Let’s face it: a game is pretty pointless if you don’t have some sort of goal for the player to strive for.
But let’s face it (again): do you have any idea how easy it is to neglect this? If one comes up with some cool gameplay mechanics, that may be fine and dandy, but what do they mean? What are they helping the player to accomplish? One can’t assume that a deep combat system or crisp physics will add substantial value to a game by themselves. And yet that’s what can happen. The power to do great things becomes next to nothing if there are no great things to do in the first place.
So don’t forget to make sure your game not only has an end-goal(s), but a strong one at that. Everything the game does is going to (or should) filter into your end-goal(s).
Does this really bear much explanation?
Yes. Yes it does.
Example time: think about the game of chess. What is the goal of chess? It’s to capture the king piece of the other opponent. Simple enough to know, but can be extremely difficult to execute against a smart opponent. You also have a bunch of other pieces like knights and bishops to help your cause.
Some pieces are particularly “powerful”; that is, they have very flexible movement abilities. The queen in particular is a very good piece. All in all, the king is one of the more limited pieces in terms of movement.
As a player, you want to get the other king and protect your king, but you also feel compelled to utilize and protect your more powerful pieces like the queen. In fact, its easy to get caught up in trying to make sure you don’t lose pieces like your queen. You strategically place and move so that the queen can do damage while not being caught itself. Great value is placed on the queen. Smart opponents can exploit this: if they can get you to lose focus on the king and pay more attention to protecting your queen, look out.
In short, you can forget what your most important piece is: the king. It doesn’t matter if you have every other piece but the king; if you have no king, you’re cooked in chess.
In chess, you are working towards something. In your game, your player needs to be working towards something as well. Cool-looking fluff in your game that doesn’t give back to the end-goal is… well, fluff. It may have a fleeting novelty to it, but eventually it will lose its worth to the player and potentially lose that worth quickly. The queen in chess, though not the most important piece, helps protect the king and attack the enemy in pursuit of the other king when used properly.
Let the player give to the end-goal of the game, and then let the game give back.
When you think about it, this is perhaps the enigma of gaming itself, and one of the reasons video games in general fascinate me. Something in a made-up, fake universe can hold meaning to a real-life individual? But then again, if we were so anchored in reality, why did we spend so much time as children imagining ourselves flying out into the deep cosmos or becoming superheroes who rescued the world? Or why do we place value on putting balls and pucks into nets?
Though at the end of the day I’m a big proponent of keeping things in priority, you can hopefully begin to see where I’m going with this. Things like these let us compete, socialize, and even grow. They put value on “skills” that may not otherwise have much value, or perhaps even reinforce the value of already useful skills. They give us opportunities to do or feel things that we may not have experienced otherwise or been motivated to experience.
Therein lies one of the greatest allures of gaming: that somewhat inexplicable ability to tap the energy, emotion and curiosity of our being. Video games are not (and should not) be a total replacement for reality, but not unlike many other mediums (movies, painting, etc.) they can in part forge their own atmospheres, challenges, and connections with the player.
This is what you should be figuring out. What does the player expect to get out of the game? Think about (1) what are they working towards and (2) how are they going to get there? It is the cooperation of the these two things–solid gameplay and good direction–that will help your game to excel. This could be the toughest part of the whole design process. Will the player connect with the game? Will they feel compelled enough by the direction of the game to keep playing? Will the gameplay itself be fun and enable them to accomplish their priorities?
Know Your Focuses: Recognize immediately that gameplay and goals need to work in tandem. If you are interested in developing a particular gameplay mechanic or game genre, don’t get tunnel vision and focus exclusively on that. Think about how your mechanics and end-goals are going to work together to make a fluid experience, whichever you come up with first.
Know Your Audience: If you’ve decided to target a specific mechanic or genre, know what your potential players are already expecting from such a game. That doesn’t mean you can’t take risks, but familiarity can totally change someone’s outlook on a game. If a player has grown accustomed to a kind of game being a certain way, it can transform their way of looking at all games of that kind. In short, have some idea of what your target audience is, and go after them to make sure they actually want to and will play your game. Address concerns if need be as well.
Take Your Time: When we’re talking about the driving force of your game, take the time to make it right. If something’s not working, fix it or start over or do whatever you need to do. No matter how cool something sounds, still make sure its fun!
To close, I’d like to remind you that there is a wide variety of goals you can choose for your game. Your goals could capitalize on no-nonsense heroism, the thrill of the hunt, or strong character development. Games have played and catered to a wide variety of interests over the years. And as I like to say, risks aren’t always bad. Better game design is one of those things that can come with experience, and as you move onto bigger projects hopefully you’ll find yourself with a well-rounded skillset to pull off what you are looking for.
Now go. Make games. Have fun. B)