Game talkA game designer’s core skills

 Posted by (Visited 12606 times)  Game talk  Tagged with: ,
Jul 092008
 

The two hardest and most critical skills for a game designer (IMHO):

  • Be able to see the game with no hint of artwork, music, sound, anything — the bare rules, bare mechanics, bare actions, stats, feedback loops. The skeleton, the core, the bone and sinew of it, without any dressing, as a shifting, moving mechanical construct of guy wires and rigid struts. It’s not an attack, it’s force projection, it’s territory control in a graph. And you can see it in your head, and when a feature gets proposed, you can see where it slots in — or not, and know whether the whole construct will tip over.
  • Be able to see the game without any mechanics, any rules, any knowledge of how it should play — to approach it as a user experience, the magical moment of immersion, the confusion, the dazzle and colors, the sheer sense of possibility and play. The skin, the surface, the way the music will swell when you step through that door, the way that moving will FEEL, the way the possibilities unfold. To know where someone would be confused, to know where they will be led, to see the whole construct as an innocent.

And a great designer? They should be able to see both in their head at once.

  39 Responses to “A game designer’s core skills”

  1. … Yes. Exactly.

    The shininess of the game certainly does matter to the user, and you need to be able to see that and know how to form it. Yet, you can’t just expect your game to run off that shininess.

    And I think there’s a whole lot of examples out there as to why that is true.

  2. And a great designer? They should be able to see both in their head at once.

    Or should the “game designer” role be split into several specialized positions?

    What you’ve described is pretty much left-brain vs. right-brain skills, as well as two different Myers-Briggs personality types. Should game designers be required to be “ambidextrous” in order to be “great”? I don’t think so.

  3. I saw the same thing in an earlier post of yours, and I’m glad you’ve clarified it here because it gives me a chance to ask a question:

    How? How do you master both of these skills? How do you even go about training yourself in them?

    I like how elegantly you’ve expressed these principles. Now I’d like to figure out the best way to go about teaching them.

  4. @Morgan, part of the problem is that in order for the project to be consistent, you need to at minimum be able to recognize these things or you end up with a two headed monster.

    Having someone working with you and catching these things is helpful, but only if you’ve got a basic aptitude to begin with. You don’t need to be *very* good at it for things to work, but you need to at least be able to understand how to adapt the part you’re good at to the part that the other person is good at, and that requires at least *some* ability to walk on the other side. But the better you are at both, the cleaner the end result is, because it doesn’t have to be filtered through people that can’t *quite* communicate in a way that the other can fully understand.

    That being said, I’m not entirely sure how much of the latter is actually different than the former. User interface and aesthetics are, in my mind, a form of mechanic. Gauging response as to whether or not something is “fun” or “cool” is harder, but seeing whether or not a UI element will break or be confusing is not much different than examining things like “force projections” and “territory control in a graph”. You’re looking at patterns and applying them to pre-existing models. Determing what you want to do aesthetically is also very close to a mechanical system; you’re simply applying a set of rules (is this case the effects of, color, style, tone, etc) to a very different effect (user should feel a certain way rather than behave a certain way). They speak in different “languages” but they’re functionally very similar; though the words are different the grammar is the same. So if you’re good at one, there shouldn’t be any reason why you can’t be good at the other, you just need to learn the right patterns.

    Honestly, the biggest key here is the awareness of your built in assumptions and the ability to question them. If you can pull that off you can avoid most of the problems without necessarily having to fully compartmentalize your pre-knowledge of the mechanical systems. Not all of them though, because you still won’t necessarily be able to view it through the same eyes, and thus if you missed a preconception, it can cause you issues. But trying to recapture that original sense of wonder seems like a losing proposition to me, most players are incapable of it once they’ve started playing something for a little while; for people who are continually peeking behind the curtain to not pay attention to the man standing back there, I’d say it’s nigh impossible…

  5. @Tom, Deconstruct, Deconstruct, Deconstruct. Break everything you come into contact into little itty bits and put them back together again. User interface, aesthetic, story, gameplay… Everything.

  6. Eolirin wrote:

    part of the problem is that in order for the project to be consistent, you need to at minimum be able to recognize these things or you end up with a two headed monster.

    Pair Testing
    http://www.stickyminds.com/s.asp?F=S7305_ART_2

    Pair Programming
    http://www.stickyminds.com/s.asp?F=S10921_ART_2

    There’s also a form of pair testing where one analyst tests while another analyst observes what’s being tested. This form of testing has shown to boost productivity.

    Now, how about pair designing?

  7. Usually, this is split into several different positions. And then someone brokers the fights. And whatever that person is like is what the game is like. And even when there’s a designer who can do both who is in charge, they are smart to surround themselves with specialists of each type.

