Video games are built around a game mechanic, not a story narrative.
I’ve had a few artists lately approach me asking how to go about making an indie game. Where do they even start?
Sean, as well, has been recieving these questions since the dawn of time.
Almost anyone who’s published the process of their indie development gets these questions, and I am positive almost anyone who’s published an indie game provides the same answer.
The answer to “where do I start” is a question that a lot of artists in particular just cannot wrap their heads around. Indeed, it took me a while to internalize the information as well. So here goes.
First of all; what separates a game from an interactive comic?
Comics are built around narrative.
Games are built around game mechanics.
When you approach a comic, the first things you consider is: what kind of story do I want to tell? What are the themes I wish to communicate? What is the setting, who are the characters?
You hammer those out, and then you can start writing the script for your comic and laying out the panels, etc.
This is not how you approach game design. This is not how you make a game.
The first question you need to ask yourself is as a game designer. NOT as a writer nor an artist.
The first question you need to ask yourself is: What kind of experience do I want the player to have?
Not viewer, not reader–the player.
When thinking about the player experience, as oppose to a reader’s experience, you are thinking about the manner in which they may progress through the game. What do they have to do to move the game (NOT narrative) forward?
This is your game mechanic.
A reader of a comic simply has to flip a page.
A reader of an interactive comic may be able to click on hot spots, and some of those ‘interactions’ may even be necessary to move the narrative forward. But this is not game play–this is not a game mechanic.
The common definition of game mechanics is this:
“Game mechanics are constructs of rules or methods designed for interaction with the game state, thus providing gameplay.”
To illustrate what this means with a pointed metaphor, lets step out of the digital realm for a moment.
Consider reading a book vs playing monopoly.
Both house some form of narrative; both have characters, a beginning middle and end, both require the use of your imagination.
But Monopoly is a game, and reading a book (yes, even a choose your own adventure) is not. Why is this?
A book, without it’s narrative, is nothing if not utter nonsense. A book doesn’t have a set of rules that you must strategize around in order to progress, you can’t ‘win’ at reading a book. You can’t even lose. You can stop reading, but that’s not the same as ‘losing’ a game.
A game without its narrative–should still be fun. The core mechanics of monopoly will still be fun no matter how you try to skin it. If you change the narrative of Monopoly from being about getting rich off real-estate, into being about becoming the most popular girl in school by collecting ‘reputation points’, the core mechanics are still the same. “It’s like monopoly, except instead of collecting cash, you collect rep.” Totally different narrative, exact same game. The fun is in strategizing to win. But you can also lose if your strategies aren’t good enough.
Same can be applied to videogames. If your game is not fun and makes no sense without it’s narrative; if your game is boring without the pretty art style and lovable characters, you don’t have a very good game. In fact, you might not even really have a game at all. What you might have instead, is the makes of a really nice comic.
If you want to start making a game, you really need to hammer out your game mechanic first. What makes your game fun? Is it an exploration mechanic, in which the player is rewarded (or punished) for discovering new points on the map (Sunless Sea)? Is it the challenging thrill of having to run a difficult course under a set time-limit, while collecting as many points as possible (Mario)? Is it having to solve complicated puzzles in order to progress to the next level (The Room 1, 2, &3)? Is it about dividing a finite number of stat points into different categories/’traits’ in order to build specialized units that will then face up against other units who will try to defeat your unit’s combination of stats? (a great many RPGs and Turn-based strategy games)
These are game mechanics. They can exist without narrative. They can be played with sticks characters against a black and white backdrop of squares and circles–and still have entertainment value.
And that is what you need to figure out first, if you want to develop a good game.
The problem with starting off with characters and a story–is that it tends to severely limit what your game mechanic can be.
Just like you wouldn’t try to make watercolors look like an oil painting–don’t try to turn your story into a game if game play just isn’t something you like working around.
It’s okay to just want to write a cool story! If that’s what you have, then write a story!
But if you try to tell that story via poorly considered, boring, tedious, uninspired game mechanics, then you don’t have a good story anymore. What you have an unfun game.
When you approach game design, story needs to take a second seat to the player experience. The art and narrative is a skin that you drape neatly over your game mechanic(s). But that mechanic needs to be there before you can wrap it in a pretty skin.
To everyone who's sent me questions about this (and to anyone else who may have been wondering), I hope this helps give you a direction to start in!
Never hesitate to ask me about this stuff. I admit, I'm a lousy instructor--but I'll do my best to point you towards what I believe to be an optimal set of paths.
EDIT: A lot of folks have been bringing this up, so I may as well address it here. Dialogue trees are a game mechanic. The moment anyone thinks "I'm gonna make a Visual novel (adventure) game" or "I'm gonna make a game where your interactions with the characters determines the path of the narrative", they've determined their mechanic before fleshing out their story. Telltale Games did this (as do a great many other story driven games), and is not an effective counter argument against producing a game mechanic before hammering out your story. Telltale has basically established their entire brand with their adherence to the core mechanic(s) of their games. Even still, one of the largest and most common criticisms against their games is their reluctance to innovate their core mechanics... So, again... that kinda plays into the importance of video game mechanics.