Games provide opportunities to educate and entertain, to provide diversions while sharpening thinking skills, and to foster creative thinking. Creating a game, whether for your children, a classroom, or for sale requires an understanding of what makes a good game and discovering the resources available to help you make that game.
Characteristics of a Good Game
Decide what you want to accomplish with your game. Games are supposed to be entertaining, but most successful and enduring games have a concept or purpose to them beyond simple entertainment. Many games teach and develop physical or mental skills.
Strategy games such as chess, checkers, and mancala can be used to teach critical thinking skills, and in the case of mancala, counting skills as well.
The board game RoboRally, where players play robots navigating their way through moving mazes, teaches logical thinking and programming skills through how players play their movement cards. The card/miniatures game Wings of War teaches similar skills, using cards to represent aerial maneuvers for two players to enact a dogfight.
The mobile game Tiny Wings is designed so that players’ bird avatars drift in the air until players touch the screen, at which time the birds plummet. With practice, players learn to control the descent of their birds to build speed, momentum, and score, while developing their timing and motor skills.
Have a well-defined goal. A game’s goal, object, or way to win should be something that can be easily explained to the players or to anyone else. It should also be precise enough that players can readily recognize when they have won the game.
The goal should also be satisfying to the players. Goals such as eliminating a squad of attackers in a video game, being the first to reach a target score in a board or card game, or ending up with the most money on a television game show can all be satisfying.
Having a well-defined way to win doesn’t preclude allowing other ways to win. While the primary way to win the game Unspeakable Words is to be the first player to reach 100 or more points, it is also possible to win by being the only player to still have at least one sanity token in his or her possession.
Make the player’s actions and outcomes consistent with the context of the game. What the player can do within the game should flow logically from the game’s concept and setting.
In the board game Monopoly, a real-estate trading game, players can buy and sell properties, collect rent, and improve those properties by erecting houses and hotels that increase the amount of rent they can collect. Players also pay income and luxury taxes, and depending on the Chance or Community Chest card drawn, may get tax refunds, stock dividends, or reimbursements for sponsoring the opera; or may pay doctors fees or property upkeep.
In the video game Halo, where the goal is to repel invading aliens of the Covenant from human colony worlds, players combat aliens with a variety of guns and explosives. Weapons act in a realistic manner, as do the players’ avatars, their allies, and their enemies.
Consistency of action also extends to providing clues to the player that something is about to happen so the player can prepare to take an appropriate action. In a video game, this can take the form of a thunder rumble sound effect and depicting hair standing on end to show that a storm is coming. In a card game, this can take the form of showing the icons for the cards the player needs to have to win on the card that states the condition for victory.
Craft easily-understood rules that make the game challenging. Rules should not stand in the way of players’ overall enjoyment of the game, but they should restrict what the player can and can’t do to force the player to adopt creative approaches to deal with immediate problems and long-term strategies to reach their ultimate goal of victory.
The word game Taboo requires players to give clues to their teammates about a person, place, or thing within a certain time limit. The restrictions are that they cannot use any of the words or phrases listed on the card as forbidden, usually the most obvious words or phrases to describe that subject, or any gestures. This forces players to think of alternative ways to describe that subject.
The card game Fluxx has the deceptively simple goal of being the player holding or showing the cards that meet the goal in play. The complication is that the goal in play can be changed at any time by playing a card, as can the number of cards that can be drawn, played, kept in hand, or kept in front of the players. This forces players to familiarize themselves with the cards in the game, a strategy which is offset by the various themed versions of the game with cards that may or may not be found in the basic Fluxx game.
The television game show “Wheel of Fortune” is essentially a variation of the game Hangman. Its primary complication is that players are permitted to only guess consonants to earn money and must pay money to guess vowels.
Provide game balance. Providing game balance means that when a game can be won in more than one way, no one way is the “right” way to win. Players should be able, and in some cases required, to make thoughtful decisions about which path to victory they will pursue and be prepared to face the consequences of making a poor decision.
In the board game Game of Life, players can choose various paths at various times in the game. While some paths may be shorter and simpler, longer tracks may offer greater risks and potential rewards. Each player has to decide which path is right for him or her in order to finish the game with the most money.
The video game Resident Evil 5’s Mercenaries mode offers players two ways to kill as many zombies as possible in a set amount of time: shooting at range or close combat. Shooting at range is safer, but uses ammunition. Zombies are deadlier when fought in close combat, but each zombie killed in close combat extends the length of the combat, allowing the player to kill more zombies and score more points.
