When I'm designing a game from scratch, starting with a concept and going all the way to content complete, I like to "design from the tutorial upwards".
What do I mean by that? A game starts with a concept, and also usually with creative design goals as well as business goals. These initial creative decisions might be figuring out the core mechanic, and determining how to make that mechanic into the most engaging possible experience for the player.
But then I get started designing the actual features and preliminary content of the game, and that's where I focus on the tutorial.
The whole point of a tutorial is a prioritization what you're going to teach the player. You start with... what is the first important thing I need to teach the player? That is the first step of the tutorial. What comes immediately after that? That's the next step of the tutorial.
Why is this approach important to me? Because it means that even at these initial stages of the project, I'm keeping all of my focus on the user experience.
And at a certain point, I've added enough features to create an enjoyable player experience. Now I am at risk of adding unnecessary complexity, and potentially making the user experience less enjoyable. Or, at least, if it's appropriate and necessary complexity, I need to be continuously thinking of how I'm going to explain this to my players!
But this approach doesn't apply only to step-by-step tutorials, but to the whole user experience.
An example is our game project, "Girl Genius: The Rats of Mechanicsburg". This is a game set within the world of the Hugo award-winning webcomic "Girl Genius", which we shipped for iOS and Android.
The primary goal was to create a game with a lot of action but also based on solving puzzles, because the whole point of Girl Genius is that the heroes solve problems by being brilliant. (Well, sometimes they pull out insane steampunk weapons, but it's mostly they win through SCIENCE!)
Steve and I prototyped several game ideas, but we settled on a side-scroller with physics gameplay. Having decided on the core goals of the game, next, I could start thinking about the tutorial.
The first and most important thing to teach the player is how to move through the level. This meant designing how the player would move, and the movement UI. The first level was designed from the start to introduce the basic concepts of movement (right and left), and timing. To teach timing, I had a huge steam hammer that would smash the player flat. But you could learn the timing of the hammer, and then move safely through that death trap.
Next would be interacting with objects, and fighting off the first bad guys, and so on. I always began with the next concept that I wanted to teach the player, and how I would communicate that either through gameplay or tutorial text. Some elements didn't need a tutorial...having taught the player how to move, and that timing was important, I could introduce the anvil-dropping mouse dirigible with nothing more than the mechanical mouse calling out, "Look out below!"
Another reason why I like this approach is that, in addition to keeping my focus on the player experience, I'm also thinking in terms of very modular design. "First the player learns this, then this, then that..." I recommended this approach to one of my students who specifically was having problems with the scope of his student game, where it became too large for him to complete and polish within the semester. It is too easy for a project to become too large and unwieldy, and thinking in terms of "I've asked the player to learn enough, I should stop now" is one way to manage that problem.
Thinking in terms of designing from the tutorial upwards isn't the only way to keep your focus on the user experience. Other good approaches are designing in terms of the "first fifty clicks" or "first five minutes." In either case, it's the same basic concept... you're thinking about the project from the perspective of the player, and how they will interact with your game from the very first moment.
Sumit Mehra (General Manager at Zynga India), has this advice for game creators: "Your only job is delighting the player." No matter what approach you take to game design, you always want to keep your focus on that ultimate goal.