What Makes a Good Game Designer?

I’m between jobs right now, looking for the right fit. Consequently I’ve been taking a few design tests. On the last test I took there was a section devoted to game design philosophy. Questions like,  “What is game design?” or “Where does design fit in a game development pipeline?” so on and so forth. One of my favorites was, “What makes a good game designer?” Now there are some obvious answers here: some knowledge of other disciplines, the ability to problem solve, the ability to communicate effectively, etc. However, in my opinion one thing is often overlooked: experience.

“Oh that’s obvious Martin!” you say dismissively. But I’m not talking about 5+ years of industry experience and two shipped titles. Trust me I’ve met people with more industry experience than that who didn’t have enough life experience to identify with the outsourcers from Germany that they had to work with on a deliverable. Life experience is crucial, and has nothing to do with brainstorming, understanding best practices, or sitting behind a desk writing documentation. What I’m talking about is having done “things and stuff.” Having connected with people from other cultures, having lived abroad, having tried to navigate a waterfront cave system; that sort of thing.

A while back I watched a video called Humans Need Not Apply. If you haven’t watched this film you probably should. This short talks extensively about how humans are being replaced in the workforce. Much like the emergence of the automobile put horses out of work, humans are being replaced at a rapid pace by new technology. It gets pretty scary talking about how low-skill, white -collar workers, and professionals are all in danger of being replaced by machines (of one sort or another). Yes, even doctors. At one point in the film the narrator says “Perhaps you are un-phased because you’re a special creative snowflake.” He then goes on to say that human creativity is no big deal and bots can be taught to replicate it. The narrator gives the example of Emily Howell, a bot that composes music. But, Emily is no Mozart. I didn’t hear anything that actually “moved” me while listening to its music.

My point is that, to spite what the video claims, there are human emotions, experiences, an essential human condition which you must relate to in order to produce truly compelling creative work. If programmers used machine learning to try and create a Shakespeare bot, feeding it everything from how to construct prose in iambic pentameter, to what makes for a good plot line, to knowledge of every cultural nuance of the world of Elizabethan England; I still don’t think the bot would come up with anything as compelling as Othello or even All’s Well That Ends Well (my least favorite work by old Will Shakes). If we created a game design bot and told it to design an unique puzzle game using optical illusions, what do you think the chances are that it would come up with something as beautiful and with as much mystique as Monument Valley?

Did you ever watch Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG)? If you haven’t, then for this reference you just need to know that there is a major protagonist named Data (seriously do you live under a rock), an Android, basically a sophisticated robot that appears human. One of the reoccurring themes of the show concerns Data’s efforts to become “more human.”  Data was created without emotions, and while he is superior to humans in many ways (like strength and his ability to do complex math in his head) he can never really be one with the species he was designed to emulate because of this lack. Often Data’s search to understand humanity takes the form of creative endeavors like painting or acting. While he might give an adequate performance of Ebenezer Scrooge ultimately it is derivative, stemming from his studies of  “every known acting master.” Data admits that he does not “effectively convey the fear called for in the story.” It is pointed out to him that he has never known fear, but he should be able to approximate it as an acute observer of human behavior. Data criticizes this idea because it isn’t an appropriate basis for an effective performance. Data says he is a proponent of method acting, a technique where actors, in themselves, cultivate the thoughts and feelings of their characters. The idea of Data as a method actor is oxymoronic.

A computer, even one that emulates emotions, does not understand emotions or have experiences and associated personal interpretations that makes a person’s creative endeavors unique while still compelling to others. For this reason I believe that, as creatives, game designers should have as much life experience as possible. Understanding the exhilaration one feels on the half pipe at a snow park will make you better able to design an enjoyable snowboarding game or even a racing game. But it goes beyond this. Life experience will make you better at working with others. If you’ve never spent time with Chinese or Indians then you probably know little of their cultures. When you have to work with people from these countries you may find it hard to communicate. Try referencing Alice in Wonderland and watch the blank looks propagate. Within any culture there are things we take for granted that “everybody knows.” We reinforce this belief through media. An American produced television show will typically depict the US as the center of the world, the same for British TV. Have you ever watched anime? What country is the world’s hub of culture, trade, and diplomatic clout in those shows? Japan. By immersing yourself in other cultures you become better able to understand people, not just your people.

