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At Meaningful Play: Design Thinking X Game Design

Design Thinking is more than a legacy of interdisciplinary practice or trendy Product Design methodology. It is everything good Game Design is supposed to be. Part of a series exploring topics from Michigan State University's Meaningful Play Conference.

In this series of articles, Mars Ashton does a deep dive into a number of topics related to submitted papers, talks and games found at this year’s Meaningful Play Conference at Michigan State University. For this article, Mars discusses the role Design Thinking has as a universal go-to for making good games that aligns (eerily) with common modern game development methodologies proposed by academics, industry vets and popular YouTube content creators.

Game Development is a relatively young industry if you were to consider industries that involve similar practices and methodologies. While it can be difficult at first glance to compare making games and making a building via Architectural practice, there are a number of similarities that drive the two towards finding solutions to the problems that are presented by the very process of making in general. While the output is obviously different, the way in which both of these disciplines conceptualize, ideate, research and develop are fundamentally the same and require the same understanding and competencies of user-centric, empathetic, and iterative-focused development.

“Before we can look at the systematic methods of designers, we must know what we mean by ‘design’. An Architect preparing plans for a house is clearly designing. So is a typographer preparing a layout for a page of print. But a sculptor shaping a figure is not. What is the difference?” L. Bruce Archer

Leonard Bruce Archer, a mechanical engineer and later Professor of Design Research at the Royal College of Art, pioneered and championed the possibility of Design as a discipline of study. At the time of this quote, one would imagine the landscape of industries like Architecture and the Studio Arts was perceived in a very different way than they are today. While we still push back against the legitimacy of an art degree over, say, becoming a doctor or a lawyer, there is the ubiquity of Design as an element of course competencies throughout the world’s college programs focused on relevant fields. We see value in a person crafting an advertisement and provide them with the aptly appropriate “Graphic Designer” title. We walk through large-scale malls and atriums with brilliantly crafted sculptures, spheres floating on water, and marvel at them as we stand in line at the Chick-fil-A.

We appreciate these things that have been created, at times intended for an aesthetic effect and other times representing a practical solution to a problem you might have in a given situation. There is an app for that, to some degree, in the collective ethos of modern society that approves of Design as a reality and that someone, somewhere, had the idea and made it happen. So what made this happen? How did we find ourselves appreciating these works when, just a few decades ago, we considered them frivolous? In the same spirit, how is it that we are defining game development as a legitimate practice, one that goes beyond the nuances of making millions with a great mobile game idea, by the established independently published successes of Night in the Woods or Braid and the iresputable cultural impact of AAA franchises like Call of Duty?

Design Thinking.

If you consider the way that Apple as a brand, not necessarily a company, has evolved over the last two decades you will discover an emphasis on product design driven by the user themselves. Their ideas focus on innovation through problem solving. They find ways to make processes easier, invisible even, for the user, to ensure that the core feature and purpose of a particular app or a function of the hardware is exceptionally easy, fun and engaging to use. This consideration utilizing Design Thinking defines Apple products and has secured a dedicated fanbase for their brand.

To define Design Thinking, we typically discuss 5 steps that make up a practical approach to solving problems, making dope stuff (I usually refer to something else when I say this but let’s keep this appropriate), and executing a plan or objective that is user-centric, considerate and impactful.

Image via:

This is not a new concept. Many companies have adopted Design Thinking, what is now a buzz word, as the end-all-be-all of design methodology and the way they do business. This is not surprising. As we teach each generation the skills needed to persevere in an industry we strive to formalize concepts, make things efficient and easier to understand through processes and multi-step guidelines to follow. For Game Design, the presence of Agile development models that emphasize regular meetings, prioritizing tasks and maintaining communication are very common.

In fact, every aspect of Design Thinking equates to the very essence of what makes a game…good. It describes the same process developers have found to follow that produces engaging narratives, powerful moments blending gameplay and meaning, and catapults some games to success compared to other games of its ilk or in a similar genre. These games have put the time in to find the right game feel, accompanied by that ever-present-must-have in every game we create: fun. Organically many of these developers stick to prototyping as early as possible. Small-scale, large-scale, the best experiences are ones that have been refined and revised after being exposed to the public or a select (or random) selection of testers.

