This month (December 2015) marks my 10 year anniversary as a professional game designer. I've learned a lot in that time, and I want to use this anniversary as an excuse to share some of what I've learned, so that game designers who are just starting out can hit the ground running, and so that in another ten years, I will be able to see how much more I've learned. So without further ado, here are ten lessons from ten years in game design.
Game Design is the Art of Contextualization
During my first interview, for my first game design job, one of the designers interviewing me said something that stuck with me: “The job of the game designer isn't to have all of the ideas, it's to pick out the good ones.” I have found this to be very true. “Idea guy” isn't a real job; you aren't going to come up with all of the ideas for a game, and you are going to get your hands dirty implementing. But more to the first point, everyone you work with is going to have ideas for the game. Avoid dismissing what non-designers think; that sort of toxic arrogance has no place in a collaborative environment.
What you will need to do is evaluate ideas, whether they come from you, other designers, the rest of the team, or play testers, and understand which ones fit the game you're making, and can be done with the resources you have. This is the actual “idea” skill of a game designer. It's impossible to say whether an idea is a good one or a bad one outside of context. If I ask you if the game I'm working on should have jumping in it, you shouldn't have an answer: you don't know what kind of game I'm making, and thus, you can't evaluate whether jumping would be a good fit or a strange aberration. Context is everything in game design. Evaluate ideas accordingly.
All Else Being Equal, the Least Complex Design is the Best
There's always an impulse to make a system or formula more complex, but that's something we do for ourselves, not for players. If a more complex design hides its functionality from the player, then how do they benefit? More complex designs are harder to communicate to the player, so they'd better make for an experience that is not just better than the simpler alternative, but better by a greater degree that by which it's harder to communicate.
The analogy I like to use when thinking about complexity in game design is that it's like weight in a space ship. It costs about $2,300 per pound to launch something into space, so if you're adding weight, you need to be very sure that it's going to be providing value once you get into orbit. Likewise with game design: Teaching players complicated systems is error prone and expensive. You'd better be very sure that you're giving players something valuable for the time they spend learning it.
Innovation is Evolutionary, Not Revolutionary
We place a lot of emphasis, as an industry, on innovation, but the truth is, it's not as impressive in the trenches as it is on the posters. Think about your favorite innovative game. What is innovative about it? How much of the experience is innovative versus standard? How different is the innovative aspect from what else was being released in the time leading up to it's release? Odds are very good that you'll find a game that was largely standard in its mechanics, with a few clever changes. It may not be as sexy as a revolutionary experience, but it's probably a better game.
The slower, more evolutionary style of innovation is extremely valuable, and is most likely to actually drive the medium forward. Often times, we as designers get caught up trying to reinvent the wheel, but that's a waste of effort: build off of the work of those who came before you, so you can focus your efforts on those one or two innovative features where you want to do something new and exciting. Those are the parts of the game you're going to have to do the most work to build, polish, and teach to players, so you're going to need to spend a greater amount of effort on them.
Then be prepared for another game to come along and make a more polished version of your innovative feature. You may find this frustrating, but you should find it flattering: it means your design was inspirational, and your peers were able to learn from your efforts, and thus, expanded the craft.
Game Development is a Social Experience
A screenwriter friend of mine once said something that is very applicable to game designers: “If you want total creative control, write a novel.” Games are a collaborative medium, and no matter how brilliant your vision, no matter how clearly it is communicated, and how enthusiastically the team embraces it, the game that emerges from the process will be something different from your vision, both because of the realities of production, and because every person who works on the game will leave their mark on it.
This is a good thing. We work in an industry in which we are surrounded by smart, creative, skillful, and passionate people. What luxury! Instead of jealously guarding your ideas and vision, like a dragon sitting on a pile of gold it can't spend, share them freely within the team, and allow them to be changed, shaped, and at times replaced by ideas from others. Remember, the goal is to make the best game possible, not the game that most strictly adheres to what the designers want. You can't do that by yourself, and attempting to is folly. Embrace the contrasting views of your team.
Related, your social skills are important as a game developer. There's a stereotype that because game developers are geeks, no one will care if your social skills are rough as long as you do good work. This is a myth. The truth is, you're going to be spending a lot of time working with the other people on your team, often during very stressful times. Soft skills matter. Remember, there will be equally skilled people competing for every job you will ever apply for, so being the person who will work better with the team becomes a differentiator. That team will likely include at least one person who has worked with you before. Were you a good or bad teammate to them? What will they say about you to the hiring manager?
