Since there have been games, there have been game designers. Their names might have been lost to history, but at some point the first clay dice were thrown, and the first smooth stones were placed in the pits of a newly carved mancala board. These early inventors might not have thought of themselves as game designers—perhaps they were just amusing themselves and their friends by coming up with competitions using the everyday objects around them—but many of their games have been played for thousands of years. And although this history stretches back as far as the beginnings of human culture, when we think of games today, we tend to speak of the digital games that have so recently captured our imaginations.
These digital games have the capacity to take us to amazing new worlds with fantastic characters and fully realized interactive environments. Games are designed by teams of professional game developers who work long hours at specialized tasks. The technological and business aspects of these digital games are mind-boggling. And yet, the appeal of digital games for players has its roots in the same basic impulses and desires as the games that have come before them. We play games to learn new skills, to feel a sense of achievement, to interact with friends and family, and sometimes just to pass the time. Ask yourself, why do you play games? Understanding your own answer, and the answers of other players, is the first step to becoming a game designer.
I bring up this long history of games as a prelude to a book primarily about designing digital games because I feel that it’s important for today’s designers to “reclaim” that history as inspiration and for examples of what makes great gameplay. It’s important to remember that what has made games such a long lasting form of human entertainment is not intrinsic to any technology or medium but to the experience of the players.
The focus of this book will be on understanding and designing for that player experience, no matter what platform you are working with. It is what I call a “playcentric” approach to game design, and it is the key to designing innovative, emotionally engaging game experiences. In the first chapter of this section, I’ll discuss the special role played by the game designer throughout the process: the designer’s relationship to the production team, the skills and vision a designer must possess, and the method by which a designer brings players into the process. Then I will look at the essential structure of games—the formal, dramatic, and dynamic elements that a designer must work with to create that all-important player experience. These are the fundamental building blocks of game design, and they provide an understanding of what it takes to create great games.
The game designer envisions how a game will work during play. She creates the objectives, rules, and procedures; thinks up the dramatic premise and gives it life; and is responsible for planning everything necessary to create a compelling player experience. In the same way that an architect drafts a blueprint for a building or a screenwriter produces the script for a movie, the game designer plans the structural elements of a system that, when set in motion by the players, creates the interactive experience.
As the impact of digital games has increased, there has been an explosion of interest in game design as a career. Now, instead of looking to Hollywood and dreaming of writing the next blockbuster, many creative people are turning to games as a new form of expression.
But what does it take to be a game designer? What kinds of talents and skills do you need? What will be expected of you during the process? And what is the best method of designing for a game? In this chapter, I’ll talk about the answers to these questions and outline a method of iterative design that designers can use to judge the success of gameplay against their goals for the player experience throughout the design and development process. This iterative method, which I call the “playcentric” approach, relies on inviting feedback from players early on and is the key to designing games that delight and engage the audience because the game mechanics are developed from the ground up with the player experience at the center of the process.
The role of the game designer is, first and foremost, to be an advocate for the player. The game designer must look at the world of games through the player’s eyes. This sounds simple, but you’d be surprised how often this concept is ignored. It’s far too easy to get caught up in a game’s graphics, story line, or new features and forget that what makes a game great is solid gameplay. That’s what excites players. Even if they tell you that they love the special effects, art direction, or plot, they won’t play for long unless the gameplay hooks them.
As a game designer, a large part of your role is to keep your concentration focused on the player experience and not allow yourself to be distracted by the other concerns of production. Let the art director worry about the imagery, the producer stress over the budget, and the technical director focus on the engine. Your main job is to make sure that when the game is delivered, it provides superior gameplay.
When you first sit down to design a game, everything is fresh and, most likely, you have a vision for what it is that you want to create. At this point in the process, your view of the game and that of the eventual new player are similar. However, as the process unfolds and the game develops, it becomes increasingly difficult to see your creation objectively. After months of testing and tweaking every conceivable aspect, your once-clear view can become muddled. At times like this, it’s easy to get too close to your own work and lose perspective.
It is in situations like these when it becomes critical to have playtesters. Playtesters are people who play your game and provide feedback on the experience so that you can move forward with a fresh perspective. By watching other people play the game, you can learn a great deal.
Observe their experience and try to see the game through their eyes. Pay attention to what objects they are focused on, where they touch the screen or move the cursor when they get stuck or frustrated or bored, and write down everything they tell you. They are your guides, and it’s your mission to have them lead you inside the game and illuminate any issues lurking below the surface of the design. If you train yourself to do this, you will regain your objectivity and be able to see both the beauty and the flaws in what you’ve created.
Many game designers don’t involve playtesters in their process, or, if they do, it’s at the end of production when it’s really too late to change the essential elements of the design. Perhaps they are on a tight schedule and feel they don’t have time for feedback. Or perhaps they are afraid that feedback will force them to change things they love about their design. Maybe they think that getting a playtest group together will cost too much money. Or they might be under the impression that testing is something only done by large companies or marketing people.
What these designers don’t realize is that by divorcing their process from this essential feedback opportunity, they probably cost themselves considerable time, money, and creative heartache. This is because games are not a form of one-way communication. Being a superior game designer isn’t about controlling every aspect of the game design or dictating exactly how the game should function. It’s about building a potential experience, setting all the pieces in place so that everything’s ready to unfold when the players begin to participate.
In some ways, de...