Educational games researchers from a variety of universities share ideas and ask questions of each other on the Games+Learning+Society (GLS) list-serve on a regular basis. This thread addressed a basic question:
"Is there just one right way to develop a game? First story then gameplay mechanics? - or is it also possible to start with the mechanics and then wrap it into a story?"
The conversation offers some interesting perspectives.
Game development is much like animation development. In animation, a great story can be ruined by poorly executed animation, poor character development, and poor design. In games, a great game concept equally may be ruined by poor game mechanics, UIs, and emotional connection as a result of weak or poorly designed gameplay.
The story builds a framework and gives designers a direction that allows the game to transport player to a desired outcome. Even if it is purely entertainment. The outcome must be desirable. The trick to a great game is creating multiple pathways to achieve that outcome, such that a variety of player types and motivations are provided for in the process.
The game’s mechanics will help to create an immersive experience that create intrinsic desire along with extrinsic motivations to stay “in-game” when challenges are met.
I would argue that the best game for a person to make is the one they find compelling, because it's very hard to make a compelling game (or song) for others if you are not similarly thrilled by it — regardless of the recipe (learning objectives, etc).
In Design Thinking, the first step (before LOs) is to Empathize with your audience in order to find *their* objectives. The difficulty educators often have is when the learning objectives they want to impose don't match those of their learners. Will a story motivate/compel the learners to accept the LOs? Maybe, but it's got to start with the learners.
I suspect that the most compelling games are those that the designers got truly jazzed about
I think when it comes to learning games, you always should start with your learning outcomes, and that should drive the rest of your design, but for games for entertainment it depends greatly on what starts working first, narrative or mechanics, and what is most important. Both can be iterated over time, and probably need to be, so there is little sense in trying to nail one of them down first.
Through all of this, remember the main downfall of many game projects - scope. This interaction is generative, but at some point the generation needs to be bounded by the amount of work, time, and person power required to make the game a reality. Because the only way things get done is to make some commitments and move forward based on them, it is helpful to start locking down parts of story and play after some initial game iteration, when you have some proof of concept that the elements you are locking down will indeed work.
Drawing the audience into a learning game is critical to its success or failure.
Focusing on what the players want is not the only way to do that, but it is one of the more straightforward approaches. However, in some cases it can lead to players playing only up to the point of challenge or focusing only on the parts of play they find interesting.
Starting with what the player wants, giving the players reason to care, and then using those hooks to encourage the player to push past their points of difficulty may have the greatest long-term positive effect
Continued engagement is at each point really up to the player, but generating reasons to care is one of the things stories and play are both good at.
It's like song writing. Some people start with a melody, others start with lyrics (when lyrics are relevant), still others begin with a progression of chords, an ambient pad...whatever works for the artist and the song.
I can similarly think of at least half a dozen places to start with for designing a game: a specific mechanic, a set of existing mechanics in a new arrangement, an aesthetic (desired feel of the played experience), an art style, a learning objective or other "serious" outcome, and yes a story.
A game design equivalent to a funky tune that starts with a bassline ---
It might be starting with the rhythm and sequence of expanding your powers through a series of levels...