Before starting, I would just like say that I am very excited that I finally have a platform where I can share all of this information with you. Working on Spaceboy Games and managing Spaceboy Partners simultaneously is EXHAUSTING. This Patreon page has lit a fire that allows me to be enthusiastic about educating the community again. To those who have access to these articles, a sincere thank you!
I am often asked questions along the lines of, “How do you come up with your game ideas?” or, “How do I come up with a new platformer gimmick or set of mechanics?”. Prior to being asked these questions, I didn’t really notice that I had a *method* per se. After further investigation and adding this topic to my list of potential articles, I realized that I do have a game development routine and I do have a method for coming up with what I call the game’s base. I will share both of these with you.
I may be abnormal here, but recall that abnormal practice(s) breed abnormal results. If you aren’t getting the results that you desire, you have to change what you’re doing. On the other hand, you aren’t required to adopt my routines to see success. It is one of many successful options. With that being said, one habit that I have adopted is always having a notebook on hand. I have a backpack or plastic bag full of notebooks (regular, spiral notebooks, 1-subject) that I carry with me in my truck. If you don’t drive or don’t carry a backpack, I suggest carrying a small moleskin pocket-ruled notebook. I started doing this while working with my longtime friend, Ryan Swarner, on Frog Sord in 2012.
These notebooks are handy and fit perfectly in the back-pocket of most jeans or cargo pants
Currently, I have ~a dozen of these notebooks on me at all times. I have one for general game ideas. If anything, this is the one that I suggest to you; it is where you will jot down all of your brainstorming and spontaneous ideas that pop into your head throughout your day. I also have a notebook designated to each game idea that I feel is fleshed out enough to pitch to my team. For example, I have one for HackyZack, another for Fara & The Carnival Curse (unannounced, sshh), and one for games that apply to our publishing company, Spaceboy Partners. I also have another for my diet and workout planning (this habit will bleed positively into other avenues of your life).
Carrying a notebook will not help you come up with more or better ideas, but it will help you remember everything. After I go over my three approaches to finding a game’s base, you will spend a lot of time in your head and you will forget even your best and most exciting breakthroughs.
Method A – Spiritual Sequel
The first method is by far the most simple and takes the least amount of creative strain. Method A can be summed up as the spiritual-sequel approach. A lot of AAA studios use this approach, as well as a lot of “idea guys” and even kids or wannabe-devs. However, that doesn’t necessarily make it a bad way to make games. What it does mean is that if you want to pull it off correctly, you have to do it extremely, extremely well.
In short, Method A means taking a game that exists and fine-tuning it, polishing it, or adding something substantial to it. Cave Story is an example of this. Cave Story is without a doubt, a Super Metroid clone or spiritual-sequel that integrates Method A. Cave Story is nothing new to your avid gamer, but it is widely proclaimed as one of the greatest independent games of all time. Cave Story does this by using a well-known game formula and adding a meaningful story, an array of new weapons (as well as a leveling system for these weapons), and charming pixel art to make something aged feel fresh again.
A lot of new devs, younger devs, and “idea guys” turn to this approach due to a lack of programming and game design knowledge. Without any concrete experience, it is easy to say “I would love to make a game like Zelda”, or “I would love to make a game like Metroid”. In my opinion, this approach is either done very well, or very poorly. If you decide to go down this route, be sure to examine why. Do you have a deep and interesting story that you want to tell? Maybe presenting the story within a familiar environment is the best way to let it shine. Perhaps you see a glaring flaw in a game from an older generation and you see a way to fix and perfect this hole in the design. Use this method if you are passionate about a game series and genuinely think you can do it 1) better enough, or 2) different enough (with purpose).
Lastly, I will say that Method A thrives when your game can promote itself via a strong nostalgia. Shovel Knight does this near perfectly. Shovel Knight plays very much like an old-school game. It wasn’t necessarily meant to be better in terms of more modern, but more so it is better for the time. Remember that there are many different ways for something to be objectively better than the original. Better controls, better plot/setting, better level design, or just modernizing an old concept.
Tips for applying Method A:
1) Consider moving away from the usual suspects. Do not simply try to outdo Metroid or The Legend of Zelda. Nintendo has large amounts of nostalgia and charm on their side.
2) Do not clone a game and then fall short of its quality. If you can’t do it better, don’t do it at all.
3) Do not be afraid to remove things about popular games that you dislike. Nintendo makes mistakes, too.
4) Try not to use a similar plot or setting to your source material. Your Zelda game should take place in space. Your Mario clone should have a deep story about a powerful female protagonist.
5) Make sure that you are passionate about your concept. Games require passion to push through stages of burnout. Copying someone else’s work is the easiest way to feel apathetic about your own work.
