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Five nightmares of a modern Game Designer
by Svyatoslav Torick on 07/22/14 11:15:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

Short introduction: I’ve been a Game Designer in various sized teams (from 3 to 30) since 2008 and everything written here I’ve experienced a lot.

A Game Designer has their hands full all the time. They have to create something cool, keep the player in the flow, trying to prevent boredom while fending off too much information. The Game Designer is the only person who is utterly and completely in charge of the game experience, so to make the impressions seamless and thorough they have to meet compromises and make sacrifices. In this article, I want to show you five working issues that Game Designers (well, me) experience like a nightmare in a B-movie.

1. Everything that can be invented has been invented

Here is a paradox: the videogame industry is more than 40 years old but still considered a dynamic and hi-tech trade. Every day hundreds of games release on platforms and if you suddenly become enlightened with a great idea, try searching the archives. Most likely, your thought has already been developed into a game – somewhere, sometime. And here’s another paradox: in the videogame industry your wildest fantasies are not worth a dime. So what is to be done?

The books tell us that stealing is wrong, but in terms of game development, NOT taking a good concept is quite difficult – or, rather, proving that it was your idea and not something you noticed on reference screenshots. As soon as the Game Designer stands up for a task, the first thing he has to think over is “where did they implement this thing already?” There is nothing to be ashamed of in such way of thinking: programmers use libraries that were written by someone else, so Game Designers have about a million games full of wisdom and experience.

By the way, that is why I think that sheer game experience is more important for Game Designer than a certificate of enrollment in using mockup software. Do not hesitate to search your memory vaults but note this: it is not as important to where and how you found your idea as it is to implement your findings.

2. Beauty vs Function

Let’s say you are developing a classy user interface with buttons. You have different screens of the same layout: there are four buttons, they are placed in the lower part, they are of the same size and they are equally important. Why do this? Because it’s stylish and your GUI specialist recommends you building the screen with the equally important buttons since you adopted unification. Everything went well for a significant number of screens until one day you realize that the next screen you are working only has two more functions. You can add another one that is of less importance in comparison to the other buttons, but that’s just lame.

This is a classic Game Designer conflict: you can either do something that is visually neat, but demolish the “unification” experience by adding unnecessary buttons, or dismiss the whole concept and place as much functions as you need for this screen.

Generally, the solution is somewhere in between. Sometimes you have to invent new screen types (“standard” with four buttons, “pop-up” with three, “confirmation” with two etc), sometimes you adjust buttons size to whatever current functionality requests.

There are no preemptive measures that could be taken. Planning a good game does not assume writing everything A to Z and questions of that kind will rise here and there. The process is iterative – it’s not a pictorial phrase, but a savior cross for Game Designer, a cross he has to bear.

3. Loose ends

The bigger the development team, the less chance that a Game Designer knows the project architecture good enough to speak with programmers on their language and write documentation not only for Game Designer’s intentions, but also for programmer’s capabilities. Even the most thorough design document will not be final – one moment programmer will come to designer and start asking questions.

By the way, take a note: if programmer reads documentation and does not come to clarify details after that he will code it “as is” and you will definitely get the feature done in the simplest way and most probably won’t be able to make any adjustments to it in future.

At the same time, a Game Designer has no point in doing an excessively detailed documentation. Some algorithms might become obsolete by the time that functionality finally gets the development opportunity. Some part of the documentation will be reworked upon at another team members’ request. Even the Game Designer himself might feel the urge to rewrite here and there. So the main point is – picture key algorithms first and the details – discussed and approved by every participant – will follow.

A reflection of this problem is the counter-offer. Seeing Game Designer’s efforts of creating not the algorithm by itself, but a definite user experience, the programmer can come up with his solution. But beware of Greeks bearing the gifts! Think it over; estimate its value for the Flow; get in your player’s shoes and make sure this solution does not break the balance and holds no barrier to future development. Part of this problem is that the programmer already threw the ball to Game Designer forcing him to make decision as soon as possible.

