Write down everything you learn while making a game

While making a game, you will go through many iterations and (hopefully) learn a lot of things. At the time, these lessons may seem like something you won’t forget, but since there will be so many, you definitely will (I know I do). Recording them for later use will be super-useful.

This page will contain many of the lessons I learned while making Circles, each presented as a tip. In some cases there’s an explanation on how it applied to Circles. Those are presented in paragraphs like this.

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Find your intrinsic motivation

Making games is hard. It’s going to be time consuming and there are going to be difficult times. Of course there are many fun parts, but to be ready to make it all the way through, you have to be deeply motivated for the game you’re making. Why are you making this game? The answer to this is especially important if your’re a solo indie dev, making the game part of your life or even part of your identity/image.

Find out how and where you work best

Even when you are working on your ideal game, it will still be hard to keep yourself motivated throughout its full development. Find out how to discipline yourself and where and how you work best. In an office? From home? Alone? Co-working space? With a team? Through Skype? Full-time? Part-time?

When you’ve found a comfortable consistent way to work, you will finish your game faster and stay more disciplined. In turn, you’ll have more motivation.

For a long time I worked from home. This worked for some time when I had the structure from school to help me. In evenings and weekends I could consistently get work done. But when school finished, things started to break down. Doing less work, getting easily distracted and not finding the discipline to consistently work on the game. I blamed myself for not being able to get the work done and pushing myself further did not result in much.

This changed when I started to work at my old school again. In one day, I would get more work done than one week at home. I continued working from school from that point on.

Find your focus early

Knowing what you want makes it easier to make decisions early on. Write it down or talk about it with someone and it will help you to get a clearer vision. Doing this early on will make your prototype more focused. How early you want to decide on this all depends on you. Some like to start with a clear idea and form the game around that, others like to mess around with the mechanics until committing to a direction that seems to work. In any case, it is important you find what you’re game is going to be about as early as you can. Or better put:

“Very often a game comes from messing around and experimenting, but at some point an intent must form. When an intent is decided upon, a game can form around that.”Rami

For Circles, defining the focus became especially important since it’s such an abstract game. You can go so many ways, essentially anything is possible. Without a focus the game would have gotten cluttered really fast. I tried to focus on a simple core and made sure all the elements supported it.

There were 3 core-values I aimed for:

  • Control
  • Experimentation
  • Accessibility

Control comes from the fact that nothing in the game acts on its own, everything is controlled by you and your cursor alone.

Experimentation is then needed to find out find out what you actually control and how to get the end. You don’t see how to solve a puzzle or what the circles do until you start moving and discovering them.

Accessibility was added a bit later and made sure there was enough feedback to guide the experimentation. The game doesn’t tell you what to do, so it’s easy to get lost. It had to be clear what to do and what not to.

Know what you don’t want

You will more often have to decide what you don’t want in the game, than what you do want.

Often the easiest thing is coming up with ideas, the hardest thing is picking the right ones. The coolest idea may not be the best for your game and you’ll have to decide against a lot. Ideally you’ll end up with a game and set of mechanics that all work together to achieve the experience you’re going for.

“A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”  –Antoine de Saint-Exupery

For Circles, I decided on:

  • No text
  • No score
  • No randomness
  • No different colored circles
  • No other shapes
  • No time pressure or timing elements
  • No tight or complicated levels
  • Nothing that happens out of the player’s control

Be sure to know the reasons why though. Don’t just make lists of things you don’t like.

Start simple

Start with one simple mechanic and find the fun. If there is something to it, jump on that and be sure to playtest as soon as possible. Anything that doesn’t work, doesn’t really matter yet. Don’t try and fix every little bit. Focus on what’s fun, understand it and make it work really well. Once you have a good base and found a good direction to go, you can start making it a solid whole.

Is it accessible?

I think this is an important question to ask early on. Your first prototype will probably need a bit of extra information before the player can try it, that’s no problem. But as you move on you’ll want to make it more and more accessible, without needing to give the playtester extra information. If however, you keep having problems with this, it might be better to drop or drastically change the game or its mechanics. Your game needs to stand on its own in the end and if it can only do that with loads of added information or tutorials, it might be better to avoid the hassle. Unless of course, the game and its mechanics are so interesting it’s all worth it. But that’s something you’ll want to decide on early on.

Keep it simple (stupid)

When working on a system or a certain mechanic, it’s easy to get so caught up in it you forget the one thing it’s supposed to do. Make sure that one thing works well and don’t lose track.

I had a lot of problems with this when finding the right system for a level select. I had iterated on many systems that all had certain advantages, but they didn’t convey their most basic function well enough. Most of the time players wouldn’t even recognize it as a level select. There were some of the options I went through:

A circular level select: This fit nicely with the style of the game, but players didn’t really get it. They would select a random level (mostly by accident) and replay that level without really knowing why.

 

 

A tree structure: This nicely isolated the trunk/basic level from the branch/more varied levels. In the branch levels players could pick another one when getting stuck. Problem again was, few players recognized it as a level select.

 

 

These level selects had some nice advantages, but they didn’t offer what was essentially needed. For Circles, the level select should give sense of progress and completion and offer a way to return to previous levels (to get the perfect dot). That’s what it should do best, and I lost focus on it.

A line: In the end, I cut the level select “screen”, and integrated it in the gameplay as a simple line top. When moving the cursor to the top, it pops down, shows your progress, and you could pick the level you want to play.