Deus Ex is right at the top of my greatest games of all time list. It’s a crowning achievement in game design that I still use as s point of reference for other games. A recent article on Gamasutra covers some remarks that the designer of Deus Ex, Warren Spector gave at GDC earlier this year, looking back at Deus Ex after 17 years.
The article includes a list of questions that he always asks before making a game. It really leapt out at me because I’ve been struggling to figure out what games I want to make recently, and these were some of the same questions I was asking myself about my games. So I wanted to look at the list of questions in detail to figure out whether I was making the games I really wanted to make.
First, there are 6 questions about the game you’re making.
- What’s the core idea? Can you describe the core of the game in 2-3 sentences?
A straightforward, but deceptively difficult question to answer, because you need to narrow your focus to give the game shape. You can fill in details as you go, but it’s really important to have that structure to build the entire game around.
- Why do this game?
“Because I can make it” isn’t good enough. I’ve made plenty of games because I was capable of it. Every single one was bad. “Because I can get it published” is almost the same thing, but even worse because it’s usually wrong, too. Find the reasons you’re excited to make the game, in order to be motivated to make it great. As a bonus, those will usually translate directly to the reasons someone is excited to play the game.
- What are the development challenges?
This is probably less of an issue because boardgame design is so rarely held to a release schedule or budget, but it is still an important part of the development process. From the very start, you should figure out what is going to be hard. It could be on the design side, such as scaling, balance, or manufacturing, or it could be on the play side, such as down time, or ease of learning. Know these things early and you can design around them without getting stuck.
- How well-suited to games is the idea?
This looks liks a sort of pointless question, because your idea for a game is sort of by definition suited to games. But the subtle issue it raises is whether it is something that ought to be represented in the form of a game. Boardgames, even more than video games, still carry the connotation of being an object of “play”, and not every subject matter can be carried as well. Some ideas would also benefit from elements that are infeasible in cardboard, leaving you stuck with a hobbled implementation or an overcomplex mess.
- What’s the player fantasy? (If the fantasy and goals aren’t there, it’s probably a bad idea)
This is something I’m trying to consider more often, because it a applies at two different levels. On the first level, it asks about the role the player takes on internal to the game. That tells you something about what players will want to accomplish in the game. And on the second level, it asks about player goals. What do players want to get out of the experience of play? Spending half an hour chatting and laughing with friends can be that “fantasy” the player wants just as much as leading a civilization through history, running a 17th century farm, or defeating an army of monsters to claim some loot.
- What does the player do? (What are the “verbs” of the game?)
I have always loved the idea of games as a collection of verbs. It can be very challenging to translate a lot of ideas about a player’s experience in the game to paper. But the verbs you choose give you a more direct route for defining that experience. They act as building blocks that give you a framework for how players interact with the game.
Then there are two more questions about the game as a product.
- Has anyone done this before?
This requires both honesty and research. You can’t know about every single game ever created, but there are resources, especially BoardGameGeek, that make this easier. And it’s just generally a good idea to go out and play a variety of games that might do similar things, to learn about how they work and make your game better. It’s tempting to think that your idea is original and to lie to yourself to preserve that feeling, especially if you’ve already put in a lot of work. But to do so is to waste time that you could be using to do something new.
- What’s the one new thing? (“You can always find one thing that hasn’t been done before [in games], even if you’re making a My Little Pony game.”)
And it’s not enough to just not be duplicating something. Different is good. New is better. Seek out those new twists and original ideas that make your game stand out. Yes, it’s a marketing tool and a way to make sure it’s different, and a reason to make the game. But it’s also a part of what makes being a designer fun, creating something entirely new. It is the spark of life that keeps games moving forward.
And finally, there is an existential question.
- Do you have something to say? (“In Deus Ex I wanted to explore all sorts of big issues,” said Spector. “And I wanted players to explore those things in ways that only games could do.”)
Of all of these questions, this is the hardest, because everything else is sort of tangled up in this one issue. At the risk of sounding cheesy, you bring a unique perspective to the world. Games are a way to share that perspective. It doesn’t always have to be some profound statement, or something you can make into a slogan. But remember that as a form of art, games inherently carry a message, so pay attention to what you want to say and what the game is actually saying. I know that my own games are better when I knowing what I want to say.
As I organize my designs, now, the answers to a lot of these questions are already part of the data I’m entering from the start. I think they really help define what you want from your design. I always want players to have meaningful choices in a game, and it’s probably no coincidence that that was one of the main goals for Deus Ex. I played it at a very formative time in my life, and it has no doubt shaped my game design choices since then. I think it’s a real testament to Deus Ex that the design lessons remain so universally relevant.