September 17, 2009

How A Designer Thinks

Eric and Sandra over at Elder Game run what I consider to be the best blog on MMO game design, and one of the best game design blogs in general.

Sandra just posted a succinct piece of advice about another, possibly too-succinct, piece of advice: "think like a designer."

This is a very important piece of advice, and I've seen many aspiring and even experienced designers fail interviews for being "too playerish" or "not designerly enough." But what does that mean exactly? Here's Sandra's post:
“Learn to think like a designer, not a player.”

You’ll hear this a lot from game developers giving advice to would-be designers. And it’s not wrong … but taken at face value, it leads to being a sub-par designer. There’s no value in mimicing what you think a stereotypical designer would do.

Better advice: “Learn to understand how different types of players (including you!) experience your game, and analyze that like a designer.”

Not nearly as memorable, but way more accurate.

There's still something missing

Sandra has a great point; considering your whole playerbase is very important. I think there's one more detail that both versions only hint at: Think about your whole game. This is implied by "think about your whole playerbase," but it's so important that implication alone doesn't do it justice.

In my experience, taking a high-level view is especially difficult and important for designers of MMOs and other large, multifaceted games. We have so many competing features, playstyles, and subcommunities within our games that it's very easy to get hung up on just a small set.

Here's what "think like a designer" means to me:
Learn to think about your game and playerbase holistically. The classes, features, and gameplay style that you enjoy are only a small part of what is important to the playerbase as a whole.
We spend so much time as designers reminding ourselves to be detail-oriented that thinking of the game as a gestalt is sometimes easy to forget. Balancing between these two competing modes of thinking is what can really make a designer great.

Speaking of more advanced design thinking, I think this advice also comes with a counterintuitive but important corollary:
Learn to recognize which parts of your game and playerbase aren't important. Your favorite part of the game may be something the playerbase doesn't care about, and there are some players who care about things that it isn't in your best interests to focus on.
That may sound a bit mean or negligent, but there's no faster way to game design failure than trying to please everyone. If you can learn to tell what's not important, you'll be a better designer than just about everyone in this industry. Much more on that subject another time.

All this advice rolls off of the tongue less trippingly than "think like a designer," but it's a great point that we often give people important advice without bothering to clarify what our advice actually means.


Borror0 said...

I really, really like your last advice.

Mike Darga said...

Thanks Borror0 =)

Yeebo said...

That was a great read. A question: How you decide what part of your player base doesn't matter?

I can think of a few criteria...

1. small poportion of total player base (obvious)
2. have tastes that conflict with the core design (requires solid concept of the core audience and it's potential market value)
3. vocal minority (perhaps bulk of those that hang out on your message boards)
4. unlikely to spend much money (applies primarily in a ftp game)
5. cost of content generation far exceeds that of other player segments

I ask this because I often see developers make changes to their games that fly in the face of the criteria I would come up with for such decisions. Is there some biggie I am missing?

Eolirin said...

I've been thinking about this a lot lately too, actually, especially in terms of maintaining coherency across gameplay systems in large scale games. So this is good timing for me.

And I think, perhaps, this will start to move toward an answer to Yeebo's question.

I think, especially when it comes to large scale systems, it's incredibly easy to start chasing after the idea of making features that are designed to attract specific types of players. You add a feature because you know there's a group of players that'll like it. I'd argue that that's exactly backwards. If you're going to have coherency, you need a broader point than "have something for playstyle X." Without that, you don't have a core game, you really have multiple games taking place in the same space.

But if you have that broader core concept, you can start building out systems that take your concept and make it work for those playstyles. This makes it much easier to know what to subtract from your design. You can gauge importance by how well it integrates with the concept, or whether it's counter to the concept. It gives you a metric, a yardstick by which you can determine importance.

As some examples of things that could be considered core "points" (just randomly): secrets, trust, consequences, strategic planning, tactics, resource acquisition, community, story.

Using those, or other things like them, you can create mechanics that resonate with each other, and with the goals of your game. Discordance is easier to find, things that are unimportant easier to isolate. In a game about story it's much less important to have a detailed and complex gear itemization system. In a game about tactics it's probably better if there isn't a steep character based power curve, etc, etc.

Mike Darga said...

@Yeebo: I wasn't kidding when I said that if you knew the answer to that question you'd be one of the best game designers in the world. It seems that all the rules contradict each other.

There are a few good examples of companies who have done this well or poorly though. Stick around, and I'll definitely write a post about this soon.

In the meantime, I've talked a little bit about how to treat those decisions once you've made them:

Tesh said...

How about "think like an artist"? (Shameless self-promotion, of course.)

Y'see, the best artists will work from the gestalt to the detailed, never the other way.

It's the rookie freshman artist who spends hours meticulously painting an eye, only to realize that the proportions on the head are all out of whack. Experienced and skilled artists will start very rough and look at the big picture (composition, proportion, pose, etc.), and only once those are right *even though they aren't detailed yet*, will they start to layer on detail. Even then, they will work holistically, never spending a lot of time in one place. They will often step back and check to make sure their detail work doesn't blow up their carefully planned gestalt design.

Hmm... I should probably just write up a post on that, complete with pretty pictures.

And to think, I was just getting myself wound down on blogging. :)

Mike Darga said...

I'm totally with you Tesh:

Eolirin said...

That is kinda what I was trying to get at too Tesh :)