Introduction to Game Design: Start with Game Mechanics

Start with Game Mechanics

This photo, “-342: guinea pig pwn” is copyright © 2010 Katherin McAdoo and made available under an Attribution Generic 2.0 license.

In my previous game design article, I asked “So if you aren’t supposed to start your game design with a story, what should you start with?” This article will answer that question.

Start with Game Mechanics

It is best as a game designer to not get too attached to a particular story or idea.  It is far more important to have game mechanics that work and “feel right” than it is to have a fantastic story. Am I suggesting that stories aren’t important? Of course not! Stories are very important, it is what gets players thinking about that game world when they aren’t playing the game. It is what helps them come back to the game to see how it will end. But the mechanics helps them enjoy the actual playing of the game itself.

Mechanics is what separates games from other forms of entertainment. You can read a book, watch a movie, but you can only play a game. Now, there are always exceptions. Choose your own adventure books have a play style to them in you are directed to different pages to actually read the outcome of your choices. So, in a sense, you can play those types of books. Also, there are games that are little more than choose your own adventure books. The mechanics aren’t super important in those instances since it is basically “turn the page”. And yes, both of those qualify as games as we saw in the earlier articles, “What is a game?” and “Toy vs. Game”, because they are played by at least one player, have rules (take the action offered at the end of a section) and a victory state.

So while there are always exceptions, the overwhelmingly vast majority of games are played more than watched. Because of this, it makes sense that the actual game play itself needs to be considered first. Does this mean that story should be tacked on at the end? Of course not! But story shouldn’t be the first thing to be done in a game. Sure, there can be a general idea of what you want the story to be, but don’t get to attached to a story. How will you know if the technology can support your story? How will you know if your game will be fun?

Create a Prototype

In order to know if your game is going to be fun, you need to actually implement some game play. Create your game mechanic and play it. Is it fun to you? Let other people play it. Don’t get fooled into thinking that you need a lot of content created to see if your game is fun. In fact, the more content you have, the harder it will be for your play testers to know why the don’t like the game.

If you have a lot of content, especially good looking content, with a lot of dialog with that flushed out story, it will be difficult for the play testers to know what isn’t right about the game. If all you have a is block and some triangles and a couple of circles that the player is interacting with using a particular control scheme, then you are at the essence of game play. It will be very obvious if the game mechanics are good enough on their own or if they need additional work. Even a simple game mechanic has been turned into a very successful game, like the popular indie game: The Impossible Game.

In general, make the toy first. If the toy is fun to play with, you can then build a game around that toy. You can create all sorts of toys and create a story to bring those toys together. As you continue to work on your game and continue to flush out your story, you may have an idea where you will actually go the other way and try to create a particular toy and game mechanic because of the direction you want to take your story. Don’t shy away from that, but don’t use that as your starting point. Again, the key is to actually create a prototype of your toy(s) and see if this new game mechanic is fun. If it is, keep that part of the story. If it isn’t, recreate the game mechanic until it is fun. If people don’t enjoy any of the iterations, then it may be time to ditch that part of the story – or turn it into a cut-scene.

Make Sure that Playing with the Toy is Fun

The key to a great game is that it is fun to play. The only way you can know it is fun to play is if you play test. It doesn’t make any sense to assume a particular game mechanic is fun and build all this story and content around the game to only find out that no one actually enjoys playing the game. How many wasted hours would go into that project? What if at the beginning of the game creation process, prototypes were made and handed off for people to play? How much money would that have saved?

In the world of entrepreneurship, there is a movement around the lean startup. One of the big pieces is what Steve Blank calls customer development. Customer development is asking your potential customers what they actually want before you build it. The goal of the customer development process is to take the theory around your business and product and see if there are customers in a market outside of your office.

The same idea holds true in game development. And in game development, we can see what our customers / players want by giving them prototypes to play and seeing what they like and what they don’t like from our toys. Is the toy fun to play with? If so, chances are we can make a great game out of it. If it isn’t, adding more content, aesthetics, and more story elements around a toy that isn’t fun to play with is not going to help the situation in any way.

In Person Play Testing is the Best

Getting actual feedback, in real-time, by watching the player play your prototype is the best way to know if the prototype is fun. A great idea for getting people to playtest your game is by going to your local Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). Jon Grall did exactly that and wrote an article on Gamasutra about the experience. Now, this won’t work if your game isn’t a mobile game, but it is important to get your prototype in front of people early on so you can see what is working and what isn’t. What makes sense to the players and what doesn’t.