To clarify, Design Thinking is:

  • Iteration Heavy

  • Driven by Research

  • Solving Problems

  • Creating Ideas through Diversification of Thought

  • User-Focused Prototyping

All of these components relate to the development of making a good game in a formalized way. How do I begin? What do I create first? How do I plan ahead, fix this, fix that, and what is the ultimate goal of the project?

After teaching for over a decade I’ve observed that students typically work in one of two ways when starting a game project from scratch:

  1. DIVERGENCE. They write idea after idea on a whiteboard, list off pages of notes, draw from images, video and references of other games and precedents and brainstorm a plan. After spending a fair amount of time to do so, they then execute to work toward achieving their goal.

  2. CONVERGENCE. Inspired by an initial concept, they rush into executing a prototype before anything else. Piecing it together bit by bit, eventually they are lead to a stage of progress that can be tested to validate their design choices and iterate upon the original concept, effectively producing an off-the-cuff plan through this process.

These two approaches are a large part of Design Thinking as a formalized methodology and represent each facet of itself handled in different, non-linear ways. While there is no “correct” way of going about your project and my observation shouldn’t be considered a judgment on an individual’s quality of development, considering where you personally fit into these categories can provide some interesting insight into how you function as a maker. This mindfulness can lead to increased productivity, communication and implementation of you goals as a maker.

Above all else, Divergence and Convergence represent Design Thinking’s concept and Ideation phase. While you may eventually work under the context of one or the other, they are both effective ways to explore potential game ideas, core mechanics and the dynamic ways your mechanics can interact with one another. Understanding these two methods can help to validate and justify your decisions as a designer. There is value in both the discussion and focusing on making the concept tangible.

1. Concept 2. Plan 3. Make

In the article, “Less Talk, More Rock” by Superbrothers, the way we communicate through our media is examined. They question why we hold hands, push our own interpretations of concepts on others, and had (at the time) stopped putting so much faith in the player’s own ability to figure out the right path, how to do things or discover meaningful elements of your game. They establish a problem and through their development create a solution by utilizing stylized objects that, while representative of a particular style and imply certain details appropriate for a their theme, still leave much to the player’s imagination. This lets the player fill in the gaps and complete the puzzle that is their perception of the game as a space.

Now we see games, small and large, taking this on in spirit. Utilizing what we can surmise from Design Thinking’s methodology (or just making a good game, duh) the developers of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild took what made the original The Legend of Zelda so special and solved a problem that was becoming apparent in the way they planned and executed the other games in the franchise in the past. They made it open, gave the player trust in the form of a chemistry engine that allowed them to solve problems in numerous ways, and left so much more to the player’s own devices as far as the story, the world and even where it fits into the grand timeline revealed in the Hyrule Historia.

In many ways Breath of the Wild is a game that allows players to use Design Thinking as an actual game mechanic.

Mind blown?

1. Concept 2. Make 3. Plan

What Superbrothers suggests is the idea of skipping around this sequence of 1, 2, 3, done. It emphasizes prototyping to explore and plan, using the success of the experience itself to dictate a project’s direction. It encourages the use of Design Thinking without mentioning Design Thinking, indirectly drawing from the established production protocol of industries that have been around for centuries. In a natural way the studio has discovered a vital lesson. One that acts as a good example of how much Design Thinking has to do with the basic, fundamental aspects of game development and production.

This concept was assumed by the students I co-teach at Lawrence Tech a couple years ago for their end-of-the-year Thesis Exhibition. Combining Game Art, Graphic Design and Interaction Design students, this year-long sequence tasks students with discovering problems within the industry and beyond that can shape one or many projects they will take on. Much of this experience follows Design Thinking, enforcing iteration through regular critiques and discussions that challenge student design decisions and task them with reinforcing what they do and why. In their exhibition titled “1, 3, 2” they branded themselves as a group of creatives that thought by making, coined by my colleague and co-teacher for the course, Lilian Crum.

