Game Design: Keep it Simple Stupid

in Tutorials

By: Paul “Reynard Frost” Walker

Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.

- Antoine de Saint-Exupery French writer (1900 – 1944)

If you’re a member of the RPG Maker community, it’s a good bet that you’re here to make games. It’s also even more likely that you also play games. So many games out there to draw inspiration from, so many good features to implement and so many characters running around in your mind that you just simply have to share them with the world! Except your roster of 120 characters and your encyclopedia of YourGameTannica are large enough to break all but the most sturdy of bookshelves. You end up creating and creating and creating trying to include as much content in one game that most would find in an entire series.

What you have is an over-saturation, and a need to simplify your game. Why simplify it? So you can finish it! Today I’ll share with you some tips on how to do just that.

I. Plan Your Game on one Piece of Paper.

What madness is this? How can we create an epic story and amazing gameplay if all we have is a paltry 8.5 x 11 inches to work with? Quite easily, actually:

Core Idea: This is a single sentence that sums up your game. It’s the guideline you will set for yourself and follow to make sure your game doesn’t get too off track. As an example, here is the one I wrote for Ruins of Rydos: “A group of explorers travel through an ancient tower fighting monsters.”

Simple, yet can say so much.

Features: This is a list of features that will be included in your game that you write in a back of the box fashion. Try to keep this list under 10 features. They could be something as simple as:

  • Able to purchase and sell items.
  • Fight enemies to earn money and experience.
  • Puzzles.

This is the most difficult area of your chart to NOT go overboard as you’ll end up writing all of these cool ideas, and that’s OK! Just be prepared to cross out a lot of them. More on this later.

Game Flow: This is the fun part, and the one that takes up the most space. Make a chart, a list, anything you’re comfortable with that covers how the game will be played from start to finish. This doesn’t include story elements like “Rose and Jack discuss their relationship.” this covers CORE game sections, such as “Player arrives at camp, objective 1, objective 2, etc.”

A good example of this would be to look at the ever classic Final Fantasy 1:

Player creates party -> Player speaks to King to receive mission -> Player goes to Chaos Shrine to fight Garland -> Player returns Princess to Kingdom and bridge is fixed -> Player travels to Port Town and fights Pirates to get ship -> Player takes ship to Elftown to find out King is sick -> and so on and so forth.

The idea is to cover the CORE sections of your game that focus more on gameplay so that you know what to plan, and in what order to play them through. Once you’ve planned out your gameplay from beginning to end, you can move on to…

Characters: Not biographies yet, this is a simple list of names (or better yet, roles) and how these characters are relevant to gameplay. This is reserved for playable characters. An example of this list would be:

  • HeroSwordsman: focuses on offensive attacks and uses physical skills.
  • HealerDoctor: uses recovery skills and can fight with knives.
  • RangedArcher: uses bows/crossbows/etc. and can attack enemies at a distance.
  • DebuffsTrickster: Uses poisons and illusions to hinder enemies.

The point of this list is to focus on what role those characters will play in your gameplay. What relevance they have to the story can be planned after you’ve got your gameplay figured out. Speaking of story…

Story: A single paragraph that sums up the plot of your game. Why a single paragraph? It saves room and can be tied in with your core message to help flesh out your game without it running away from you. (Example)

This stretches it into two paragraphs, and that’s alright! It sums up the story of their game in a non-convoluted way that focuses on key events and not some grand history that people can speculate on later.

With your page of game ideas written, take the time to write out how your game features will work (beyond USE X SCRIPT! actually think of how these game features work. It helps.) until you understand what type of work load you have to work with. Focus on gameplay elements first, and save the story parts for when you get burned out or get really inspired. Just make sure to keep the focus on gameplay! You’ll notice that I haven’t included map layouts or item lists in this list. These are details that we’ll focus on later when we’re actually making the game. Once you have a good idea of how your gameplay features will work and what type of game flow you have, we move on now to our next step.

II. Plan a Timeline.

For this, I recommend using either a whiteboard, a calendar, or my favorite: a checklist! Software equivalents are also welcome. Why? To help plan out a time frame for you to finish your game. Here are a few simple steps to get this daunting task out of the way:

Write a list of what needs to be done: Write out whatever pops into your head. These can be things such as: “Draw Hero charset” or “Create Item Prices”. Just write down whatever pops into your head now, don’t worry about covering everything. When you actually get to work on some of these features, what more needs to be done will suddenly come to you and you can add them to this list. But before that…

Organize your list into categories: Split your list up into Graphics, Gameplay, Testing, etc. If you have a team to work with, this can help spread out the work load. If you’re working solo, this can help you figure out which areas to tackle first. (Hint: It’s Gameplay!)

