Game Design Tip #1: Cook Like a Chef

I just returned from a 3 day trip to Carmel, California where I attended a rather informative Zynga executive retreat.  The highlight of the trip was having the opportunity to demo my latest project to many of the industry’s finest, and it was extremely well received.

We’re less than 3 months in development with a relatively small (13 people) team, and have already built a beautiful and engaging game that can keep you entertained for at least an hour with the extremely limited demo content.  Moreover, this was done from scratch, and isn’t even remotely like anything that you’ve seen on Facebook before.  I’ve seen many projects, including a title or two being developed at Zynga, that have been running for 6 months or more that still aren’t ‘fun’, and will probably churn in development indefinitely until they can discover the secret ‘fun sauce’.   If you’ve spent any time in the industry, I’m sure you’ve seen this scenario – millions of $$$ and multiple years spent in development on a game that still can’t find the magic, with the development team living in fear wondering just how long it will take until things come together or their project gets canned.

This is a typical problem in the industry, but an avoidable one in my opinion, and I believe there are only a few simple rules you need to follow to keep yourself from falling into that trap.  The first is:

Rule #1:  Cook Like a Chef

Before I dive into this rule, I want to point out that not every great game designer would agree with it.  At the Zynga off-site, I had a friendly debate with Zynga’s chief game designer Brian Reynolds on this topic, and his method for building the incredibly successful FrontierVille was decidedly different than the approach I use.  Still, the rule is close to my heart, and it is probably the game design principal that I like to talk about the most.

So, imagine for a second that you are a chef trying to create a new tasty soup.  How would you go about this process?  Maybe you would open your fridge and start throwing in the pot anything that tasted good.  Cheese, pickles, tomatoes, soda, bacon, and a few tasty blue cheese stuffed olives, yum!  Since all of the ingredients taste great by themselves, combining them must make a fantastic soup, right?

I’m sure you already see where I’m going with this analogy.  Game systems are the ingredients for a tasty game.  Just because you might like a particular system from another title, that doesn’t mean it will combine well with something else from a different game!

Even though this might sound like common sense, I’ve seen this happen over and over in the industry, which is why I’ve developed what I like to call the ‘soup method’.  I’ve watched a ton of games try to innovate by including everything in the kitchen sink.  The team spends months or years getting all of these systems functioning, only to find that they have a concoction of cheese-pickle-tomato-soda-bacon-olive soup, which is not the slightest bit delicious.

The soup method follows what I think is common sense – take the fewest ingredients that you imagine will taste delicious together and combine them.  Simmer, and taste the results.  Is it delicious?  If not, ask yourself what the single next necessary ingredient would be, add it to the soup, and then taste it! Did the next ingredient make it better or worse?

If things start tasting good, then congratulations, you’ve found the fun!  Make sure to continually taste the soup each time you add an ingredient, to make sure that what you added to the soup doesn’t ruin it.

If, however, you’ve combined 5 or 6 ingredients and the soup is still sour, maybe you should consider starting over and making a different soup.  The best game designs, in my opinion, are always the simplest.