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Video: Turning a good idea into a good game Exclusive

[Note: To access chapter selection, click the fullscreen button or check out the video on the GDC Vault website]
September 14, 2012 | By Staff

September 14, 2012 | By Staff
More: Social/Online, Design, Exclusive, Video

According to Gardens of Time creator Eric Todd, even the best game ideas are inherently flawed. The Playdom veteran has been working on games for well over a decade, and he's found that good game design isn't just about trying to bring ideas to life -- it's about figuring out what's wrong with them.

Todd learned that firsthand while working on Playdom's Gardens of Time, and at last year's GDC Online, he explained that the title never would have become a hit hidden object game if he and his team hadn't identified some major flaws in its initial concept.

"Ideas are the easy part," Todd explained. "Getting from a good idea to something that's actually good is what's hard."

And he believes that holds true for any game design idea. No matter how good your concept might be, it will never result in a good game unless you can figure out what's wrong with it from the beginning. Todd said, "This is the single most common cause of project failure: Not identifying and resolving critical issues that were there from the very start – they're sort of icebergs for your own personal Titanic."

Throughout his presentation, Todd outlined the four major "icebergs" that threatened Gardens of Time, and explained how he and his team avoided them to create one of Facebook's most popular titles. You can see for yourself how it all came together by checking out the full video of Todd's talk, courtesy of the GDC Vault.

About the GDC Vault

In addition to this presentation, the GDC Vault offers numerous other free videos, audio recordings, and slides from many of the recent GDC events, and the service offers even more members-only content for GDC Vault subscribers. Those who purchased All Access passes to events like GDC and GDC Europe already have full access to GDC Vault, and interested parties can apply for the individual subscription Beta via a GDC Vault inquiry form.

Group subscriptions are also available: game-related schools and development studios who sign up for GDC Vault Studio Subscriptions can receive access for their entire office or company. More information on this option is available via an online demonstration, and interested parties can send an email to Gillian Crowley. In addition, current subscribers with access issues can contact GDC Vault admins.

Be sure to keep an eye on GDC Vault for even more new content, as GDC organizers will also archive videos, audio, and slides from upcoming 2012 events like GDC Online and GDC China. To stay abreast of all the latest updates to GDC Vault, be sure to check out the news feed on the official GDC website, or subscribe to updates via Twitter, Facebook, or RSS.

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Matthew Downey
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On "Vaunted Visions", the idea that "on any game of significant ambition, no one knows what they're doing" is probably not true.

I'm assuming he meant before any implementation whatsoever, but even then there are people who can break down each gameplay element into how it's made (via technical game design).

Without even pseudocode, you could lay out the implementation of a game if you are not vague. You would have to write some trivial elements, like how lighting would interact with objects or how some complex shaders work (for outlining/highlighting the player), but for the most part it's doable.

If someone has a vision (according to his definition of "can you play your game in your head?"), that person can make the game (s)he wants to make and can have players similar to him/her adore the finished game, so long as the visionary is dealing with a high-level engine like Unity or Gamemaker for these ambitious projects. These people may be few and far between, but I am going to go out on a limb and say they definitely exist.

People who have average attention to detail cannot hold an accurate vision of the final product in their head, but if you have savant-like attention to relevant details, I am going to say this is a piece of cake. The problem is the people who have this attention to detail might not necessarily have the know-how to make the game.

So for the average joe, maybe this is not possible at first, but if you try to be exceptional at what you do, it's possible. You just need to train yourself to see the relevant details and ignore the extraneous details.

I'm a humanist and therefore believe in self-actualization :)

And--of course--you need to know when and where to ask yourself the right questions and adhere to 1) simplicity and 2) object-oriented programming (that way there can be zero dependencies a.k.a. once something works, it will [more or less] work forever). This requires that you consider the consequences of certain programming methods before they happen, which sometimes means you need to avoid shortcuts.

Dave Troyer
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Interesting ideas Matthew, but correct me if I'm wrong, you aren't taking into consideration that when developing a game, sometimes stuff just doesn't work.

The ability to adapt and flow around failed features is just as important as having a vision for what the game is supposed to be and as Eric Todd has said, even the best game ideas are inherently flawed.

When someone thinks that their ideas are the end-all-be-all features of a project and isn't willing to adapt, change, or even drop an idea because it plays perfectly in their head but freezes the game on screen, then it will hurt that project, and potentially that persons career and credibility.

