7 Steps to Designing a Game

I am currently working on designing a horror game, and, seeing as how my dream is to make the next generation of horror games, I decided to take the design process extremely seriously before beginning work on a prototype of any sort. I’ve been doing a lot of reading on storytelling, design, mechanics, flow, character development, etc., and decided to break down the design process into 7 essential steps.

Pralie’s 7 Steps to Designing a Game

Step 1: Create the Setting
Step 2: Create the Characters
Step 3: Create the Problem
Step 4: Create the Solution
Step 5: Create the Gameplay Mechanics
Step 6: Create the Story Arc
Step 7: Put It All Together

Now this is in no way a guideline for every game designer; it’s just simply part of the process I personally go through when designing a new game. Each step is a key part of designing a game, but the order is not set in stone, as I find myself completing the first six steps in different orders constantly. Furthermore, these steps are a mix of both game design and game writing, so most game designers in the industry today will most likely not be designing all of this, or there will be a team who must work on different aspects separately but make them flow together. However, I am merely a college student and this is simply my way of doing things.

To better understand how each of these steps helps further the design process, I’ll break them all down.

Step 1: Create the Setting

A setting is essential to any media you may be creating, from film to television and games to art. The setting describes the time and place, and is a basis for the entire game, which is why I like to start with it. A good setting should draw the player in, and I’m not talking about cool graphics. While graphics are nice, there is much more to a setting.
The environment, which is only a part of the setting, should have a certain atmosphere which promotes the theme of your game. This can be done through lighting, the game space, NPC and enemy placement, etc., and should be carried out effectively throughout the entire world or all levels of the game. Also, the environment should make the player feel something, no matter the genre. That feeling could be fear, suspense, surprise, sadness, calmness, happiness, anger, or any number of things.
Another key aspect of the setting is the time in which the game takes place. The time should have an effect on the level design, character design, storyline, quests, gameplay, aesthetics, sound and more. For example, you wouldn’t want to play a FPS that takes place in the future if one of the levels was a medieval castle; it would just seem ridiculous and out of place, unless you found a way to incorporate that into the storyline. It’s important to decide on a time frame early in game development, as it affects so many other aspects of the game.

Step 2: Create the Characters

Without characters, the game wouldn’t be, well, much of anything. Designing your characters is absolutely essential, and you should know them inside and out. While their physical appearance can be ironed out later, it’s important to mold your character’s personality, strengths, and weaknesses early on. First, I like to create a sort of “fairy tale cast,” as I call it, which includes the hero, the villain, the sidekick, and someone who’s close to the hero. This does not apply to every game, but it’s a good starting place. Establish the main characters, and NPC’s and other various characters will come later. As long as you flesh out the characters who are important to the game’s story, everything else should fall into place. After all, you can’t have a game without a main character and some sort of villain that they must stop. It is also key that the player can relate to the character in some way or other, and the game should build an emotional tie between the player and the character.

Step 3: Create the Problem

Games are about solving problems, no matter what the genre. If you don’t have a problem for the player to solve, then your game probably won’t be very interesting. The problem could be anything, from the princess being captured to an enemy declaring war on your country and so much more. While there should be multiple problems for players to overcome throughout the game, focus on the main one, the one which is a part of the story. Solving the problem usually results in the player’s victory, but in some cases, there could be a twist, in which another problem arises at the solving of the previous. If this is the case, tackle each problem one at a time: create the first problem, then its solution, and move onto the next problem. Sometimes I like to flip the problem and solution steps, because working backwards can be easier if you’re having trouble coming up with what the problem should be.

Step 4: Create the Solution

If you have a problem, you obviously must have a solution. Players do not want to play a game if there is no end or no reward, so it is essential for the reward to feel important and worthwhile. This goes back to the “risk versus reward” factor: players are risking their characters’ lives, whom they should have made an emotional bond with in the game, and expect a reward for doing so. Balance is essential here, not only with the “risk versus reward” factor, but also with the difficulty level of the problem and the solution. If the problem is too difficult, players will lose interest in achieving the solution, and at the same time, if it is too easy, the solution will feel pointless. A good balance must be achieved to make the players yearn for the solution.

