Defining “The Game Design Debt”

While making my latest game called Neurodeck, I understood something.

My main reference for making the game was Slay The Spire, an ugly, addictive, crazy fun card game. It has been developed during at least 3 years, and received a lot of updates. This game has been a wild success because of its UI, UX, and excellent game design. People tried a game quite as good, but often failed. As of today, only Monster Train has been close to this result.

I understood that, even if Slay The Spire was ugly, it created a design base. A strong base of design principles, inspired by many other games, and created a new layer on top of that.

I was naive and felt that, building those two blocks would be super easy, because “they’re already invented”. The truth is, after 2 years of development, I have barely finished making those two blocks, and I’m not even close to the polish of the main reference.

This is the “Game Design Debt”: you need to build the core layer of foundations of the genre before being able to iterate on the genre.

Hades is another good example on this topic.

If you want to make an “Hades like”, you’ll need to build perfectly those 3 layers being able to even iterate on the genre. It will probably take a lot of budgets, people to even reach a level like Hades.

It has several implications, on many points.

  • The market level is higher, so market entrants (aka beginner developers) will have a harder time, so the market is more favorable to experienced developers. It will be harder for new developers to make a living with games.
  • Getting a quicker result was previously mitigated by having better tools, but Unity & Unreal have reached a threshold. The new versions give new tools, but they’re only a margin faster.
  • Some genres have weaker layers and can get done quicker (visual novels for instance).
  • Some layers demand for a different set of skills. Roguelikes demand for strong game design, while visual novels require excellent writing.

With that in mind, I feel like pre-production is more and more important. What quality base do you need to reach before being an iteration on the genre? What does this base require in terms of production and money?

Let me know by Twitter or in the comments what you think of this Design Debt.

Game Dev Marketer. I share processes, techniques & tricks to do game marketing. Portfolio:

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