That's not to say their ideas can't be implemented, but trying to shoe-horn specific features into a game for the sake of getting it that much closer to someones vision at the cost of fun, playability or even financing and function, then that could ruin everything.

But that's just my opinion on what he meant by "no one knows what they're doing."
In that the larger the scope, the more that will be discovered, adapted, created, and learned in order to succeed.

Matthew Downey
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Yeah this is idealistic, so I won't waste much more time, because the definition of "ambitious" is subjective.

I am saying that vagueness is a designer's only enemy, which is why I propose that technical game designers could put forward all of the programming elements to make a good game (and not just in 20-40 years either).

If this technical design were followed like a recipe it would be fun and playable (balancing may be another issue, but "The Borg and Gardens of Mom" section could have been accounted for by paying the difference in cost to upgrade objects to have the same reputation per area). The problem is out-of-sync people implementing games often want to add features and thus will add features (via feature creep, which sometimes can break the game's underlying assumptions).

Implementation often has glitches from poor communication, although it can also be from bad documentation. I'm saying that documentation can be perfect-enough-to-be-a-game, people just don't look at their own assumptions. Conflicting interests are usually the problem, especially with larger teams, which is why company culture is so important to game developers.

Chuck Bartholomew
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You seem to have understood this statement to mean that a game design is impossible to realize without a lot of iteration and mistakes along the way.

By contrast, my understanding of this statement is that the design of a successful game is impossible to nail down at the beginning. The chief difficulty being that the people who will decide whether a game is successful won't know what they want until they see it.

I fully believe that one can conceive of a game, design it in great detail, and create it (perhaps with some help) following the design rigidly. But will it be successful? Is it fun enough to enough players to make a profit? Are there any unforeseen exploits, hacks, or cheats? Does it have enough replay value? These questions are very hard to answer before any of the game has been implemented.

Dave Troyer
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@Chuck and Matthew - I see what you're saying, but say you add a feature from your highly structured and rigid game design and it just isn't deemed as fun from play testing or worse yet from the consumer?

Then you have failed in the design process by trying to adhere to a strict document instead of adapting to create a good product. You failed in the process of designing something that appeals to the end user. If you're trying to communicate or create a unique and fun experience for the player, than you failed by taking into account the user.

It's something that I have noticed a lot of young, ambitious developers fall into. They believe that their ideas are iron clad and will be fun by sticking to their ideas alone. They design to-a-t what they feel will be a fantastic game. When testing those games, it's worse than watching paint dry because they wouldn't take into consideration the audience they are creating the game for.

Sorry, but that's just not how the real world works.

I agree having a defined goal is good, but not allowing for some sway is the same as building a rigid bridge. If its too rigid, when wind hits it, it will rip and tear itself apart as apposed to swaying with the breeze from a flexible design.

By your logic, if someone says licking an electric fence is a fun game, then it must be because that is what they consider fun and anyone who says otherwise is getting in the way of his strict game design. It's silly, but I feel that's a fairly accurate comparison.

And speaking of differing interests and views, I feel that game development should be a free flowing and dynamic process that moves like water and not scrape the ground like a rigid and painfully planned brick.

But hey, it's just my opinion.

Raymond Grier
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The audio isn't loud enough. Sometimes he's hard to hear and the questions from the audience are inaudible making the answers useless.

Chris Christow
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How to turn a bad idea into a good game? :D ...because most ideas are pretty bad! Like any ideas about orcs&elves or zombies.
Each time when I see a new game with orcs or zombies, makes me scream: "No, not again!"

Jeff Morin
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Perfect games only exist in the mind, we only get the dumbed down version of the game the visionary passionately daydreams in his head. I go through it myself. I think of a great concept/story/idea that I think is the best ever, but then I end up thinking to myself... there's no way all that stuff can possibly fit into one game without causing some sort of technical issue or drawback or whatever.

But as for now, I guess we have to cope with the modern era of games kept well within in the seemingly inescapable boundaries of technology's fence of time. Maybe beyond that fence, someday we'll fully get to see the full potential of a game concept come to life. Hopefully some kid in the future looks at today's games and reflects on how awful the graphics were and how simplistic the gameplay is as we did for the once beloved 8/16-bit era of the past.

Remember, the video game evolution chart isn’t complete, and we aren’t far from it. Even movies had to start somewhere (though they aren’t perfect) they’re A LOT better off than the silent black and white grainy pictures of the past. I would say the future of gaming is pretty bright.