    Back when the whole “systematizing” versus “empathizing” brain thing was going around (cf Simon Baron-Cohen), a game designer list I am on had everyone on the list take the test.

    Just about every single person on the list was a “both” brain.

  8. How? How do you master both of these skills? How do you even go about training yourself in them?

    Learn both programming and literature, math and history, cognitive psychology and philosophy?

    All the great game designers I know are omnivorous constant readers.

  9. Now, how about pair designing?

    The most productive pairing I have had is to pair with a producer, not another designer. The producer provides scoping and realism and constraint, the designer provides craziness.

    Pairing with a programmer can have similar results…

  10. True. Or put differently, see things holistic and from a reductionist point of view. It only appears to be impossible, because of connotation noise in the words (this or because seagulls never hatch in Burkina Faso). I would also add: good at finding mechanics for metaphors and metaphors for mechanics. And some other yet secret knowledge.

  11. A game is always more fun before you can play it.

  12. So true, so true. I understand you need both, but lately I feel as if a lot of developers just don’t “get” the part about turning off the mechanics/design circuits in their brains. They fail to understand and accept that sometimes the seemingly smallest details like sound play a critical role in how an experience feels.

    Some recent comments from the developers of a certain game Raph previously worked on have been frustrating. The comments were about the unique mood/emotes system in this game and how “more time should have been spent making quest building tools (etc, etc)”. Aside from the fact that the original vision for the game relied on player created content and not scripted quests, it shows me this person is likely concerned only with mechanics.

    The unique chat/mood/emote system in this game is taken for granted. It is now seen as something that makes new changes “really hawrd”. This is really too bad because the system plays a huge role in bringing a player into the virtual world and if it were gone people would surely notice.

    I’m sure quest building tools are nice (bleh, scripted quest). But I’ll tell you what’s more magical than a quest – when you chat in a game and say “Yes, I’ll help you” and your toon nods his head. When you say “lol” and your toon animates. That is magic.

  13. I think it’s interesting that the first view (the mechanic view, “force projections and territorial control in a graph”) is the same way an elite, veteran player sees the game.

    It seems that the first view helps a game to be designed to be tactically rich and long-lasting for veteran players, and the second view helps a game be designed to be welcoming to newbies. It seems that designing-for-veterans and designing-for-newbies are two goals that are at odds with each other, and it’s hard to balance them. Veterans want things to be fast and efficient – but their preferred strings of arcane commands are bewildering confused newbies. Newbies need lots of pop-up help for game-systems explanation, icons, and menus, but that’s frustrating, slow, and annoying to veterans. Veterans turn down the graphics settings to low levels for every last bit of frame-rate and lag reduction. Newbies enjoy how pretty everything looks. Veterans click-through quest text and skip cutscenes to find the shortest path to the cheese ASAP, because their time is valuable in the rat-race and they have shit to get done. Newbies read and listen to every last line of dialogue, because the world is new and exciting to them. It’s hard to satisfy both groups without designing what very nearly amounts to two separate interfaces.

  14. The third crucial skill is recognizing when you should modify the former to satisfy the latter, and vice versa.

    This additional skill set makes it more likely (though still far from guaranteed) that the designer will be able to create something that is actually fun.

  15. Distinguishing an understanding of quantifiable mechanics from an understanding of aesthetic sensation sounds to me a lot like Science vs. Art. Is there a Game Designer’s Edition of C.P. Snow’s The Two Cultures?

    I personally suspect Morgan is right that most people will naturally prefer one or the other of these two different approaches to assessing a design’s effectiveness. If so, what does that say about who can be a great designer? Doesn’t it imply that great designers are born, not made? Are there only a very few individuals who are — somehow — naturally at home in both worlds?

    Or can great designers be produced through omnivorous reading in all manner of things under the sun (history, painting, mathematics, literature, logic, music, economics, philosophy, sculpture, technology, etc., etc.)? Digging into all those things can probably make any game designer better, but is it enough by itself to make any game designer great?

  16. The third crucial skill is recognizing when you should modify the former to satisfy the latter, and vice versa.

    Yeah… I guess I see that as being dependent on the other two. :) Most designers have trouble with one of the first two in the first place, and nobody is perfect at either one of them — if people were, we wouldn’t need playtesting…!

  17. I think these skills are all good for any designer to have, and the more diverse a game designer’s education, the better off he or she is, and the better off the game will be. But I tend to agree with Morgan here; That’s why we assemble teams, and why one person don’t make all of a game.

