Game Design: What Is Game Design?

Maybe I’m just biased, but I honestly think that game design is one of the least appreciated fields in the industry. And a lot of it is because of the inherent nature of game design, but I think it’s also because design is an easily misunderstood concept. So this essay is going to tackle a few of those questions: what is game design? Why do we need it? How does it work? Where does it fit in to the larger scheme of a game’s production cycle?

First, we need to back up a little bit and look at production as a whole. Typically, the four main groups are the artists, the programmers, the producers, and the designers. Most of these are pretty self-explanatory: artists make art, programmers write code. In game development, “producer” refers to someone like a manager or a boss, who keeps the team running on schedule, optimizes the pipeline, and does whatever they can to make sure production runs smoothly.

Then we get to game design. We tend to think of designers as the “idea people,” the ones who sit there and think of ideas and hand them off for the programmers and artists to create. The designers are the ones critiquing everything and making a fuss when things don’t go their way. None of their work is hands-on with the actual game being made, and they sit in their reclining chairs and sip martinis while laughing evilly at the poor artists and programmers who have to make what the designers say they have to make. Design is the “easy” job, the part of the industry that you go into if you suck at art and don’t want to learn how to code. That’s the common stereotype about game design.

None of that is actually true. Game design is a whole field in and of itself. It’s something you get better at the more you study and practice it, just like art and programming. You can’t just take someone off the street and ask them to be a game designer, just like you can’t take someone off the street and ask them to be a programmer or artist. It’s not a simple matter of just coming up with ideas, it’s about understanding games on a fundamental level. All of that is something you develop as you practice game design. There’s a difference between an experienced game designer and a novice one, and to reiterate, it’s not just a question of whose ideas are better, because anyone can come up with ideas. That’s not what game design is.

The important distinction to make is that it’s possible to be good or bad at game design. A lot of us see the field as a weird foggy space for wild creative ideas to happen, and the concept of creativity itself kind of defies a good/bad dichotomy. However, that’s why game design has structures and systems set up, so that it’s not just a weird foggy space. Design is a world that has a lot more logic than one might think. Some people think that design, just like creativity, is something innate that you’re either born with or without, but that’s not true. Anyone can study game design and practice game design, and through those experiences become a better game designer. Likewise, no one can just instantly become a brilliant genius designer at the drop of a hat.

But after we look at the surrounding image of game design, the problem then becomes, what exactly is it? I could talk all day about how we perceive game design, but in the end we need to understand what it actually is. Ask ten designers and you’ll get eleven different answers. It’s a difficult question, but it’s also an important one. Everyone in any aspect of game development, whether they’re artists or programmers or anything, is taking part in the game design process whether they’re aware of it or not. Obviously, it would be great if they were actually aware of it, and I’m not saying that everyone needs to study game design as thoroughly as designers themselves need to. But if we can get a general, overarching understanding of game design, we can all benefit from it.

I have my own personal approach to game design. It might work for some people, and might not for others. You might agree, or disagree. Maybe further down the line, I’ll switch to a different approach. This is definitely not meant to be taken as a hard rule of game design, but I hope this helps as an introduction.

The Chen-ian Approach To Design

When you back up and think about it, it’s really amazing that we human beings are able to communicate with each other. We all have such different backgrounds and different perspectives that no one can ever truly understand anyone else. If we both looked up at the sky and agreed that it’s blue, how do we know that we’re both seeing the same thing? How do you know that I’m not just pounding mindlessly on my keyboard, and by sheer coincidence it formed an essay? Are we all actual conscious thinking entities, or is everyone I know just a figment of my imagination?

And it’s not just crazy philosophy. Ever said something as a joke, and other people got offended by it? Ever had to repeat yourself because someone else couldn’t understand you? Ever had a professor grade you more harshly than you expected? That’s all miscommunication. We spend our whole lives trying to avoid miscommunication, but in the end it’s sort of impossible. Different people are different.

That’s the magical power of design: it allows us to communicate, despite how radically different we are. And the way it does this is a little bit counter-intuitive. When we think “communication,” we imagine people connecting directly to each other. But what design does instead is it creates a shared space for both people to explore and engage with. People are way too different for a direct connection to work, so design uses a medium instead. This way, we’re both interacting with the same thing, but we’re each taking away a different experience.

Design is the creation of those mediums, those shared spaces for people to connect to. It’s how we’re able to get ideas out of our heads and shove those ideas into other people’s heads. We use design to influence the world around us, and likewise design influences us. My personal approach to design starts with this philosophical context.

