Media & Entertainment

Finding Game Design


Tadhg Kelly


Tadhg is a video game designer, producer, creative director, columnist and consultant. He has held roles at various video game development, technology and publishing companies. Since the early 90s, Tadhg has worked on all sorts of game projects, from boardgames and live action roleplaying games through to multi-million dollar PC projects. He has served as lead designer, senior producer and a number of other roles at several companies including BSkyB, Lionhead and Climax.

He was a cofounder of the social gaming startup Simple Lifeforms before moving on to becoming a consultant in the game design space through founding noted industry blog What Games Are ( A recent immigrant to the United States, Tadhg has most recently worked at Jawfish Games, OUYA and for some other studios on a consulting basis.

Tadhg is currently consulting out of Seattle for a variety of companies under the banner of Tadhg Kelly Game Design, as well as writing a book named Raw Game Design to be published next year by Focal Press and a weekly gaming column for TechCrunch. You can reach him at

More posts from Tadhg Kelly

Editor’s note: Tadhg Kelly writes a regular column about all things video game for TechCrunch. He is a consultant, game designer and creator of leading game design blog What Games Are. You can follow him on Twitter here.

Let’s talk about game designers. The “game designer” is the powerhouse, the visionary, the one who’s going to change up games. “Game designers” represent a cause, an idea, a vision of what games will be. “Game designers” set the next stage of the games industry’s evolution. “Game designers” live exciting lives of talks and interviews, being interesting and working on super cool things.

Why wrap quotes around “game designer” in this fashion? Well because that image of the game designer is a figment. It’s a catch-all label that applies to leaders of big-budget studios or tiny one-man indies. It’s a label that anyone can self-appropriate as shorthand for “I make cool games,” just as anyone can call themselves an entrepreneur. It doesn’t really describe anything, but it sounds awesome.

Game design as a craft isn’t nearly so cool, often undervalued and misunderstood. A long running impression (propagated by game designers as much as anyone else) is that design is more of a jack-of-all-trades kind of position. Not exactly. Mostly a game designer specifies the mechanics of a game, documents them in detail and laboriously works through balancing them.

It’s also commonly a supporting role in mid or large sized teams. Creative authority is rarely bequeathed to the designer, instead staying at the team level, and the designer’s job tends to revolve around synthesis rather than invention. Mechanics play a key role in the development of a game, but there’s more to making a great game than that. They still need to be acid-tested through prototype and implementation to find out if they really work.

A great designer helps facilitate rather than dictate that process. So “game designer” is a role about function, about zeroing down on the key risks and figuring out the best ways to validate them without costing a project a fortune.

Respecting (Or Not) Design

Yet because of the impression of the “game designer” as persona more than skill base, developers tend dubious of their worth. A vague game designer who thinks and talks in terms of experience and dreams, for example, is often ineffective. He essentially foists the difficult work of mechanics onto his team and acts more as a quality vet, which most teams grow to despise. There’s a lot of design-fatigue to be witnessed in studios made of veteran developers, and indeed some studios make a point of pride in saying that they don’t hire designers. They consider themselves doers rather than thinkers.

And they have a point. Game designers are a thinky and eggheaded bunch, often speaking in what sound like arcane terms. The general familiarity or literacy of design beyond designers is poor, and among designers it’s perpetually quarreled-over. There are many smart books on the subject, often debating the nature of games or deep approaches to thinking about design. But those texts are often not read by developers and they sound fluffy and ineffectual.

As a result game design as a discipline unto itself is highly respected in some venues and highly disrespected in others. It gets rolled in more with the idea of the game maker (such as many indie developers), democratized to an extent and considered informally.  The question is whether anything is lost in that? Doesn’t it just reflect, for example, that some designers have greater initiative than others and create their own authority? That respect needs to be earned?

In part yes, but on a wider level I think the state of game design is a roadblock to progress.

The Value Of Design

A few years ago I encountered an earnest young man at a conference who had spent a long time creating a design for his dream game. He had written a 200-page design document chock full of material, and was looking to sell it into a studio. I was in the position of having to tell him he had wasted his time because the games isn’t like Hollywood. There’s no market for ideas separate of execution.

