March 3, 2009

21 Behaviors of Great Designers

Since the purpose of reading (and writing) this blog is to become a better designer, I decided to group the posts based on their goal, rather than tags such as "combat" or "MMOs."

In the process of generating a list of tags that were general enough to cover all the content of this blog, I ended up with a list of the behaviors I think are most important in a great designer.

I thought about referring to these as "skills great designers posess," or "traits great designers exhibit," but I like "behaviors," since it emphasizes the fact that these are all things that anyone can consciously do more often. It also serves as a reminder that even highly experienced designers have to remember to do them.

1 - Admit Mistakes
It's important to know when your design isn't working or one of your ideas wasn't well thought out. This also includes identifying problems in your game that need to be fixed.

2 - Aim For Gameplay
All the most innovative mechanics, compelling fiction, beautiful art, and heartbreaking narrative in the world can't make a good game if it's not in the service of gameplay. Start with the thought process and tactical response you want the player to have to an enemy or location or story, and work backward from there. If you only ever remember one thing I write on this blog, please make this it.

3 - Be Consistent
Players can't learn how to play your game if the game doesn't present them with consistent feedback. Games are also subconsciously much more enjoyable if they present game mechanics, fiction, gameplay, and narrative that are all unified.

4 - Be Efficient
Focusing on efficiency is a positive feedback loop, and the benefits can be huge. One investment of a week working on a usable development tool or a well-written design doc can pay off over months or even years of development.

5 - Be Methodical
Game design isn't a science, but approaching it in a systematic manner can prevent all sorts of difficulties. Clear categories and terminology for data help players learn the game much more easily, as well as making the development process much simpler. Approaching problems in a methodical manner helps to solve them more efficiently and to know that they're really solved, or that they were even valid problems to begin with.
6 - Challenge Assumptions
Challenging assumptions is the seed of innovation. Why is a popular feature so successful in other games? Do you really need it at all? Game design on autopilot is never a good thing. Context is incredibly important in good design, but it's also valuable to consider a feature or decision as though no designer had ever made it before, and weigh out the pros and cons for yourself. Then, even if you do end up mimicking another game, you'll know you're copying the right element, for the right reason.

7 - Collaborate
Aside from a few notable hermits, game designers these days have to be great at working in a large team of developers. Good collaborators communicate well, accept feedback, and know when to throw away their idea in favor of someone else's. Often, the collaborative process also includes your players, a game reviewer, or even your game's competitors. Bad designers are often bad collaborators, but bad collaborators are almost always bad designers.
8 - Define Terms
What are the elements of game design, or of fun, or of a game itself? Game designers come to the discipline from all sorts of backgrounds, and tend to bring lots of different terms and jargon to the process. We need to take the time to be informed as to what people are actually talking about. Even when designers use the same terms, they often use them to mean wildly different things. On top of that, these terms can change their meaning from team to team and game to game.

9 - Don't Panic
Haphazard, knee-jerk game design is always bad game design, even when you're lucky enough that it doesn't come back to bite you. Iterate on design docs, or on a whiteboard, when it's still free. If not, the days you saved by rushing decisions will cost you weeks or months down the road.
10 - Get Your Hands Dirty
The best way to become better at designing is to spend a lot of time actually implementing your designs. The devil really is in the details. You can write 1000 design docs without ever improving as a designer, because the only way to learn is to find out the hard way which parts of those designs worked and which didn't.
11 - Improve Usability
In a way, good usability is the lowest-hanging fruit of good game design. Because there are often obvious right answers when it comes to making a game more usable, it's much easier to get right than making a game fun, which is much more subjective and finnicky. While reworking mechanics and gameplay always involves an element of risk, improving your game's usability is an almost guaranteed gain in quality.
12 - Know The Industry
Thinking about business models, release dates, competition, marketing and the like aren't really part of game design proper, but they are important if you want your game to succeed and your paychecks to continue.
13 - Know Your Audience
You'll eventually need to make some hard decisions between the kind of game your players want to play and the kind of game you'd want to play. This takes a good designer. You'll also have to listen to what your players demand and parse out what will actually make them happy. This takes a great designer.

14 - Know Your Goals
Establishing a solid set of common goals and values for the game you're making is the first and most basic step to making a good game, so of course almost nobody ever does it. Without this foundation to provide context for all of your other decisions, you may as well make a Magic 8-Ball your lead designer. Knowing what game you're making is especially important for being consistent and knowing your audience.
15 - Learn From Everything
Game design is a natural career for polymaths. People whose only interest is games are ironically not very good at making them. Everything from architecture to philosophy to zoology can come in handy when making games.
16 - Stay Objective
Contrary to popular belief, good design isn't about arguing opinions and personal taste. It's about finding the best way to achieve a set of predefined and agreed-upon goals. It's impossible to make objective design decisions if you don't know what game you're making.
17 - Study Games
Since almost anything you can think of has been attempted in some form already, playing games is the easiest, most detailed form of prototyping there is. This includes games someone else has made, as well as teams your own team has already made. There's nothing worse than repeating the same mistakes.
18 - Teach Players
Games need to teach players how to play them through consistent game mechanics that punish and reward, as well as clear UI and tutorials. Your learning curve has to account for the skill levels of all the players who comprise your audience. It's also very important to make sure your game is actually rewarding players for the behavior that you intended it to. When players are misbehaving, it's almost always because the game allowed or even encouraged them to.

