How I Come Up With Game Ideas

Have you ever thought about coming up with a new game? I do it all of the time. Today I will explain my approach. You can use what I show you to come up with your own game ideas.

The formula is simple. Start with a familiar game or concept. Either apply a twist or combine the original idea with something unrelated. To turn this into a game, answer a few questions.

  • What are players trying to achieve?
  • What happens during each turn? Are turns sequential or simultaneous?
  • How can players advance their cause and hinder their opponents?
  • What are the trade-offs to manage?
  • How do players use strategy to gain an advantage?

Answer what you can, and allow other details to emerge as the game unfolds.

Once the mechanics of the game are worked out well enough, get people to play it with you. Put together a quick prototype, and find out if it’s any fun.

If the game is not quite right, ask yourself how it might be better. Pay attention to the answers that pop into your head, especially while you are doing other things. (Creativity often happens when you’re not focused on it.) Apply those changes, and play again to see if things improve.

Iteration is the key. Repeat that cycle until playing is so much fun that players never want to stop.

Repeat: { Idea ⇒ Blend ⇒ Try ⇒ Evaluate }

That’s it. Simple, right?

To give you a better sense of this approach, let’s look at a one of the simplest games I have morphed into something new.

A Simple Example—Number Guessing

You know the guess-a-number game, right? Someone (or perhaps a computer) picks a number from 1 to 10. The player guesses a number and is told to guess higher or lower. The game ends when the player guesses correctly. The fewer the guesses it takes to win the better.

Nothing innovative there, but that’s a good starting point.

I played this often with my kids when they were small. Even for them, the game quickly became boring. So we started by expanding the range of numbers up to 50, 100, 200.  Eventually we allowed numbers as high as you could count, like 1,000. Woo.

Things get confusing in the tens and hundreds of thousands, let alone the millions. And no one really knows what comes after a gazillion, other than infinity, of course.

We also expanded down into negative numbers. My 6-year-old never quite got it that -1 is greater than -2. Regardless, we had about as much fun with guessing numbers as you can imagine.

To change things up, we tried guess-the-animal, where the player asks yes-or-no questions about the animal in mind. After hearing the answer, the player gets to guess one animal. A solo player could repeat that loop until she guesses, or there could be multiple players who take turns trying to be the first to guess correctly.

Before long, the kids started figuring out strategies to arrive quickly at the correct animal. Is it warm blooded? Does it have 4 legs? Can you ride it? You get the idea.

So once we got the hang of that, we added a twist. The thing to guess could be anything. That opens up the possibilities quite a bit. Meanwhile, we basically rediscovered the classic game 20 questions.

Now I am getting to the good part, multi-player number guessing. Everyone who is playing thinks of a number at the same time. Once they each have a number in mind, the players take turns guessing the sum of all of the numbers.

A player cannot repeat a guess that has already been made. When all of the guesses are in, the players tally the numbers that everyone was thinking. Whoever guessed closest to the sum is the winner.

You get a bonus point for being spot on.

To illustrate, let’s say you and I are playing. We each think of a number from 0 to 10. I think of 2, and you think of 8.

Since there are two players, the total range of possible sums is 0 to 20. Say that it’s your turn to go first, and you guess 12. I guess 4. The sum of our numbers (2 and 8) is 10. Your guess (12) is closer to 10 than mine (4), so you win.

Got that?

The game goes quickly, so you can play a best-of-ten series. We played without a way to record the numbers, so we exercised our memories and practiced simple mental arithmetic.

What makes this game fun? Two things.

First, the privilege of guessing first rotates. There is a challenge to going first, second, and so on. Does it even matter? Certainly, though for a two-player game either can be an advantage with the right strategy. (We never tried with more than three players.)

Second, you only need to be closer to the sum than the other players. It’s like the Price is Right when you are last and everyone before you has overbid. You win by bidding $1.

Or more like being chased by a bear in the forest. You just have to run faster than your hiking companion.

So the combination of guessing first or second along with pinning the number you are thinking to either end of the range can help secure a win.

Along with the “pinning” technique, we discovered ways to psych each other out with our banter and poker faces. Trick the other player into guessing too high, and you can sneak in with a winning guess that is one less.

On any given night, one of us would consistently outsmart the other. And the honor would flip-flop the next night. That’s a game with staying power.

My next big idea is turn this into an online game. A bunch of people would join, play a few rounds and scores would go up and down based on the results. Some of the players might be bots, especially to cover for anyone who drops out mid-game. Over time, players with the best strategies would rise to the top. Books on hacks and cheats would be published. Las Vegas would host the World Series of Multi-player Number Guessing.

All of that from a simple twist on guess-a-number. Who would have thought?

If nothing else, it will be a good programming exercise. Someday.

Stay Tuned

Next time, I will share another game idea that is still in the early stages. I will take you through a few iterations, and we will see where it goes. Then you can take it from there if you like.

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