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What does it take to become a game designer? There is no one simple answer, no one path to success. There are some basic traits and skills we can mention, however. First, a great game designer is someone who loves games. A passion for games is the one thread all great designers have in common. If you don’t love what you’re doing, you’ll never be able to put in the long hours necessary to craft truly innovative games.
To someone on the outside, making games may seem like a trivial task—something that’s akin to playing around. But it’s not. As any experienced designer can tell you, testing their own game for the ten-thousandth time can become work, not play. As the designer, you have to remain dedicated to that ongoing process. You can’t just go through the motions. You have to keep that passion alive in yourself, and in the rest of the team, to make sure that the great gameplay you envisioned in those first, carefree days of design is still there in the exhausting, pressure-filled final days before you lock production. In order to do that, you’ll need to develop some other important skills in addition to your love of games.
The most important skill that you, as a game designer, can develop is the ability to communicate clearly and effectively with all the other people who will be working on your game. You’ll have to “sell” your game many times over before it ever hits the store shelves: to your teammates, management, investors, and perhaps even your friends and family. To accomplish this, you’ll need good language skills, a crystal clear vision, and a well-conceived presentation. This is the only way to rally everyone involved to your cause and secure the support that you’ll need to move forward.
But good communication doesn’t just mean writing and speaking—it also means becoming a good listener and a great compromiser. Listening to your playtesters and to the other people on your team affords fresh ideas and new directions. Listening also involves your teammates in the creative process, giving them a sense of authorship in the final design that will reinvest them in their own responsibilities on the project. If you don’t agree with an idea, you haven’t lost anything, and the idea you don’t use might spark one that you do.
Figure 1.3: Communicating with team members
What happens when you hear something that you don’t want to hear? Perhaps one of the hardest things to do in life is compromise. In fact, many game designers think that compromise is a bad word. But compromise is sometimes necessary, and if done well, it can be an important source of creative collaboration.
For instance, your vision of the game might include a technical feature that is simply impossible with the time and resources you have available. What if your programmers come up with an alternate implementation for the feature, but it doesn’t capture the essence of the original design? How can you adapt your idea to the practical necessities in such a way as to keep the gameplay intact? You’ll have to compromise. As the designer, it’s your job to find a way to do it elegantly and successfully, so that the game doesn’t suffer.
Game production can be one of the most intense, collaborative processes you’ll ever experience. The interesting and challenging thing about game development teams is the sheer breadth of types of people who work on them. From the hardcore computer scientists, who may be designing the AI or graphic displays, to the talented illustrators and animators who bring the characters to life, to the money-minded executives and business managers who deliver the game to its players, the range of personalities is incredible.
Figure 1.4: Team meeting
As the designer, you will interact with almost all of them, and you will find that they all speak different languages and have different points of view. “Computer-ese” doesn’t often communicate well to artists or the producer, while the subtle shadings of a character sketch may not be instantly obvious to a programmer. A big part of your job, and one of the reasons for your documents and specifications, is to serve as a sort of “universal translator,” making sure that all of these different groups are, in fact, working on the same game.
Throughout this book, we often refer to the “game designer” as a single team member, but in many cases the task of game design is a team effort. Whether there is a team of designers on a single game, or a collaborative environment where the visual designers, programmers, or producer all have input to the design, the game designer rarely works alone.
Being a game designer often requires working under great pressure. You’ll have to make critical changes to your game without causing new issues in the process. All too often, a game becomes unbalanced while trying to correct an issue because the designer gets too close to the work, and in the hopes of solving one problem, introduces a host of new problems. But unable to see this mistake, the designer keeps making changes, while the problems grow worse, until the game becomes such a mess that it loses whatever magic it once had.
Games are fragile systems, and each element is inextricably linked to the others, so a change in one variable can send disruptive ripples throughout. This is particularly catastrophic in the final phases of development, where you run out of time, mistakes are left unfixed, and portions of the game are amputated in hopes of saving what’s left. It’s gruesome, but it may help you understand why some games with so much potential seem “D.O.A.”
The one thing that can rescue a game from this terrible fate is instilling good process in your team from the beginning. Production is a messy business, when ideas can get convoluted and objectives can disappear in the chaos of daily crises. But good process, involving the iterative system of playtesting and controlled changes which we’ll discuss throughout this book, can help you stay focused on your goals, prioritize what’s truly important, and avoid the pitfalls of an unstructured approach.
Exercise 1.2: D.O.A.
Take one game that you’ve played that was D.O.A. By D.O.A., we mean “dead on arrival” (i.e., a game that’s no fun to play). Write down what you don’t like about it. What did the designers miss out on? How could the game be improved?
A game designer often looks at the world differently from most people. This is in part because of the profession and in part because the art of game design requires someone who is able to see and analyze the underlying relationships and rules of complex systems, and to find inspiration for play in common interactions.