Instead the tradition has long been that game development is dominated by insular studios. Their common refrain is that making games is hard and ideas are cheap, so they have enough of their own to go on. In fairness, 200-page design documents are usually useless, but not for the reason that ideas are cheap. They’re just the wrong approach, but I think there is a right approach out there.

When you think about it, for an industry as big as games the notion that all ideas should come from in-house sources is pretty narrow. It indicates that cross-pollination isn’t happening well. Rather than thinking of mechanics as sets of techniques that can be pulled together to create original games, it is far more common to see studios clone or heavily copy source games. Sure Threes is cloned because it seems that games of that nature are hot, but on another level the reason such clones happen is because developers can see that the game works but not meaningfully analyze why. That lack of technique familiarity is a roadblock.

A More Portable Design

It’s all well and good to have a maker’s mentality, to be focused solely on nuts and bolts, but it comes at a cost. The advantage of a good game design is perspective. A good designer, for instance, tends to be familiar with smart user interface conventions from numerous games whereas non-designers make naive mistakes. A good designer understands resonance, but non-designers tend to struggle with why it is their game isn’t working. A good designer understands naturalism where non-designers tend to have to prototype everything out to find that out.

What I’m saying is that there is an argument for the portability of technique for developers of all levels, but the challenge for design is to make itself more useful. I doubt that game design will ever really be like Hollywood with its scripts, but maybe it will evolve into something more like architecture. Design consultancy is nothing new, but maybe we’ll see the emergence of game design agencies, or markets for design, or similar.

Sound far fetched? Maybe. The cost of game development all across the spectrum is rising, even in usually low markets like mobile. The risks are perceived to be higher, and so smart executives are always looking for ways to reduce risk. If designers can figure out how to design their work to have more utility and less eggheadedness, they may find themselves filling a much-needed role once more.

More TechCrunch

Welcome back to TechCrunch’s Week in Review. This week had two major events from OpenAI and Google. OpenAI’s spring update event saw the reveal of its new model, GPT-4o, which…

OpenAI and Google lay out their competing AI visions

Expedia says Rathi Murthy and Sreenivas Rachamadugu, respectively its CTO and senior vice president of core services product & engineering, are no longer employed at the travel booking company. In…

Expedia says two execs dismissed after ‘violation of company policy’

When Jeffrey Wang posted to X asking if anyone wanted to go in on an order of fancy-but-affordable office nap pods, he didn’t expect the post to go viral.

With AI startups booming, nap pods and Silicon Valley hustle culture are back

OpenAI’s Superalignment team, responsible for developing ways to govern and steer “superintelligent” AI systems, was promised 20% of the company’s compute resources, according to a person from that team. But…

OpenAI created a team to control ‘superintelligent’ AI — then let it wither, source says

A new crop of early-stage startups — along with some recent VC investments — illustrates a niche emerging in the autonomous vehicle technology sector. Unlike the companies bringing robotaxis to…

VCs and the military are fueling self-driving startups that don’t need roads

When the founders of Sagetap, Sahil Khanna and Kevin Hughes, started working at early-stage enterprise software startups, they were surprised to find that the companies they worked at were trying…

Deal Dive: Sagetap looks to bring enterprise software sales into the 21st century

Keeping up with an industry as fast-moving as AI is a tall order. So until an AI can do it for you, here’s a handy roundup of recent stories in the world…

This Week in AI: OpenAI moves away from safety

After Apple loosened its App Store guidelines to permit game emulators, the retro game emulator Delta — an app 10 years in the making — hit the top of the…

Adobe comes after indie game emulator Delta for copying its logo

Meta is once again taking on its competitors by developing a feature that borrows concepts from others — in this case, BeReal and Snapchat. The company is developing a feature…

Meta’s latest experiment borrows from BeReal’s and Snapchat’s core ideas

Welcome to Startups Weekly! We’ve been drowning in AI news this week, with Google’s I/O setting the pace. And Elon Musk rages against the machine.

