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Sources of Inspiration and the Processes that Follow

10 replies [Last post]
Joined: 12/07/2011

In reading through the forums, it seems that many people are inspired by mechanics or will build games around mechanics, and then put the theme over top of that once the mechanics are worked out. To which I say, "Huh?"

I can't quite wrap my head around that way of working. Maybe it's because I'm not an experienced designer, and I'm not aware enough of the ins and outs of different game mechanics. Maybe I'm just a theme guy. I've got a couple of games that I've been developing for a while now, and with both of those, I took something I found interesting (in one, a sport, and in the other, the behaviors of corporations in the marketplace) and said "What are the compelling aspects of these things and how do I recreate that with game mechanics?"

Neither of my games has gotten to the point where they really engaged people - basically the response has been "it wasn't bad," but it's not something they'd ever pick up again on their own, which to me means that while the mechanics might not be "broken," they're not refined to the point where they engage people and create interest (and the games are probably bloated with unnecessary mechanics, too). Sometimes I wonder if I get so hung up on theme, I'm unable to take a look purely at the mechanics and make decisions purely on what makes for good game play.

Now, while I let ideas for my other two games percolate in the back of my mind, I think it would be fun (and beneficial) to try and design something simpler, with a less complex theme. My problem is that all the themes I can think of are played out (or they're ones I just don't have any interesting ideas for). Since my goal is something simple, maybe it would be best to start with a central mechanic and work out from there, but I'm not quite sure how to go about doing that (though I would like to learn).

I'd love to hear how other people work and what gives them inspiration. If your a theme person, where do you get ideas for unique themes (I know they're "all around us," but maybe something a little more specific would be nice, just to see how other people work). I particularly want to know how the "mechanics first" people work. What mechanics inspire you? How do you go about building and refining mechanics without a theme?

I know this a topic that is often talked about, but that's probably because it's perennially relevant. My apologies if I'm just rehashing the same old, same old, but this is something I'm intensely curious about.

Joined: 08/20/2008
I start with a theme, then

I start with a theme, then think of various mechanics that support the theme - then the mechanics invariably lead to refinement of the theme...

Joined: 03/13/2012
Copying/ Improving

I have gone both ways with games I have made. With either mechanics or themes I will start with something I already like, but then ask what could have been done differently to make it better.

From the mechanics side, just play a lot of games and figure out what you like and don't like for mechanics without concern what the theme is. Then take something you like and ask what could be changed to make it better or more compelling. Then build that game.

I do the same with themes. I like certain themes and ideas, but then I ask what would be a better or more compelling theme? How can I do the same theme better?

Most mechanics and themes have been done before, so it's a matter of doing it better.

Joined: 03/15/2012
I've always started with a

I've always started with a theme or a goal. For my C-RPG it was all about stripping away all the needless chatter and getting right into the combat portion of D&D. For Ironclad, my jousting game, it started off by watching Full Metal Jousting on the History Channel, and my love affair with the medieval. So yeah, I started with a theme.

Then I go for 'feel'. This is where I think a lot of designs actually flop. There was an AWESOME discussion on different table-top WW1 Flight games. What it came down was the *simulation* of flying, versus the *thrill* of flying. There were games that forced players to trim the rudder, level out after a roll, calculate speed and tons of minor details. For one player to move a single plane could take 5 minutes, and large dogfights could take hours. Then there are games like Wings of War, which really glosses over the mechanics of flying, but provide that white-knuckled dogfight experience that has grown men screaming battlecries across he table and making airplane and "ratatatatata" machinegun noises like two year olds.

Feel is all about mechanics and streamlining. In a game about micro-economics, yes, simulation might be very important to feeling like you're really involved in the game. But in an action game or a silly game, bogging it down with too many simulations is going to take away from that feeling. Finding out what mechanics fit the FEEL of the theme is what is important. If you make a game about basketball, it should be a game that plays fast and has players scoring lots of points, with the scores constantly tipping back and forth. Unfortunately, if most people feel that a subject is boring (like growing plants or steering a cruise-ship) the game will probably feel boring too.

GamingNerd's picture
Joined: 03/26/2012
I am by no means an

I am by no means an experienced designer. I've designed one game (which we're busy play testing now). That game started with the mechanics. Actually it started with another board game. It was a game our game group loved, but never played anymore because it had limited replay-ability. So I set out to make a game using those basic mechanics that had more variety to it and would lend itself more to being able to be played over and over.

Once I had the mechanics down and had play tested a few times, enough to know that while small things would change the larger concept of the game was solid, then it was time to think of a theme that fit. This was a lot harder than I thought it would be as the theme had to make sense with the mechanics. I've come up with a theme now that works, I think.

I have one other game in mind to design, in the very early stages of planning. And this one I'm approaching from the complete opposite direction. A friend planted the idea of the theme and I'm busy trying to see how I could translate it into a game and what mechanics it would use.

Horatio252's picture
Joined: 03/13/2011

I would say that I design games around a dynamic. There is a certain experience I want players to have in each of my games. It is my focus on a dynamic that provides me flexibility about the theme, but also my focus on a dynamic fuels innovation about my mechanics. For example, the dynamic of pirates dividing booty is much like bandits diving loot, an easy theme change. To create that experience of dividing loot I need to tweak current mechanics for that kind of activity or add previously uncombined mechanics to create a new game experience. Without that guiding dynamic I would not have known how to design new mechanics.

