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What is Game Design? - Ideas vs Understanding

What is Game Design?

This introductory article explores the role of the Game Designer through a case study of contemporary digital game No Man's Sky, as well as questioning the efficacy of current educational curricula.

Niall Taylor, Blogger

December 7, 2016

8 Min Read

What is Game Design?

According to Pearson's Level 3 BTEC unit, “Game Design is about daydreams”. It is about coming up with ideas and USPs, and communicating those ideas to programmers, artists and investors with lovely presentations and portfolios of brainstorming sessions and market research packets. Its about selling the dream.

Those are important skills for any game developer, regardless of the position they hold, but it still doesn't answer the question of what a game designer actually does all day. After all, anyone can come up with ideas – why do we need a dedicated ideas person? The answer is, of course, that we don't. A game designer's job is, quite simply, to transform good ideas into a good game. I feel that this process starts with the most important skill of all – understanding.

I like to introduce the concept to my students with a series of simple questions;

  • What was the last bad game you played?

  • Can you name one feature that was bad about it?

  • Why was that feature bad?

  • How could you fix it?

Most new students can name a game they did not have fun with, as well as the specific area or feature they found fault with. However, the majority are completely unable to explain why that feature was broken, unbalanced or simply not fun. They are able to name symptoms – but not the cause. This naturally leads to their solutions to the problem being over-complicated “band-aid” fixes, addressing the results of the problem rather than the problem itself.

Its only when you understand why something is a problem that you can begin to fix it.


CASE STUDY: No Mans Sky - Hello Games (2016)

Source: Hello Games presskit

To illustrate this concept further, I will be using contemporary digital game No Man's Sky – this game is mentioned often when I ask the questions above, and is almost always one in which students are most frequently unable to articulate why any problems they might have had with the game are occurring. We will be examining the most common complaint I hear – that the game's economy is broken, a demoralising grind and “not fun”.

To answer the question of why this is the case, we need to start by defining the nature of an economy within a video game, in order to aid our understanding. Wikipedia defines an economy as “the state of a country or region in terms of the production and consumption of goods and services, and the supply of currency.” In even more simple terms, an economy can be defined as the relationship between supply, demand and resources.

In the case of No Man's Sky, this is the relationship between the resources scavenged by the player, the available currency, and products to spend that currency on. Players can mine rare minerals and discover amazing artifacts, and sell them to a Galactic Trade Terminal or passing alien Trader in exchange for Units. Units can then be spent on suit upgrades, new ships and much more.

Once we understand this, the problem with the economy in No Man's Sky becomes obvious – the game's greatest strength is massively undermining Trade, one of its core gameplay systems.


Source: Hello Games presskit

One of the biggest enemies of any economy is inflation. Inflation can be defined as the “general increase in prices and fall in the purchasing value of money” that occurs when the relationship between resources, supply and demand falls out of balance. For example, if a harsh winter causes a crop to fail, flour may become scarce. This might result in less bread being baked and bakers being unable to meet demand – bread becomes a rarer commodity, and prices rise. A shoe salesman wishing to purchase bread must now sell his shoes for more in order to afford to eat, and over time the snowballing situation will result in that economy's currency having a lower individual value per unit. Everything costs more, so everyone must earn more for the economy to remain stable. This may be achieved by the government printing more money – stabilising the economy at the cost of weakening the value of that currency even further.

No Man's Sky has eighteen quintillion planets – each one generated on an unimaginable scale, and filled with resources. Every planet has what equates to an infinite amount of resources, never mind 18 quintillion of them. It shouldn't take long to realise that an infinite universe of infinite resources is going to kick inflation into overdrive. If a player so chooses, they can spend their grinding for an infinite amount of currency, billionaires capable of purchasing anything and everything in the game even before leaving their home planet.

No Man's Sky makes no attempt to fix the cause of this problem – instead it tackles the symptom through introduction of a concept in virtual economies known as a “gold sink”.

In essence, in an economy where players can amass millions of units very easily, the problem is addressed by ensuring that everything in the game is really, really expensive. Ships, Freighters, Atlas Stones – all cost an absolute bomb, with prices soaring into the multi-million Unit range. This creates a loop of frustrating player experiences;

  • Players playing the game “properly” - that is, moving from planet to planet, system to system, exploring a beautiful sci-fi universe full of wonder and surprises – are extremely poor and unable to afford any of the things they need to fully enjoy what No Man's Sky offers. They feel forced into spending large amounts of time grinding resources for Units.

  • Spending large amounts of time grinding resources for Units is very dull, and certainly not the intended behaviour for players.

This loop undermines all the other trading systems in the game as well. Resources have different value in different systems. However, no player is going to spend their time and (fiddly to craft) warp cells on finding a star system where Aluminium is worth 1.4% more when simply grinding a little more of the resource is massively more profitable.

No matter how you approach the game, Trading is a frustrating experience – and the problem is exacerbated even further because the implemented solution only tackles the symptom not the cause!

Now that we truly understand the problem, however, we can come up with a simple and effective solution by targeting the root cause of a player's frustration - limit the amount of Units that the AI has available for trading in each system.

By limiting the number of Units available to the player at any given point (we call this Gating), we can curb inflation and discourage mass grinding of resources. If a Trader only has 5000 Units with which to buy goods, overloading our inventories with excess gold serves little to no purpose. This not only ensures players are more likely to play the game as intended, it gives game designers more data with which to provide a tight and exciting Trading experience. If we know that after exploring 3 solar systems even the most meticulous of players will not have more than a certain amount of units, we can price upgrades and ships more fairly. The average player might be able to afford a decent ship, but a player who has been diligent in trading is able to afford a slightly better one – and neither player feels frustrated with what they had to do to get there. Players always have something to strive for, and stumbling on a cache of rare minerals or vortex cubes feels infinitely more rewarding.

There are both additional benefits and implementations of this simple solution that could make Trading even deeper. What happens if we do end up with excess resources? They still have a value, even if the trader we've met can't afford them. However, that Trader might have their own resources, or even a fancy ship they'd consider selling. If we know that resources have an inherent value – why not use them as bartering goods? My excess Gek Charms could be used in part exchange for a new ship, and be worth more in Gek-controlled space – allowing me to find even better deals the way a true intergalactic merchant should. Of course, I already know about the infinite-resource inflation problem, so as a game designer I would have to ensure that the more of a particular resource a Trader has, the less value they are going to attribute to it.

The solution targets the cause of the problem, and is massively effective and reusable for it.


Ideas VS Understanding

Its easy to throw ideas at a problem, to cut the heads off the hydra as they appear. Like that mythical beast however, failing to target the problem itself means that very soon we'll run out of swords and have more heads than we can handle.

As soon as we understand a problem, and can quantify exactly what that problem is and why it is occuring, the simplest and strongest solutions become immediately obvious. We can use the tools in our game design arsenal – be it simulations, spreadsheets, or probability mathematics – and ensure that a cool idea becomes a balanced and fun gameplay feature. This is the true role of a skilled game designer, and why I feel it is important that we teach these skills as early as possible in game design education.

Your daydreams are important, but its what you do with them that matters.


Niall is a BAFTA-nominated game designer and lecturer in game design. He has taught at both higher education (BA Hons) and further education (BTEC L3) level in the UK.

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