Keeping it simple
Published 2 years ago
Design principles for the solo developer
I've never made a game before.
I've been often toying with the idea of making one by myself, but have always thought that I wouldn't be capable of actually doing it... That it would be too hard, take too much time. I have a couple friends in the game industry here in Finland and I can see how much work it is to do a "proper" modern game. The time, skill and effort it takes to do AAA-quality 3d-based gaming is somewhat ridiculous.
I've been a gamer nearly whole my life. When I was a kid the first computer we had was the Commodore 64. A lot of those games have left a big impression in my mind. M.U.L.E., Ultima, Seven Cities of Gold, Zoids, Impossible Mission, Pirates! - by modern standards those games of course can be seen as primitive, especially in terms of graphics and presentation, but the mind is capable of filling holes. Not showing something leaves room for the imagination. Also, a lot of those games were brutally hard. Almost unbeatable, creating a huge challenge. Losing to the game over and over again. At least in my case the difficulty level made those games rewarding, it made me come back to them. 
Still, I wanted to have a go. After all, how hard could it be...
Before I started I thought about the process - or to be more precise, thought about the principles I would try to follow on the journey. There is of course no right way or wrong way to do things - what do I know, right? - but I do believe it is always good to think about principles before you start doing something. So, here goes:
1. Make a game you can make
I've been often dreaming about various kinds of sprawling fantasy epics, or deep simulation games... But I can't make one by myself.
Make a game you can make: select something that you can design and implement in great quality. Keep it simple - there are great simple games and there are great complex games. I can make a great simple game but I cannot make a great complex game. 
2. Make a game that is not about the technology
A lot of these "great complex games" are a large investment in the state of the art. Beautiful visuals, rich 3d worlds, a lot of time spent on animations, lighting, all the visual bombardment, the window dressing so to speak.
I can't do that: my version would suck. Even trying would take my time away from...
3. Make a game with unique gameplay at its core
In most things in life I'm not a fan of "do something new just for the sake of it". The goal should not be to do something different, but to do something better.
But in this case - no, I wanted to do something new. Not trying to do the 12753th match-three colour game or the 76456th farming simulator. After all, life is short, and besides, nobody would want to play my clone of a shoot-em-up or of Clash of Clans. They have been done already - why do them again?
The first week of game design for me was on paper. 
So where did the idea for Number Chef ultimately come from? I don't really know. Where do ideas come from? 
I often think of this hilarious clip from a old Conan O'Brien -episode. There William Shatner tells the birth story of Star Trek.
Star Trek was originally supposed to be a show about a bunch of rabbis in a synagogue. I said to the producers: 'Instead of a synagogue, how about if the show is in outer space?' They said ok. That's pretty much how it happened.
My first draft for the game was based on recognizing blocks based on sounds they made - a bit like a musical memory game, making tiny tunes out of them. The game would play you a tune and you would recreate it back.
Which brings me to...
4. Don't run with a bad idea
My first idea was just terrible. Most people turn sounds off, most people don't enjoy the challenge of recognizing notes and tunes and frequencies. Visualizing sound is not an easy challenge. The gameplay would quickly turn very repetitive. 
So, instead of a sound game, I pivoted quickly, suggesting to myself like Shatner suggested: instead of sounds, why not do a game that's a logical puzzle - one that takes something people know a lot about (numbers and math in this case) and twists it a bit so that it's a completely new thing.
I did a bunch of experiments, drew example levels, trying out different rules until I found the right set, a set of rules that is very simple but something that creates lots of complexity, that has many wrong answers but also crucially a number of different right answers. 
Iterate until you have an idea you like. 
5. Make the game timeless
By timeless I don't mean like a timeless classic - You can't design for that in advance. 
But rather timeless in a sense like something like Tetris or Chess is: a game that is as enjoyable now as it has always been. Where the gameplay is not about the visuals or the presentation. The gameplay happens inside your brain. Your mind fills up the gaps, they do not need to be explicitly filled. 
The funny thing with these state of the art games is what happens over time. System Shock was state of the art back in the day. Nowadays, if you look at it, the original version, you wouldn't want to play it. The game is just as good as it has always been, but it is based on elements, on technology that has been evolving. 
If most modern games are like TV, make a game that is like the radio. 
6. Don't follow patterns that don't feel right to you
The mobile game market has found many grooves they run foward with. These grooves, practices seem to work so people are applying them in almost every format. Things like:
  • Your game needs to have energy. A timer of some kind: play a while, prevent the user from playing more while the game is recharging. 
  • There's a score for everything. The level is over and the player gets "12000 points". 
  • There's 1-3 stars so the players knows how good they were in a particular level. 
  • Doing things takes time. Build a house, it can take a hour. The further on you progress, the more time something takes.
  • There's a random element that the player cannot fully control - as well as you play, you can still fail because of this random element, and this element is something that can be bought over with real money. 
As the phrase goes: I don't even.
Number Chef has no energy limits, no scores, no stars, no timers, no random elements, no way to IAP to win levels. I'm an oldschool gamer by heart. Imagine a game coming out 15 years ago on the Amiga 500, a game where the player would have to wait a hour for their castle to build something, the game would make the player stop playing once in a while, and you could call a paid hotline to continue playing after you lose a boss fight. If it would have been ridiculous then, what makes it acceptable now?
Known patterns are good, they're a great thing. My game uses lots of patterns. I have a square board of game pieces, of tiles that you can drag around and combine them. I have levels and episodes that you unlock. But if you think something is bad, if it makes you feel uncomfortable, don't do it.
7. Make the game challenging
I think this is just my personal viewpoint - I feel most casual games are too casual, not challenging enough. Too simple, too easy. They underestimate players. Winning a game doesn't feel good if losing doesn't hurt. It's the Ying and Yang, black and white. People love to play easy games because a lot of times they do not really want to think... Which is just fine, but still, I wanted to do something that really makes people think.
8. There is no shame in outsourcing 
Players don't know about how something is built, they don't care about how something is built. They care about the end result. You don't have to do everything by yourself.
I've used multiple assets from the Asset Store to save time. (Well, at least the hope was to save time, sometimes it hasn't felt exactly like that.) I've bought vector graphics from artists and adapted them, I've bought sounds from sound banks, I even did a few assignments through Fiverr. I've mixed and matched assets and graphics together.
9. Have fun 
Again, life is short. Games are supposed to be fun. Having fun while making a game hopefully rubs off to the final result. 
And yes, I've had a lot of fun. I'd love it you could take a moment to check the game out.
Roope Rainisto