I think that "mechanic-first" game design, which is what you are primarily asking about, usually starts with playing an already made game, disliking something about its rules or mechanics, and deciding to make a better game. The deck-building family is a good example. It started with the desire to create a game that was as fun as playing Magic or other CCGs without the element of pre-constructing decks and buying cards ahead of time, so out comes Dominion. Then a designer looked at Dominion and decided to tie victory points not to accumulating certain cards but to using your cards to defeat challenges, so out came Thunderstone. The trend continues to today.

Those are my thoughts. Best of luck.

avalaunch's picture
Joined: 04/13/2012
I'm new to designing games,

I'm new to designing games, but so far I've always started with mechanics, and then added theme. The initial idea is usually sprung from an existing game or game type that I think could be made more fun with a different mechanic. For example, I might enjoy playing CCGs but have a number of complaints:

1. I'm tired of building decks in advance. That part used to be fun for me, but not so much any more.
2. I hate how long a 4 player game can take.
3. I don't like that players get eliminated and have to wait on everyone else to finish. Boring.
4. I wish cards were better balanced.
5. I don't like how how you often have nothing to do as you wait on your opponents to take their turns.
6. I don't like it when a game is far from being over, but the winner is all but decided, which often happens.

Now that I know what I want to "fix", I go from there. Based on my complaints, I know I want a game that has the following characteristics:

1. Everything will be self contained in the box. No work in advance required.
2. Game will take 30-45 minutes to play.
3. Nobody will get eliminated during the course of a game.
4. Cards will be (mostly) self-balancing.
5. Turns will be simultaneous.
6. As a player pulls ahead, they will get "weaker". Or, as a player falls behind, they'll get "stronger".

The hardest thing will probably be the balancing, so I consider that first. I could create a point system to help balance the cards, but that gets exceedingly tough when I try to figure out how many points easy special ability should be worth, and harder still when I start considering the way the cards will interact with one another. Instead of doing all that, I decide an auction based mechanic might solve my problem. That way the value of each card will be determined by what the players are willing to bid on them. All I have to do is make sure that no single card is SO powerful that by gaining it a player will be guaranteed victory.

I still need to decide what sort of auction based mechanic I should use. The standard mechanic of 1 player bids, then the next, and so on, until nobody is willing to top the highest bid is too slow, and involves waiting for your turn to bid, which I want to avoid. To combat that issue, I go with a silent auction mechanic where everyone only gets to bid once, and they do so simultaneously.

My thinking now is that players will spend all their money building an army and then they'll fight with them in a manner similar to how most CCGs work. Building the army still seems like it'll take way too long though, so I decide to fix that by having multiple cards auctioned off at once.

Once I fix it so the process of building an army is quick enough, I work on the combat mechanic. The traditional CCG combat mechanic will be too slow, and have copious amounts of down time between turns, which I want to avoid. To fix that, I need a mechanic where players can battle simultaneously. And to make sure nobody gets too far ahead, I need a self-balancing mechanic whereas you either get "weaker" as you get farther ahead, or "stronger" as you get farther behind.

That's actually where I'm at now.

Of course I don't ignore theme altogether. As I consider the mechanics, possible themes emerge. For this game, I need a theme where it makes sense to bid on combatants that you'll later fight with. That makes me think of mercenaries, or possibly some sort of mech warriors.

SithPenguin's picture
Joined: 04/27/2012
Theme as a guideline...

Usually I try to think of a theme first. I know that I tend to purchase games with more of a sci-fi/fantasy theme over games about trains or shipping goods in Europe.

I also try to think of themes that are not used very often. Trains seem to be an overdone theme, so I would not initially choose that. Gardening games are not that numerous, so I may try for a new take on that genre. I think of themes I or family or friends would be interested in and see where I can take the concept.

Other times, theme and mechanic are synonymous in my initial designs. Ex: I want to design a set collection game about bean farming!

Rarely do I ever come up with a mechanic first and then try to find a theme to fit it. In my opinion, it is easier to allow theme to dictate which mechanics are necessary, than to try and manipulate a theme to work with the mechanic.

avalaunch's picture
Joined: 04/13/2012
SithPenguin wrote: Rarely do

SithPenguin wrote:

Rarely do I ever come up with a mechanic first and then try to find a theme to fit it. In my opinion, it is easier to allow theme to dictate which mechanics are necessary, than to try and manipulate a theme to work with the mechanic.

My take is that whichever you start with, theme or mechanic, the other will reveal itself to you. I like to start with a mechanic, but I don't feel like I then have to manipulate a theme to work with the chosen mechanic. Certain themes just make sense and work naturally with the mechanic. Nothing feels forced.

Joined: 10/13/2011
Theme, Mechanic, Component?

I have started design from all 3, but the end result varies depending on where I started...

I find Mechanic and Component change the least from initial concept to playtest. Theme changes the most, sometimes diverging into a completely separate game concept.

Component (meaning I start by imagining a game that has a specific component in the box or a particular look/feel about it) is usually the most fun for me to explore, but it doesn't alway result in something viable.

Cogentesque's picture
Joined: 08/17/2011
desperadonate it's not that

desperadonate it's not that hard to do each way. I agree more personally with our esteemed friend about designing around a "dynamic" eg: I want a game where people struggle. Or I want a game where people create an alliance against an NPC. Or I want a game where people are excited on one final dice roll.

To help you out, here we go, your BGDF custom design challenge:

Design a game about Making a Movie using an auction based mechanic

There: I've given you a mechanic and a kind of idea. These two shouldn't really go together (see: designing with theme or mechanics first?) but I am SURE you could come up with some very rough ideas for that :)


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