Game Design: The Designer Class – What is he like?

Last week, I started with a series of blogposts about what it’s like and what it takes to be a game designer. Because we’re talking games here, I’m approaching these posts as an RPG character creation guide. The series consists of the following chapters:

  1. Role: What are the tasks of a game designer?
  2. Passive Abilities: What are favorable character traits? (This chapter!)
  3. Powers: What are important skills?
  4. Weaknesses: What are the biggest pitfalls?

So this week, I’ll talk about the passive abilities of the gamedesigner: the character traits. We all know some favorable character traits for a lot of professions. A good firefighter is brave and vigilant, and a good nurse is often sympathetic and caring. As with any profession, game designers have favorable traits too. Here I will give my take on the traits that will improve your game design capabilities. Traits are more like naturally born talents, that can be developed, but hardly learned. For example, you are either brave or not. There is no such thing as a brave school where you learn to be brave. Becoming brave is a difficult task, one that requires a character change. Note that these traits I mention aren’t requirements for being a game designer, but traits that, in my opinion, will give you a significant head start.

Before I start, I need to credit Jesse SchellExtra Credits and Joost van Dongen again, for their words of wisdom that have influenced my view on game design. Some viewpoints here might be shamelessly copied from them.

Good talker/writer

Obviously, if you’re going to communicate a lot, you’ll need to be able to communicate well! You’re going to talk or write to other designers, programmers, artists, business-guys, publishers, and sometimes, even your target audience! If the way you communicate is boring, you’re bound to lose the interest of others. Say you’re having a team meeting where you’re going to pitch a mechanic to the team. When you talk as passionate and interesting as a bag of potatoes, you run the risk that the people will stop paying attention. They’ll misinterpret your idea, or worse, they’ll just won’t think your idea is fun because you’re not fun!
If your way of communicating is unclear, you’re going to sow a lot of confusion and misinterpretation. When you’re communicating with the team, like writing a gamedesign document, make sure to be clear and explicit. If the reader get’s it right away, it will shorten the test loop.

Having a knack for reaching people with your words is a great talent for a gamedesigner. You’re the only one that can explain the team what has to be implemented. So make sure you do it well! If ideas don’t get implemented, you want them not to get implemented because they weren’t good enough, not because your talk was uninteresting. Also, if ideas get implemented wrong, you didn’t do your job of communicating good enough.

A nice plus is that designing a good talk has a lot of similarities with designing a good game. If you have a talent for interesting people with words, you’re more likely to interest people with games as well.

Creative

Well duh. Of course you have to be creative! You are trying to craft an exciting new experience! Making something new of high quality is the practically the definition of creativity! So we’re done here, right?

…Not entirely. People often come with:”I have an awesome idea for a game or a mechanic!”, and it seems that creativity stops there. While composing new ideas for experiences are a very valid use of creativity, they are probably the least frequent one. Remember “Experience Crafting” from the last blog? Look closely on how creativity is used there:

  • Creating mechanics and concept: So you want to make a superhero game? You have great ideas for how a superhero should progress through the game, and how to awesomify the boss battles? Great! Valid use of creativity, very fun to do, and sadly, just a small part of the game design process.
  • Creating problems: This sounds very silly and stupid, but the better you are at creating problems for your mechanics and concepts, the better your concepts and mechanics will be. This is creativity used to create new perspectives and finding new problems. A talk with a bad gamedesigner will go something like this:
    • Game designer: I have an aaaawesome idea X!
    • You: Sounds cool! But… how will the player do Y?
    • Game designer: Uuuuh… I didn’t think about the idea that way….

    While a talk with a good game designer would end with:

    • Game designer: I already thought about that problem, and the  player just needs to do Z!

    Changing perspective is an important part of game designing,  and it takes a creative person to come up with new perspective and seek problems from that point of view. Your initial mechanics are never perfect, and it will take many iterations to distill out the best design. Using your creativity to find new perspectives and problems in your design will improve your distilling-speed, and thus allow more iterations. By the rule of the loop, more iterations means a better product!

  • Creating elegant solutions: Now that you used your creativity to find new problems, it’s time to use that creativity to come up with elegant solutions! With elegant solutions I mean solutions that don’t add to the complexity of the game. Your game can be complex, but it should be complex because you choose to make a complex game. The reason shouldn’t be: “There was this problem and the only way we could fix it was to add more rules to catch this exception.” It sounds easy, but finding a solution that doesn’t add more strange exceptions is harder than it looks. When you can make a design that is resistant to change of perspective while not becoming increasingly bloated, you’re using your creativity well! It’s the game design equivalent of the programmers “neat code”.

So be creative, but don’t forget to put that creativity to good use after the concept has been thought out!

Empathetic

Wait, what? Empathy? We’re not trying to comfort anyone! Why would a game designer need empathy more than any other human being to excel?

When you think about it a little bit longer, it makes a lot of sense. Look at the definition of empathy according to the Collins English Dictionary:

 the power of understanding and imaginatively entering into another person’s feelings

When someone is playing a game, he’s entering an experience that will give him certain feelings. The feeling of power while being a superhero, or sadistic pleasures when playing an evil overlord. The point is, you as a game designer must maximize that feeling. What better way is there to understand the player’s experiences, than entering the state of the player himself? When you’re playtesting, and people do not enjoy the experience, it’s your job to figure out why. It helps a lot if you’re able to let your premises go, and identify yourself with the player.

People use many ways to “practice” empathy. First and foremost, they ask and listen, listen very closely. If the player is frustrated by a jumping course in your game, and he says: “The jumping sucks!”  it means something different than if he would say “I can’t seem to get the jumping right…”. You might think that both indicate that the jump mechanics aren’t smooth enough. However, in the first case, the player is blaming the game. While in the second case, he’s blaming himself. If the player thinks the jumping sucks, he’s having a negative experience that is probably interfering with the target experience. The second case is not necessarily a bad experience, since the player feels he’s in control. There are games build around the experience of improving your mastery level, even while the controls are ace (Like Super Meat Boy and VVVVVV). Listen close to your players, and see through their words.

A second way to empathize with a person, is to look at his or her body language. Facial expression, posture, focus of attention: all these things reveal motives and feelings the player doesn’t even realize he has. It’s not uncommon for game designers to record their playtest session to have more time to analyse the player’s body language. Understanding and entering someone else’s experience is a very useful talent to have as a game designer!

Now it seems that empathy is used for testing purposes only, but in my opinion, it’s used in every aspect of game design:

  • Experience Crafting: Remember to use your creativity to find different perspectives? Empathy helps you experiencing those perspectives. Basically, you’re empathizing with another fake version of yourself, trying to experience feelings that aren’t really your own.
  • Communicating: I don’t think I even have to mention this, but empathy is at core of communication. Understanding someone’s views and motives is vital for good communication. Also, if you listen well and are able to empathize with your teammates, you might hear and understand new perspectives, problems, and solutions that you would have never encountered yourself. Listening to your team is just as valuable as talking to them.
  • Testing & Tweaking: As mentioned above!

Someone who has difficulties understanding the motives and experiences of a person, will most likely have difficulties creating a beautiful experience.

That’s it for now! Naturally, there are many, many other traits that will help you, but I think these three are the most valuable. If you have all of them, I think you’ve got a great talent for becoming a good game designer! If you miss any of them, well, there are many roads that lead to Rome, but it will probably hamper you somewhere along the way. Next time, I’ll talk about important skills for a game designer. Thanks for reading!

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