Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Purpose of Doing Game Design

The purpose of doing game design is not to hone your skills as a game designer, or to advance your career as a game designer. That is a byproduct of it, but that is not the purpose of it.

The purpose of doing game design is to design games. Everything else is secondary.

Repeat after me:

The purpose of doing game design is to design games. Everything else is secondary

Therefore when we see companies ask game designer candidates on the various job boards "What kind of ideas do you have? How would you improve Game X?", they are doing things precisely backwards!

The job of a game company is not, primarily, to look for new game designers. (They do have to get them, but that is a supplemental job.) Rather the job of a game company is to look for new game designs. If, in finding new game designs, they also find talented game designers, so much the better. (And, yes, they need to hire supporting staff.) But finding the designers is a secondary concern (even if, admittedly, it is a necessary one).

Thus companies should seek new designs - internally or externally. In other words, in seeking a new design the proper question a company should be asking the author of said design that comes through their door is this: "What do you have for me? Surprise me. Tell me something new." In other words, they shouldn't be looking to the person so much as to the design that is to be tabled. If a company doesn't like the tabled design, their next statement should be, "Don't like it. What else do you got?"

If the company does like it, they should buy it, for a fee, and hire the designer to do all the changes and additional work that is going to be necessary to turn the raw design into a piece of workable software - and, unless the design candidate has a name, the company should also control the final outcome of the design, and the design should be affected by the creative input of the other designers who come together to make it.

This company that buys a game design can be a developer or a publisher, but more than likely it will be a publisher who sets up a temporary company whose express purpose is to make the one game (or franchise) being looked at.

This means, then, that if YOU want to be a game designer, your job is to design games. It is not to get a wage and a stable job at one company for the next 10 years. (If you think that way then you are mediocre.) You may work for a developer, but it is your duty to yourself, your passion and your talent, to write and then propose your game designs. You may write them in code form; you may write them in design document form. And, here's the clincher: if your employer refuses to produce your game design, it is your duty to seek a party that will produce them. If that means leaving your current employer or separating from your current team then that is your duty.

A corollary to this is that the purpose of a game company (developer or publisher) is not to make money from games. That is a byproduct of it - and if said games do make money YAY!, we are all better off - but that is not the purpose of a game company. Rather, the purpose of a game company is to produce games. Games are not to be made solely for the purpose of making money. They are to be made merely to be what they are: to contribute to our culture, to entertain, in some cases to teach, and also to make money.

A further corollary is that the purpose of game design is not to make game development companies. Making a development company is a formality that usually needs to be done - should be done as every team should be uniquely built to the needs of the game design (not the other way around) - but if you talk as if your ultimate ambition is to make a game company instead of a game design (or designs), then you are talking backwards.

So, let's be clear:

The purpose of doing game design is to design games. Everything else is secondary.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Zeitgeist & I, Sept 2007

Noticed a couple interesting stories on industry portals where insiders are talking a talk parallel to my own.

Epic's New Solution

In a recent Gamasutra article, Epic China CEO Paul Meegan was talking about Epic's latest practises a few months ago. The reporter conveys the following...

Epic's solution that can be leveraged elsewhere? Use a small, tightly-focused core team focused on creating value - using middleware and investing carefully in differentiating projects. In addition, practice targeted hiring, purpose-built for the project, and with exactly the right skills and passion for that game.

I believe I wrote that was the way things should be done in my first posts in February this year. If nothing else, at least I'm in touch with the way the industry is moving.

Specifically I wrote "Alfred Hitchcock knew that 75% of his work as a director wasn't in the work he did on the set: it was in casting. Same here. It amazes me that game companies actually think that the art director who worked out so well on their horror game will have the same feel for their upcoming military game. Hey! Pay attention to casting! A technology or art person or solution that was good for a horror shooter is not necessarily good for a military RTS or what have you. It might be a tiny little difference, but professionals focus on tiny little differences (as they all add up)."

I also wrote, "Take in the individual designs at the early level with the fewest number of people attached to them. The fewer the better. Stripped down small teams, like special forces units advancing far into hostile and dangerous territory. Let someone or a few people come to you with a design. Like they say in the film biz, focus on the script first. You can make a bad film from a good script, but you can't make a good film from a bad script. Same with design. Then develop the design with that tiny two or three person team, until it works. Let him/her/them make a tiny little prototype for you - even if its just a small flash game, or a pen-and-paper/board game you can play out on a table in your boardroom; just to test out core ideas - and work on the design design design!"

Glad to see that Epic is pursuing a similar solution. Still looking forward to the day the creators get their names on the front title screen (e.g. "Epic presents... A game designed by X..."). (I would say on the box, but that is getting less relevant.)

(Of course, I'm guilty of using colorful description instead of nice bland business talk - but the basic message is the same.)

Naturally I do not claim those were my solutions either - indeed they are the solution of many industries, notably the film industry. I just can't understand why the game industry so resolutely refuses to learn from anything that goes on outside its little bubble.

However, I do claim I've been hammering on these things for years.

Teaching Game Design

Next up is this more recent reply to a letter in In it, the expert responder says...

If the only thing you've done is gone to game school, chances are small game developers will see your experience as being too limited for their line of work. Small game development studios need employees who can do a little bit of everything and whose experiences will bring new information and ideas to the table. They fear that game graduates -- especially those who went directly from high school to game school -- have little to no life experience and work experience, and are in essence a bit parochial.

This is a very recent idea in the game industry. Like, very recent. So recent it is probably a buzzword now. In fact, if you look on job postings on Gamasutra, say, you'll rarely see that attitude reflected. I can tell you when I've worked on indie projects, they almost always drill down to what tools do you know how to use, but only later, when they're up to their eyeballs in confusion that has been generated in trying to take apart basic design devices (I'm not talking about technology here) do they realize how important fundamental general intellectual knowledge and skill is.

Anyway, I put forth this idea in my "arch post" (as Gamasutra called it) on what they don't tell you on the design job ad. Specifically:
  • Significant experience in another game development role; preferably art or engineering. [Okay, this is helpful. Helps if you know what the other guys go through. Frank, you were smart on this one. Gotta recommend you for a raise. What's that Frank? You say that for a game designer maybe it would help if he had work experience in a field outside game development? To try to break out of the self-insulated, derivative nature of game development? Jeezus Frank! Stop making this harder than it already is, all right!...]
And of course, again, this is not my idea. It's a classic practice of those with well-rounded knowledge and perspective. Still, it's value is often little appreciated in the efficiency-obsessed, machine-like game industry.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Game Design: Organic vs Machine-Like

Currently in a flame-war on the IGDA boards (as usual).

A latest posting that I thought I'd repeat here - a response to an opponent in a debate...

What I talk about is giving individual creators freedom - not the freedom to create as something like a hand-out, but the freedom to merely approach funders in the centuries-old manner of artist-meets-patron. What you talk about is indoctrinating them. (You say they aren't "taking responsibility" if they fail to respond in the correct manner to their assigned indoctrination.)

This is an entertainment industry at its bottom. It isn't an engineering industry - though there is a lot of engineering in it. As an entertainment industry its job is not to indoctrinate and program its "personnel" into the right way of thinking and being, to toe its corporate line. What it really is about is finding experiences that resonate with human beings. The only way to do that is to speak in human terms; and human terms are messy, organic and alive - not efficient, machine-like and dead.