Step 5: Create the Gameplay Mechanics

Gameplay mechanics are what really make the game fun and keep the player from losing interest. A good story can go a long way, but if the game isn’t fun, then no one will want to play it. It is important to design the gameplay so that it flows well with your concept, and does not feel out of place within the game. Gameplay should also mix well with the story, so that the gameplay helps to tell the story. The interactiveness of the gameplay is what people love about games, so try to use gameplay to effectively tell the story. Cut-scenes and the like take away the player’s interactivity, so while they may be gorgeous, they limit the player’s interest.

Step 6: Create the Story Arc

The story is not always a key part of every game, but if there is a story, it’s important to work everything out before you try to make your concept a reality. I know this all too well, as I have tried to create a story as the game progressed in the past, and that didn’t work out whatsoever. The story must incorporate the setting, the characters, the problem, and the solution. I recommend blending the story and gameplay mechanics to create a more balanced and interesting game, but that is not always possible, so focus on the first four steps for sure. The story arc, like most storylines, can be broken down to three significant parts: a beginning, a middle, and an end. The beginning should reveal the characters and the setting, as well as the problem. The middle will be the bulk of the story, wherein all the details and quests lie, as well as the main trials which the character must overcome to reach the solution. The end will contain the final trials for the character to overcome, the solution, and the reward for achieving that solution. All of these parts should flow together to create a believable, or at least emotion-inducing, narrative that keeps the player entertained and interested.

Step 7: Put It All Together

Probably one the most significant steps of all, you must be able to combine all the above steps together to create your game. If done right, the game should flow smoothly and be intriguing to players. If done wrong, the game will feel choppy and underdeveloped, and will most likely not keep players interested. This is where I honestly have trouble, mostly because I have so many ideas and I want to implement them all. I may have all the other steps completed for a concept, but when it comes to putting them all together, I know I have some work to do. If all goes well, though, then it’s time to continue on the path to making your concept a reality! But remember, there’s still a long ways to go to creating a full-length, playable game.

  1. Hello Pralie,

    First off, thank you for taking the time to develop this comprehensive article of information. Your “7 Steps to Designing a Game” is not just a view into the mind of a game designer, but it is also an extremely useful guideline for those aspiring to follow in your footsteps. You describe in detail quite a few of the essential components required of the game design document—an essential blueprint containing every detail necessary to create the game.

    Starting with the game’s setting, in my opinion, is an excellent part to begin with. It not only effects the entire game’s look, but more importantly how it feels. You’ve described this very well. I would like to note that it is important to conduct research, especially if one’s game takes place during a particular time period. Research can be conducted though the Internet, local library (using those things called “books”—Gasp!), and through in-person visits to the site(s) of interest.

    Your second through fourth steps are really the basis of the game’s storyline are well stated. Everything from the cast to the story structure is described well. I especially like how you use yourself as an example: “Sometimes, I like to…” This allowed me to feel a stronger connection with your words.

    Regarding the gameplay mechanics section, I would go into detail about the “rules of the game” and how important they are to defining what is expected of the player, what they can or cannot do, and how gameplay is directed. This is very similar to your description of “flow” and implementation.

    Finally, from one designer to another, I wish you the very best of luck with the development of your horror game. I look forward to hearing about your progress. Should you ever need any help, I will always be available to work with you.

    • Sara,
      I just wanted to say thanks for taking the time to read and comment!
      You’ve offered some very good insight, and I definitely agree that research is a key part of creating any game. I will have to include that in the post.
      I also agree that the game mechanics section could use a little more detail. I wasn’t too sure what exactly I wanted to say there, but you’ve got me thinking again.
      Thanks for all the helpful comments! And I’ll be posting updates about my horror game, as well as other articles like this one in the future. Thanks for your support.

      • You’re welcome. It was a pure pleasure and a great read. 🙂

    • Tyler Coleman
    • May 27th, 2010

    Story Oriented game design! This is a really cool concept Pralie. This design process would certainly be great for games in the RPG, FPS, or other story driven genres. This process would not be appropriate for some genres that focus more on mechanics however (puzzle, sports, etc). It would be very easy for you to flip this process and start with the mechanics, then move to aesthetics and story. Good luck on all your endeavors!

    • Thanks Tyler!
      I do agree that this wouldn’t work with all genres, so that’s a good point I’ll have to add, didn’t think of that before. Thanks again.

  1. November 6th, 2014
    Trackback from : Penni

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