Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Very Model of a Good Game Designer


So what makes someone a good game designer?

Is it innate? Or can it be taught? What makes one game designer more effective than another? What the heck is "game design," anyway? What distinguishes it from, say, simulation design or bridge design or graphic design?

Here's my one-line definition of game design: game design is high-level systems design in an entertainment context.

To put it another way, a good game designer is someone who's good at creating core designs for systems intended to entertain people. And if that's true, then by implication the way to become a better game designer is to become better at high-level systems design.

A systems designer surrounds himself with knowledge about systems -- how they work, and how they fail to work. Because people love to create systems, that means studying human systems: economics, philosophy, history, politics, psychology. What enables a government to function, and under what conditions will it cease to function? What are the fundamental motivators of human behavior? Why do we call the notion of supply and demand a "law?" Are there patterns to the emergence, growth, and extinction of civilizations? Unlike most people, the systems designer never gets bored studying these things because all of them help to explain how systems satisfy their intended purpose(s) and how they fail to do so.

The good systems designer also studies science in order to understand the greatest of all creators of systems: nature.

Look at the head of a sunflower, and consider: why do the number of spirals of pips correspond specifically to numbers on the Fibonacci sequence? How do ecosystems maintain equilibrium? How do the strong nuclear force and gravity produce stable dynamic systems in a chaotic universe? I think what relates all these and other natural phenomena is simple to express: when you've got millions and billions of years to experiment, and you're not emotionally attached to any solution, eventually the systems you wind up with are going to be extremely efficient at satisfying their purpose because all the less efficient solutions were discarded.

The good systems designer is thus a student of natural science because nature is all about highly functional systems. They also study human organizational systems precisely because they are far less functional most of the time than natural systems -- human-designed systems provide powerful lessons on what doesn't work.

That's most of what a good game designer needs, I think. But the entertainment context matters, too. So I'd specify that a good game designer is a good systems designer who's played enough different kinds of games to understand "play" at a systemic level.

A couple of the best resources I've encountered on practical systems design are The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman and Systemantics by John Gall. Again, the true game designer, as a systems designer, studies all systems. They'll have read hundreds of books to try to glean practical rules of effective systems design. But anyone who thoroughly groks these two works in particular and has played enough games to perceive most of the patterns within the "game" context is probably as ready to be a successful game designer as anyone can be.

Ultimately, then, to find a good game designer, first find someone who understands systems at a deep level and who's familiar with game design patterns.

And then give that person a clear high-level vision document that says "what" but not "how," a list of resource constraints, and all the caffeinated beverages they can drink, and say to that person, "Yeah, I don't know, all the experts say it can't be done...."

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