You can’t really foresee all these obstacles, both small and big. On one hand, you won’t be able to write the documentation to a dot (the process is iterative!), but on the other hand – you will never solve a question that crosses out the whole documentation in several minutes. Just be ready to compromise. Always.

4. Late for release

The clingiest nightmare of Game Designer is the urge to update and upgrade everything, including those that already work perfectly. From the very start, we are killing bores and perfectionists. In spite of endless hours spent on documentations, very important enlightenments (no kidding) strike us in the last moment. You can find whatever scientific explanation there is to explain why it comes from the shadow of your mind so untimely, but it doesn’t help – you’ve got to do something with it, and do it NOW.

A compromise here is to improve something that you can without distracting the programmers and artists. Alas, the less tools a Game Designer has, the less probability of completion this mission has. Besides, the great thought usually takes more than changing variables in balancing a formula or adding new entities to the database.

The development paradox is that a Game Designer can set a task of any complexity and longevity and project manager will add it to the schedule, but even if you allow for a change or two and come up with them later, you will hear many bad words and something like “you had to plan it ahead”. Well, it depends upon the team, of course, but be ready to inhibit your spontaneous desires at any time.

5. You are the only savior

Sometimes it happens otherwise: for financial, humanitarian or legal reasons you have to remake this feature right here, right now. No time to explain, get to your computer and think on how to convert platforming action with ponies to air simulator with the Great War planes. Deadline is yesterday. And consider yourself lucky if you’ll be able to retain winged pony to model physics of flight.

Jokes aside. Feature reworking starts with archiving of the original documentation without trying to reread or save a thing from it. It sounds harsh, but it really helps Game Designer to school his temper and become critical quotient to his work. This job is just about writing texts, filling table cells and drawing sketches. Also, we put our souls in it.

That is why reworking or cutting features should be considered a work from scratch. It helps not to think about saving favorite or hard-earned features that took some serious time to work on in the past. This is a philosophy of the same level that various couches and advisors use – “consider denials, failures and errors as new opportunities”. Do not fear – open a blank sheet and start working.

TL;DR

A Game Designer has a lot of challenges before him (especially sudden ones), but they all can be overcome if you are communicative, adequate, ready for compromise and you never give up.

 

About author: I’ve been a Game Designer in various teams of different size (from 3 to 30) since 2008 and everything written here I experienced a lot.

At this moment I am lead Game Designer at Creative Mobile, working on f2p drag racing MMO Nitro Nation.

I’ve been in the worldwide videogame industry for more than 15 years and I share unique and rare facts about it on my Twitter account Videogame Fact Daily @vgf365


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Comments


Fabian Fischer
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"Everything that can be invented has been invented"

I think that's utterly wrong. The bulk of the industry has focussed on exploring THEMATIC ideas during the last decades. In terms of actual game mechanics, we've only barely scratched the surface of what's possible. It's mostly just cloning under the smoke screen of "genre". The genres we have today are basically finished designs. Add a gimmick and a new wrapping (theme, audiovisuals etc.) and you're done "designing" (actually, you haven't really designed anything). Game design is crafting and organizing a set of rules. And in terms of rules, innovation is (and has been for decades) incredibly rare. We can look to the world of board games for a much higher innovation rate (which they need, because board games are naturally much more about mechanics and, in most cases, if you don't have an original ruleset, you barely have anything). But we haven't even really started inventing in video games.

Mutlu Isik
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I agree with Fabian. This quote "Everything that can be invented has been invented" isn't new. People have said this for centuries. But we have to keep in mind that true innovation is rare, because it's very hard to come up with something new. Just because we don't see it a lot, doesn't mean it's not happening. It's rare, which means it's hard to find.

Here's a better quote: "People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it." - George Bernard Shaw

Daniel Cook
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I concur. There is immense room for invention. Every day I feel like I'm just scratching the surface of what is possible. I still wake up excited about all the vast fields left to explore.

