I am far from being good at game design and my view on this subject is very personal but I want to shed some light behind the (=my) process of game design. It always is a struggle and maybe talking about it more might help in the future. Here come the ramblings:
To make a game you might need an initial impulse. This can be anything. A word, a drawing or some kind of sensory input. It may be some kind of external idea that you want to improve or change. Game Jams provide a fairly effective impulse mostly in forms of words, phrases but also sometimes in form of other media (see the heartbeat sound of GGJ 2013). These ideas are very general and leave enough room for interpretation and creativity.
Let’s take Ludum Dare 29 as an example. The theme was ‘beneath the surface’. A lot of games involved submarines and water or oceans . The initial theme might not be so important because execution is the most important. For me, I interpreted the theme as part of the question: ‘what lies beneath the surface?’. I decided to make this question central to the design.
Logic / Illogic
It isn’t easy to make a game that feels cohesive. Logic might help if you need it. Since my central design was a question I could get a lot of answers for myself by answering the question in a logical manner. If I need to decide what kind of interaction the game has I asked ‘How do I find out was lies beneath the surface? I pull stuff out of the ground.’. This answers the question but leaves enough room for
Logic isn’t always necessary and at some levels of design it needs to be shut out. But you need some kind of consistency in the logic of your game world. This might be like Tolkiens secondary world approach in literature. It might be very different to our world (and unrealistic) but it has a internal mechanic that can be understood. Of course some games don’t need to be cohesive and understandable but when this is necessary the quality of internal and external logic is quite important.
Be specific, sometimes
I try to do this as early as possible but in a living design this should be possible at any point of the game making process. If you set up some ground rules for your game, you get a better field to play in. Limitations are good because they give you borders and focus your design. My specifics (or specification) are like axioms for a mathematical proof.
If I decide that I want there to be only mouse controls I cut out a lot of other possibilities for the game – and that is good. A wide open space is bad for you if you ever want to complete a game or want a game that feels harmonious.
Section Modulus or That Bad Feeling
Ok, section modulus isn’t the right term. But what I mean is that you need to feel out the flaws and edges of a design. Things that don’t feel right or out of place. It is important that you are extremely honest with yourself and others. You should at least write down any kind of impulse that you feel where you think that the game lacks.
It is hard to extrapolate from missing assets so use something visually appealing and some sounds early on so you can focus on problems with the design. Listen to your testers. It might hurt but you need to be open to criticism in order to make a game that is not only for you but also for others.