechanics can I add to my system to make it better? How many layers does my system have? How can my system express a narrative? If so, what kind of narrative will it be? How can I mesh together the meaning that is being expressed by my system with a narrative? Once I have at least some answers to these questions, then I start to notice something… I see a narrative unfold right before my eyes. Sure, it’s not a fully constructed 500 page story, but it’s a start.

So, at the moment I have a game system and a light narrative that it’s trying to express… That’s about it. There is still plenty more to do, but this is currently all that I have learned so far and have used on the game I’m working on, and I plan to share the design process as I get further and further into it. Honestly, this is probably all bullshit, and maybe my game will be horrible. Maybe I’m going about design in all the wrong ways, but we’ll just have to wait and see.

I’m currently in the process of adding layers to the system I’ve created. I’m also trying to flesh out a narrative as well as a level structure that is well suited for the game’s system.  My next write up will hopefully try to answer some of these issues. Until next time!

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RJ McManus
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Hey Sunil, nice post. I share your interest in describing the many aspects of video games in systems terms, and I actually wrote one post (which specifically attempts to reconcile narrative as a system) recently that might be of interest to you. You can check it out here if you like: -snip-

Sunil Rao
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Thanks! I'll definitely give it a read.