19 - Think Ahead
Many designs that sound completely feasible in a game pitch or on the back of a box completely break down once someone actually tries to play them. Promising solutions to problems often cause a whole new set of problems elsewhere in the game. Take some time and work out the ramifications of each decision. This also includes designing extensible systems that won't break down the road when they need to be modified or expanded.
20 - Use Psychology
Game design, at its most basic level, is psychology. By typing on a keyboard, designers create an abstract set of data, which is compiled into an even more abstract set of stimuli, which creates a pleasant or unpleasant thought process inside the head of a person exposed and responding to those stimuli. It's very difficult to type a smile into someone else's brain if you don't understand a little something about people and how they think.
21 - Work Smarter
Imagine that by some incredible fluke, two teams at different companies produced the exact same game. Team A spent many years, way too much money, and whatever fraction of their team hasn't quit or died already is in a fairly grouchy mood. Team B made the same game in a shorter amount of time, for less money, and has a happy team ready to make the next game. How you make the game is almost as important as what you make, especially since so many games with bad process fail before they're even finished.


Tesh said...

Good list, this. I've long argued that "Renaissance men" (women, whatever) with a wide range of proficiencies and interests make the best game designers. Of course, I've also argued that those with wide ranging capability are also those who can learn more and retain more and perform better in ANY field. The human brain simply works best when it makes more connections.

That will, of necessity, mean developing internal filters to cut out the inevitable chaff, but a mind that thirsts for knowledge and wisdom is better prepared for just about anything. Such minds often communicate better as well.

To some degree, I'd even say that gamers also need to have diverse interests. A game like Valkyrie Profile will play differently if you're familiar with Norse legends, for example. Devs can aim higher to make games more interesting and important, but if the target audience isn't up to it, at some point, it's wasted effort. Help them stretch, certainly, but using BioShock to teach Rand's Humanism just doesn't wash.

HG said...

DARGA! this is HG. Jerome told me about your blog. now i get to read about your thoughts. :D how you been doing man?

blinktwice4y said...

21. "Live with the hot ones"

Mike Darga said...

@Tesh: Yeah, I think it never hurts to have an extra background in something interesting, as long as you've still got the solid game background too.

The 3 on this list that I think are the most lacking, or causing the most trouble in the industry are (2, 3, 9, and 16)

@HG: Hey! Good to see you here.


Eolirin said...

In terms of wording, I think number 2 is a little too ambiguous, or rather, gameplay is too poorly defined in this context.

I really think we should be looking at experience, and not just gameplay. Sometimes the right gameplay is no gameplay, or limited gameplay, for a particular segment. But it's definitely true that we should work backward from where we want the player to be emotionally, intellectually, etc, toward how we express that in the interactive environment. I just don't know that gameplay, as we typically think of it at least, is always the correct tool to be working back toward.

Mike Darga said...

You're more or less describing my definition of gameplay.

I actually even wrote a post to clarify what I mean by gameplay when I use it here, but I stupidly forgot to link it from this post:

Mike Darga said...

Thanks for pointing that out, by the way.

Eolirin said...

Yeah, actually looking at that definition of gameplay again, that does make more sense.

It's just gameplay is typically used to mean something active and the way it's being defined there also allows it to be passive, which threw me. Encouraging a thought or feeling may not precipitate an action as a result; there's no "play" that results. But *something* does result, and depending on what the goal is, that something may be more important than there being "play".

Furthermore, I think that the scope of that is too limiting as well, because your gameplay definition only cares about game mechanics, and while this is okay for system design, there's more to it than that. The particular choice of visual aesthetic, for example, is not a mechanical decision (as we would use the term anyway), but it can definitely impact the player's emotional state. Use of certain cinematic effects - like tying certain colors to specific themes or using other subtle visual symbols - in a narrative driven game can definitely have an impact on the player without the inclusion of any mechanics, and I think it's important to also be aware of, and building toward, those sorts of responses.

Of course, I'm coming from the position that it's completely possible to have an interactive piece of software that's light on gameplay but rich in narrative, and that such a thing would be just as valuable (and enjoyable) as something built the other way 'round. You need to still be aware of how your gameplay intersects - it should reinforce what you're doing, not distract - but if you're leading with your story foot first, you need to be designing toward emotional impact first, not necessarily toward inherently interesting gameplay mechanics.

Eolirin said...

And for context: I also subscribe to a more auteurish view of how design should work at the higher levels. Your system designers shouldn't necessarily need to worry about how the visual design impacts the overall experience, but your lead definitely should be.

Ben said...

As an aspiring game designer working on his first DIY project myself, I find your blog very inspiring and helpful. Thank you very much Mike, you're giving me insight many people refused me.

Mike Darga said...

Thanks, Ben! Stick around, I'm going to do a series on how to break into the industry at some point. =)

John DeSavage said...

I'd be more interested in a series on how to break the industry. :P

Mike Darga said...

Haha, wouldn't you say the industry's pretty broken already?