The Power of Constraint

Original Author: Adam Rademacher

A few months ago, I took a look in the mirror and made a list of all the games I’ve made, and all the games I’ve tried to make.  Then, I made another list of all the games that I love, the games that made me yearn to make games for a living.  Where did I go wrong?!

Well, it’s not quite that dramatic, but I did have a bit of an epiphany about how to be a better designer.  Game design, much like programming and art in games, isn’t really something you can learn from a textbook or classroom.  Those are good starting points, but to be a great #gamedev in any field, you really have to run the gauntlet.  Make some tragic failures of games and learn from your mistakes.  At least, that’s what I’ve been told.

Then I started to think about it.  Design isn’t something you learn from a textbook and it’s not entirely ‘learning from your mistakes’ … it’s something else entirely.  There’s so much that the average game designer touches within a game (nearly 100% of it, generally) that it’s easy to miss the forest for the trees.  If you’ve made a game that can be described in no way nicer than crappy, why is it a bad game?  Does it feel incomplete?  Are the mechanics fundamentally flawed?  Is the level design too murky or unclear?  It could be any part of that 100% of the things you touched on that game.   What’s a designer to do?

This is the epiphany I had.  I listed out the games I’ve made (not that many) next to a list of the games that I’ve truly loved over the years (also not that many) and drew links between them, ignoring issues of polish or ‘not having enough time’ as those plague every game.  By doing this, I was able to draw a definitive line in the sand and say: This is what I need to work on.

Let me reiterate what I said to myself, only in the words I actually used.  “Wow, I suck at telling stories in games, and I want to be better at it.”

This is a familiar plea of the designer, as design is such a broad realm there’s bound to be something we are atrociously bad at.  I know what a good story is, and how to write one, but when it comes to weaving the story into gameplay mechanics, I don’t even know where to start.  So this is what I did, and I urge everyone to do something similar with their own areas of need:

  1. Decided to make a new game entirely focused on story and world building.
  2. I picked a few familiar genres that lent themselves easily to storytelling, and were dear to my heart: Point and Click adventure games, JRPGs, and VNs.
  3. I did some quick research to pick out some engines that would make it easy for me to dive in and start work.
  4. RPG Maker is an engine that I’ve had experience with, and was the quickest to get up and run with.
  5. I sat down and started making the game.

Just from this little exercise (I have about 5 minutes of game right now, and am extending it to flush out a full plot with twists and all that goodness), I immediately became aware of something important: Designing the mechanics of the game was holding me back from telling a story in the game.   I was too focused on flow and balance and didn’t have the mental resources to push the story through the way I wanted to.

So what I want from you, dear reader, is to do something very similar.  Look at your games, and compare them to the games on your shelf.  Focus on the differences and develop a simple plan to constrain your development and focus on that one aspect of your design toolbox that is lacking.  Please share similar experiences in the comments, as I’m really curious how you (or your more designery friends) improve their skills in a systematic way.