Gamer Hate

Belligerently lacking in remorse.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Pen and Paper?
When Game Designers Fail at Design

When I was growing up I used to play a lot of Pen and Paper RPGs. Shadowrun, Gurps, TMNT, Robotech, and of course, the ever present and always awesome, Dungeons & Dragons. I think that’s when my love of game design started because I would continually add on (crap) to the preset worlds, races and character classes of the game. Had I a mind for it, I probably could have published the hundreds of pages of backstory and history I made for fun. Of course, I was 12 years old so it was probably garbage, but it’s the thought that counts.

So when I finally got into the game industry, I was very excited to be able to do what I enjoyed most for a living. Creating worlds, writing stories and making game mechanics that were fun. Well, I started in Quality Assurance, so that was almost 2 years off, but the thought of it was constant in my mind. Then I learned that video game design and the purely written design I remembered from my youth were two entirely different beasts.

To become a video game designer you must learn a little bit about three separate disciplines. The first is what I had always wanted to do and that was fundamental Game Design. Game Design is typically the written portion of design. You’ll be writing out game mechanics in document form and sending them off to programmers later on. Writing storyline and characters is often included in this part, as the artists often need descriptive starting points in order to know what direction to take the artistic style of the game. The Game Design phase is often the first big push when creating a game. 90% of the documentation for the game is created in the first 1-6 months of a project and after that, the Game Design stuff is usually relegated to problem solving or fixing things that sounded good during documentation but actually ended up being miserable for actual gameplay.

What’s interesting to me is that Dungeons & Dragons pretty much consists entirely of the Game Design phase. After you’ve written out all the mechanics and play-tested them, you’re pretty much done. The only part that differs from video game design is that the polish phase begins here and all of the mechanics are thoroughly tested until it’s all deemed good.

Sadly, most video games could probably use a good layer of polish at the Game Design phase. What usually ends up happening is that due to time constraints or due to stupidity on the part of the design team, they decide that they need to see things running in game before they can determine whether or not the mechanics will work. While this might be true if they were doing cutting edge pie in the sky things that have never been seen before, 9 times out of 10 they’re doing the same fucking thing that not only every other company in the damn world has done before, they’ve already done it too, and the real reason they don’t do any testing of the game mechanics before committing to getting it into the game is because they don’t have a clue what they’re doing. They’ve never done pen and paper design. They can’t envision things from paper to what it would feel like playing in the final game.

Of course, the truth is, those people aren’t really designers. They’re monkeys wearing hats that have “DEZINER” scribbled on them in crooked crayon. If they had any design sense at all, they’d know what a tried and true feature would feel like in the end game, and more importantly, they’d be able to document the design of it in such a way that the programmer’s flawless implementation of it would feel perfect in the game on the first try. Alright, that last bit is slight exaggeration, but it’s not too far off.

A designer has to know what something is going to feel like when it’s put into play before actually seeing it in the game. Tweaking the gameplay later is a whole other beast, but if you can’t tell whether a feature you’re designing is going to feel good by playing it out in your head, you need to reconsider your career as a designer.

posted by CommanderHate at 1:18 am  


  1. I totally agree. Problem is that the things they look when they hire seems quite iffy to me.

    It’s either you are from a Game Design school with a diploma or you’re hired from within.

    Even when you work as a designer, I’m sure there’s too many unnecessary restraints that chokes the crap out of the willful designers.

    People who can’t envision at least 70~80% of the game shouldn’t really make games. It’ll drive the people working for them to insanity.

    Comment by Kohyunu — March 21, 2008 @ 9:56 pm

  2. Heh, “DEZINER.” That’s a sound argument, that designers need to be able to visualize how a concept will actually play out. That’s helped me with game design choices several times, though admittedly I don’t do it enough. Excellent wake-up call for me and other learning designers/coders!

    Comment by Metroid48 — May 20, 2008 @ 5:32 pm

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