    Ideally we assemble dream teams of diverse people of different aptitudes, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to keep learning. :)

  18. @Slyfeind: so you basically say that the “single-person teams” of the 1980s created games that sucked?

  19. so you basically say that the “single-person teams” of the 1980s created games that sucked?

    The 1980s are long-dead and gone. Move on.

  20. raph said: “All the great game designers I know are omnivorous constant readers.”

    True of so many fields that require a synthetic mind. Feed the kitty. They also have a slightly lazy streak.

    All the good songwriters I know are readers. The best ones are painters too. The very best usually have a background in theatre. Games probably have more aspects of theatre than other forms, but I found the really good songwriters have that ability to create an entire play inside 16 lines of lyrics. It really is the summit of the art form.

    Just for comparison: do the really good games come to you all at once, in chunks, or do you have to noodle until you get a piece, get the next piece and so on. When I was young, I wrote songs from front to back. Now I find I sometimes write from back to front and get better results (goal-oriented; I know how I want that final emotion to play out as the song closes and I write that down, then write a front, then build the peaks).

    It is all glorious good fun, isn’t it?

  21. Learn both programming and literature, math and history, cognitive psychology and philosophy?

    All the great game designers I know are omnivorous constant readers.

    I very greatly suspect that the reading and exploration of “everything” is symptom rather than cause Raph.

  22. “The 1980s are long-dead and gone. Move on.”

    Really bad advice. Studying games from the late 70s and early 80s is one of the best ways to get comfortable with these principles. The game mechanics are closer to the surface and you don’t have to cut through the glitter to see them. That was the golden era and we haven’t really done much new on core mechanics since then, but so much exploration happened in those years that truly “moving on” is easier said than done.

  23. Gene Endrody wrote:

    Really bad advice. Studying games …

    I didn’t say anything about studying history being a bad thing. “Those who forget the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it” and all that jazz. In fact, if you look at the context of my statement, you’ll see that I’m talking about the business side of games, as I usually do. The 1980s business environment of games is vastly different than the environment of today. If you don’t already know this, you’ll learn more when I get the association I’m starting up and running.

  24. I don’t think that your statement had much of an apparent context — your last post was quite a while earlier in the thread. I didn’t read it that way either.

  25. Raph wrote:

    I don’t think that your statement had much of an apparent context

    Okay, okay, I submit! :)

    I was only responding to the phrase “single-person teams of the 1980s” and the hint of nostalgic longing for a time when single-person “teams” could be competitive.

  26. i see the word ‘fun’ thrown around like so much food at a mess hall, but i sometimes wonder, what truly is ‘fun’?

  27. Raph>The two hardest and most critical skills for a game designer (IMHO):
    >Be able to see the game with no hint of artwork, music, sound, anything
    >Be able to see the game without any mechanics, any rules, any knowledge of how it should play

    Are you saying that these are skills people do not, in general, have? Or are you saying that everyone is a game designer?

    Richard

  28. tallimar wrote:

    i see the word ‘fun’ thrown around like so much food at a mess hall, but i sometimes wonder, what truly is ‘fun’?

    Which mess halls are those!? That’s a lot of food fights. ;)

  29. i see the word ‘fun’ thrown around like so much food at a mess hall, but i sometimes wonder, what truly is ‘fun’?

    Fortunately, I wrote an entire book about that. :)

    Are you saying that these are skills people do not, in general, have? Or are you saying that everyone is a game designer?

    These are skills that people, in general, do not have.

  30. i still need to get my hands on that book too… in time when funds allow.

    although i have dr. rigby’s idea on why video games attract players and have found that an interesting read; Rethinking Carrots

  31. @tallimar, unfortunately said book is really really hard to find. It’s been out of print for quite a while now, and the few times it’s cropped up on Amazon resellers or ebay auctions it’s tended to go for near a hundred dollars.

    There’s a single copy up on ebay right now, and it’s still rather low at the moment, but it’s got 6 days left on it so that might change. I seriously suggest you watch and buy it if it stays under 30 or so dollars. If you’re that interested in picking up a copy anyway. Unless Raph finally manages to get it back into print it may prove rather hard to find another copy of for anything remotely like a reasonable price.

    http://cgi.ebay.com/A-Theory-of-Fun-college-text-book-by-Raph-Koster_W0QQitemZ200238245667QQihZ010QQcategoryZ2228QQssPageNameZWDVWQQrdZ1QQcmdZViewItem

  32. @Morgan, yeah ditto. :) I’d also add that those games from the 80′s are still fun and very popular, and singular developers are still making games today. That’s something that never ended. But it’s just not a viable way to make a living for most devs, so such games that we all know and love are most often developed in people’s spare time.

