It dawned on me recently whilst researching game design that there is a fundamental question that you should ask yourself when starting a game:
Am I making a game or a narrative driven fantasy simulation?
Before video games were around, a game was an activity with a set of rules than could be enjoyed again and again. From Tic Tac Toe to soccer they all have a fixed set of rules and can be played anywhere with almost anything. By this I mean that both the examples can be played on a beach, for example, as Tic Tac Toe can be drawn in the sand with a stick and soccer can use a beach ball and use sweaters as goal posts.
Popular video games such as Tetris and Angry Birds adhere to this pattern. Moles could easily replace the birds and the setting changed to a garden. The rules and enjoyment of the games would still be the same. Game developers need to decide right at the beginning whether or not they are making a game and if so, what are the rules, how is it enjoyed and can it be replicated no matter what the graphics, story and rewards.
A narrative based fantasy simulation sees the player assume a role in a story and the player must walk the protagonist through a series of events and/or confrontations until the narrative is complete. Whilst fun, these games are pretty linear and often are disposed of when complete similar to books.
One question that is asked when designing games is:
How is the game won or beaten?
For a narrative driven games this is easy, as it concludes when the story is complete. However, with Tetris, the game is never truly beaten. Success is achieved by beating previous scores. Games like chess can be mastered but never really beaten.
So when your next devising your next video game ask yourself if it’s a game or simulation and if the answer is a game then focus on the rules, the gameplay and how a player wins. If the later is true, focus on story, experience emotion and characters. Trying to mix the two from an early point might just lead to a game that has mediocre effort in both areas.