How Game Designers Actually Think
February 19, 2014
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January 6, 2014: My daughter’s new game. She had cards with either squares or rectangles on them. In playtest, she started by having us move to the next available space that matched the card. By the end, she switched it to having to draw the next square’s exact type to move one space forward.
This is an attempt to describe exactly how I am thinking as I engage in the design process. I expect to have revisions, footnotes, and addenda as I go on through the end game stage, but maybe this will be of use to other people that are getting started or are thinking about getting started. (I have at this point spent so many hours watching presentations by Dr. Lewis Pulsipher that I actually think in terms of bullet points instead of some sort of short essay form.)
- The first big hurdle is getting enough of an idea or a good enough collection of ideas that things “gel” when you sit down to thrash out a first pass at a prototype.
- It seems easier to start with a central mechanic and work up and out than it does to compose something intricate and with many parts up front.
- What seems really neat in your head can turn out to be completely unworkable.
- Even if you have something that sorta kinda works, there can still be enough “unknown unknowns” that your game is effectively crippled.
- The only way to work towards a solution is to play the game, reflect on what’s happened, make some changes, and repeat. Again and again and again and again….
- Playtesting an unfinished game is like having your face shoved into dog poo… but it’s miles and miles of dog poo on a boiling hot freeway… and your face is being shoved into it at sixty miles an hour and it doesn’t seem like it will ever stop.
- There are ups and downs. At one point, you have created the coolest thing ever. You will change the world. You feel so powerfully creative. Waves of elation wash over you. Then you playtest and there are flaws so big that everything you’re doing is a waste of time.
- This is why you need to stay disciplined and focused on the end goal: a series of completed game designs. Both extremes of emotion slow your progress, so stay focused on doing things that keep you developing and testing and learning things about your design.
- And of course, anybody can start a game design. Or a novel. Or anything. Never forget that your reason for existence is to actually, finally finish something for once. FINISH SOMETHING!!!
- If in doubt, play what you’ve got. It will suck. It will be almost impossible not to come up with ideas for things that you can change.
- When Dr. Lewis Pulsipher talks about game design, he idealizes subtraction over everything else. “You’re done when there’s nothing left to take away….”
- But the iterative design process is both additive and subtractive. You will add things that break things that you like. A set of changes will create new problems.
- You will come to decision points where you look at two alternate ways to continue. Some you will play, some you will imagine playing, some you will be able to reject just on the basis of your goals and constraints.
- This iterative process will create a trash heap of ideas that have been tried and found wanting. Sometimes you will return to the trash heap because something there will actually be useful for dealing with some other problem that emerged from something else that was completely unrelated to what you were originally doing.
- So a large heap of trashed ideas related to your design is effectively a sort of palette. Trashing an idea shouldn’t be seen as failure, but as what it takes to make progress.
December, 2013: At one point, my daughter’s game included non-competitive “challenges” where you had to make things out of silly putty with no time limit involved. Strangely… this idea did not survive into subsequent iterations….
- And you’re adding, trashing, subtracting, repurposing a dozen things with each iteration….
- What seems like a good thing to tinker with and what you actually roll with in your playtest time are usually two different things! You won’t always do what you say you’re going to do because another sane part of your brain will overrule your “creativity” when hand made components and real-life play time is at stake. Maybe you’re a wimp or maybe you’re lazy… but your “gut” can only participate in the design process if you’re actually doing things.
- Coming to a dead end is actually a productive thing. This is what “fail fast” feels like in practice: an all consuming frustration that turns into agony. If you were smart, you’d want this to have happened. But to do anything you have to believe in it. So you fool yourself into doing a completely stupid iteration because you actually don’t know what the heck you’re dealing with, yet. It’s painful… but shedding your illusions is the most productive thing that can happen.
- There is nothing like declaring something to be “impossible” if you want to turn your brain into overdrive trying to find a way anyway!
- In fact… if you are completely stuck… write an essay about why your game design is a complete unworkable failure. Find a friend and explain it all to him. Usually… in the process of doing this, you will suddenly see things in a new light. An innovative solution can come to you seemingly from nowhere.
