How to Design Unique Systems for Your Game
Believe it or not, there are still unique game concepts out there ready to be discovered!
If you an independent game designer, one of your primary focuses should be compelling game mechanics and systems. Besides polish and game feel, uniqueness is the number one trait your game should possess. But how many times have you begun crafting what you think is a “unique” game, only for it to be a reskin of an existing hit game?
Bear with me for one moment, and listen to this game idea. Your character controls in a 2D top-down world, and must reach the goal by solving puzzles to get there. Sounds like a dime-a-dozen idea. But what if we, say, add in a system in which the player can manipulate the game rules directly in the play-field? Then, my friends, you have “Baba Is You”, a hit indie game that has amassed tons of sales and praise for its creative approach to the puzzle genre.
Turn the Common Into the Uncommon
The lesson to be learned? One must think outside of the traditional box for developing systems in games. Game genres are generally arbitrary means of defining a game; For example “Halo ”is both FPS, Strategy, Puzzle, and Action all rolled into one. What makes it a successful game is the exact combination of genre-swapping, and the direction the game takes with it. “Baba Is You” is an Action Puzzler, but it also has elements of Simulation and Strategy. Don’t jump into your planning phase with flimsy genre labels to hold the game together.
Instead try to turn common systems into interesting and unique ones. “Undertale” for instance takes the combat element of turn-based Role Playing games and turns it on it’s head with a pacifistic dialogue-driven option. Not only does this dialogue change the flow of each individual battle, it also changes events and sequences throughout the game.
Think about how you can turn common systems into more interesting ones. Maybe game-play events can change based on how much health or ammo your player character has. Maybe your character level is inversely proportional to the number of NPC encounters. Maybe choices as simple and “meta” as audio settings can have an impact on how your game plays. You will have to put on your creative cap to find the perfect twist for your game!
Get Your Players Involved
I’ve discussed in another article that gamers in 2020 are looking for more and more content in their games. A unique way to kill multiple birds with one stone is to open up parts of your game to accept user-generated content. From the tried-and-true level editing and design (a la “Mario Maker”) to designing models and creating systems for your game directly, there is a hugely untapped market for games that put more power into the hand of the players.
Another rarely used system involves bringing viewers into the game with players. There is a large swath of players who do not own a game but love to simply watch it played or streamed by their favorite personality or professional gamer. Stream integration, ad-hoc session generation and viewer-created content integrated into games can make for a fun blurring of the line between content creator and viewer.
Perfect Blend of Game and Reality
Everyone is familiar with Virtual Reality, but Augmented and Alternate Reality Games are lesser known but powerful technologies. It comes down to one thing: when designing a unique system for your game, you can source concepts from external sources that live outside of games. “Pokemon GO” is an example we all know well, seamlessly incorporating real-life locations with changes in game-play. Weather effects, time of day, and even special events on holidays further the concept of seamless integration between real life and the world of “Pokemon GO”.
Another great example is of “Watch Dogs”, where a companion app allows you to play against other players in their online mode. Similarly the trend of Alternate Reality Games introduced us to the concept of making your gamers become sleuths in order to discover all the secrets of your game, and possibly some in-game perks. Blizzard, Epic Games, and Valve have all used ARG to promote their games and incentivize their player base to further interact with their game, away from the TV or monitor.
Your next question must be, “So how do I get started making a unique system for my game?” The answer is simple —think about the kind of game you want to create, and get to prototyping. Events like game jams can invigorate your creative side and allow you to design prototype games that may be successful, or not. The key is to have an open mind and experiment often. Don’t fall into the trap of making another cookie-cutter genre game.
Once you have this great game prototype, you will need to test, iterate, and market it. If you are interested, please check out some of my other articles that give you pointers on how to do just that. Happy coding!