All right, first things first… a game is not its coat of paint (visual theme, texture resolution, quality of particle effects, ect.). Proof : see all the Flappy Birds clones. What makes and defines a game is how it lets players interact with its environment. Also, hopefully I don’t need to say this but a game is easily held back by clunky movement and animation, wonky camera, weird hitboxes and a framerate with bipolar problems. As such, some form of basic, good and playable gameplay comes before any original idea you might have for your project. You cannot build a tower without solid grounds… I’m talking about basic movement and the ability to move around the place. This is not your game right here - this is only the base. I swear I’ve seen so many developer interviews and even LittleBigPlanet creators waste time on trying to make this their game that I feel it has to be said. If you can make the basic movement unique through clever tweaking of various settings such as character pivot rotation speed, acceleration/deceleration, camera and stuff then, great ! Seriously, I applaud you. But, usually, it doesn’t matter all that much. Off the top of my head, I can only think of one game who managed to pull that off, Journey. That’s not a big track record… so yeah, if it’s too much trouble to capture what you have in your mind, if you feel as a creator you’re hitting your head against a wall, then it should not really matter if your character moves at a common speed and does things you’d come to take for granted in video games. Don’t go crazy just because the camera or player won’t move exactly like you picture them in your mind - if if works and feels natural without obsessive tweaking, you got your blank canvas right there and everything you need to start building.
Being a perfectionist is about trying too hard to make a hard copy of what you have in your mind directly into reality. Which is usually impossible to do. Just try drawing 20 stars with pen & paper - they will all look a bit different… making a compromise between your imagination and reality, accepting the sacrifice and moving on is one of the key aspects of getting things done, along with setting deadlines, which allows you to filter out the unnecessary and focus on the things that matter. Also, worrying about making a “special snowflake” game is a waste of time and energy. There are literally tens of thousands of games out there so, honestly, no matter what you do, you WILL end up reproducing something that’s already out there, it’s just the way creativity works. And that’s normal. As the saying goes, there is nothing new under the sun. Creativity is about copying a bunch of stuff you like and making a remix, taking a bunch of things you liked then giving them your own spin.
A novel way of interacting with the environment is usually the first thing that truly captures attention. It’s all about building your game around that. One way to find something like this is to take just any kind of object lying around you right now and try to see how you, as a kid, would of used it to have dumb fun with it. For example, a kid will use a torch and have fun turning it on and off at different spots in the dark just to see what kind of colors and shapes he can capture with it. It all sounds pretty stupid but one thing that stands out to me in this example is the fact no one told the kid he had to use the torch in this way, hold it in that way or whatever. It was an act of independence. The kid was bored, wanted to keep things fresh and surprising for himself so he used a tool as his disposal to generate new things. And, in the process, he found how to make it work to reach his goal and felt rewarded…see? It’s all about giving a gray zone that allows players to capture for themselves that moment of discovery and freshness that comes with figuring out how something works, what it’s for and then using it to have fun. As a video game developer, this translates into giving them the gray zone of independence and then building something around it that justifies its use. This is where the environment comes into play. This is the base of making a game that your players will come back to. They are curious to see how you, as a developer, will challenge them to use what essentially are new tools. In the end, gaming is really nothing more than fast-paced learning through action and everyone likes to learn, it’s in our blood, and everyone likes being rewarded for it even more. Hence the sense of reward when finally defeating a tough boss or finding your way into a secret room.
I’m going to illustrate my point with one of my favorite games ever, Dark Souls. The game gives you hundreds of different weapons and challenges you with its notorious collection of bosses. As a game that sets out to be a rewarding experience and not just something stupidly difficult (direct quote from the director) it knows it first have to give you some sense of freedom by telling you, the player, only the minimum you need to know. When you start out, you’re told the basic controls, and are left on your own basically as just another Undead in the bunch. Nothing special about you, no special snowflake. Unless… you actually go out of your way to learn how to use the weapons and tool sat your disposal. That’s how you progressively come out of the sludge, progressively become more powerful ingame and THIS subconsciously says : “Hey, you’re really getting good at this… but don’t worry, we’re just getting started, there’s more stuff coming for you, let’s see if you can outsmart me!” This is the brilliance of good game design : when the game developer also makes sure you know there’s plenty of challenge coming up by progressively being more and more creative in how it finds ways to crush you, exactly like any Dungeons & Dragons master worth his salt. In this sense, this is why players like to be given tools to fight back against this kind of ongoing play of the minds. The player needs to know the goals and come up with his own solutions to make his victories his.
This approach to game design is a universal one. Much has been said about Dark Souls’s “insane” difficulty but not enough about the fact just about anyone can pick up the game and play. Just like Mario or Legend of Zelda, it keeps things simple and stupid and its challenge doesn’t come from millions of bullets coming at you or by throwing armies at you. It comes from a fair amount of gray area for the player and a challenge : your very own and personal ability to come up with solutions to problems the game shows you. Should I use this weapon over this one? Should I use this spell? Or how about bringing along a bunch of items to counter-act the annoying poison… THIS is what makes the best games what they are. They don’t take you for an idiot… when you tell players what to do, where to go, how to do this, or whatever, you’re not giving them the space they need to figure it out and have fun. You’re just bossing them around, telling them where to go and trying to force stuff inside their brain. And that’s real easy. Anyone can boss people. But, when you do that, you’re pulling them away from their own very intimate experience and depriving them from the sense of accomplishment from finding things out on their own. Nintendo has a reputation of keeping things simple and letting players figure it out. A to jump, B to attack. Got it figured it out? All right dude, let’s see if you can beat our game, now!
Basically, you can have absolutely any kind of feature in your game as long as people can figure it out on their own. Anything beyond that and you’re dragging them out of themselves. Because, in the end, we’re all children. We love to explore, wonder and try things out. It’s all about rewarding your players for it and always making sure they have the breathing room to do it. Give them tools (power-ups, skills, whatever), stay in the background coming up with challenges for them and leave them alone. Do that and you’ll give them a memorable experience.