A small handful of the frontier sitting in front of our noses.
- Cooperative games
- eSports
- Touch controlled games: Still a green field.
- VR: OMG.
- Story games (GMless roleplaying)
- Almost anything to do with math, topographies or internal economies.

Original games are *everywhere.* Just last week I was scribbling out a set of rules...doodling as a friend and I discussed a different prototype. "What if there was something about building instead of destroying? What if you change this operator...and these goals." Boom, there was a delightful new puzzle game born in that mundane, non-AAA notebook. And was so dead simple...I thought surely someone else invented it earlier! I looked, just like this essay suggested. Nothing.

We do the future a disservice when we repeat that horrid little mantra dismissing invention. The simple trick to inventing new games is to try.

Unrelated to any of this is the current economic situation: the industry fails to fund inventive project on a broad scale, so it isn't surprising that most 'designers' are neither hired nor trained as inventors. Their job description is often limited to being a polisher of previous works. This is in large part because A) risk associated with new inventions and B) little minds.

Ask why you are what you are. Then ask if that is what you want to be.

All the best,
Danc.

Svyatoslav Torick
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Show me the game you find innovative in terms of game mechanics and I'll take time to find the exact analog in the past.

Daniel Cook
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Happy to have you work with some of the ones I've worked on: Fishing Girl, Panda Poet, Triple Town, Leap Day, Realm of the Mad God. There are similarities (much like birds and bats) but I'd be immensely curious if you found one that is exactly the same.

Michael Stevens
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I couldn't agree more about tabletop design. It's shameful how many big games come out with lopsided economics. It's super helpful in terms of learning to communicate to players succinctly and sensing long term problems early.

There's something to be said for "games as containers" for writing or graphics, though. My hope is that this gen the mediocre gunplay of the fallout-likes transitions to no gunplay or at least becomes optional.

Javier Degirolmo
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I think he meant to show the mechanics of that game you mentioned in the previous reply (the one you discussed last week).

Svyatoslav Torick
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Fishing Girl - generally, any fishing simulator. "Fishing" for upgrades feature is an element from any upgrade action game out there. I don't see any innovations here.

Panda Poet - Othello meets Scrabble. I admit I don't know an exact analog to this.

Triple Town - once in a while a fresh idea. Creating new element instead of disappearing is really new to this genre.

Leap Day - the Tycoon meets "No left turn" puzzles.

Realm of the Mad God - The Gauntlet meets generic MMO elements (and nice music, btw).

=============

These games (except for Triple Town) are not innovative. They borrow elements from other genres and the only thing that is done right is their employment. That is the point of the 1st section.

At the same time I must say that I over-persuaded myself in that I'd be able to find the exact analogs of modern games. There are way too many indie releases nowadays.

I also would like to thank you for motivating me on match-3 research. Brought me some fruits for future references.

Ian Richard
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Combing pieces into a different form is absolutely a form of invention. Every few years we have a new mechanic that completely changes games.

Whether it's the recharging health of Call of Duty 2, the free-running in assassins creed, or the cover system in Gears. Even if there were implementations of each in the past... the modern incarnation caused a major shift in gaming.

Having dice in your board game doesn't make it monopoly. It's what you do with those pieces that is innovative.

Sam Stephens
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@ Fabian Fischer

"I think that's utterly wrong. The bulk of the industry has focussed on exploring THEMATIC ideas during the last decades. In terms of actual game mechanics, we've only barely scratched the surface of what's possible."

While I agree that there is a lot more out there in terms new and fresh ideas, I think you're being a little disingenuous. Video games have done a lot more than just "scratch the surface" on what is possible. They have been a commercial business for over forty years. That's a drop in the bucket, but still quite enough time to see much ground covered. It's pretty hard to make a game that doesn't take at least a few elements from somewhere.

"It's mostly just cloning under the smoke screen of "genre". The genres we have today are basically finished designs. Add a gimmick and a new wrapping (theme, audiovisuals etc.) and you're done "designing" (actually, you haven't really designed anything)."