    @Bartle, I’d say that everybody has the potential for those skills, but it’s like music or writing. They have to be trained. Fortunately it seems to be pretty easy to pick up on, especially among people who play a lot of games.

  33. I was paraphrasing this idea to my friends, and came to a somewhat different model that might be useful to look at.

    A resturant owner needs to be able to review the quality of the food he is selling as well as the quality of the presentation of that food. A nice ice sculpture will not help make up for sour milk in the creamers; A tasty desert will not make up for poor service. This also brought to our mind the third idea of “value”: Trying to bring good food and good atmosphere at a good price.

  34. Rik wrote:

    A tasty desert will not make up for poor service.

    On the other hand, a great atmosphere can make up for poor service. The rooftop bar, Moonstone Lounge, at the Hard Rock Hotel in San Diego is a good example.

  35. On the other hand, a great atmosphere can make up for poor service. The rooftop bar, Moonstone Lounge, at the Hard Rock Hotel in San Diego is a good example.

    Only to a degree I’d assume though, yes? And the reverse is also true, where great service can make up for an inferior product, up to a point.

    I think you can look at this all as sort of zero sum (kinda) system, where the positive and negative qualities have to come out to zero for the product to be tolerable. A negative value results in people staying away, while a positive, of course, attracts. And the individual “components” may be weighted to varying degrees depending on the product and the market. Atmosphere means more to a hotel than it does to an auto-mechanic shop, but good service is vastly more important for the mechanic.

  36. Great original post and comments by all. I wanted to respond to Tom’s question:

    Tom said on July 9th, 2008 at 11:06 pm:
    How? How do you master both of these skills? How do you even go about training yourself in them?

    There are some things you can do.
    For #1 – You must play a lot of games. However many you think ‘a lot’ is, play more than that. You study how other people play games, especially people that don’t play like you or all the hardcore gamers that you work with.

    You can play games that aren’t video games – kids games, board games, “New Games” and “Junkyard Sports” , games played with the imagination and with string and sticks..and study the roots and history of games and people’s relationship with play.

    And then when you have experienced lots and lots of different game systems your brain will help you make connections and shortcuts to new and elegant ways of communicating with and challenging the player. Mechanics will pop into your head like songs do now when you hear a matching phrase.

    And when you have a base of experience to work from – that you really understand because you’ve tried those systems out – then you can start to make new rules and new mechanics and explore new ways to communicate with the player.

    #2
    I find my experience with improv theater (Renassance festival volunteer, musician, and character) is something I go back to again and again to understand (and explain) dynamic story and interacting with an audience.

    You should personally understand the role of the audience in storytelling or theater or juggling or any entertainment medium…learn to read them, see when they are engaged and what excites them.

    Experience Awe – maybe that is Burning Man, or Mardi Gras, or walking through the great redwoods or the cathedrals of Europe. Then once you have that emotional yardstick – once you’ve stretched your imagination enough – you can try to put that in your games. To take someone on that journey with you.

    When you can think about the journey you want the player to experience, and you can see the whole thing from start to finish, and how every detail meshes together it is a very powerful thing. What do they feel, what do they think, what do they have time to do think? How does the journey change you? And how will it become an individual journey for someone else. What will they learn, what will they take away, what will they bring?

    Watch people play your game in focus groups, or you just sit there quietly where you can’t guide them, where you see them trying to have that amazing experience but frustrated with controls, and confusing interfaces, and that thing that the Publisher thought was a good idea…and it changes you. So you start to see not just the experience you want to make but the pitfalls that get put in there by mistake – not with bad intent – just that nobody has the eyes for someone new to the experience after awhile.

    You have to love the player that you will never meet, and remember their needs. You want to give them this gift, this unique experience they cannot get from any other medium, something unique and special and personal.

    That is what kees us going at night, that dream.

    -Mark

  37. I think the two skills mentioned are core skills. The same can be said for any IT variant in the business world. The ability to see through an end-users vision of a website to its core fundamentals is rare.

    Every time I hear someone talk about this skill set, I think of the Matrix. There is a scene where one guy is looking at what looks like gibberish….but he can read it.

    When I do interviews, I usually rank ‘The Matrix Questions’ a little lower. My preferred questions?

    1. When was the last time you asked for help? Who did you ask and why?
    2. When was the last time you disagreed with management? What did you do about it and why?

    I treat those questions like a game of poker. The speed and conviction you answer them with is extremely telling.

  38. [...] ???????? в ????? ???? ??????? ????????? ?????????? – ??????????? ????? в????? ?????? ??? ????в??? ????????. П???в????? ????, ???????? ????? ?? в????????. [...]

  39. [...] в – в в . Пв , в. [...]

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.