Will Wright, creator of SimCity and The Sims, shed some light on his design methodologies today at GDC's design track.
The talk, dubbed "a schizophrenic approach to game design", dealt mainly with available methodologies to work on a game design either solo or as part of a design team. Wright ellaborated about the importance of having different viewpoints in a design team, so members specialize in their area of expertise (dubbed their "superpower" by Wright) and they can complement perspectives. This is also useful in sequential processes (looking for ideas, documenting them, evangelizing the rest of the company, etc.)
A long part of his talk was about succesful strategies to follow when a design team member or the team as a whole gets stuck, and seem to be unable to advance. Strategies here ranged from the very obvious, like trying to look at the problem from different perspectives to the mildly advanced like backtracking one step in your design process tree and try to follow a different path across the solution space. Wright also proposed some totally extreme solutions, like talking to the company's receptionist. He thought this strategy is useful when really stuck, as having to explain our problem to a person completely out of that specific area of expertise often makes the solution evident. This seems to be related to the idea that explaining a problem to someone is one half of the solution.
Another significant portion of Wright's talk dealt with the structure of game design, comparing it to an actual language: a game has verbs, or actions we can perform, nouns, which relate to the actual game objects, and so on. This type of analysis proved useful to understand the player's expectations with regards to the game: by listening to a gamer describe our game we can understand the kind of actions they would like to perform. A similar technique exposed by Wright involved frequency analysis: understanding how frequently users perform certain tasks (like pressing on-screen buttons in The Sims) to understand the relative priority they assign to certain tasks. Wright explained some playtesting strategies used for The Sims using this frequency analysis idea.
Trying to put game design in a larger context of design in general, Wright devoted a lengthy portion of his talk to actual design examples, not only for games but for many different areas. So, his talk covered the design criteria for soccer mom-oriented cars, a lengthy comparison of US and USSR space technologies in the '60s, and many other seemingly uncorrelated, but altogether illustrative examples. It seems to be a good idea to think of game design not as an isolated science, but as part of a larger body of knowledge which with shares a common ground.
Finally, Wright did a projection on the current evolution of budgets and team sizes in the game development industry. Starting with his first game, which he coded, did art for, designed, etc. to The Sims (which had a team size of around 25 people), he projected we will reach a point in this century where a game will need a team of 2.5 million developers, and a budget of around 500 billion dollars.