Estimate how long each step will take: This will also be edited frequently as the project goes on and you grow more comfortable with your skills (and those skills inevitably improve). To start, just write next to each step how long you think it will take to complete it. You don’t need to get this down to exact hours and minutes, a rough estimate is perfectly fine. Example: “Draw Hero charset – 1 Day”. Even if it only takes you an hour to make it, you give yourself a day just in case something happens or that’s the only thing you work on that day. Be generous with your estimates, so you’re fully prepared in case something goes wrong.

Organize your list into Months: Once you know how long each step will take, split those steps up into month long chunks so that you get a feel for how long this game will actually take to make! I like to add titles to each Month so that I have a better idea of what steps to throw in there. Example: “March – Graphics”. Under March I’d list all kinds of steps such as making those charsets, battlers, battle animations, etc. while “February – Dungeon 1″ I would work on puzzles, map layouts, enemy stats for enemies in that dungeon, item placements, etc. You can also spread out your graphical work load by assigning the tilesets and battlers for each gameplay section to the month you plan on focusing on that area of the game!

As you make this timeline, you’ll realize that some features or sections of the game will take up too much time to implement. Feel free to cross out these tasks or put them in a second category for each month, such as “BONUS: Complete if time.” Also keep in mind to organize your list so that the foundation of your game is tackled early on in the first few months while the fancier parts of your game are handled later on. Creating tilesets in March will end up being scrapped or having to be redrawn if you don’t plan on designing your map designs until April!

With this complete, we move on to the guts of our project!

III. Simple Iteration.

Now that you have a blueprint to work off of, start from the top of your timeline and work your way down. Once you’ve finished a certain amount of tasks in a day, as long as you finish on time, feel free to take a break and work on the other steps the next day. The great part about this approach is that you don’t have to burn yourself out throwing 12 hours at a project when instead you can just spend 4 hours finishing steps and crossing them off the list with those other 8 hours for relaxation or life! Next, I’ll cover some tips to help with some complications you may encounter:

I really want to work on Step X near the end of my timeline! Do you now? Well keep in mind that feature may need something earlier on to be finished to make sure it’s something you actually need. However, if it’s just itching to come out and you’re having fun making it, go nuts!

I didn’t finish all of my steps in time! That’s perfectly fine! Just take those unfinished steps and carry them over to the next month (or spread them out to other months). Or, you may just have to scratch them off the list (or scratch off steps in later months) to make time for it. Of course, you can just add an extra month to your project. This isn’t recommended as the goal is to finish your game!

I need help from someone to finish this step! Is this step really necessary to finish the game? If so, save it for later until help arrives. If not, cut it.

Feature X needs Y more steps in order to finish, this is going to take more time than I thought! That’s perfectly fine, just spread out some of your other steps to other months (or of course, cut some features!).

I’ve finished early! Excellent! If you’re not burned out on working on your game start working on next month’s steps so that you can either finish your project early or give yourself some breathing room later on.

As you go through your list you’ll get a better feel for your abilities (or your team’s) and you may find out your 4 month plan is actually an 18 month plan, never fret! There is a way to save time that even the pro’s use!

IV. Cutting Room.

Kill your darlings. It’s a common phrase in writing circles, and it applies to game development just as much. Some features you’re just going to have to cut. Wanted that huge roster of 120 characters, but don’t have time to balance each of their stats or their equipment? Might need to cut that roster down to 60, 20, or 7! That really cool spaceship dungeon that doesn’t really tie into the story much? Might need to save that for another game or release it later in a director’s cut. The main question you have to ask yourself throughout this process is this:

Do I really need this in my game? Look back at your game design document paper you made. Look at the top, that single solitary sentence you wrote. Does this feature tie into that statement? Does it enhance it? Or is it kind of off the rails and not really related to your game in any meaningful way? If it’s the latter, cut it. If it’s the former and you simply don’t have time, cut it anyway. A feature that sounds really cool early on may end up being a nightmare later on, and no matter how awesome it is, you just have to remove it. Take note that I say remove and not delete. Never delete anything you make. Remove it from the main game, save it for later, learn from it.