Another form of game balance is allowing each player in a cooperative game an equal opportunity to contribute. Most role-playing games are set up so that each race or character type is better at some things and worse at others, such as a super-strong giant who can throw more devastating punches but is much easier to hit due to its size or a nimble ninja that can be taken out with a single successful blow, but can dodge most attacks.
Still another form of game balance is to provide a way for players to catch up when they are behind. The television game show ‘’Jeopardy!’’ offer several catch-up features: its Double Jeopardy! round, where questions are worth twice as much as in the Jeopardy! round; its Daily Doubles, where players can risk any or all of their score on the question; and Final Jeopardy!, where a player who is behind can still win with a skillful wager.
Offer the right level of difficulty. The ideal game is one that the players can learn the gist of quickly but be offered a continuing challenge to master completely. No one game can be ideal to all players, because players have differing abilities, according to their ages and interests, but some games can and do provide means to recognize these differences.
Some games market separate versions to different age or experience levels. Monopoly Junior is a simplified version of the Monopoly board game that replaces city lots with amusement park rides, houses and hotels with ticket booths, and Jail with Rest Rooms, but the overall goal is the same as in the adult version. In contrast, Winning Moves offered an expanded version of the game, Monopoly: The Mega Edition that added extra spaces, skyscraper tokens, train depots, and a speed die to enhance play.
Some games offer alternate versions with additional challenges. The card game Fluxx has various thematic versions, such as EcoFluxx with its Composting card, or Martian Fluxx with its cards that can negate Creepers or an Ungoal card that can make the game end with no winner.
Some games offer expansion sets geared to player’s ability levels or interests. Trivial Pursuit released expansion card “editions” for movie buffs (Silver Screen Edition), music fans (RPM Edition), sports nuts (All-Star Sports Edition), and youth (Young Players’ Edition). The card game Munchkin offers expansion sets that feature new challenges to players already familiar with the original game, as well as blender decks that take advantage of the possibilities raised when two version decks, such as Super Munchkin and Star Munchkin, are combined.
A number of video games offer extra levels of play that are “locked” until the player accomplishes a particular objective or acquires a particular object, after which the new level is available for the player to enjoy and be challenged by. In getting to that level, the speed of play may gradually increase as the player becomes more proficient at the game to increase the challenge.
Even if the level of play is designed for one particular audience, you can incorporate in-jokes and references to catch the interest of players outside that audience, such as Munchkin’s artifact cards “The Boots of Butt-Kicking” or the “Staff of Napalm.” These kinds of games are sometimes called “dual-premise” games.
Provide players with a sense of control. Games may have rules where some things happen automatically, such as the can-jump, must-jump rule in checkers, or perform tedious tasks, such as teleporting in video games. Along with the automatic portion of the game, there should be opportunities to make decisions that make them feel part of the game.
In Trivial Pursuit, the distance players can move is determined by the roll of a die. However, player can choose from 2 or more directions in which to move based on their areas of knowledge and how many wedges they still need to earn before claiming victory.
While some role-playing games have players roll dice to determine their characters’ attributes, many others allow players to choose their abilities according to a set limit of character points to spend, further modified by the preference of the game master running the campaign. This system requires more time for players to create characters, but offers greater flexibility in the types of characters available.
Give feedback and rewards. Players should receive some indication of how well they’re doing at the game while they’re playing it. This can be done in several ways.
Awarding and keeping scores is the most common form of providing feedback. Scores can be represented with points, tokens, or currency, which can be added to reward the player or subtracted from or left untouched when the player is unsuccessful. Some games keep several scores, such as Unspeakable Words’ awarding points for making words and using Cthulhu pawn tokens to track sanity, or Monopoly’s use of cash, deed cards, and house and hotel tokens.
Video games make use of slider bars to track players’ progress in the game or the health or energy level of their avatars. Progress bars slide to the right to show how close a player is coming to reach an objective, while health/energy bars slide to the left to show how much stamina or energy a player’s avatar or vehicle has so the player can gauge when to recharge.
Video games also make use of other visual and auditory cues, such as an enemy grunting, grimacing or spurting blood when wounded, or, in the case of Tetris, how high the stack of assembled shapes has become. Board and card games are more limited in the cues they can use for feedback, but it is still possible, as in the board game Boomtown, where a player who acquires three or more mines in the same color group earns a token that designates him or her as “mayor” of the community associated with that color, as well as a victory point at the end of the game if the player maintains that status.