Method B – Addition
To my knowledge, Method B is a favorite among independent studios. This second method establishes a game’s base by adding two existing ideas together to create an idea that hasn’t been explored yet. You can add more than two concepts together with Method B, but I would suggest sticking with two; three, at most. The idea is to find the most accessible combination of mechanics that have the most depth, rather than simply increasing complexity.
I have used Method B for a lot of the games that you may know me for. After Frog Sord fell through, I had little project funding and I truly believed that I had one last shot at games before I would need to go find a “real job”. I needed to imagine a base that would blossom into a successful Steam title that would not require me to pay an artist (the art would need to be generated via code). I was a big fan of Super Meat Boy and I knew that I could make a platformer controller that feels good to play like Super Meat Boy does. Another game that I was playing at the time was Unfinished Swan. It wasn’t an incredibly interesting game to me at the time- I wasn’t big about the indie scene yet. However, it had an interesting segment where the world was a blank sheet of white, and you had to fling ink blots around to discover your surroundings. I took these two games, Super Meat Boy and Unfinished Swan, and created my base. INK is a fast-paced platformer where the world is black; to discover your surroundings, I added a burst of ink whenever the player double-jumps.
Method B is flexible. Your game doesn’t necessarily have to boil down to idea #1 + idea #2. In fact, I suggest that you don’t do that. INK is almost too straightforward, and because of that it is very obvious where I drew my inspiration from. You want your base to be like this, but not your final product. When you write your combination(s) of ideas down in your notebook, they will be very cut and dry: Pokemon + Metroid, Braid + Zelda, and so on. As you begin to develop your base, it should evolve organically into something that seems less and less like the two games that you wrote down, and more and more like it’s own, unique idea. This happened quite a bit with Spaceboy Games’ Fara series. Fara & The Eye of Darkness began as Nuclear Throne + Megaman: Battle Network. It was supposed to be an action-rogue-like about collecting spell cards that would persist between runs. You would build a better deck with your spoils and try to progress further during your next loop through the game. Fara & The Carnival Curse still includes a combat system that is card-centric, but almost every other bullet point has been changed or removed.
Tips for applying Method B:
1) Try adding together ideas from different genres. Do not stick with obvious combinations like Metroid + Castlevania. It wouldn’t be different enough.
2) Some combinations won’t play as well as they do in your head. Do not be afraid to throw out any of your combinations.
3) Consider modernizing mechanics that may have felt bad or clunky in the past. Zelda II can be difficult and frustrating, but it might be a great addition to another mechanic.
4) Remember that these methods create a base. Continue to evolve your idea into something that less resembles your base.
5) Ideas of varying complexity often pair well together, but try not to create needless complexity. This method works best for mechanically-driven games.
Method C – Perspective Shift
To some, Method C may seem a lot similar to Method B, but I feel that they both have their place, and both put me in a different head space when I am trying to come up with a new game. Method C is about a shift in perspective. What would Zelda be like as a platformer? How would a top-down Mario play? I think about easy perspective shifts like those, as well as ways to bring 3D concepts into 2D. For example, would Glover make an exciting 2D game? Is there a 2D game that borrows ideas from Banjo Kazooie? If not, what would that look like?
Examples of Method C are hard to spot because the change that the shift makes to your base is extravagant. There are several popular indie games that could have been pitched as a 2D Dark Souls or even a 2D Monster Hunter, but it is hard to pinpoint. Lately, this has been my favorite approach because it is the fastest way to stumble upon ideas that are seemingly new. It also requires the most creativity.
Tips for Applying Method C:
1) Try swapping between side-scrolling and top-down perspectives. Remember to try action games, racing games, puzzle games, and so on.
2) Consider combining Method C with either of the other methods. Maybe you can do Super Metroid better if it were 2.5D isometric. Maybe roguelike + racing works better as a side-scrolling platformer.
3) Focus on transferring 3D gameplay approaches into a 2D space. How would the Ocarina of Time Z-targeting work in a 2D game?
4) Like Method B, do not be afraid to let the idea change organically. Not all of the game’s concepts will translate to your shifted perspective.
5) Consider games like Master Blaster that have gameplay across multiple perspectives. How can you combine that with Method C?
Those are the three approaches to game design that I have been practicing throughout the last few years. They are essentially just guidelines that allow me to come up with the mechanics that make Spaceboy Games’ products FUN. None of these methods will really stretch your brain in a way that promotes improved writing or strong narrative, but perhaps I will talk more about that side of things later. Please let me know what you thought about this article! You can leave comments here, on the equivalent post on my Patreon, or send them to me via email (firstname.lastname@example.org). I hope that this can be of some help for you and your team!
Thank you so much for supporting me and my content,