Top 5 Game Design Tips

Hi all. I’m a newbie to game design and was wondering if the people who have successfully created or are in the process of creating games could throw me their top 5 tips on getting started with COG?
Many thanks and many many cookies :wink:

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  1. Don’t get overambitious with your branches, at least for your first title.

I see too many projects that have their chapters or stories split off into completely different plots depending on the player’s choices (in one route you are a hero for the whole game and your best friend is alive, but in the other you’re the game’s villain and your best friend is dead). This is a very cool concept and shows off the best of IF, but I think many writers find they then have to wrote 2+ different games for the price of 1 and it becomes overwhelming. If possible, try to end your chapters in roughly the same place, although the “worldstates” could be vastly different! (In all endings of Chapter X, the hero makes it out of the cave, but whether they got the treasure, their companions are injured or captured, they had to be rescued or they got out on their own, etc, varies.)

  1. Have a good idea of your stats and how they affect your gameplay/story/choices before you start.

Don’t plunge headfirst into the story and improvise as you go along, because it’s a pain in the butt to go backwards and revamp everything according to new stats! (Keep in mind that stat names can always be easily changed for the public: I have a “courage” stat in my game, but the public title has changed a lot over time (to Nerves of Steel, Lion-Hearted, and more).

  1. Not everybody does this, but this is my personal advice: plot and plan beforehand as much as possible.

I personally do not think IF is that conducive to improvisation, because your branches can spin out of control fast if you don’t plan ahead, or you write yourself into a corner. There are good threads here on the forums for software that can help you plan/plot out your story.

  1. Probably controversial, but I would avoid sharing your work too early; wait until you have a substantial chunk of the story to show off and a plot pretty firmly in mind. To quote something I said earlier:
Thing I said before

I firmly believe that there’s a critical point where the story is still in its nascent stages, and sharing it too early can lead to things becoming overwhelming. Sharing early can mean garnering excited readers, which can feel motivating, but then feeling beholden and obligated to keep their interest up by pushing out constant updates. This turns the writing and excitement of a new project into a chore, and passion can quickly wane as the writer feels like their IF is now a burden, something they have to “answer to” rather than just do for fun.

Also, sometimes the feedback of many different readers at once can dilute the direction of a still-percolating story; in an effort to please everyone, the writer finds themselves agreeing to come up with a character or RO they never planned on, or changing aspects of the story they weren’t expecting to, or trying to rewrite a prologue to incorporate all its early feedback, and they get so caught up in the details of responding to readers’ comments and tweaking their early work that the story either becomes unrecognizable–leading to loss of interest in it–or they become immobilized in the beginning of the story and rehaul/rewrite it over and over, never moving on to the later sequences of the plot. This happens in novel-writing and workshops, too, and I saw a lot of students lose interest in their projects quickly because they shared the first ten pages with the class before having anything else written. So my advice would be to having a solid foundation of your story and a good, substantial chunk of it done before sharing it with the world. Feedback and advice are always good and helpful in improving an artist’s work, but I think timing can be important, especially when a writer is newer to the craft!

  1. If you have a “golden path” or a “canon path” in mind, and then some other branches that are there for interactivity/replay/bonus fun, but you really hope the readers pick “that one path,” maybe rethink your story.

Say you offer a choice for the readers to spend time with only one RO out of three for one chapter. And you find yourself really hoping they spend time with A, and the scenes for A’s route flow smoothly, and the most important things happen in their route, or the most achievements, or some other incentive–conscious or not–that might guide the readers to choose A over the others. And then the scenes for B and C are there, but you’re not that excited to write them, or they come out shorter or with less narrative insight than in A’s scenes (for example, spending time with A is the only way to repair your relationship with your sister, a key plot point in the story, but spending time with B and C are just regular dates). That’s an issue and should probably be resolved–whether that means revamping your characters so that you’re just as excited to write B and C’s scenes, dividing A’s content up among all three, or doing something else. Getting that feeling of “ugh I like writing this one plot but not the others” is something I think conventional fiction writers probably struggle with at first when writing IF, or especially when converting a traditional novel to an interactive one. And I think it’s something to watch out for, to avoid falling into the trap of “this is actually just a book with changing flavor text”!