Starting with a small prototype around game mechanics is the first step, but as you add more complexity to the game, make sure you still create playable prototypes to get feedback. If it is next to impossible to get live feedback from being in the same room as the player, you can distribute your prototype in many different forums and on reddit to get information on what people liked and didn’t like. That is much more beneficial than you being your own play tester, but it is no where near as effective as being able to see people’s reactions as they happen.

Repeat the Process

As you create your prototype to test out the game mechanic, make sure you take time to tweak and iterate through the play testing phase as many times as needed. The game mechanic is critical to get right. A game can look awesome and have wonderful aesthetics, have a fantastic story, and work on awesome technology, but if the game mechanics aren’t right the game will not be fun. Using the right technology, having beautiful graphics, sound, music and other aesthetics, and having a great story is fantastic and they are important, but when it comes to a game, even if all of that is perfect, it can’t make up for a terrible game mechanic and as a result the game won’t be fun to play. All four pieces are important, but to get out of the gate the fastest, start with the game mechanics.

Let me know in the comments of your experiences when creating your games. Did you use a prototype to test out your mechanics? What was your results? If you went another route, what were your results? How are you fairing in the wonderful world of game development? What advice would you give to people wanting to make the best possible game they can? Let me know in the comments!

Introduction to Game Design: Don’t Start with a Story

Don't Start with a Story

Want to make a game? Don’t start with a story!

Wait, what?

You read that right. Don’t start with a story.

A story is an important part of game design, but it is not the part that should be tackled first. In fact, for many games is it done at the end. Of course, many games suffer because the story was done at the end of the cycle. While it should not be the last thing to be done, it definitely should not be the first thing to be done.

Let’s say you have this wonderful story already created. You have envisioned how this story will be told through your game. You get other developers or artists involved in your project (or do it all yourself) and expect the game to be a great game because of this great story you have.


If you want to write a great story, write a book, graphic novel, movie, short story, or something else. A game is not to be written because you have a great story. This is why so many games based on movies fail so hard. They try to design game play around a story. Games that have game play designed around a story rarely succeed.


Games are meant to be fun. Most games are played to be enjoyed. Part of the enjoyment is the story. That is why I really like many games I play – because it has a great story. But as an indie game developer, you can’t START with a story when making a game. Even successful AAA studios don’t start with a story.

So are stories not important?

Stories are important. Every game should have a story, even if it is a simple one. The point here, isn’t that stories aren’t important, it is that stories are not the starting point when designing a game.

I think of games like Alan Wake, Batman: Arkham City, the Mass Effect series, Dragon Age and the Assassin’s Creed series.

Alan Wake

These games all have excellent stories. But I don’t believe that they all fleshed out the story before working on the game. Game design is about solving problems – about completing challenges. It is interactive and while a story is definitely part of it, it isn’t the central part. Narrative on the other hand is a central part of game design.

Narrative vs. Story

You should have a narrative though. A narrative and a story are not the same thing. A narrative helps you determine what emotion or idea you want to explore with the game. When designing your game, the emotion and the idea of the game are most important to nail down early on. The details of the story, level design, sound, general aesthetics, etc. can all be fleshed out as the game is being created. However, it is critical to know what emotion and idea your game wants to convey.

If you start with a story, then it will lead you in a world of hurt. You will be locked into a specific set of locations and places. What if the technology can’t pull off elements in your story? What if you can’t have but so many items in your scene and your story is really dependent on that? There are ways around it, but it is good to prototype that part of the game to begin with before locking it down in your story. Prototyping is another topic I’ll save for another article, but for now know that prototyping and play testing are keys to having your game be successful.

How many games have you grinded through just to see how the story ends? Sometimes, that story can make up for bad game play, but most of the time, no matter how good the story is, if the experience to get that story told to us is unsatisfactory, then it puts a blot on the story as well and we don’t appreciate it as much as we could have.

How many games have you played that had excellent game play but the story was mediocre at best, but you still enjoyed going back to play the game? It is hard to create a great game that also has fantastic story.  But it was actually done as far back as Space Invaders.

Space Invaders could have just been a triangle shooting at blocks. Instead, it used a story to make it more exciting and easier to understand. Originally, Space Invaders was going to be about a human army the player was shooting. They changed it to aliens for a couple of reasons. Violence against aliens was assumed more acceptable than violence against other humans, even opposing armies. Aliens also aligned itself well with the “high-tech” computer graphics of 1978.

If Batman Arkham City had terrible controls, then it wouldn’t matter how good the story was, the game would have been a disaster. But the controls were done so well that it rarely, if ever, felt like grinding in the game. The game play itself was fun on it’s own. The story was just a bonus – but, of course, a fantastic bonus.

All aspects of making a game is important, but if you start with a story instead of a narrative you will be locking yourself in and most likely never get your game off the ground. Instead, don’t get too attached to a story, or to an idea for that matter.