Provide a “hook” to get people interested in the game. The “hook” is the element that gets people to play the game, and if you’re selling it, to buy it. The hook can be in one or more of several forms, including these: A theme. The game Unspeakable Words is themed around the fictional universe created by horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. Its letter cards bear pictures of the Elder Gods of the Cthulhu mythos, and the letters score according to how many angles they contain, referring to these creatures’ many-angled appearance.
A rule or game mechanic. The card game The Great Dalmuti, requires players to play the same number of cards of a rank lower than those previously played when it is their turn. However, the deck contains progressively fewer lower-numbered cards than higher-numbered cards. This, along with other rules, favors the player who wins the game to win subsequent games, making it a challenge for the other players to overcome the odds and become the new Great Dalmuti.
A media tie-in. A number of games have been produced related to science fiction franchises such as “Star Trek” and “Star Wars,” as well as for other popular characters on radio, movies, television, and in comic books. “Batman: Arkham Asylum” is Rocksteady Studio’s 2009 video game in which the player takes on the role of Batman trying to escape from Gotham City’s insane asylum to stop the Joker from blowing up the city. The media tie-in extends to having the voice actors from “Batman: The Animated Series” reprise their roles in the game, and to their dialog being written by one of the show’s writers.
Creating Your Game
Determine whether you want to produce a casual game or a commercial game. “Casual game” in this sense means a game you intend to play with family and friends or in a classroom, while a “commercial game” is one you intend to sell.
You can produce a casual board game using cardstock, although you may want to laminate the board if you plan to play the game a lot. You can produce the artwork for the game yourself, by hand or with a computer graphics program, or you can get assistance from a friend, family member, or student.
For a commercial board game, you will need professional artwork, either rendered on a computer or converted to a computer format. You can either work directly with companies that manufacture game boards, tokens, and other game pieces, or you can engage a manufacturers’ liaison to work with individual manufacturers on your behalf.  A liaison may cost more upfront, but may prove more cost-effective if problems arise during development.  You can produce a casual card game using cardstock or index cards, and, again, you may want to laminate the cards if they will be used frequently. You can do your own artwork or get assistance from a friend, family member, or student.
For a commercial card game, you will again need professional artwork, and the cards will either have to be made from playing card stock or postcard stock.
To produce a computer game, you will need to have some level of computer skill. If you want to produce a module for an existing personal computer game, you can use a software development kit such as the Source SDK, Unreal Development Kit, or Skyrim Creation Kit, depending on which engine the game uses. However, if you want more control than the development kit provides, you will have to learn C++, UScript, or another programming language to write the code to give you that control. You will also need a copy of the game you want to make a module for.
To make a game for the social network Facebook, you will need a Facebook account and an editor program such as Construct 2. You may also need to know a programming language such as HTML.
You can render the backgrounds and three-dimensional images for your computer games with a program such as Google Sketchup, which has an interface similar to that of the level-editing software found in development kits.
Produce a prototype. You need to have an actual version of the game ready for people to play, along with a clearly written version of the rules to refer to.
Even if you plan to produce your board or card game commercially, you can still make its prototype out of the same cardboard or cardstock you would use for the casual version.
Playtest. Playtesting allows you to see if the game works as you intended it to and solicit the opinions of the people playing it as to how it can be made better.
Computer game software development kits usually include a test mode where you can test the game module itself to be sure it doesn’t crash or act differently than you intended. You’ll want to debug any errors before inviting others to playtest.
Family and friends are a good first source of playtesters, if they are interested in the game. Be aware that their opinions may be influenced by their relationship with you more than how well they like the game itself.
Local game and comic book shops may host gaming groups, some of whom may be interested in playtesting your game. Some cities also have board game cafes and night spots dedicated to gaming enthusiasts.
Many science fiction conventions feature a game track, and there are also conventions devoted primarily to games. The largest of these are Origins in Columbus, Ohio and GenCon in Indianapolis, Indiana, although you may be able to find a smaller game convention nearer you. (A list of game conventions is available at http://www.upcomingcons.com/gaming-conventions.)
Incorporate feedback as necessary to revise your game. You may need several rounds of design, playtest, and revision before your game is the way it should be.
In developing your own game, it’s helpful to play a number of games similar to the kind you’re interested in making. You can learn these games from fellow gamers at game shops, game cafes, or game conventions.
Sources and Citations
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