Thursday, October 6, 2011

A Game Designer's Manifesto: The 7 Virtues of a Desamurai

I believe that games should entertain players, while inspiring new perspectives and insights about the world around them. Game design should be the way to deliberately create game-play experiences, but to do this a designer must be fluent in his or her design practice. The purpose of this manifesto is to explore a set of standards that would shape the conduct or attitude of a designer’s practice.

In her post, Respecting Design, Claire Blackshaw[1] describes something I recognized myself when I first entered the industry and continue to recognize in many anecdotes from students that are novice game designers.  In her blog post the essential question is, “Why is it so hard to earn respect as a game designer?” In fact this issue seems to bother many game designers. Not too long after I started to write this manifesto, I noticed this article had been posted on ‘The Declaration of Game Designer Independence ‘. [2] While the declaration hits upon many vital points, my interpretation of the underlining message was a call for respect. Yet, “In most respected professions a vast amount of research, basis of knowledge, or method of thinking is required to advance in professional grade problems.”[1] [3] To gain respect, designers need to be able to demonstrate their abilities clearly and convincingly. In other words, if they want their independence they will need to revolutionize their practices in order to earn independence.

My general approach to this issue has been to use and collect game design methods, but beneath this approach is a doctrine that makes them work for me. In a tribute to the 7 virtues of Bushido (The Way of the Samurai) the following seven topics of this manifesto has become my Way of the Desamurai.

The heart of development is game design
Game design is fundamental to game development, not only because it affects the resulting game-play experience, but because of its influence on the most crucial aspects of game development. In my opinion these are time, cost and synergy (synergy meaning the development team’s moral, enthusiasm, energy and trust). A game designer should be able fit the design to the available time, resources and synergy. Therefore the ability to estimate this is essential. As such, a designer cannot use the lack of resources to explain a poor game-play experience. In the end it’s about achieving the most with what is available.

Refine over redefine
All game design and development should be iterative. A designer’s job is to iterate as many times as needed to nail the aims of game design (game mechanics, play mechanics and game-ply experience). Iterative design is not a continuous experimentation until the designer stumbles upon the ultimate game through trial-and-error. Iterations should be about refining while avoiding a lot of redefining, if too much redefining occurs then pitfalls like feature creep occur. Instead the designer should strive to reach the desired game-play experience in shortest number of iterations.  

Knowing the design
Knowing the design is the most fundamental task of the game designer, which means knowing how the core- and progressive- mechanics work, how the play mechanics should feel and having a sense for the game-play experience. Lacking intimate knowledge of the design can lead to a loss of team synergy and generally making excuses as to why it’s not fun. If you want to have respect as a game designer you should know the design inside out, after all if you don’t know the game, who does?

The Trans-medial game designer
A game designer should be able to design all sorts of games not just video games. [4] Games are trans-medial, meaning they transcend any one medium. [5] They exist as video games, board games, card games, physical sports, social games, and ubiquitous systems. A designer should avoid be only a ‘fan boy’ designer who only designs games for his/her favorite genre or media. Once a game designer embraces the fact that games are trans-medial, it will open your eyes to a wider application of your game design skills.

Have you ever been experienced
Ideally, game design should be an occupation that inspires lifelong learning. Any designer that maintains this attitude soon finds that they become a jack-of-all-trades, as they collect experiences and knowledge about design and the media in which the design was developed. A game designer  should above all else play all sorts of games, not just his/her favorite, and be able to critique these games beyond terms such as ‘fun’ and ‘good game-play’. My belief is that good game design comes from being able to portray a game-play experience, therefore even if a game is a sequel or a clone, a designer should treat the design as unique and with respect. In these cases just adding new features and mechanics to an existing game without understanding why the game worked worked in the first place is a recipe for poor design. Furthermore, genre categorization is terminology best reserved for sales and players, as a game designer should be able to understand games in terms of game mechanics and systems. By understanding the mechanics the designer always starts from scratch and applies mechanics as needed and not because of genre conventions.

Design vs. Game
A game designer should always remember that the game design is not the game and the game is the design. I know this sounds weird but game designers tend to confuse what is designed and what is built, and then believe these should be the same. The goal of all design activities should be aimed at making a game with the best possible game-play experience. Therefore a designer needs to realize that much of his work is expendable. That is because most of our work is only foot work, and in the end there is a good chance of it being scraped, changed or not being implemented.

Listen, Explain, Inspire
The ability to communicate is critical. Good communication begins with listening to others, and as a designer this means listening to your players, development team, publisher, etc. The next aspect of communication is knowing how to provide the proper explanations that will help others implement the design, while providing clear argumentation for your design choices. The final aspect of communication is about inspiring others which means promoting the design to the development team, producers, players, etc.