Nothing you make is ever a waste of time. Even if what you worked on doesn’t make it into the final game, you still learned from it, and you still made something awesome! You just need to save it for a better time to share it with the world. A finished game with a few solid, and most importantly, fun features is more impressive than a game in development with a ton of cool features that never see the light of day.

V. Get Started!

Whether you follow these steps to the letter or come up with your own process, I hope this information helps you make and complete an awesome game that you’re proud of.  So even if you’re reaching for that first piece of paper, or you’re in the middle of a project that’s suddenly all over the place, take the time to plan and prioritize! You won’t regret it.

Paul Walker works as a quality assurance tester who has worked to help perfect games in series such as God of War and Uncharted (And Hannah Montana The Movie Game, but I’m sure he would rather forget that). When not working on games, he works on games, and is currently working on the game Ruins of Rydos using RPG Maker.

10 comments… add one

  • Julien Brightside February 20, 2013, 1:22 pm

    Ooh, this is the kind of article I wish I had read before I started game making.

  • Psyker February 20, 2013, 1:28 pm

    This makes so much sense! Excellent guideline.

    Thanks for the informative post.

    I do have a question. In the section talking about Timeline where you mentioned Graphics, Gameplay, Testing. You mentioned Gameplay comes first.

    What would you do if you are using custom graphics? Would you work towards those graphics first then create the gameplay? Or would you use the RTP for gameplay then fill in the graphics at a later date?

  • Paul Walker February 20, 2013, 11:50 pm

    I would use RTP or any simple graphics you can throw together as placeholders while you perfect the gameplay. Working on concept art is OK, but art that will be in the game you shouldn’t kill yourself working on until the gameplay is solid. If you work on graphics too soon you end up wasting time on assets that you might not end up using. Ever make a tileset for a certain area and then find out that entire level isn’t going to work out? It’s not a nice feeling, and one that can be easily prevented with proper planning!

  • TJ Broussard February 25, 2013, 7:38 am

    Thanks for the help Nick. I’ve read a lot of your stuff and am still very new to all of this but I love it and your guidance helps and is MUCH appreciated. I hope to continue to see more of your work.

    • Nick Palmer February 27, 2013, 12:48 pm

      Well this one was written by Paul. He’s pretty sharp on things though :P.

    • Paul Walker March 1, 2013, 10:14 pm

      Aye, this is my article. Nick was just kind enough to post it on the blog here. :D

  • Devi Taylor February 25, 2013, 10:53 am

    This is a great article for newbies like me. I started with the story first and am now trying to figure out the game play. It would be nice to talk about creator preferences vs. appealing to the players. There are things I want to do in the game but they may or may not appeal to the people playing the game. How to walk that fine line…?

    • Paul Walker March 1, 2013, 10:14 pm

      My rule of thumb is to make the game you yourself would want to play. You can’t please everyone, so if you at least find the game fun to play then there will be folks out there who will also find it fun as well. Just make sure that the ideas you put in your game are fun to play as a PLAYER and not just fun to put together as a designer.

  • Olivia March 19, 2013, 6:17 am

    Oh, wow. I couldn’t have found this at a better time. Just a few hours ago, I was asking opinions for two ideas of a complex battle system I want for my game, all the while stressing myself silly on how I’m possibly going to learn to code what will inevitably be a monster. My problem, in any kind of project I tackle (game or story), is I’m always far too ambitious for my own good. I always look at it as a whole instead of parts (this might also be why I have a hard time with math; ugh). I often try to organize everything, but even in my organization, I overshoot it. I spend so much time trying to put into words my ideas that I’m never able to really sit down and look at any kind of decent progress.

    (It’s especially ridiculous for me, because I wanna make a “choose-your-own-adventure” style kind of game, with a custom player character and a story that branches off depending on the choices of the player. I’m pulling my hair out trying to figure out how I’m gonna do it, even as much as I’m excited for the project. My perfectionism gets the better of me far too often.)

    I will take this to heart so that I can, at last, have a project I can say I completed and am proud of. I will control my impatience and excitement so that I can actually work on the game, instead of just wondering and worrying about all the steps I’m nowhere close to. So, thank you very much for this excellent article. I’ll get started on this right away! :)

  • kratsel9999 November 10, 2013, 8:08 am

    thank you very much..this is exactly what I needed right now.. :)
    I’m actually making a game with a very limited time..and this organization of plans and ideas would really help me so much…

Leave a Comment