Figure 1.5: Systems all around us
When a game designer looks at the world, he often sees things in terms of challenges, structures, and play. Games are everywhere: from how we manage our money to how we form relationships. Everyone has goals in life and must overcome obstacles to achieve those goals. And of course, there are rules. If you want to win in the financial markets, you have to understand the rules of trading stocks and bonds, profit forecasts, IPOs, etc. When you play the markets, the act of investing becomes very similar to a game. The same holds true for winning someone’s heart. In courtship, there are social rules that you must follow, and it’s in understanding these rules and how you fit into society that helps you to succeed.
If you want to be a game designer, try looking at the world as one giant game made up of millions of smaller games that work independently in their own structures. Try to analyze how things in your life function. What are the underlying rules? How do the mechanics operate? Are there opportunities for challenge or playfulness? Write down your observations and analyze the relationships.
You’ll find there is potential for play all around you that can form the inspiration for a game. You can use these observations and inspirations as foundations for building new types of gameplay.
Why not look at other games for inspiration? Well, of course, you can. But if you want to come up with truly original ideas, then don’t fall back on existing games for all your ideas. Instead, look at the world around you. Some of the things that have inspired other game designers, and may inspire you, are obvious: personal relationships, buying and selling, competition in the workplace, etc. We could go on and on. But there are subtler areas of the world that may inspire you as well.
For instance, nature offers a wide variety of game-like systems. Take ant colonies: they’re organized around a sophisticated set of rules, and there’s competition both within the colonies and between competing insect groups. The same holds true for any ecosystem, whether it’s lions in sub-Saharan Africa or turtles in your neighborhood pond.
Examine these systems; break them down in terms of objects, behaviors, relationships, etc. Try to understand exactly how each element of the system interacts. This may be the foundation for an interesting game. You can do the same when looking at how people interact, whether in politics, music, or marriage. There is a game in each relationship. By practicing the art of extracting and defining the games in all aspects of your life, you will not only hone your skills as a designer, but you’ll open up new vistas in what you imagine a game can be.
Exercise 1.3: Your Life as a Game
List five areas of your life that could be games. Then briefly describe a possible underlying game structure for each.
Creativity is hard to quantify, but you’ll definitely need to access your creativity in order to design great games. Everyone is creative in different ways. Some people come up with lots of ideas without even trying. Others focus on one idea and explore all of its possible facets. Some sit quietly in their rooms thinking to themselves, while others like to bounce ideas around with a group and find the interaction stimulating. Some seek out stimulation or new experiences to spark their imagination. Great game designers tend to be people who can tap into their dreams and fantasies and bring those to life as interactive experiences.
One of the greatest game designers in the industry, Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto, said that he often looks to his childhood and to hobbies that he enjoys for inspiration. “When I was a child, I went hiking and found a lake,” he says. “It was quite a surprise for me to stumble upon it. When I traveled around the country without a map, trying to find my way, stumbling on amazing things as I went, I realized how it felt to go on an adventure like this.” Many of Miyamoto’s games draw from this sense of exploration and wonder that he remembers from childhood.
Think about your own life experiences. Do you have memories that might spark the idea for a game? One reason that childhood can be such a powerful inspiration for game designers is that when we are children, we are particularly engrossed in playing games. If you watch how kids interact in a playground, it’s usually through game playing. They make games and learn social order and group dynamics from their play. Games permeate all aspects of kids’ lives and are a vital part of their developmental process. So if you go back to your childhood and look at things that you enjoyed, you’ll find the raw material for games right there.
Creativity might also mean putting two things together that don’t seem to be related—like Shakespeare and the Brady Bunch. What can you make of such a strange combination? Well, the designers of You Don’t Know Jack used silly combinations of high- and low–brow knowledge like this to create a trivia game that challenged players to be equally proficient in both. The result was a hit game with such creative spark that it crossed the usual boundaries of gaming, appealing to players old and young, male and female.
Exercise 1.4: Your Childhood
List ten social games you played as a child. For example, hide and seek, four square, tag, etc. Briefly describe what was compelling about each of those games.
Figure 1.6: You Don’t Know Jack
Our past experiences, our relationships, and our identity all come into play when trying to reach our creativity. Game designers must find a way to tap into their creative souls and bring forth the best parts in their games. However you do it, whether you work alone or in a team, whether you stand on your head or bounce off the walls, whether you look to other games for inspiration, or to life experiences, the bottom line is that there’s no single right way to go about it. Everyone has a different style for coming up with ideas and being creative. What matters is not the spark of an idea but what you do with that idea once it emerges, and this is where process comes into play.
David Sheff, Game Over: How Nintendo Conquered the World (New York: Vintage Books, 1994), p. 51.
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