As a member of the Support Team for the National STEM Video Game Challenge, I often receive many emails from students looking for guidance, such as a recent request from Yoel in Dallas who was looking for tips for young game designers thinking about entering a game for the 2016 cycle.
Based upon my experience as a professional game designer and a screener for many of the STEM Challenge game submissions, I thought I’d share my personal recommendations with all of you as well:
- Study math. LOTS of math. You know how in math classes there’s always that one kid who asks, “When are we ever gonna use this?” The answer is in coding and programming, which game design requires a lot of. Focus on Algebra as a starting point and branch out from there.
Beyond having a solid math background, there are many resources out there for people who want to learn how to be better designers, for games or otherwise. I would personally recommend the books, The Art of Game Design by Jesse Schell, The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman, and the video series Extra Credits, available on Youtube at https://www.youtube.com/user/ExtraCreditz.
- Inspiration can come from anywhere, so don’t be afraid to use personal interests or hobbies as a starting point for your ideas.For example, did you know that Shigeru Miyamoto, the creator of Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, and many other games, got the idea for the game Pikmin while he was gardening, after seeing how ants would gather around large objects and work together to lift them? Always keep your eyes open!
- In the words of Mark Rosewater, current head designer for Magic: The Gathering, “Restrictions breed creativity.” Many people, when presented with the option of creating anything, get overwhelmed and end up doing nothing. If you put restrictions on yourself that you must follow, whether they are creative (ex. “My game must have a Steampunk theme”), mechanical (“My game should be in first-person”), or technical (“I need to use the Unity game engine to create my game”), you often end up creating something far more interesting than if you just tell yourself that anything goes.
- Teamwork and communication are key. If everyone in your group is not on the same page regarding what kind of game you are making, it will most likely end up disjointed and unfun. Creating a game design document that anyone can add notes or comments to can be very helpful, as are regular team meetings.
- Understand the scope of your game. You only have until August 15, 2016 to enter your game into the STEM Challenge, so you won’t have time to create something massive with lots of different gameplay elements. Try to find one specific mechanic you’d like the game to focus on and build around that and only that. It’s better to have a short but complete game rather than a massive but unfinished one.
- Know your audience. One of the biggest pitfalls for new designers is remembering that you’re making a game for a specific audience, NOT yourself. This is especially true when it comes to difficulty—you’ll be playing your own game a lot and become an absolute master at it. Something that seems easy or straightforward to you may be incredibly difficult for someone else. This is why having playtests of your game where folks who haven’t played it before try it out is very important!
- Iterate, iterate, iterate! Game design is a never-ending cycle of building something, testing it out to see how it plays, and then going back to make changes. Your final product may end up being far different from what you originally envisioned, but never be afraid to make changes, no matter how radical, if it means a better game.
Hopefully this advice will prove useful to you as you work on your STEM Challenge game! If you have any other questions, send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Good luck!
Joey Glatt received a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science and Game Design at DigiPen Institute of Technology. Currently he is a Community and Technical Support Specialist at E-Line Media for Gamestar Mechanic and MinecraftEdu. His favorite games include Super Smash Bros., Uncharted, and Magic: The Gathering.