Forest level in Null Recall

What makes a game good?

Ever since I started working on my first game, 7 years ago, I've asked this question. I'm not commercially successful yet, but I believe experienced game designers will come to the same conclusion.

My game is the first?

A business makes something people want to buy. There are 2 keywords here: make, and want. Whatever we make has to be unique. Uniqueness automatically makes us the best in the world. It guarantees we have no competitors on release day.

It is surprisingly easy to achieve uniqueness. Try searching on Steam for 1 subgenre tag, 1 POV tag (First-Person, Third Person, Top-Down, Side Scroller, Isometric), and 1 setting or mood tag. Shooter, third person, and sci-fi returns 80 games. If we used slightly less popular tags, we could get it down to 10 games.

People want emotions

Writers will quickly learn that characters are driven by emotions. Seriously, one of the most popular writing references is called The Emotion Thesaurus. People watch horror movies and play horror games to be scared. They watch romance movies to feel love. They learn skills to feel competent and accepted.

When prototyping a game, a good starting point is 1 core emotion, 1 opposite of the core, and 2 supporting emotions. An action RPG's core emotion is power, the opposite is helplessness, sprinkled in with wonder and pride.

Next, think of game actions that derive off that emotion. In an ARPG, for power, we might implement spells and abilities. For helplessness, we implement difficult enemies, and a dreadful setting. For wonder, we randomly generate the map. For pride, we add a progression system to items, skills, etc.

Gameplay is King

Games require mental and some physical effort. If the game isn't fun, people will not want to dedicate effort to it. Fortunately, it only takes a few weeks to implement and test individual mechanics.

Seduce with art

The purpose of art is to attract people. It gives our product a foot in the door. YouTuber's or content creators will overlook the art if the gameplay gif is good. If the YouTuber praises our game, then their followers will also overlook the art. The art just has to be clear enough to show our gameplay off.

Story is like gravity

A good story makes our mind linger on it. For example, Star Wars has captivated us for about 40 years. Stories are how we retain relationships, including the ones with customers. Games with story should benefit from DLC, episodes, and subscriptions.

Stories are useful for proven games, where sequels are guaranteed. Indies are in survival mode, and should not prioritize stories. If we do focus on story, make it effortless to enjoy. People are used to effortless stories: books, podcasts, manga, TV, and so on.

3 core skills for solo developers

I recommend programming, art, and market research. Programming will allow us to build tools to automate tasks, save us months of manual work, and give us time for critical tasks.

For action, sport, simulation, and RPG games, animation is important, so take 2 years to learn art. Strategy, casual, and adventure games are more UI heavy, so 1 year of art is all that is needed.

Market research, or looking at competition, fine-tunes our game design. At first, it will feel depressing looking at competitors, but every year we improve, and slowly rise to their level. Look at reviews to see what problems many people are having. Likewise, look for praises people repeatedly give. Finally, our art skills will let us study the screenshots and figure out what makes them clear. This will help us pitch our gifs to YouTubers.

Every few months, I like to go to Steam's home page and click the "upcoming" link on the left panel. My game is 2D, so I look at 2D games. I try to predict how many reviews they will get. I also like to search "top [genre] in [year]" on YouTube. For example, top RPGs in 2020. Study the popular indie gifs on the Gaming, Games, and IndieGaming subreddit.

20% to 30% innovation

100% innovation is bad, because people will not be willing to exert effort to understand it. 50% innovation seems good for expert audiences, but requires a lot of time and iteration from us. 20% to 30% is new enough to get early adopters to notice, but also simple enough for the average person to grasp. Less than 20% innovation is bad, because competitors can easily copy us.

Know the genre. Take a core feature, and add 20% innovation to it. If we are making an action RPG, we might add an advanced search and filter to the inventory. Do this for all core features of an ARPG, and we have our 20% innovation.

2D vs 3D

If we want to build an epic world like Star Wars, Game of Thrones, or Harry Potter, then go 2D. If we are a generalist, then go 2D. It will allow us to create a lot of content. We will also have free time to study world building subjects like history, geography, economics, music, etc. Drawing organic shapes is also easier in 2D.

If we want to build complex game systems/ tech demos, love small and detailed worlds, want to work in AAA, or are a specialist, then go 3D. Man-made shapes are easier to achieve in 3D.