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  • Characteristics of Successful Game Designers

    [12.23.08]
    - Lewis Pulsipher

  •  Learning to Learn
    What's important is what you know and what you can do, not what classes you took or what degrees you have. Good classes help you learn much quicker, as you take advantage of the experience of teachers and authors.

    If I were to characterize what a game designer does in as few words as possible, it would come down to:

    • think
    • communicate
    • innovate
    • control.
    Think. The game designer needs to have his brain in gear all the time. When playing games, he should be thinking about what works, what doesn't, and why. He must keep his mind open to ideas at all times. He must think about how to improve his game even when (if) he enjoys playing it. The game can always be improved; we just come to a time when the improvement we can get isn't worth the time it will take (the law of diminishing returns).

    Most important, the designer must think critically. Fanboys (or girls) will never make good game designers, as they typically praise a game or genre or company's work uncritically. Self-criticism is especially important. If you can't recognize that your favorite mechanic just doesn't fit or just isn't needed, then you won't design good games. Self-indulgence doesn't work in game design.

    Communicate.
    Communication is much more important for video game designers than for non-electronic game designers. Most video games require a team to produce. The game designer must communicate in writing and orally everything about his game in a manner that enables the artists and programmers to reproduce it. This is really hard to do!

    Non-electronic game designers can make the prototypes and write the rules themselves, but still must communicate well with play testers to improve the game. Moreover, since the rules are not enforced by a computer, it's especially important to write rules that are clear, concise, and understandable.

    Finally, if you haven't written it down, it doesn't count.

    Innovate. While game design is "10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration," that 10 percent is important. It's not hard to "design" the next shooter clone. Finding that spark to make it more than a clone, more than just a shooter, separates the most successful designers from the rest. Too many designers design the game they want to play, which is almost exactly like some existing game that they love to play. "Think outside the box" applies here.

    Control.
    Game designers do not need to be control freaks, but they do need to carefully control everything in the design of the game. People who buy games want the designer to make every effort to produce an enjoyable game. They don't want to depend on random this or that unless the designer has decided that randomness will create the best game experience.

    I once saw some of my students, who were making a form of "capture multiple flags" board game, literally just drop the flag markers on the board to create a random distribution. My jaw dropped.

    If you're the professional designer, you should work out a set of excellent and interesting positions for the flags, rather than depend on chance placement. Why trust enjoyment of your game to unnecessary chance? Yes, it's more work for the designer, making up and recording the patterns of placement, play testing each one multiple times, but the result will be a fairer and better game.

    Pro Player
    Some aspiring game designers ask, "Do I have to be an outstanding player to be a game designer?"

    Being a dynamite game player, whether it's in Halo 3 or a Super Mario Bros. game or Command & Conquer or Axis & Allies, does not translate to being a good game designer. The skills and points of view are very different.

    On the other hand, if you have played tic-tac-toe (noughts and crosses to British English speakers) and have not realized that it is always a draw when played optimally, you have a mountain to overcome, because you'll likely not see the optimal strategies in more complex games.

    In other words, you'll help yourself a lot if you're a good enough game player to quickly see the best strategies and tactics in a game. You can avoid dominant strategies and other pitfalls that otherwise your play testers will have to reveal, at a cost of time and frustration.

    You needn't be an outstanding player, but it helps to be a good player.

    Dr. Lewis Pulsipher comes from the non-electronic side of game design, and teaches video game design at Fayetteville Technical Community College, NC. His most well-known game, Britannia, was described in an "Armchair General" online review as "one of the great titles in the world of games."

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