My Creative Process: A look At Dan Kenny Game Design

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A Look At Game Design
Dan Kenny profile image

By Dan Kenny

Award winning Game Designer based in Kilkenny, Ireland. Maker of games and art.

My Creative Process

Hey, who are you?

My name is Dan and I am an independent game developer based in Kilkenny, Ireland. For the last few years, I have worked on my own game projects with a focus on narrative and immersion.

Where it all begins

As with most creative processes, be it games, animation or something else it begins with an idea. Now, that idea or ideas usually come in bits and pieces throughout the entire development of a game. Very rarely do you get an idea for a game that’s fully formed in your mind. A lot of the times it could start out as an idea for a character and then you start to fill in the blanks about this character in your mind. Where do they come from? What is there motivation and from there you start thinking about what kind of world they fit in.

When I first get an idea for a game I want to make, I tend to throw out the first two or three ideas that come to mind because they’re the ideas that everybody can get. The challenge is to take that initial idea and strip it down to what actually makes it unique and build around that quality. When I have an idea I’m happy with, I tend to sit on it for a while. I have a notebook that I use to keep track of all my ideas and I’ll add notes to an idea over a period of time until I feel I have something solid and then I’ll move onto developing it.

Notebook sketches

Giving life to an idea

Now, although I like to sit on an idea for a while to let it grow a bit more, it’s important not to spend too long in this stage of the process. Even when you’re telling a story, in a game it has to feel engaging. The mechanics need to feel fun and comfortable to the player. So’ while it may be fine to spend time getting the narrative of your game right, focus on prototyping the mechanics of your game as soon as possible. Get something working with placeholder art and find out if your game plays well.

I’m very much a narrative driven designer. I want my games to tell a story, even if that story is short or obscure. I’m a big fan of environmental storytelling. There’s something very special about being able to convey a story to a player through the use of the environment and good level design. If done correctly, a great scene in a level can convey a tale to a player without a single line of dialogue. Using one of my own games as an example, Fading Light tells a story through very little dialogue. Lost in a cave, the player searches for a way out but in their search find the remains of those who came before. Through little set pieces, I tell the story of how these people came to be here and how they met their end. The idea behind the game was to create a claustrophobic feeling and sense of fear of the unknown. The game is played in first person and beyond why the player is there, I give no more character background. The idea being to create a greater sense of immersion for the player. This character could be anyone of any gender, race or religion. The hope is that once you’re playing it, you can feel like it’s you in that situation and not someone you’re just controlling. If you’re interested in seeing some players reactions to the game or just want a good laugh, I suggest checking out this video here.

My creative process broken down

I’ll try to outline the steps I take during the process of developing one of my games.

Step 1: Developing the idea

This stage is very much pen and paper for me. I start by writing out the story beats to a game on post it notes and stick them to my wall and from there keep adding more post it notes that branch out from initial ideas. These can be characters that are linked to key elements of the story and the role the play. I tend to use different colors to separate things. I’m very much a visual thinker. I like to be able to write out my ideas and see how things come together and map out how the game should play from a narrative standpoint.

Step 2: Gameplay design and level design

At this stage I start designing how the game should play from a gameplay mechanics point of view. I focus on core gameplay and avoid the urge to keep designing features as the feature creep can lead you down the path of an over ambitious game that will never get finished.

I start prototyping the core gameplay as soon as possible so that I can see if the gameplay I have in my head for how the game should play translates into something that is actually fun and engaging to the player. I also at this point begin roughing out the level design and make a master list of art assets that I’ll need when developing a scene. Once I’ve prototyped something I’m happy with I move onto full development and art.

Step 3: Make it pretty

Once the core mechanics of the game are there, I begin focusing on the visual side of it more. This involves the art creation for the game. Depending on the scale of the game and style, this means I’ll either hire someone to create certain art assets for the game or I’ll do it myself. If I’m making the art myself, that usually involves either creating characters and environment assets in Blender or Photoshop. It depends on if the game is 2D or 3D. Lately I’ve been focused on 2D with my previous game The Restless and my current game The Concierge.

Step 4: Sound

I can’t stress enough how important the right audio is to a game. For sound effects, I tend to look for a lot of what I need online but in the cases where there’s a sound I need that I can’t find or just can’t get the right feel from what’s out there, I’ll record it myself. For the music, I usually have a specific tone or feeling that I want the game to convey. So, I’ll try and find a composer whose work has a similar tone and I’ll either find something I can use in the game or I’ll find elements that I can edit to achieve the specific feel I’m aiming for.

Step 5: Playtesting

Now that the game is at a stage where it can be played from start to finish, I’ll play it over and over looking for bugs and things that need to be changed until it’s stable and plays how it should.

Step 6: Polish

Adding those final touches to the game that give it that extra visual quality or tweaks to any gameplay to make it the best version it can be. Then it’s playtested a bunch more times to make sure those final tweaks didn’t break anything.

Step 7: Release to the world

Finally, the scariest step of all. Seeing the game you made go out into the world to be hopefully enjoyed by gamers. At this stage there’s a lot I still need to do as a developer. I have to be very active with the community of people playing with the game and listen to anyone who has found a bug in the game so that I can fix it in an update. It’s also important at this point to listen and take on any constructive criticism. You’ll learn what worked and what didn’t and you can take that forward and it’ll make you a better developer on the next game.

And that’s pretty much the steps I take when making a game. On a side note for ideas and being creative in general. My advice would be, ideas don’t just happen. They’re the result of your experiences in life. You can’t become inspired if you don’t go out and find inspiration. So, get out there and try new things. Expose yourself to the works of other creators and become inspired. But more importantly, use that inspiration and actually create something. The world needs more creativity and it’ll be a better place for it if you create.

Want more info on little old me?

If you’d like to check out more of the games I’ve made, you can find them all on my site here. You can also find me on Twitter or on my Facebook Page. If anyone has any questions about my process or would like to know more, feel free to get in touch!