Now What?

So if you aren’t supposed to start your game design with a story, what should you start with?  Well, I’ll get to that in my next post. Stay tuned.

Better yet, let me know in the comments what you think is the first thing you should start with when designing a game.

Valentines Day Game I Created for My Sweetie

I have recently switched from being a full-time employee from a company for the last decade and a half to running my own consultancy services company. It has been great so far. I’ve been able to focus on some of my passions like creating video games and creating content for folks to consume around video game creation.

But running your own business also comes with some challenges. Having a steady paycheck every two weeks for the last 20 years is comforting. Not knowing exactly where the next project will come from and how the next month’s bills will be paid takes a little bit of a mind shift. Due to this mind shift, I decided to make my wife a game instead of buying her a card. It was sort of a geeky thing to do, but my wife has come to expect the geeky ways I express myself.  (When we were in college, I’d send 3.5 floppy disks to her through the college mail system for her to run different applications I had made. These included instructions like, “on the DOS prompt enter iloveyou.exe”. Yes, she can’t say she didn’t know what she was getting into!)

The Valentines Day Game

Anyway, even though I haven’t changed my cheesy ways all that much in 20 years, the technology has. Unity 3D makes it really simple to get something going. I spent about 2 hours getting the Valentines Day game to work as I wanted to.

The game is simplistic and randomly puts candy inside of the 3 heart boxes. It plays one of 3 random songs when it starts and tapping on the flowers makes it switch songs. If you find the candy on the first try, you get 3 points. If you find it on the second try, you get 2 points. If you didn’t find it until the last box, you get no points and you get a strike. If you get three strikes the game is over. It also keeps track of the high score and updates the screen (and storage) if a high score is achieved during the gameplay.

The game won’t win any awards to be sure, but it was fun to do over the course of a couple of hours this past weekend.

If you haven’t tried out Unity yet, I’d highly suggest you give it a try. It is really easy to get into and after a little bit of a learning curve, you can be creating awesome games – even a Valentines Day game like this one.

The game in its current form is using a font that is only licensed for personal use and I’m using songs that I have rights to listen to, but not to redistribute.  So I’m not releasing the game’s source in it’s current state.

That being said, if getting your hands on this Valentines Day game is something that interests you, please let me know in the comments below. If I get 20 comments asking for the files, I’ll spend some time to rework the game with assets I can actually distribute and make it available to download. So if you want to see it, let me know (and let others know too so they can comment as well.)

Introduction to Game Design: Toy vs Game

In the last game design article I discussed a definition of a game. Another book, that quickly addresses that question is:

Level Up! The Guide to Great Video Game Design

Level Up! The Guide to Great Video Game Design

In the book, Scott Roger has the following:

Q: What is a game?
A: A game is an activity that:

  • requires at least one player
  • has rules
  • has a victory condition.

He goes on to answer this question:

Q: What is a video game?
A: A video game is a game that is played on a video screen.

So the question now is, what is a toy and how does that differ from a game?

Hopefully, with the game definition above (and the definition talked about before), it is clear that a toy isn’t a game. Why? Well, a toy can have a single player, but a toy doesn’t have rules and there is no victory condition.

Scott uses the analogy of hand ball.

Level Up! The Guide to Great Video Game Design

He says the following:

Bouncing a ball against a wall without missing it is hardly a metaphor for reality; unless you lead a very boring life. Let’s face it, sometimes a ball bouncing against a wall is just a ball bounding against a wall.

He goes on to say:

Playing hand ball therefore may seem like a time-waster, but a time-waster becomes a game when you add rules and an objective. A rule may be to throw the ball with your right hand and catch it with your left, or to not drop the ball. A victory condition could be that you have to catch the ball ten times in a row. A failure state would be if you violated any of the rules or victory conditions. Once those criteria have been met, you have created a game.

In the book, I mentioned in the previous article about game design, The Art of Game Design – A Book of Lenses, the author Jesse Schell talks about the Lens of the Toy. He also talks about a ball:

Toys are fun to play with for their own sake. In contrast, games have goals and are a much richer experience based around problem solving. We should never forget, though, that many games are built on top of toys. A ball is a toy, but baseball is a game. A little avatar that runs and jumps is a toy, but Donkey Kong is a game. You should make sure that your toy is fun to play with before you design a game around it. You might find that once you actually build your toy, you are surprised by what makes it fun, and whole new ideas for games might become apparent to you.

Toys are fun to play with. Toys and games are not the same thing. Many games have one or more toys in them.

Think about a toy and then think about a way to turn that toy into a game by creating rules and a victory state.

What other things do you think make a toy and a game different? Let me know in the comments!