Racism – does it exist in the modern western world? Probably few of us would say that the answer is “no, it no longer exists”. Yet, where are all of the people coming out and earnestly saying “yeah, I’m a racist, so what?” Racism, sexism and other isms that are generally maligned in our culture almost never come right out and rear their head. So much so, that it’s almost exciting in a way in those rare times when it does. When someone suspicious, someone whose motivations seem like they may be racism-influenced is finally caught muttering an epithet or some other such thing, people who are suspicious of them get a bit excited; or perhaps relieved.
Now, don’t worry – I’m not about to compare racism to the subject of game design. Obviously the two are totally unrelated and one (racism)is obviously a far more serious issue than the other(game design). I’m also not here to try and to generate pity for game designers, who, as far as I’m concerned, have the greatest job of all time. What I’m pointing to specifically is a certain kind of “a-ha!” moment that happens when some dark element of our culture finally comes out where it can clearly be seen.
The question I want to ask is this: do most people in the world of video games recognize game design as a discipline? I think if you took a simple yes or no poll about that question, you’d get an overwhelming “yes” result, I’m pretty sure. But I’m suspicious that that’s the reality.
“The Idea Guy”
Recently on reddit, there was a bit of a commotion about an advertisement I put up in looking for a new programmer. A pretty common thread that we’ve gotten since the beginning is something like “you guys shouldn’t get paid for your work on the game, only a programmer should get paid”. I have to wonder if it would be OK if one of the two of us was the lead programmer – then is it OK to pay ourselves? But this isn’t a post on Kickstarter or the bizarre psychology surrounding it (although I’ll certainly be addressing this topic in the coming days).
After I made a post on reddit looking for a coder, one person took the time to make a new post titled “Idea Guy – ‘We essentially need someone to implement everything that’s already planned and written down’“.
Now, I sort of misrepresented some of what we were asking for in the post, so some of the confusion surrounding my initial post is understandable. But with everyone shouting things all over the thread, no one realized the real, interesting and important takeaway of that thread: in the world of videogames, “game designer” means “idea guy”.
Of course, a game design is constructed of ideas, but it is actually the job of the game designer to organize ideas, no matter where they come from, into something cohesive. For AURO, I take some ideas from our team, from our testers, even from total strangers – but only when those ideas fit into the philosophy and framework that I have constructed and I am tasked with preserving.
Seeing these people on reddit and elsewhere talk about how game designers don’t deserve to be paid has inspired me to write a thing or two about what game design really is. I think this is a problem that has been plaguing us for a long time in digital games.
What Game Design Isn’t
Saying that a game designer is a guy who comes up with ideas is exactly like saying a programmer is a guy who types. I could get into how vague the word “idea” is, but we all know what people – videogamers – are saying when they mean “ideas”. They mean the sort of nonsense you see on all sorts of indie game development boards. People’s “game ideas”, such as…
THIS IS AN MMO WITH DRAGON BALL Z CHARACTERS!!!
THIS IS AN FPS / RACING HYBRID WITH NUDE TITTIES!!!
THIS IS A PLATFORMER WHERE U HAVE AN ANCIENT SWORD KNOWN AS G’ANTAROKK AND YOU MUST DEFEAT LORD GARGLOK BEFORE HE STEALS YOUR ANCIENT SISTER KNOWN AS G’ANTAROKK FROM THE ANCIENT TOWER OF PERIL KNOWN AS YOUR MAGIC SWORD!!!
All of which is funny, until you realize that that is pretty damn close to the extent that most digital games are “designed”. Most AAA and indie games involve choosing a genre: be it puzzle platformer, tower defense, farmville (yes, that’s a genre now), MMO, FPS, etc. Some of the more geeky types might make a roguelike or 4x space game. The point is that when the process begins, they start with a finished gameplay concept. This is not game design.
For 95% of “designers”, the rest of the work involves adding thematic material to this game. Once in awhile, that thematic material actually ends up creating some new gameplay mechanisms, driven by the theme. For instance, Spider Man can swing from building to building, so the Spider Man videogames have that as a gameplay feature. A small amount of actual game design is required to make that work at all, but usually it’s just a matter of UI design and programming that makes these features work. This is also not game design.
About 4% of the remaining designers do actually do some design work. A good example of this would be something like The Binding of Isaac, which at least has the concept of mixing of The Legend of Zelda and roguelikes, creating a slightly new gameplay experience.
And finally, a tiny, tiny fraction of digital game developers have someone on the team who actually performs real, from-the-ground-up game design. Examples of this would be Desktop Dungeons, Outwitters, or Rune Raiders. These are actually legitimately new gameplay systems.
I should note, however, that I’m not making a value judgment about the games that are in any of these categories. For one thing, I created 100 Rogues, which probably falls either into the upper part of the 95%, or the lower part of the 4%, and of course I like 100 Rogues. Meanwhile, I’m not actually crazy about Rune Raiders, even though I do think it was designed.
Game Design has Nothing To Do With Computers
This is such a huge misconception that’s bubbling just underneath the surface, and it’s related to the fact that we’ve blended together the concept of “game” and the concept of “application”. If you’re talking about the game of “Quake 1on1 deathmatch”, that’s the game, and the program is Quake.exe. A good illustration of the difference between “game” and “application” is chess versus the chessboard. chess is not “a board and a bunch of pieces”, chess is a set of rules. You can play chess with rocks on sand. You can play checkers with a chess board. The fancy chessboard is the application, like quake.exe. “chess” itself is a system of rules, and nothing more.
