The great French writer André Gide said: “Art is born of constraints, lives off struggles and dies from freedom.” For creators, this often feels counter-intuitive. I’ve met a lot of resistance over the years from designers who felt that providing a rational framework for creative development would stifle their creative drive, when it’s actually quite the opposite. Just try sitting in front of a white sheet of paper thinking, “Now I will write a great story.” You should be prepared to stare at that sheet for a long time, with no results in sight.
Rational Design, as a process, is a set of tools, questions and deliverables meant to challenge your ideas and provide a pipeline and structure for your creative thoughts. It’s about designing with intention; I often remind video game designers that having a tool doesn’t mean you have to use it, and if you don’t, there’s a purpose to that as well. Do you understand the difficulty in your game and can you control it, with great precision? Do you induce the state of flow, control its rhythm? Have you masterfully ventilated progression and learnings, validated the ability of the player? Here, the focus is on the user, and what you really want them to experience.
If you look at the full list of fields of expertise implicated in the making of a video game, you will notice that Game Design is about the only one that doesn’t exist outside of our medium, at least not in the digital space. Artists, whether 2D or 3D, have a long tradition of working in film and animation. Programmers have been coding software for decades across a variety of industries. The same goes for everyone else but Game Designers. Ironically, their input is at the core of the experience and the product. About 10-15 years ago, there was this sudden realization that, as the industry was thriving and growing, and as we started investing tens or hundreds of millions in new titles, the designers driving the core of that investment were doing so following… their instinct? A certain panic occurred, rightly so.
How do we make the designers more technical? In fact, what is Game Design? Well, it’s Rules and Fun. Easy, right? So the work began. We tried to identify all aspects of video game design, clearly define each piece (try defining what fun is…), find analogous fields outside of games that we could learn from, extract the tenets from each of these curriculum, build up a new Game Design paradigm, find a workable and coherent use to all of that, teach it and spread it around.
Like any athlete or performer, designers need a good program to “learn and practice their thinking.” There’s a gymnastics to developing the design aspects of a project, and you will get faster, with better results, if you follow the necessary process. It’s the difference between that “one Sunday where you played the best golf ever against your stepdad” and pro golfers that never play badly. The delta between their worst and their best is super thin. That sort of reliability is something we can aim at and train for during the game design process.
There’s a recurring joke amongst Designers: your full game goes through playtests and the report comes back showing map 6 suffering from a strong dip in difficulty - players don’t die enough. What’s the request from the Producer? “Add more enemies!” (protip: that’s usually not the right answer). Are you trained to find the right fix? Do you have the tools in hand and the right language in mind? Some of us dedicated the better part of the last 10 years to finding a concrete pipeline and structure to integrate that big idea in the daily lives of game developers. And really, the value of Rational Design can be summed up in the two sides of the same coin: Creativity and Reliability.
If you put over a hundred million dollars in a game, you want your designers to be creative AND technical. You wouldn’t trust an architect with a skyscraper built on guts and good looks, would you? No, I wouldn't either.