Lilian Crum, Assistant Professor and Director of Graphic Design, donning a helmet made by Interaction Design student Karly Gallis that explores immersion, light and isolation.

Inspired by Lawrence Tech’s College of Architecture and Design’s focus on Design, this fusion of Fine Arts, Design Thinking and Game Art within a collaborative environment is unique. While students are building games throughout the rest of the 4 year degree, they close off their undergraduate degree with a graduate-like exploration that students have reported to be a “penultimate moment of growth as a professional and an individual”. Often, students of one discipline begin to cross over into others. Graphic Designers begin making games and utilize their perspective and technical skillset. Game Art students tackle branding, promotional material and even introduce traditional Studio Art sculptures, painting and fabrication.

So, how can we formalize this to educate ourselves?

Flux, a game by Mars Ashton, now with improved levels of interactivity and engagement by allowing the player to explore an otherwise static scene.

Make sure you have limitations, define your problems or make your own: Limitations feed innovation and creativity. If a problem you are trying to overcome doesn’t have limitations, try to give yourself some to focus your ideation and narrow down your prototyping plans.

As an example, I was trying to improve immersion in a scene for Flux (pictured above) that was originally just a shot of an apartment setting, your character facing away from you at a computer, with a series of dialogue you step through. The problem was that the lack of interaction or involvement on the player’s part made them feel like they weren’t involved and just “along for the ride”. You can now walk about the environment, utilize “actions” that let the player interact with the space, and it provides meaningful choice for the player by requiring certain actions to be performed to provide specific outcomes and endings.

Know that you know nothing: While you are justifying and reinforcing decisions as much as possible, always be open to the idea that your approach is not working and is not good. Keeping an open mind allows for further iteration to improve your game’s experience. Seek out discussion over blunt feedback as it could lead to a better understanding of the content and the ways in which it is not communicating well with the player.

Be Inclusive about your Testing: It doesn’t take a designer to offer interesting design feedback. While your target market will provide much-needed guidance, there is value in earning feedback from unlikely sources that may not have the same level of established “game vocabulary”. Often, my wife proves to be the best tester I ever have. As someone who only plays select games and doesn’t devote a considerable time to playing them as a hobby, she reveals things I need to consider to communicate clearly, effectively and efficiently.

Focus on the Player’s Perception/Be Relatable: Your story, your message, your point needs to be something user-focused, user-driven, user-oriented. Tell a story that is personal and evokes commonalities among all of our own personal struggles. This creates impact. It defines long-lasting memories based on powerful moments. If people “don’t get it” you are doing something wrong.

In Cloudwalker, based on Journey To The West’s sequel in which the hero Sun Wukong (the definition of overpowered, not only is he the basis for Goku from Dragonball but this character is immortal in multiple ways and is immensely strong) is temporarily trapped inside a fish demon’s dream world. This entrapment is aligned with the player themselves and, through the narrative, the players discover the game is asking them not to play it. By aligning Wukong’s own penchant for acting compulsively with our instincts as players to kill, steal, maim and destroy it calls into question the very reason we participate in these experiences in general. Characters question the player’s interest in collecting items, leveling up and earning achievements just as much as they challenge Wukong’s desire to do the same.

Look into Bartle’s taxonomy of player types.

Make Cool Stuff: Prototype as early as possible. If you’re more Divergent in the Ideation process, still prototype as you go. The sooner you have something tangible the sooner you can begin solving problems and planning ahead to compensate. Attend game jams, do a weekly game jam via WeeklyGameJam, work on projects with small scope and be consistent about your work ethic.

In closing, my experience at Lawrence Tech and their design-oriented approach to academics has lead to the realization that this legacy of a methodology goes hand-in-hand with what we’ve just naturally discovered to be a series of techniques and attributes of what makes game-making lead to better games. My experience as a developer has shown that Design Thinking methodology defines how I began to produce content after establishing an understanding of the needs and expectations of the player I am trying to reach. My experience as a player and consumer of games reveals the way the most captivating game experiences utilize these same techniques.

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