Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Game Design part 1

Everyone wants to be a game designer.

Moar. I want it.
Heck, I know what’s fun, I could design a game easily. I can list a dozen ways to improve a good game and I know why bad games are bad. This job’s a walk in the park… More explosions! More violence! Better graphics! More weapons! More levels! I could invent my own game easily… the industry just hasn’t recognised my potential yet!

The above statement was brought to you by game consumers en masse, and makes hefty use of the word “more”. The consumer always wants more and they want it for less. This is true of any marketplace. Unique to the gaming market, however, is the popularly held belief by consumers that they could do the producer’s job better. And within this, few jobs receive the level of scrutiny as that of the game designer.

And who can blame them? Each year, dozens of shooters come out, many of them sequels with what must surely have been a design document similar to the above. [end obvious and rather unfair snipe at course leader Mike’s preferred genre].

I think the designer of the contraptions
in 101 Unuseless Japanese Inventions
was trying to make a statement.
But you get the point.
In actuality, inventing a game is much like inventing any other product.  Superficially effortless: a simple idea worth millions. In execution: countless hours spent developing, prototyping and refining the design. And that’s all before it’s even shown to a distributor.

At home we have a book: 101 Un-useless Japanese inventions. Many of them are simply brilliant; Excellent solutions to everyday problems. I believe in every case, however, they have failed due to entirely misreading consumer demand. But at least they made it to production. One cannot say the same of poor game designs. Bad designs simply do not get made by any studio worth its salt.
So game design is important. That’s why it’s a full-time job performed by specialist professionals. In actuality, the ideas for games (the bit consumers think is the entire role of the game designer) tends to come from management or from a publisher. Very often a game designer will be given a safe-bet brief, mashing together a few games into a cocktail management believe will have the lowest chance of failure. Low risk pleases the stockholders. I’ll leave my feelings on the harmful effect of low-risk development to another blog post.

Design Documents often reach
hundreds of pages
So what does a game designer do then, if they don’t come up with the original idea? Their major activity will be writing and maintaining a design document – a body of work which every member of a development team will refer to while creating the game. The design document will include detailing gameplay, narrative, setting, characters and environment. Art direction may be contained in the design document, or be supplied in a separate document once the design gets the go-ahead.

The design document should leave no member of a development team guessing what is required of their role and will provide expectations of the final product which can be presented to publishers, partners or investors. A good design document will be say precisely enough to allow everyone to do their job. This means enough information to prevent developers second-guessing and enough freedom to benefit from expert judgement from specific roles.  

So if that’s what makes a good design document… what makes a good design? More on this in coming posts.

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