I’ve encountered a good handful of people that have expressed interest in creating games or experiences of their own, but feel like they wouldn’t know where to begin. In the interest of encouraging all creative endeavors, I am writing this with the hope that it will be useful to some folks. As with any creative process, there is no right or wrong way to go about it, but this is my own personal process.
Like any sort of venture, it’s always good to start by laying out your objectives and constraints. Some important questions to ask:
Who will be playing your game? For example: Kids, board game players, escape room enthusiasts, puzzle hunters, etc.
The answer to question 1 will drive the answer to question 2: How long and how difficult do you want your experience to be?
Do you want to focus more on narrative, puzzles, or a balance of both?
Will be entirely analogue, digital, or a mix of both?
Do you intend to sell this game? If so, will it be handmade and fulfilled by or do you intend to manufacture it?
What’s your budget? And if you intend to sell it, what price point are you aiming for?
No one is good at everything, so unless you plan on hiring help, how can you leverage your strengths to make the best game possible? (I.e. if you’re a writer, the game might be heavier or narrative, or if you can draw, make the game more visual, etc.)
What will be the “theme” or premise of the game? A murder mystery? A treasure hunt? Or (even better) something completely different?
To answer that last question, I try to think of a topic that I am already passionate or knowledgeable about, or am interested in learning more about. I often get inspired by things in my surroundings, during travels, or weird facts/stories I come across online. I also try to avoid themes I have already seen many times.
Once you think you’ve landed on something, start doing a ton of research on that subject. As you do that, you may find even more interesting things to divert to. Remember that the more you learn, the more you see details that normally you might skip over. Use your research as inspiration for your story and puzzles - I recommend keeping a folder of images for reference and a document with your notes and links to relevant sites and information. (Tip: I use Google Drive to organize everything and can’t recommend it enough. It autosaves and you can access your notes from any computer and mobile device, so you can always jot down those 2am thoughts in your phone!)
Beyond this point, it is a lot like writing - take lots and lots of notes, then outline your major story beats and puzzle ideas to go with them. Don’t save the ending for last - coming up with a solid and satisfying ending is one of the hardest parts. Think about how you can weave the puzzles in with your narrative, and allow them to drive the story forward.
Once you have a more concrete idea of your story and gameplay, start a master document and write it out in detail. This should be a cleaner document, in contrast to your notes. I also use this to write out the premise, process, and solution of every puzzle, so it’s all neatly organized to reference later.
If you’re making an analogue game, one of the advantages is that the player will handle the objects in front of them, so think about how the puzzles can be manipulated beyond a flat surface. If you decide to include non-paper objects, it’s good to factor in the logistics of doing such a thing before you commit to any plans. Is it something that can be sourced or does it need to be custom made? If the latter, who will be making it? How much will it cost? Etc. At this point, it’s helpful to make a spreadsheet comparing sources, pricing, and of course any relevant links. This will at least give you some idea about what is feasible.
I’m a big believer in using objects you include as part of the gameplay. I know there is a faction of players who love experiences that include keepsakes or display objects (and I cast no judgement on them!), but I don’t see a reason why those can’t also be used in the game - why not make the most of your medium and come up with some clever way to interact with the object? Start thinking outside the box.
Last But Not Least
When you’ve constructed your experience, playtest it with different people, and keep iterating! For more on that topic, check out my previous posts about playtesting puzzle games.
The most important thing to remember is this: Make an experience that you yourself would want to play. If you enjoy it then others probably will too. And of course, don't forget to have fun with the process - otherwise, what is any of it for? :)
Have you crafted an experience? What was your process like?