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Gestalt Game Design

A great game is more than a collection of great pieces. Design, art, programming, writing, and all of their associated parts need to blend together seamlessly to generate a magnificent whole.

Often in the course of my college studies (particularly in the early years), I would find myself forced to analyze my favorite games in detail.  The deeper I looked, the less interested I became in my favorite games.  But at the same time, I noticed elements in these games I couldn't quite define.  There were pieces that didn't quite fit into a category of the design process.

I eventually came to realize that my favorite games all have something in common.  It’s not necessarily brilliant game design, though many are quite clever.  It’s not necessarily beautiful artwork, though many are stunning to look at.  It’s not really any one specific element of the game structure.  What seems to turn a well-made game into a game I remember forever is the way a game feels.  The design, programming, artwork, sound, and writing all come together to form a cohesive whole, and this whole generates a particular feel – an aura, ambience, or mood.  It’s something highly subjective and not entirely tangible.  Great games have a tendency to just feel right.

It’s what I like to call “Gestalt Game Design”.  The whole package is greater than the sum of its parts.  It’s about more than simply having all of the best elements in your game; it’s more about ensuring that those elements blend together naturally and seamlessly.

Imagine you could take the winners of the Game Developers’ Choice Awards in Design, Technology, Art, Writing, and Audio, extract those winning elements from each, and combine them into a single game.  Simple math would suggest that you’ve just created the Game of the Year winner.  You have a well-designed game with nice visuals that runs brilliantly, sounds great, and tells an impressive story.  Gold.

Here’s the real question, though: how well do these elements support each other?  Does the artwork complement the design and help drive the player along?  Does the story fit in with the types of mechanics being used?  Does the way the interface runs match the way it looks?  The various pieces that go into a game’s creation link together in an amazing number of ways.  Accounting for these connections wherever possible can take a game to the next level. 

The mathematically perfect game above has the potential to get some fine review scores, but it’s not automatically a great game.  Cohesion is what transforms a game with great design, programming, art, and writing into, simply, a great game.  These are the games we remember.  These are the games that spread not just by good press, but by word of mouth.

Now is the time when I would normally start listing a few examples of games that “feel right”.  However, as I mentioned earlier, this sensation is highly subjective.  It depends on the type of game you feel like playing at a given time – what kind of sensation you’re looking for.  Even listing games that often feel “right” to me isn’t quite appropriate because explaining why they feel right isn’t entirely possible.  They just…do.

Great games, of course, don’t just spring out of the ether.  Games are made by people.  A seamless game is a good indicator of a well-oiled machine at the helm – team members who are not only masters of what they do, but who also have an understanding of what those around them do.  Members of such a team see the connections between their various disciplines.  They communicate on a regular basis to ensure that everyone understands and works towards the same goals.

That’s the nature of Gestalt Game Design.  We often think of the development team as a collection of smaller groups with separate responsibilities.  While it’s obviously true that programmers have different tasks to complete than artists, they all have the responsibility of working towards generating the same game with a particular feel.  It’s not just a matter of designers creating and balancing game mechanics, artists generating visual assets, and programmers coding functionality, but about everyone – everyone – working to capture and portray that unique vibe that makes the game something all its own.

So exactly where does the image of a game’s “feel” come from?  As with the initial idea for the game’s functionality, the idea for a game’s feel originates with the designer.  Designers have a duty to provide the initial vision for how a game should feel.  Like everything else in the game, the game’s feel shifts as the circumstances of development change.  As old ideas are tossed aside and replaced with new ones, a new game emerges with its own unique style.  The key is to continually see that no matter what the change, the entire team remains on the same page.

Being in tune with the rest of the team is dependent on thinking outside the confines of your particular discipline.  Part of this thinking comes from knowledge and skills in multiple subjects.  More importantly and basically, however, it comes down to communication.  Collaboration.  That melding of parts into a whole can’t occur without team members sitting down and working through problems together.  “The design works, but does it work with the artistic style we’re using?  Let’s figure out how to do it.”

I’ll take a great game over a great design any day (but there’s no reason I can’t have both).

As a designer, I tend to focus on where a designer stands in relation to the rest of the development team.  In the coming weeks, I plan to continue the discussion on Gestalt Game Design by analyzing the process of thinking outside of one’s discipline.  I’ll be discussing the process from a design standpoint – what designers should know about their colleagues – based on past experience (or in some cases, a lack thereof).  I hope you’ll bear with me through that.

In the meantime, though, that will be all.

Keep having fun.

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