I'm sorry, but I just know that this statement came straight from Keith Burgun and his ridiculous "idea" that games which share the same genre are basically the same game and that developers have been remaking the same game over and over again. Saying that Ikaruga is essential the same game as Space Invaders or Pokemon is the same as Dragon Quest is just flat out wrong. Even claiming that the recent entries in the Call of Duty and Battlefield series are just the same game shows a lacking of attention to detail.

Also, claiming that the creators of these "derivative" games aren't doing any designing is both offensive and silly. I guess that means Brian De Palma and John Carpenter are hack filmmakers because they're working within the same genre and using the same techniques as Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks respectively. There's much more to game design then just the basic premise. It's the actually execution that makes a good game or not

"We can look to the world of board games for a much higher innovation rate (which they need, because board games are naturally much more about mechanics and, in most cases, if you don't have an original ruleset, you barely have anything)."

I think you confuse innovation with complete originality. Innovations can be subtle and difficult to detect. Take a look at Super Mario 3D Land and how the levels are designed in angular eight-directions and the controls that lack analogue movement (sort of). This creates simplified and streamlined 3D platforming that plays like a 2D Mario game. It's extremely innovative. According to you and Burgun however, 3D Land is just the same game as other 3D Mario titles because it's about running and jumping in a 3D space. Again, there is a lot of detail to design that isn't explored when writing off games that share a basic concept. In fact, the clearest examples of innovation come from games that build off of existing ideas.

Daniel Cook
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You may be falling into a common fallacy. Often we see something that reminds us of a thing we know and miss the elements that make it unique. For example, one might look at a car and see it as 'just a horseless carriage' or see an airplane as 'yet another device using an internal combustion engine.'

Both those statements are true. They also miss the nature of the invention.

There's a blindness in modern game design that fails to look below surface-level analysis.

Fishing Girl: The invention here was in the radial movement mechanic combined with the use of line length as both a limited resources and a means of navigating the space. This is probably one of the simpler mechanical inventions so I'd expect to find analogs more easily. Still, quite hard to find and also like the internal combustion engine in a plane, probably not part of a fishing game.

Panda Poet: The closest link to Othello is that both are games of territory capture (and recapture) by placing tokens. The method is different: Capping lines vs completing the always growing edge of rectangles. So conceptually they share some tactical elements, but mechanically they are very different. Also, the combination of the mechanics is unique. And when I say 'combination' I do not mean adding a leveling system to a match3 game. Letters and territory are tightly coupled ideas that are part of the core loop. To remove one is to make a game that is mechanically unrecognizable as Panda Poet.

Leap Day: This is a weird game. It share similarities with process games like Space Chem, however unlike those single player games it is a multiplayer cooperative game that plays out asynchronously in real-time over ~a week. Sort of the mechanical difference between Ultima III and Ultima Online. The core also has a stronger emphasis on tight tactical placement and smart territory acquisition. There's also the idea of optimizing a single day that repeats groundhog day style. I constantly mine that design for ideas that I haven't seen explored elsewhere.

Realm of the Mad God: The core does share a lot of similarities with Gauntlet in that it has shooting, rapid arcade advancement and cooperative dungeon crawling. One of the better comparisons. The shooting is more of the dual-stick shooter variety than pure gauntlet, but that too is not very inventive. The innovation actually comes from taking those action elements into the MMO genre along with the vast procedural world, cooperative gameplay with large groups, and permadeath. Again, the end result is something that didn't really exist previously.

Much invention in games is like invention in other fields. There are elements from past inventions, but there's also something new. All this is melted together into a new form that serves a new, distinct purpose. By pulling the games apart, you can see where the interesting inventions are located.

I caution against glazing over inventions in order to fit things neatly in existing boxes. Shallow analysis is the bane of design. "It is Game A meets Game B" isn't design talk. That's marketing / pitchman chatter intended to dumb down complex ideas for those unschooled in game design basics. At best it is a conversation starter. At worst it is the only sort of discussion that occurs.

If there's one take away from this discussion: When you look deeper, invention is everywhere. It is, in large part, what top designers do.

