Game design is a balancing act. Literally. Not only do you have to balance the various tasks that fall under the umbrella of game design, but, more importantly, you’re responsible for balancing the gameplay experience.
At the core of every well designed game is a carefully balanced spreadsheet. Numbers and stats can govern everything from a character’s jump height to the number of resources available. To create an experience that’s both fun and engaging, these numbers need to be tweaked, again and again.
One of the things most people fail to realize is just how many tweakable variables there can be within even the simplest gameplay experiences. Creating a spreadsheet is a great exercise for challenging you to think critically about all the different components in your game.
Start with the obvious ones, like levels, points, and time. Then, move on to more nitty gritty variables like the number of jumps a character needs to make to get to a certain goal. Think about what you want to teach your player and when to teach different skills.
Using this theoretical framework as a guide, plug your best guesses into your spreadsheet, and then start playtesting. If a playable prototype isn’t yet available, conduct theoretical playtests. You’d be surprised how much balancing you can accomplish through imagination alone. (If Einstein could develop the theory of relativity through theoretical physics, you can balance a game through theoretical design.)
The resulting numbers are one of the most critical parts of your design and will be invaluable for communicating gameplay elements to other members on your team. They will inform everything from the design of your levels to the difficulty ramp for the entire game. A look across a well fleshed out spreadsheet should give you a good idea of the flow of a level, pace of play, and the spread of challenges and achievements.
With every playtest, take notes on what went right, what seemed too easy/boring, and what seemed too difficult/frustrating. Rinse and repeat. Once you get to a point at which new players can play with a limited amount of boredom and frustration, you’re probably pretty close to a well balanced game.
I didn’t say it would be easy. In fact, it’ll probably be quite annoying and tedious at times. But then again, we didn’t get into game design because we thought it would be a cakewalk, now did we?