Finding Game Design

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.