You’ve probably got some great ideas for your game: a compelling storyline, an interesting art style and whatever bells and whistles you can think of. If you’re holding back from starting your project because you’re worried about the graphics or the fact that you don’t have have a composer–don’t let that bother you. In the prototyping phase you need to be only worried about one thing: the structure. Once you have the general structure down, test it with your friends and family. Most people are too scared to let anyone that’s not really close to them try something that’s not finished yet, but that’s on you. Get feedback. Always try to frame feedback as a positive experience, no matter how negative the feedback that you get; it should be used as a tool to make your game better. Ask your testers for any recommendations or suggestions that they have. Can your testers relate to your game’s characters? Does anything in particular frustrate them? Perhaps, the most important question is would they buy your game at the price point that you envision it to be?
While all of these are generally great ways of ensuring that you’ve got a prototype that would make a good game, pay attention to the last point. Ultimately, the main idea will bring it home on whether or not you’ve got longevity with your game. People only buy games that they think are of good quality and something that they see themselves revisiting for quite a while. That means your game has to be interesting enough to make people come back and play it years down the road. Go back and have those same buddies replay the game and give you more feedback. Do they like the game better now that you’ve tweaked it or it was better before? Iterate on your design. Then, iterate some more.
Gameplay Loop Tuning
What is a gameplay loop you may ask? A loop is usually a 10-30 second reiteration of gameplay that repeats endlessly throughout the entire game. An example in a game such as Grand Theft Auto would be: Drive to Target, Accept Mission, Complete Mission, Repeat. The main point of a game loop is to give the audience a baseline of general expectations and it rewards certain activities to keep the user engaged. As you will see in many games, the loop is repetitive but versatile. In Need for Speed you may be racing in San Francisco on one track, but in Tokyo the next. The time of day may also be different, the car might be different, and the handling and acceleration might vary wildly as well. In one race it may be at night when it’s rainy or it could be in broad daylight in perfect weather. The people or AI that you’re competing with might be different as well. Make sure your game loop is compelling, engaging, and has a high level of retention.
Remember, the more polished your competitors, the higher the stakes. The indie game market is quite saturated as of Q2 2016, but there’s definitely still room for small studios to make a big splash in the scene. When it comes to good game design, think about the general landscape of the gaming experience. Think progression. Players wants to feel challenged, but not to the point that they would feel that the game is impossible to beat. By starting off with a steady level of progression, players will most likely stay hooked and return back to the game at increased levels of difficulty. Some poorly designed games have loops that are either too difficult or boring for most players for an extended period time. Once you determine the general landscape and the audience for your game you can determine how you want to create your loops. Extra Credits has a phenomenal video on crafting engaging game loops.
Don’t overthink it. Creating an engaging game loop will be your first and hardest challenge. If you don’t have that then no matter what you do, you will have to go back to the drawing board at some point. Now that you got these first few tips down go out there and create a great game (or try to, at least).