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  • Rational Design, Part 1: The Player

    - Alexis Jolis Desautels
  • The great French writer André Gide said: "Art is born of constraints, lives off struggles and dies from freedom." For creators, this often feels counter-intuitive. I've met a lot of resistance over the years from designers who felt that providing a rational framework for creative development would stifle their creative drive, when it's actually quite the opposite. Just try sitting in front of a white sheet of paper thinking, "Now I will write a great story." You should be prepared to stare at that sheet for a long time, with no results in sight.

    Rational Design, as a process, is a set of tools, questions and deliverables meant to challenge your ideas and provide a pipeline and structure for your creative thoughts. It's about designing with intention; I often remind video game designers that having a tool doesn't mean you have to use it, and if you don't, there's a purpose to that as well. Do you understand the difficulty in your game and can you control it, with great precision? Do you induce the state of flow, control its rhythm? Have you masterfully ventilated progression and learnings, validated the ability of the player? Here, the focus is on the user, and what you really want them to experience.

    If you look at the full list of fields of expertise implicated in the making of a video game, you will notice that Game Design is about the only one that doesn't exist outside of our medium, at least not in the digital space. Artists, whether 2D or 3D, have a long tradition of working in film and animation. Programmers have been coding software for decades across a variety of industries. The same goes for everyone else but Game Designers. Ironically, their input is at the core of the experience and the product. About 10-15 years ago, there was this sudden realization that, as the industry was thriving and growing, and as we started investing tens or hundreds of millions in new titles, the designers driving the core of that investment were doing so following... their instinct? A certain panic occurred, rightly so.

    How do we make the designers more technical? In fact, what is Game Design? Well, it's Rules and Fun. Easy, right? So the work began. We tried to identify all aspects of video game design, clearly define each piece (try defining what fun is...), find analogous fields outside of games that we could learn from, extract the tenets from each of these curriculum, build up a new Game Design paradigm, find a workable and coherent use to all of that, teach it and spread it around.

    Like any athlete or performer, designers need a good program to "learn and practice their thinking." There's a gymnastics to developing the design aspects of a project, and you will get faster, with better results, if you follow the necessary process. It's the difference between that "one Sunday where you played the best golf ever against your stepdad" and pro golfers that never play badly. The delta between their worst and their best is super thin. That sort of reliability is something we can aim at and train for during the game design process.

    There's a recurring joke amongst Designers: your full game goes through playtests and the report comes back showing map 6 suffering from a strong dip in difficulty - players don't die enough. What's the request from the Producer? "Add more enemies!" (protip: that's usually not the right answer). Are you trained to find the right fix? Do you have the tools in hand and the right language in mind? Some of us dedicated the better part of the last 10 years to finding a concrete pipeline and structure to integrate that big idea in the daily lives of game developers. And really, the value of Rational Design can be summed up in the two sides of the same coin: Creativity and Reliability.

    If you put over a hundred million dollars in a game, you want your designers to be creative AND technical. You wouldn't trust an architect with a skyscraper built on guts and good looks, would you? No, I wouldn't either.

    Following up on these initial thoughts on Rational Design, I wanted to dig deeper to provide the Why, What and How of the process, using examples and hints on the way to build deliverables. The goal is to look at some of the theory behind it, yes, but also actionable ways to approach Game Design in a rational manner, regardless of your project, team size and personal experience. This journey will be cut in 3 pieces, each with an overarching theme: the Player, the Game and the Work.

    It is often said that Design, especially Game Design, is perceived as the "Realm of Ideas", i.e. designing is coming up with ideas. My answer to this misconception is that designing is actually coming up with answers, solutions. On a good day, that solution might also end up being a good idea. Why is this distinction so important? Well, games are an interactive medium, as in, they do not exist in a vacuum, but only through the experience of the user. Whether you use the medium of videogame to craft a product or a purely artistic experience, the nature of the medium itself is centered around the idea of a User using a System through Rules. Another lens used to look at this distinction is saying that, basically, as a Designer, you are your worst enemy, the main hurdle to overcome on the path to perfecting your craft. Why? If you look for a "good idea" while letting your own perception of "cool" drive your creative process, you are blinding yourself to the other users as a whole, all billions of them. While working on AAA titles, we used to jokingly tell junior designers, about an idea they were very attached to: "yeah, YOU like many copies of the game will you buy? Not even one, you're getting yours for free".

    So, in essence, while your own guts, feelings, preferences and pet peeves are not to be ignored, they should never be the driving force behind your design work. The first impulse should come from deep knowledge of the Users, who they are, what makes them tick, how they learn, etc. After all, you want as many of them as possible to be drawn to your game, really get into it and stay in it, forever!

    In this first segment, we will look at the Users, your Players. We will look at some of the theory behind how to "map" the users and features into workable categories to inform your design decisions and how to break down the intricate notion of motivation. In all cases, we will look for actionable tools, documents and deliverables, while giving examples and warnings along the way. Let's dive!


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