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 leave quickly. 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

Both art and story are attractive, but art is better at seduction, because it grabs our attention immediately. Like gravity, a story's attractiveness grows stronger with more content. For example, Star Wars has captivated us for about 40 years.

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. Games with story should benefit from DLC, episodes, and subscriptions.

3 core skills for solo developers

I recommend programming, art, and market research. Programming will allow us to build tools to automate tasks, saving us months of manual work. We can then spend that saved time on 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. Look at reviews to see what problems many people are having. Likewise, look for praises people repeatedly give. Also study the screenshots and gifs of competitors. This will help us pick gameplay screenshots and gifs that clearly show the emotion players want. We can then pitch our gifs to YouTubers.

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. A basic approach is to take each 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.

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.