- Your friend doesn’t even have to answer you– he just has to be listening. For some reason… taking up someone else’s time with your problem does something different to your brain. (In software development this is called being someone’s “rubber duck.” You can even have a rubber duck toy be the thing you tell your problem to and it will usually work just as good.)
- So the design process is both additive and subtractive…. This is because your iterative process is honing in on something, like Newton’s algorithm. The idea pendulum swings back and forth until it settles on things that actually work at the table. You’ll overcompensate in multiple directions as you steadily train your intuition to help you move towards your goals.
- Of course, you also adjust your goals as you learn more in the process.
- What kinds of ideas actually survive playtesting…? Lean ones. Deft ones. Efficient ones. There will be a healthy tension between the various components of the design, and each element will address multiple aspects of the constraints while simultaneously balancing out problems created by the other parts. There is a cogency and a coherence to good design.
- Your raw intuition simply does not produce this sort of thing out of whole cloth. There is a reason why this process is iterative. You can’t fake this or pull an allnighter or pussyfoot around: the piper must be paid!
- And just like in math class, everything must balance. You are actually creating a sort of machine… with software for peoples’ minds! Everything must work together… and everything must mesh with the human element… and the social element on top of that!
- There are times when I think, “oh this will work if I just add a deck of cards.” Man there is no problem in game design that I don’t think can be solved with a deck of cards!
- Another thing I do: I tell myself, “this isn’t working as a board game… but if I had a computer program to run it all, then people would play it.” FAIL!!!
- Also: “Well… this is an educational game. It’s not really supposed to be enjoyable. I have a captive audience… and I’m really designing for the parent/teacher.” NOPE!!!
- There are so many white lies you tell yourself when your design is not working. They can sound so reasonable. The great thing about playtesting is that it will break you out of this– it will ram your face into your crappy game at sixty miles an hour!!! That’s what you need!!!
- The actual process of design… it is necessarily algorithmic. The series of iterations will give you information far beyond the reach of your intuition. The deeper down you go, the more variables you’ll have to play with… the more dials you’ll have to turn… the more real combinations of ideas you’ll begin to frame and test and review and reject.
January 9, 2014: “Daddy, I don’t think I like to play games anymore. I think I’d rather design them.” — Okay, iteration #3 of my daughter’s roll-and-move studies. Start with one die. Landing on “chicken pox” causes you to go back two. Landing on shapes lets you go forward an extra two. If you’re in a loop, keep doing it until the dice hit the table. (??) If you land on colored shapes, you DIE! If all players “die”, they all go back to start and the number of dice being rolled increases by one. If you can’t land on END exactly and need to go past it, you go back five from wherever you were moving from. In our (single) playtest, it took six dice before we got a winner.
- The iterative process is necessarily explorative. You aren’t inventing so much as discovering. And this process is guided not so much by an artistic or mathematical type of thinking… but by something so much more practical and unassuming.
- Your discernment is what guides you through the branching paths of combinations and choices. Your discernment is trained by the whole of all of your life experiences and skills, but what actually happens at the table is the ultimate standard for any given idea or combination of ideas.
- How do you know when you’re done…? When you can play your game or watch your game being played and you no longer see a half dozen things that absolutely have to change when it’s over.
- You are not an artiste. You’re an accountant. You review every aspect of your game like someone going over a company’s books looking for fraud and for the potential for fraud. Is this company making money? Can this company stay in business? For your game, the questions are almost exactly along those lines. Will people buy my game? If they play it… will they play it again? And again?
- You are an auditor… checking that everything that is supposed to be there is actually there. And that everything that is there is supposed to be there! That is the standard for good form, economy, and verve.
Apply yourself, but trust the iterative process to flush out the problems you actually need to be working on, extend the depth and breadth of your palette, and refine and inform what your objectives should really be based on feedback from your intended audience. An eight year old can design games if they are willing to create, test, and revise repeatedly. Imagine what you can make if you stay at it! Worry about making a good game later– you need to be able to design a game in the first place before you can fret about that. You will not even know what is in you and what you can do for people until you have put completed game designs on the table. So get cracking… and finish a game!!!