I frequently see developers take to UE4, or any other engine, full steam ahead – they have played many games, developed few (or none), and want to borrow mechanics from numerous existing titles to make their magnum opus.

How many times have you seen someone working on “Well, it’s kind of like Zelda meets Dark Souls!”, or “I’m making an MMO that combines Minecraft and DayZ and WoW!”. Well, you probably haven’t run into those in specific, but I hope it gets the point across. Often times developers will attempt to utilize mechanics from a game, or several games, without understanding why or how those mechanics were implemented, which often leads to a dead end in development. I hope that by sharing trials and tribulations, as well as resources, tips, and just commentary about game design, we can help each avoid the numerous pitfalls of game development.

A problem I see frequently is that developers start with an interesting idea, and only after the idea has been realized, they attempt to make it “fun” by adding mechanics, and systems, and unlockables, and achievements, et al, rather than starting with a fun concept, and adding systems that support and improve the already fun concept. I’ve done a terrible job of condensing the idea of bottom up game design, so just read the articles below:

Top-Down / Bottom Up Game Design

Another new series attempts to dissect games & their mechanics by Keith Burgun, called 3 Minute Game Design, is really well done. Try and support this guy on Patreon if you find the videos interesting – I think the medium and format make these ideas far more approachable than some of the alternatives.
It can be found here:

I believe the heart of the issue for many is that they want a game that plays like “X”, but combines aspects of “Y”, without understanding why either played the way they did, or why they were successful. It’s for this reason that it’s simply not enough to say “..because, uh, Zombies!” anymore – they’ve been done to death, and for all of the wrong reasons. Games have successfully used zombies in the past, and will continue to use them in the future, but we’ve seen a lot of junk come down the line that piggyback on the core mechanic of zombies and all that they entail.

Another great resource is David Rosen’s talk at GDC ’14. If you’ve got the time, I promise it will be worthwhile. David goes on to explain how, before any and everything else, he made moving around in his game world (Overgrowth) fun in and of itself. This will not translate to every game, but I hope this gets the general theme across. He also discusses some of his old game jam entries, and how implementing basic functionality (such as the procedural animation) became cornerstones of Overgrowth.

Another rather large discussion in and of itself is level design. We’re fortunate enough to have so many talented environmental artists and level designers here that some might think the discussion isn’t worth having, but for every awesome scene we see in the WIP section, there are a hundred developers scratching their head, and wondering why their levels and scenes feel inadequate.

Being able to physically tell a story through your environments is important. Physical exposition can be tricky, and a lot of developers get caught up in the micro-detail of a level, which can often times be counter productive. Rather than focusing on relaying information and direction to players through the world, they focus on insignificant aspects that most players will never enjoy or even appreciate. In the same way that writers call words “real-estate”, in an attempt to convey how precious each and every letter is, level designers should in turn realize that only the most important (macro) visual aspects of their level will ever be necessary to playing the game.

A tangential, but supplemental argument – Mini-Maps are stupid:

Here’s another great resource for level design that hopefully everyone is aware of:

Specifically, this is a good write-up that should apply to most indie developers:

Magnar uses a “wide brush”, focusing on macro elements initially, and follows up with a detail pass to get important micro detail only once the level is almost complete. This is important, as with the “feature creep” of the mechanical side of development, micro-detail falls to the wayside when a player is actively engaged.