If you never try to have life experiences. If you aren’t adventurous and tend to eat the same few meals you’re comfortable with, never tried yoga, never visited a foreign country, watch only reality television, and have never spent a night camping in the middle of a forest (sans RV), then you are missing out. You don’t have to do those things, exactly, but without life experience, ultimately, you aren’t much better than a creative computer program. All your knowledge and understanding of humanity is mostly theoretical or stems from a very narrow perception of the world. In the end we are designing for other people. The person who designs for themselves is lost, tending not to make great games. The more life experience you have the better you will be at understanding the needs and motivations of those you are designing for. While books on Game Design are great, I’d prefer to work with the designer who has never cracked one but who has spent three months working on a shipping vessel in the Atlantic. But, that’s just how I feel.

My Favorite iPad Game: Crimson Steam Pirates

I didn’t grow up playing D&D, and while I am familiar with all the concepts and a huge fan of RPGs I only recently got into it. My roommate Ross loves Paizo Pathfinder and I am now participating in two campaigns. One is being DMed by Ross every couple weeks at our place, and the other I am playing online with his friends using a site called Roll20. The online game is set in a semi steam punk universe where we are privateers (basically pirates). The problem is the interface for navigating ships in this game is just terrible as it is governed by the world interface that Roll20 provides. For example: you can’t turn 10 degrees to starboard in a turn, you have to turn increments of 45 degrees or nothing, and all areas within the attack envelope of your cannons are equally effective. Roll20 has a lot to offer but it sadly lacks in naval strategy. After last Thursday’s Game I decided to show Ross my favorite game on iPad so he could see what I would love to have available to us in our D&D game (not that this will ever happen). I meant for him to play it for a few minutes, he stole my iPad for three hours.

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Crimson Steam Pirates (CSP) is set in a steam punk universe and is full of over the top characters, campy dialog and a fun story line which you can sink your teeth into or totally ignore as you will. There are no cut-scenes forced on you, and it’s always easy to figure out your objectives without having to read a lot. Still, it has a rich story and universe established so don’t think any of this description is meant as a put down. What I’m saying is that the game is a lot of fun, if story and characters are your thing they are there, if not then there is still a lot to love.

CSP is a turn based naval strategy game (though there are some dirigibles as well). As you may have guessed, one thing that makes the game so strong is the interface. Checkout this screen cap from my iPad:

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The guest can see how far their ship will move along a path by dragging the ghost image around with their finger. By moving it further or closer to the ship’s current position the guest can adjust their momentum, one can use different abilities as well to accelerate the ship. When selecting the ship the guest can see the area of effectiveness of the attack envelopes, the range of the weapons and the effectiveness of overlapping envelopes. There are also a variety of abilities that can be selected each turn by touching the wheel. The best part is that these abilities are afforded by the crew members manning the ship. It adds a layer of complexity to the strategy. The guest has to think not only about what abilities they want aboard their ship, but how that crew will work together when they get into a boarding action, and how expendable certain crew members are.

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For example: one can’t go loosing Tesla, he’s crucial, so they don’t put him aboard their weak little scout vessel, or maybe they do, with two engineers so they can constantly repair it and this gives them the ability to quickly strike all over the place with their Tesla gun. But, you wouldn’t want to run that vessel up along a large command ship and board her since the scout’s entire crew is going to have too weak a combat rating to let you take the other boat or win much treasure.

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It’s awesome design and the levels are also well thought out and scale beautifully. As the game scales up it becomes quite challenging, so you are often getting a great sense of fiero (epic win satisfaction), there is certainly the fun you get from the story they put out there and the wonderful sense of adventure it creates, and (whether or not it’s true) it makes you feel like you are becoming an awesome strategist and sea captain. It’s not really a social game, but then I’m not a huge socializer (though I hang with my CSS crew and play some Civ with my friends, and hey I’m really getting into this D&D thin). I could go on for some time about this, but don’t take my word for it, check it out for yourself on the app store, the first third of the game is free, I’ll wager you buy the rest.

