GameDev Protips: How To Design An Indie Game That’ll Blow People’s Minds

No matter the genre, every game has certain aspects that determine the overall quality of its design. If the quality is sufficiently high, it’ll blow peoples minds. It’s true. While different genres might place different priorities on each, they’ll always exist to some degree and thus must be considered. These five aspects to good game design are creating proper difficulty, showing a lack of apparent complexity, ensuring a high quality of gameplay depth, offering true engagement, and properly balancing the game’s systems.

For creating proper difficulty, you have to ensure that there’s enough challenge for the achievement of a goal to be satisfying, but not enough to dissuade the player from continuing on. This difficulty can be created in different areas such as mental or dexterity-related skills depending on the game’s genre, but this difficulty should always be appropriate to the genre as a whole. For example, casual games should only have a relatively low level of difficulty whereas more hardcore games such as 4X strategy games will have their difficulty at a level that caters to that specific hardcore audience

Closely related to difficulty is a game’s complexity. There is a difference, however, in the apparently complexity of a game and its actual complexity. The apparent complexity is the number of game rules or other objects with which the players use to achieve the game’s goals. For example, a cluttered or non-intuitive interface displaying critical information for a player’s success may make a game seem overly complex, even if the critical information itself isn’t particularly complex such as a health bar. Similarly, having a ridiculous amount of differing actions be completed in the right order successfully, even if each task individually requires little skill, will come off as overly complex to a player. On the flip side, in golf, the goal itself is simple as you just have to get the ball into the hole. Even though the goal might be simple in nature, it requires a great amount of skill consistently score, so this game is rather complex even if it’s incredibly easy to understand.

Next of is the quality of a game’s depth. This is a measure of how much a player enjoys the game even considering skill progression. This is directly related to the number of interesting decisions a player can make while attempting to achieve the game’s goals. For example, Tic-Tac-Toe has a very simple rule set and very few meaningful decisions past the first two actions or so, as you simply have to place your piece where a three-in-a-row will be blocked. As a result, it is a game with both low complexity and low depth. Chess has a moderate size ruleset but has a much greater amount of interesting decisions, including but not limited to specific openers, attack strategies, defensive strategies, and other similar, very meaningful choices. As a result, chess is a game with a medium amount of complexity but very high depth. Monopoly has even more rules than chess but less meaningful decisions, so it has a high amount of complexity but much less depth. Dungeons & Dragons is extremely complex due to the massive rulebook that is almost impossible for a person to memorize, but one could argue that it is less complex than chess since many actions are “pushed” upon you due to the circumstances of the game and an inherent reliance on rolling dice.

Perhaps the number one rule of game design is that a game should be easy to learn but difficult to master. This means that ideally a game should consist of high depth but low complexity. This allows a casual player to pick up the game and enjoy it but also allows hardcore players to crank out maximum efficiency in their gameplay and really dig in. This depth-to-complexity ratio is called streamlined design and is what many game designers strive to achieve as their primary measure of what makes a good game.

While many consider streamlined design to be the key to a well designed game, other game designers such as myself consider true engagement to be the most important factor. Being truly engaged means that the player is completely mentally and emotionally immersed in the game, and this is a strong factor in a game’s “stickiness.” If the player is engaged they are much more likely to keep playing it. This engagement depends on many factors such as the clarity of a game’s goals, the feedback the player receives when performing actions successfully or unsuccessfully, the appeal of the reward for achieving the goals in the game, or the user interface’s intuitiveness.

Understandably, even proper balance is regarded as the most critical factor in designing a good game by another subset of game developers. In regards to multiplayer games balance ensures that all players have an equal chance of victory given equal skill regardless of any factors such as starting locations or loadouts. This applies to mostly multiplayer games, however. When you apply this generally to any game, balance refers to the difficulty of the game’s challenges being appropriate to the player’s skill level. If a challenge is too difficult, the player will feel frustrated and possibly give up, but if it’s too easy, the player will feel bored and might just stop playing. As you can see, either extreme can result in the player quitting, and this is obviously bad.

One key thing that novice game designers tend to miss is that a new player is obviously an unskilled player, so the difficulty must be tuned down appropriately. When you restrict the game’s testing to the development team, you have a team of professionals who are almost guaranteed better than most players at their game balancing it. If you overwhelm the new player right away, you’re much more likely to lose them since they don’t have a reason to keep pressing on since they just started and aren’t attached yet.

Players gain more experience by playing your game and therefore improve their skills, so a developer can account for this making sure the game has an appropriate difficulty curve. Optimally, as the player proceeds through the game, it will get both more complex and more difficult, but not too little as to not matter or not too much as to overwhelm the player and create difficulty spikes. With a perfect curve, the best case scenario is that the game’s depth is enough to motivate the player to replay the game with different strategies and techniques, and thus a player can stay labeled as a player.

Important Takeaways: There are five key factors that determine how well-designed a game is, and these are a game’s difficulty, its apparent complexity, its quality of depth, its ability to provide true engagement, and its state of balance. Difficulty can stop a player from ever starting to play or cause a player to quit after getting bored, so it should always be tuned to be appropriate to the genre of the game. Apparent complexity can drive away new players if it is too high, as a game that looks hard to play will be avoided by casual players. The game should look easy enough for casual players but actually have a great deal of depth for the hardcore players, and this is known as streamlined design. A game’s quality of depth is determined by how many interesting decisions the player can make while achieving the game’s goals. Many consider streamlined design to be the key to making a good game, but others consider a game’s ability to engage the player to be even more important.

This refers to the ability of a game to immerse the player, and this is closely related to a game’s “stickiness,” how long a player can play for a single session. There is even another group that considers a game’s balance to be the most important factor in determining that a game is well-designed; after all, either extreme of difficulty can cause players to quit the game. Just make sure to tune the difficulty down early in the game as a new player is obviously unskilled at the game. You can account for this by having a proper difficulty curve that once topped out will hopefully encourage the player to play through the game with different methods, but this will only happen if the game also has sufficient depth.