Startups Weekly: It’s the dawning of the age of AI — plus,  Musk is raging against the machine

IndieBio’s Bay Area incubator is about to debut its 15th cohort of biotech startups. We took special note of a few, which were making some major, bordering on ludicrous, claims…

IndieBio’s SF incubator lineup is making some wild biotech promises

YouTube TV has announced that its multiview feature for watching four streams at once is now available on Android phones and tablets. The Android launch comes two months after YouTube…

YouTube TV’s ‘multiview’ feature is now available on Android phones and tablets

Featured Article

Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

CSC ServiceWorks provides laundry machines to thousands of residential homes and universities, but the company ignored requests to fix a security bug.

1 day ago
Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

TechCrunch Disrupt 2024 is just around the corner, and the buzz is palpable. But what if we told you there’s a chance for you to not just attend, but also…

Harness the TechCrunch Effect: Host a Side Event at Disrupt 2024

Decks are all about telling a compelling story and Goodcarbon does a good job on that front. But there’s important information missing too.

Pitch Deck Teardown: Goodcarbon’s $5.5M seed deck

Slack is making it difficult for its customers if they want the company to stop using its data for model training.

Slack under attack over sneaky AI training policy

A Texas-based company that provides health insurance and benefit plans disclosed a data breach affecting almost 2.5 million people, some of whom had their Social Security number stolen. WebTPA said…

Healthcare company WebTPA discloses breach affecting 2.5 million people

Featured Article

Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Microsoft won’t be facing antitrust scrutiny in the U.K. over its recent investment into French AI startup Mistral AI.

2 days ago
Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Ember has partnered with HSBC in the U.K. so that the bank’s business customers can access Ember’s services from their online accounts.

Embedded finance is still trendy as accounting automation startup Ember partners with HSBC UK

Kudos uses AI to figure out consumer spending habits so it can then provide more personalized financial advice, like maximizing rewards and utilizing credit effectively.

Kudos lands $10M for an AI smart wallet that picks the best credit card for purchases

The EU’s warning comes after Microsoft failed to respond to a legally binding request for information that focused on its generative AI tools.

EU warns Microsoft it could be fined billions over missing GenAI risk info

The prospects for troubled banking-as-a-service startup Synapse have gone from bad to worse this week after a United States Trustee filed an emergency motion on Wednesday.  The trustee is asking…

A US Trustee wants troubled fintech Synapse to be liquidated via Chapter 7 bankruptcy, cites ‘gross mismanagement’

U.K.-based Seraphim Space is spinning up its 13th accelerator program, with nine participating companies working on a range of tech from propulsion to in-space manufacturing and space situational awareness. The…

Seraphim’s latest space accelerator welcomes nine companies

OpenAI has reached a deal with Reddit to use the social news site’s data for training AI models. In a blog post on OpenAI’s press relations site, the company said…

OpenAI inks deal to train AI on Reddit data

X users will now be able to discover posts from new Communities that are trending directly from an Explore tab within the section.

X pushes more users to Communities

For Mark Zuckerberg’s 40th birthday, his wife got him a photoshoot. Zuckerberg gives the camera a sly smile as he sits amid a carefully crafted re-creation of his childhood bedroom.…

Mark Zuckerberg’s makeover: Midlife crisis or carefully crafted rebrand?

Strava announced a slew of features, including AI to weed out leaderboard cheats, a new ‘family’ subscription plan, dark mode and more.

Strava taps AI to weed out leaderboard cheats, unveils ‘family’ plan, dark mode and more

We all fall down sometimes. Astronauts are no exception. You need to be in peak physical condition for space travel, but bulky space suits and lower gravity levels can be…

Astronauts fall over. Robotic limbs can help them back up.

Microsoft will launch its custom Cobalt 100 chips to customers as a public preview at its Build conference next week, TechCrunch has learned. In an analyst briefing ahead of Build,…

Microsoft’s custom Cobalt chips will come to Azure next week

What a wild week for transportation news! It was a smorgasbord of news that seemed to touch every sector and theme in transportation.

Tesla keeps cutting jobs and the feds probe Waymo