Other Philosophies on Game Design aren't Wrong
There's no one right way to make a good game. Likewise, there's not a single right way to be a good game designer. You're going to work with people who come at design problems in an entirely different fashion from you, and neither of you is going to be wrong. Remember this when you find yourself arguing design with them. You're both trying to solve the same problems, and you both are trying to give players the best experience possible. You're on the same team.
When you find yourself in this sort of conflict, it can help to take a step back and talk out the philosophical reasons for the type of design that you're each advocating for. This will help contextualize what may seem like bizarre choices, and help you come up with the best plan. Remember, winning is not your design philosophy being proven superior. Winning is providing the best experience for players. Your philosophy isn't superior. It has strengths and weaknesses, just like that of any experienced game designer. Use philosophical conflicts as opportunities to learn more and grow as a designer.
Fun to Make and Fun to Play are Different
There's a lot about being a game designer that's fun, and you should embrace all of it. But understand that what is fun for you to make and what is fun for players to experience don't always line up. That's okay; this is a job after all, but the important thing is to always chose to do the thing that players will enjoy playing over the thing that you will enjoy making. Players don't care if you had a good time making something; they have no way of knowing that, and it wouldn't matter if they did. They want to be entertained by the game you've made, and it's your job as the game designer to give them that entertaining experience.
You Will Throw Out Work You're Rightly Proud Of
There's no way to sugar coat this one; it's going to happen, it's going to suck every time, and the best you can do is know that it's going to be an ongoing part of life as a creative professional before it can sneak up on you. This isn't going to be your fault; most of the time, it won't be anyone's fault. Things change on a game project, and things that made perfect sense in a previous iteration may not make sense anymore (see Point 1).
But don't despair! Everything you learned in the process of making what got thrown out adds to your experience and skill as a designer, and you'll be going into the next iteration with greater skill and greater knowledge of the game you're making, which means you're being set up to make something even better than your last piece of work. And that was work you were rightfully proud of!
Everything You Learn Makes You Better
Here's some trivia for you. King crabs aren't true crabs, but they are cannibals. The Deshler cocktail is named after a lightweight boxer. Why do I know these things? Because I'm a game designer. I'll explain.
We are, to a large extent, in the business of simulating things. The better you understand something, the better you can simulate it, and, for that matter, decide what should and shouldn't go into the simulation (see Point 1). Which means the more we know about the world, the broader our palette for designing and populating simulations. So make it a point to learn as much as you can. Travel, listen to educational podcasts, take lessons in practical hobbies. You should be doing this anyway; it will be making you a more well rounded human being, but it's of special importance to game designers, because it gives us the raw materials we need to craft compelling experiences.
Crunch is a Purely Destructive Force
People will try to paint a romantic vision of crunch. The team coming together in a passionate rally, driven to push the game from good to great in the face of a looming deadline. The bonds of team members will strengthen, the quality of the game will go up, and the team will manage to over-deliver and still beat the deadline.
This is a fairytale. The team will deliver consistently poorer results, creating bugs faster than they can fix them. Sleep deprivation will kill both the motivation and the mental and physical energy required for game development. These two factors will combine to make team members abrasive and resentful. Your health, home life, and personal relationships (that is to say, your loved ones) will suffer, and you will suffer wage theft, at times on the order of tens of thousands of dollars, and at the end of it, have a game that was of worse quality than if it had been scheduled and scoped appropriately in the first place.
Crunch is toxic, and the spinning of romantic tales is an attempt to abuse the passion and naivety of inexperienced developers. Don't be fooled. It is an exploitative and destructive blight on the industry, and it must be made a thing of the past if the industry and medium are to continue growing in both scale and quality.
No One Knows What Game Designers Do
Most of the people I meet can be broken down into one of two categories, based on their response to learning I'm a game designer: those who ask if I'm a programmer, then ask if I'm an animator, and those who ask if I'm an animator, then if I'm a programmer. Attempts to explain what we actually do have proved tricky. The best I've come up with is to ask people for a game they like, and explain what the game designers did in that game, but that's clunky.
To be clear, I'm not making fun of these people. Game design is a very new career, most of us are clustered in and around a few large cities, and we work in a very secretive industry. Add to that the broadness of what falls under the umbrella of game design, along with the abstractness of it (I used to say that I made rules and content, but no one understood what I meant) it's no wonder a lot of people don't get what we do. Just be prepared for this, even from hardcore gamers.
Hopefully those of you near the start of your journey as game designers will find these tips valuable; I know they've helped me. Please don't consider this list exhaustive. There's a lot to being a game designer, and if you have something to add (or contest) I'd love to read about it in the comments. We're all in this together; let's help each other become better game designers in our next ten years!