Saturday, June 14, 2008

From Gamer to Designer

Most of the people I knew in the game industry who were game designers, were that way from a very young age (myself included). We would make games, even if they weren't very good. When we played games, we would think about the rules. We would write design documents in crayon. It's just something we did naturally, without having to be prompted.

I'm sure that in the game industry, that made game designers easy to screen out. If you ask a question like "what's your favorite game" and then start analyzing that game -- what were the design mistakes (no game is perfect, even your favorite), what would you have done differently, what elements of the game make it so compelling -- the discussion flows naturally with the right candidate. For the people who are more gamer than game designer, though, this kind of question is anathema. "What do you mean, critique my favorite game of all time? It's awesome, it's great, what more is there to say?"

Because that's clearly helpful in a design document, saying that the game should be "great" and "awesome."

Now, I'm in the position of teaching people to be game designers, and it's just occurred to me that my classes have a high proportion of gamers in them, and not everyone sees the distinction. I didn't notice the dividing line in my classes either, until just now when grading the final exam. One of the questions goes something like this: "Write a one-paragraph game concept for a video game that has the following constraints: blah blah blah." And the answers that I get fall into a few different categories:
  • "My game will be just like a combination of this game and this other game." Great, but what if I haven't played those games? And how do you plan on being innovative if all of your ideas are based on earlier video games?
  • "My game has this story..." Okay, maybe you have a future as a story writer, but my class is in game design, specifically core mechanics. What does the player do?
  • A full paragraph with all sorts of things describing how great and fun it will be, with maybe two words to give some clue as to the actual gameplay. These are the fanboys (or fangirls, I suppose, but in my experience it's always the guys that do this). It makes me sad to see that after ten full weeks of learning about how to speak critically about games, as soon as I ask someone to apply it then it all goes out the window and they revert to their earlier fanboy status. I suppose there are some kinds of people that I haven't figured out how to reach yet.
  • And every now and then, I see a student who writes a concept that includes a description of mechanics and gameplay. Apparently, it doesn't occur to them that the question would be asking for anything else (and they're right).

Generally, the students who answer in the latter category are the ones who tend to do well in the class overall. It's making me wonder if this is something of a litmus test for game designers: ask an open-ended question that involves designing a simple game concept, and see what people do. Maybe I'll try that on the first day of class next time, as opposed to on the final exam...

And then for the students who aren't getting it on Day One, I need to work out some strategy to get them to abandon their lifelong gamer mentality for long enough to start thinking like a designer.


jbwenzoski said...

That sounds awesome Ian, a litmus test to divide the instinctual emotionalists from the pattern recognitionists.

I find that a keen mind for pattern recognition and logical flow tends to make a better candidate for a designer. Gamers who do not recognize patterns as easily or that cannot think abstractly have a harder time simplifying a game down to a set of rules.

Another task I would have liked back in college is a few assignments where we boil our favorite games down into their basic gameplay rules, maybe even into small pitch documents. Being able to recognize and effectively communicate an existing game (essence) to another person would be a great exercise in identifying those students who 'get it' from those who don't. In correcting the students who don't 'get it' and showing them the correct interpretation of the gameplay, some of them may get a better understanding of the abstract elements of rules and gameplay.

I really admire any designer that has gone into teaching game design as it is a new educational frontier. It isn't a area of academics that has been streamlined yet in terms of testing and educating. It is litmus tests like you're thinking of that will help better the education of future aspiring game designers.

I remember back when I was a young lad (pre-10) I would fill sheets of sidescrolling levels with enemies and pitfalls (and other traps) and connect them together to make a big giant level. Then in my imagination I would pretend to play through the levels. WHen I was a bit older I had a second editon of D&D and although I could never find anyone in our small town to play it with I studied the 'design documents' that came with it. I think this is what truely gave me an early understanding of the underlying mechanics within any game. That, and the fact that if you pay close enough attention to the Megaman bosses you can time your attacks right and take them down based on their movement and attack patterns. :P

Lewis said...

Outstanding points, Ian. As someone who has always tinkered with rules and made up games (nearly 50 years now), I'm a little amazed by all the players who accept whatever the game is and don't try to modify it (and I'm thinking more about boardgames, where it's much easier to make alterations if you like than it is with electronic games).

The 64,000 dollar question is, can the people who aren't "natural" designers become so? I think it must be possible, but I'm not sure. Can someone who doesn't naturally write fiction become a novelist? Probably.

Designers tend to be "in the middle" types, where the programmers tend to be the quantitative/math types and artists the artsy/non-math types (but often good with words), the designers tend to be pretty good at both (though I can't draw a lick, I must say). "Art" in the broader sense of creativity, creating something new. I suspect design falls more into the art side than the programmer side (though I used to work as a programmer, myself).

Critical thinking is certainly a key. In effect, you've described that some of the students think critically about games and the rest don't. People go through various stages to arrive at critical thinking about a subject, and we can try to help them get there (though schools aren't always in sympathy with that, they want something more cut-and-dried).

In any case, we can help the people who won't be designers understand what's involved and what they can do to contribute as artists, programmers, etc.

Evil Dan said...

Very interesting. I was kind of curious roughly how big the split was between the two groups. I would assume it wasn't a 50/50 ratio.