Appreciate the conversation,
Danc.

Svyatoslav Torick
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> You may be falling into a common fallacy. Often we see something that reminds us of a thing we know and miss the elements that make it unique. For example, one might look at a car and see it as 'just a horseless carriage' or see an airplane as 'yet another device using an internal combustion engine.'

Actually, we see something that reminds us AND look for the source of the elements that make it uniquie.

I also want to remind that I'm talking about features, not the game foundation which truly can be innovative (like the one in Triple Town). You can't take the idea and put it on the market barenaked, you have to wrap it in all kinds of stuff - GUI, controls, economics, progress, story etc. And that is where I presonally tend to user experience - "if I want player to do this thing, what should I do?" and then I refer to thousands of games I played and researched to find the one which brought me similar feelings.

Devil is in the details, or, in current context, it is in the features.

Bart Stewart
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I also agree with Fabian.

In particular I think we've barely started to explore the possibilities of mechanical and behavioral simulation that ever-more-powerful computers are only now enabling. These capabilities create opportunities for more deeply interactive worlds to play in. I can't wait to see these new games will look like.

Without pointing a finger at anyone, I've found that those most likely to say things like "ideas are a dime a dozen" and "it's all been done before" are those who aren't naturally gifted at invention. For some reason they seem to want to believe that no one else can be, either.

Svyatoslav Torick
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> These capabilities create opportunities for more deeply interactive worlds to play in. I can't wait to see these new games will look like.

Try Dwarf Fortress 2.

Nick Harris
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I really liked Fishing Girl! I cannot think of anything like it. I'll be interested to see if Mr Torick can come up with anything remotely similar. Deconstructing it to its essential mechanics and saying these are common features of other games is just a dodge as it ignores the charm that comes from the combination of aspects and romantic ambient aesthetics. You have to ask yourself what is inessential to achieving the same emotional impact and engrossing involvement in its space of possibilities to be able to say what remains irreducible and I can't think of other comparable experiences. Just saying it has 'upgrades' overlooks this gestalt.

Svyatoslav Torick
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You see the game as it's been made that way from the start. No iterations, no UX control, no feature-cut - only a design documentation from the scratch to the dot in one piece and step-by-step programming. That's not how videogames are made.

Paul Tozour
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I remember a programmer telling me that every possible game design had already been invented ... back in 1998. That was before Katamari Damacy, Spore, Portal, EQ1, etc, etc, had even been created.

ganesh kotian
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Thank you so much for sharing the post.

Michael Stevens
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It's pretty hard to argue that everything has already been invented, especially with the twin asterisks that all of it happened within living memory and the children who started gaming in 3D are just now starting to make stuff.

Put your thinking cap back on, there's plenty left out there for everyone.

Mutlu Isik
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Seriously, there's so much left to explore. In the general public mindset, games are still no more than meaningless little toys. That hasn't changed for 40 years. Is this really the pinnacle of innovation?

But I'm optimistic that games will be just as culturally relevant as movies in the near future. We still need the gaming equivalent of movies like Forrest Gump, American History X, Schindler's List, etc. And not just thematically, but in terms of impact: Games that can touch your soul and change you.

The hard part is that we can't just do it the way movies have done it: through linear storytelling. This is a new medium, so we need to explore new ways to achieve that kind of impact. Non-linear storytelling is just one example where we've barely scratched the surface. And there are many other areas still unexplored.

But first, we also need to move on from this notion that games must be "fun", which is an extremely subjective term anyway. American History X or Schindler's List are not "fun" movies, but they're certainly worth your time, at least in my opinion. Maybe we need to start thinking of games in similar terms.

Jeremiah Slaczka
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So what game mechanic did the core concept of Scribblenauts copy from the past?

Just curious.

Svyatoslav Torick
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First of all, as an avid fan of the Scribblenauts (I bought and completed every version on every device I have, seriously) I want to thank you for inventing this game. Of course, it has no direct predecessor, although some would say it's a very advanced version of The Incredbile Machine.


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