What’s in a name?

R.I.P. Iain M Banks, you will be sorely missed. – 6/9/13

I recently changed the name of my blog again. I had changed it to “The Designer of Games” as a tribute to one of my favorite authors, Iain M Banks, who wrote “The Player of Games” and recently announced he was retiring after finding out he has advanced terminal cancer. His book had a profound effect on me, and helped me to make the decision to go back to grad school to pursue my love of game design. However, it was brought to my attention recently that my blog title came off as “slightly arrogant.” After giving it some thought, I decided that assessment was generous. So, to spite the sentimental value I placed on the name, I decided to change it.

So, why wormholes? Well recently I was asked in an interview, “If you could have any super power what would it be?” I’ve thought about it a lot in the past but never really came up with something I was happy with. But, sitting there, something just clicked. I would want the ability to create and manipulate wormholes of all types. I mean it seems perfect to me. This would give one the ability to travel anywhere in the universe, travel in time, and even allow one to get creative and defend one’s self in battle (against the enemies that would eventually crop up). Think of the endless exploration you could do.

Won’t end up like these guys though (lost AND canceled), their power’s weren’t super:

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I think this response is very telling about me. Sure, it speaks to what a sci-fi geek I am. But, you’ll note that I don’t want to be invincible, invisible, or something of that sort. My life up until now has been about seeking knowledge and being creative, and I think that this “super power” would just be an extension of that. Of course it does occur to me that if I had a second super power wish I should ask for invincibility since exploring the universe through wormholes is going to be hard without all sorts of sophisticated gadgetry and protection. But, I figure it wouldn’t be too hard to raise the money once I demonstrated my unique abilities. Given how telling it was, it seemed like a suitable new name for my blog.

The Designer as Generalist

I recently attended a luncheon during GDC thrown by Crystal Dynamics, and one of the designers from Crystal D said something that struck a chord with me. She said that a designer has to do a lot of living, just like a professional writer. Because you have to know about a lot of things, understand many different ways of thinking, to design well. This might seem really self-evident to many, it does to me. But, to some this is somehow not intuitive.

I think it goes to something Jason Vandenberghe mentioned during his GDC talk (Applying the 5 Domains of Play: Acting like Players) and that is this concept of “design empathy”. Now, he was talking about understanding different player types, and why they play so that you could have a better understanding of how to effectively design for them. However, I mean this in a broader sense, I mean understanding people and what motivates them. Life learning, learning in general adds to your understanding of people. Jesse Shell, in his second class of Game Design every semester, talks about how design is at it’s core intuitive. You think something might be fun, then you build it and see if it is, then improve on it until you run out of time or money. But, to get that honed intuition; to have good design empathy from the word “go” I think you need two things. One is life experience, and the other is general knowledge.

As a designer I have always been working to improve on my general knowledge and abilities. I have learned Maya and Max, I’ve learned to do some scripting in LUA, XML, Javascript, and even a little C#. I’ve made tools for Unity and character art for game prototypes. But, how much of that can I show? The answer is, pretty much none of it. Not because it isn’t good. Some of it is, some of it isn’t (for example I won’t claim to be more than a dilettante when it comes to programming).  I can’t show it because it confuses people. If I fill my portfolio with examples of icon packs, UI/UX wireframes and documentation, 3D character models and animation, VFX tools, and web applications people start asking, “What does he do?” Well, I’m a designer, isn’t it obvious? No, the designer needs to understand all the disciplines and embrace them, but he can’t BE them. If he shows that he is them to any degree he starts muddying the waters.

I seek to be a generalist; that is what I am and what I will continue to try to be. Because, I’m convinced that, the greater my breadth becomes, the greater my design depth becomes. I think this is the best thing you can be as a designer. It allows you to work more easily with others because you know what their disciplines require, and it allows for greater design empathy. It’s the modern equivalent of trying to become a Renaissance Man. But, I won’t go posting my environment art in my design portfolio any time soon. But, if you want to see some of my art, you can follow the link above to my art portfolio.