In videogames, people tend to think of the game as being the software, so it makes sense that they also think of building that software as indistinguishable from the act of “game design”. But the fact is that game design is a discipline that’s just as different and difficult as visual art or music composition or anything else.
You don’t need to program a single line of code to design a game. You don’t even need a computer. You may think I’m talking about boardgames or sports, but I’m not: the fact is you don’t even have to put your game into action at all. Game design is the act of creating rules, so you can write down a list of rules on a piece of paper (or hell, just memorize them), and you have performed the act of game design, even if no one plays it, ever.
So What Is Game Design, Exactly?
I’ve defined “game” many times here before, as well as on Gamasutra, but quickly: a game is a system of rules (specifically, a contest) of ambiguous decision-making. Game design is the construction of these systems. Since a game is an organization of rules, game design is the act of organizing these rules.
Now, of course, not all game designs have to be “from-the-ground-up”; if you really look at it, even the most innovative game designs have element that can be seen elsewhere in other games and other types of systems. Creativity doesn’t happen in a vacuum. So game design isn’t just about “being original”, specifically. It’s more the case that generally, a good game design has to be largely original out of necessity.
A game is a machine whose purpose is to place human minds on the razor’s edge between what it can and cannot comprehend. The process of learning to play a game is to scale this divide (to attain mastery).
So if your game isn’t really causing players to make new kinds of decisions, they may have already scaled that divide. For instance, if I were to play, oh, let’s say Serious Sam 3, I’d probably already be pretty damned good at it, because I have extensive experience playing Doom, Quake, and Team Fortress 2 (as well as a hundred other very-similar FPS games).
Then again, when Counter Strike came out, with its totally different system of one-shot kill headshots and realistic rifles, I did have to scale that divide. So, a new design is more effective in achieving its fundamental purpose. This is why innovation is kind of a necessary part of game design.
If you think about it, game design is tremendously hard because you’re essentially inventing a new paradox; a problem that hopefully will never be solved. In a way, isn’t this one of the most difficult things that a person can really try to do?
And it gets harder – because you can’t just allow the game to be unsolvable because it’s pure, unfettered chaos. For instance, sure, a system where you and I both roll a die and whoever rolls higher wins – this would never be solved (any more than it is the first time you play it, anyway), but it’s also impossible to scale the divide between what you can understand about the system and what you cannot. The system has to be coherent and potentially understandable in order for it to allow the pursuit of mastery.
So this is the actual task of the game designer: come up with the rules for a new kind of contest of decision-making that is coherent and technically solvable, but won’t be solved. This is incredibly hard. For me, it’s a constant struggle with designing games. 90% of my attempts to even come up with a system are thrown out outright. Another 9% percent get to the first prototype phase, before I realize that it’s just not going to work. Finally we have a 1% of things that actually work at all, and I work on them from there. AURO is one of those things in the 1%.
But that percentage is increasing for me, and I know it will continue to increase if I stay with it. This is the nature of a true discipline.
I was lucky enough to get Reiner Knizia to write the foreword to my book. Why was I so lucky? Because Dr. Knizia is probably the greatest game designer the world has ever seen. He has published over 600 games, and he continues to do so today. Not only has he published a wealth of games, but he’s got a number of incredible classics: Through the Desert, Tigris & Euphrates, Lost Cities, Blue Moon, Battle Line, Ra, Ingenious — the list goes on, and on, and on. And almost every time I play a game of his, it meets those criteria.
Now, to pose a question to some of you programmers and others in digital games who don’t recognize game design as a discipline: what is Reiner Knizia getting paid for? He doesn’t draw the pictures on the box or components. He doesn’t personally manufacture the components. He doesn’t distribute them. So what is he getting paid to do?
Why Does It Matter?
I said myself earlier in this article that game designers have the greatest job of all time, right? So why am I complaining? Firstly, these misconceptions can get in the way of game designers doing their job. If every programmer thought that they were “about as good as anyone could be” at visual art, would any actual visual artists get hired to do anything, ever? The idea of getting hired or taken on as a game designer in the world of independent games is currently “insulting” to a lot of people. They take offense to their misguided idea that hiring a game designer means admitting that “that guy has better ideas than you”.
Secondly, it has a markedly negative net effect on the quality of games as a whole. People in digital games don’t believe game design is a thing, and hey, what do you know, digital games suffer from extremely bad game design. There is an absolutely direct connection here. Contrast this with the boardgame world, where “whether game design is a discipline or not” isn’t even up for debate. The name of the game designer is put prominently on the cover of every game’s box. And what do you know, with a greater reverence for the discipline of game design comes a vastly higher level of quality designs.
This isn’t some silly philosophical musings of a bitter game developer. This is a real issue that we in videogames have to seriously start thinking about. Soon, we won’t have a choice. Our world will mesh with that of the boardgame world, and with the meshing will come the reverence for game design as a discipline. But we don’t have to wait for that to happen. Let’s be ahead of the curve, and make some fantastic game designs that will be remembered.
Update #2: Unfortunately, there was a reddit thread about this, but almost no one was able to actually respond to the content of this article, instead preferring to discuss my personal qualifications to speak on the matter, so I’ve removed the link.