What I’ve found most important when working on a large project is keeping it small. To quote Antoine de Saint-Exupéry “What saves a man is to take a step. Then another step. It is always the same step, but you have to take it.” Along with the project you are building, you are also building habits. It’s those habits that will determine whether your project reaches fruition or decays in your memory. If you think of that great game you love as a sort of “accident”, there are plenty of designers out there who will prove you wrong. It’s their habits that have been able to produce great games again and again. So, develop a schedule and stick to it. Work on little bits of your game every day and you’ll see how the game takes shape.
For a young designer, playing a great game can be intimidating. Speaking from experience, there are many games I wish I had designed. That speaks to how much I love those games, but that bit of jealousy should push you to keep working on your projects, instead of deterring you from your vision. Seeing how someone else was able to make something you truly love can be a light in end of the tunnel. It can show you the possibilities of making a great game.
One game I particularly love is Dune. What I love about it isn’t just the mechanics, what I love about Dune is how strongly it has stuck to its theme. When I play a game I love, I like to imagine the thought process the designers went through when making the game. Keeping in mind that I don’t know anything about the specific problems and roadblocks they encountered, this is how I imagine the creation of Dune:
He who controls the spice controls the universeFrank Herbert, DUNE
Controlling the universe seems like a pretty big victory and considering that the planet of Dune is the area where the spice is, that can easily be translated to “He who controls the area wins the game”… Area control. Alright, so we know our victory condition, what do we want our players to do during the game? Well, mining for spice is something we want, so what we can do is have a deck of cards with locations which generate spice randomly. Now we’ve got a currency and a win condition. What should we use this currency for? You would want your faction to gain military strength in the game, so it can cost you spice to deploy units. The book is also very focused on politics, which means there should be plenty of player interaction. What we can do is have auctions to simulate those interactions. Auctions have a tendency to take over games, so we should split the game in phases, to confine the auction in a phase. This is basically the skeleton of the game, so let’s jump to playtesting. A bunch of playtests and some cool ideas about incorporating worms, storms and variable player powers later and Dune becomes the masterpiece it is today.
What I hope you get out of my little fictitious and oversimplified thought experiment is how small building blocks can pile on top of each other to create a larger game. In Dune’s case, they built the game while sticking very close to the theme. The feelings they wanted to produce were concise from the beginning of the design process. They could draw a lot of game mechanics from the theme alone.
Your game doesn’t need to be thematic to follow a similar process. Find out what game you want to make and follow where it takes you. Add and remove mechanics in different playtests to get a better understanding of how your game functions. Bit by bit your game will grow and become a cleaner, more fun experience for everyone.