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The difference between dreaming and designing

Both an introspective piece and a look at designing and what it means to be called a "designer" and not just a daydreamer. I also look at the factor of Ego when it comes to be creative.

What does it mean to be creative in the games industry? This has been a question I’ve been asking myself since I first decided over 12 years ago that I wanted to create games for a living. The simple answer is to just come up with any idea and start turning it into a video game. Every day an idea pops into my head for a game and if I were to choose to write each one down, I would have hundreds of ideas…. that would be crap. There is a difference between coming up with an idea and coming up with a game and this difference is the determining factor of the success of a game designer.

Coming up with a game idea is very easy; in fact I bet every gamer has come up with several in their life time. However, just being able to come up with an idea that you like isn’t enough and this is where a lot of people, including myself, get stuck. One phrase that I use when talking about this industry is that “the games industry is a fun business, but it is still a business.” In other words, creating ideas that you, and only you, would like is not enough. To be called a designer, you need to expand upon those ideas and find what makes them worthwhile, and then refine them so that someone who has never heard of you will enjoy the game. Before anyone comments, yes I know that there are games that are so unique that it’s impossible to tell if there is a fan base in question before the game comes out (see Katamari Damacy) and that’s alright. There are many excellent games out there which do not make millions of dollars, yet are successes to the fans and designers. The defining factor is how well the designers make the game accessible to gamers.

There is a fine line between simplifying game mechanics and dumbing them down. Being able to create complex multi-system game mechanics for an 80 hour RPG is great. However, if no one is able to understand what is going on then it is all for nothing. Depending on the genre, a designer will need to decide how much effort should go into easing new players in and when to focus on the core audience. Being a designer means thinking about “who” is going to play your game and “how” they are going to experience it and the first step is to get that idea out of your head.

Personally the hardest part of the design process for me is that first big step, suddenly it’s not good enough to say that “this and this will just work” now you have to sit down and design those mechanics and the systems they belong to. Creating design documents have become a pastime for me and is proof of your ability to design and not just being “creative”. As someone who focuses on the gameplay above all else this section always turns out to be the biggest part for me. However even with 10 pages on how the gameplay works is not enough, you need to at least mention all aspects of your title, yes even how the music is supposed to work. If I, someone who is most likely tone deaf can at least describe how I want the music to be, then you should have no problem. One strange ritual that I have is saving the actual control scheme of the game for later on or even the last section. Even though this is probably the easiest (or should be) to describe I find that this is where the game gets real for me. I’m no longer describing it but actually saying how the player is going to manipulate the game space. Now that you have that “winning game idea” written down, what are you going to do with it by yourself?

Unless you’re a triple threat and I’m not talking about writer, director and actor but designer, programmer and artist, there isn’t much you can do on your own. Fortunately there is always someone willing to work on a video game; the challenge is going from one person on the project to many. Now there are plenty of legal issues to discuss about getting multiple people to work on a game project, however they are beyond the scope of this entry which focuses on the design aspect and being a designer and there are other more informed sources that have discuss this at length. When multiple minds come together to create a project there will most certainly be a butting of heads; as a designer you have to deal with other people taking apart your idea piece by piece and seeing what works and what doesn’t. As someone coming into the project you have to tell someone who has been working on their “baby” for months that there are problems with it. I can be very flexible with my ideas to a certain extent; the one part that remains set in stone is always the key game mechanic or theme of the title. If I set out to create an amazing action title I’m not going to turn the game into something else no matter what anyone else says. This once again goes back to my specialty on gameplay that if I want the player to experience a mechanic, then they are going to experience it. Ego is one of the reasons for this and something all creative people have to deal with.

Being a designer and having your work judge is differently then being a programmer and even in some cases different then an artist on the team. As a designer your contribution to the project can be the part that everyone will talk about, either positively or negatively. I believe that great gameplay can shine through above all else and is one of the keys to creating the best titles in the world. A lot of creative people look at their work as the greatest thing ever made and look down at anyone who dares offer any criticism. I’ve tried to avoid that in my time and besides the key mechanic that I want to express just about everything else for me is negotiable. Since starting out on my road to become a designer I’ve become the harshest critic of my ideas, in fact any idea that I’ve mention to people have most likely spent a few months or even years brewing in my head before I gave them the seal of approval to be revealed.

I remember on that fateful day that I decided to be a designer I told myself that I could do everything on my own and didn’t need anyone’s help. Since then I’ve learned otherwise, both from looking at my skill set and actually learning programming in high school and college. I’ve accepted the fact that I’m just one person and that no matter what my level of importance to the project is that I’m going to need people to help. A few years ago I hoarded my ideas like they were a treasure in a vault fearful of any would be thieves, once again I’ve grown up in this regard. I’ve found that if you are enthusiastic about your idea that others will feel the same way. Last year at the VGxpo I went in there to share my top game idea (at the time) to anyone who would listen and it is just another step forward in getting my name out there.

Like most gamers I once too fantasized at the prospect of working in the games industry. However I’ve learn that there is more to developing a game then just brainstorming and watching the money roll in and hopefully I’ve educated you on some of the finer details on design over the course of this entry. Working in this industry as a game designer takes a lot more than technical skill and an overflowing imagination. You need to balance the artist with the business man/woman -- anyone can be creative, but it takes a special person to channel it into something amazing.

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