Hope that helps! :cookie:

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I’ll double up on much of what Rinari said:

1. Don’t make any branches. None, zero, zip. Make a completely railroaded story, from beginning to end, for your first draft. *fake_choice from beginning to end. Trust me…

2. Have a few, important variables. Too many will confuse you, start simple.

3. For your first game, don’t show it to anybody until you have one complete playthrough. Make it 20,000 words, from beginning to end (plan 20,000… maybe by the time you finish this playthrough will be 30,000… but at least 20,000.).

4. Once you have your first completed playthrough, THEN show it to people. You can then add some new branches, alternative endings, etc. Key point is… your game is “finished”, in the sense that you have one complete playthrough… adding more is fine, because at any point, when you run out of steam (and you will run out of steam, I promise!) you can submit.

5. Your first WIP will be shit. Just accept it. My first WIP was shit… still never submitted it. I could… though I am waiting to get time to finish it and polish it (I know what is wrong with it). Even my first submitted WIP was so-so (Tokyo Wizard). So many storyline problems, characters that could have been improved, etc. Your second submitted WIP will be better… But, whatever you do, submit them!! The only way to learn is by failing…

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As far as mechanics go, I feel there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. My personal top 5 would be:

  1. Drama Manager
  2. Player Modeling
  3. Six Abilities (think D&D)
  4. Five Room Dungeon
  5. Delayed Branching

I’m typing from the mobile, so it would be really cumbersome to explain each one, but a little Googling should get you enough info.

I would just add, though, that number 1 and 2 pretty much can’t be dissociated, albeit not being the same thing exactly.


Others:

  • Branching dialogue
  • Character customization
  • Puzzles (many kinds besides the standard riddle)
  • Side Quests
  • Romance Options
  • Resource Management
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I’m going to link other threads and posts that I think you should visit to start your process:

and most important for anyone beginning:

Once you digest all this, there are resources that you can be pointed to as needed.

I think @malinryden has covered the basics, so I’ll refrain from adding more at this time.

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Regarding romance, my #1 piece of advice is this: Don’t push a love interest.

Characters who have big neon “I am a love interest” signs on them, who go after you regardless of your actions and who the plot tries to pull you into a romance with unless you repeatedly push the “no” button are really slugging obnoxious. Some examples are Black Magic from Heroes Rise, de Mendosa from Affairs of the Court, and to a lesser extent Breden from Choice of Rebels. (Taylor from Psy High got a pass from me on this one, because that kind of floaty-heart crush was necessary to the plot and the genre, and the author left agency completely in the player’s hands as to how to handle their attraction.)

A minor exception to this is if the plot requires you to begin in a relationship, or (for example) involves an arranged marriage; in that case, the player needs full agency in how to react to the relationship and whether to continue working on the relationship or do something else.

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  1. Focus on making characters first, then constructing them - within the established boundaries you previously set up - as romance options. Pull from people in your life. See how they are living contradictions and then construct your characters to be living contradictions themselves. Infuriating, lovable, horrible, sympathetic, and ultimately complex.

  2. If you have a theme or message in mind that you would like to tell your audience? Don’t. As odd as it may seem, don’t focus on getting that message across.

Trust your audience to put two and two together and realize that they not there to read about your theme/message. They are there to read your story. To be entertained. I have stopped reading IFs because the author was so intent on banging their message into my head more than they were on telling an engaging story.

  1. Learn how to engage - not take - criticism. If someone takes the time to write paragraphs upon paragraphs detailing why they think X or Y sucked in your game, take notes and then engage them in a dialogue to find out their thought process if they have not elaborated on it.

  2. Give your first draft a ‘cooling off’ period. You will care about it too much to look at it objectively and critically for the editing process. Go find something else to occupy your thoughts so that when you return at a much later date (a week to a month maybe) you can be cool and clinical about it.

  3. Advertise your story correctly. Odd advice I know, but if you plan on telling a specific story with a specific character then say that upfront. If you plan on making it so that anyone can jump into the MC, phrase it like that. Once you have advertised your story a certain way, ask your readers if what you advertised was what they got or no.

This doesn’t mean you change your entire story. It means you change how you advertise it to your audience so they know what to expect the next time they read your story.

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I second this and admit guilty of the sentence.

As for my own advice: get familiarized with choicescript first. Make a small working demo. Git gud with the bugs.

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