First and foremost, some terminology definitions. A “designer” is an entity that creates a “product” for a “perceiver.” I intentionally use general language here, because a product can be anything ranging from a video game to a chair to a building, and likewise a perceiver could be anything ranging from a player to a sitter to a building-enterer.

Under my approach, the goal of design is to create a product that conveys a concept from the designer to the perceiver. Good design accomplishes this, and bad design does not.

I think of design as a three-step process. They are loosely chronological, but none of these steps is more important than the others. All of the steps are connected with each other and must be considered as a whole.

Step 1 – UNDERSTAND the THEME. The designer must understand the theme of the product they are creating. The theme is the core message, the experience that perceivers will take away from the product, the reason why the product is being made in the first place. This is the philosophical step, and it’s important for a designer to live and breathe the product’s theme in order to bring it to its full potential.

Step 2 – UNIFY the COMPONENTS. Once the theme is identified, the designer creates all the elements that make up the product in such a way that they all feed back into the theme. There is nothing needlessly extraneous, nor is there anything to be lacked. Everything about the product relates to the theme in a unified way. This step is what people usually imagine when they think of “design,” but under my approach it is only one step out of three.

Step 3 – ENSURE the DELIVERY. The perceiver, when interacting with the product, should recognize and understand the theme as the designer intended with as little loss in translation as possible. For this to happen, the designer must focus not only on the product itself, but also on how the product is experienced by the perceiver. If the delivery is weak, the product’s theme will never be conveyed to anyone, regardless of how unified its components were.

Each of these three steps are deeply nuanced and complex, vitally essential yet useless without the others. I won’t be able to do them justice in this essay, but at least I’ll try.

Step 1 – Understand The Theme

Before we say something, it’s usually a good idea to know what we’re trying to say first. A lot of miscommunication happens when people don’t think before they speak. As designers, we need to have a very firm grasp of what we want to convey. If we don’t even understand it ourselves, how can we expect our perceivers to understand it?

The theme can be anything. Go wild. Maybe you want to make something about insanity, or California, or narwhals. Most game jams will give people a theme to work with, so that they all have to make a game based on what they’re given. This is the easy part, because anything goes. Think about your theme this way: what do I want perceivers to feel when they interact with my product?

But once you decide what you want to use as your theme, you need to understand it inside and out. You need to know everything you can possibly know about it. Do research, talk to experts, learn more about related topics. Whatever your theme ends up becoming, you need to live and breathe it with every pore of your body.

An English professor I once had used a clever little brainstorming exercise. He would give us a short story to read, and then he would tell us to imagine the text as an object. If this story could somehow be embodied in a three-dimensional physical object, what would it look like? How would it feel? Maybe you imagine Wuthering Heights as a flowery vase, old and cracked. Why do you imagine the text to be this kind of object? What cues pointed you towards that direction? This exercise forces people to take a step back from the obvious side of things and think from a wider perspective, which helps them develop a deeper understanding of the subject at hand.

Do the same thing with your theme. Rather, do even more. If your theme was personified as a human being, what would it eat for breakfast? What’s the first thing that comes to other people’s minds when you tell them your theme? When you pronounce your theme out loud, what syllables do you stress? You must understand it as thoroughly as you possibly can.

On a personal level, you need to understand why you chose the theme. The things you want to say are informed by who you are as a person: your history, your beliefs, your perspective on the world. What concept do you want other people to understand through your work, and why did you pick that specific concept? At this stage, self-reflection is just as important as research. Something must have happened in your life that caused you to reach the theme you chose. If you understand your own journey, you are all the more equipped to create a product that creates a similar journey for your perceivers to follow, and they will reach the same theme that you did.

Step 2 – Unify The Components

Step 2 is where we decide what everything is going to be. That sounds pretty intimidating already, but there’s even more: everything needs to exist in relationship to the theme that was identified in Step 1. Otherwise, you end up with a jumbled mess of mismatching elements, and it won’t carry the theme to the perceiver.

Before anything else, you have to decide on the medium: what is your product going to be? A video game, a painting, a chair, a choreographed dance? This is the first step to unification, because the medium itself is the highest level component of your product, and thus it must be well-equipped to carry the theme. Everything else during this process branches off of the medium you decide to use.

Different mediums are capable of different things, and you must carefully decide which one will be best for your theme. Take some time to do research before you decide on the medium. Have there been products made with this medium that carry a similar theme to yours? Did they succeed at conveying their theme, and why or why not? Absorb as much knowledge as you can, because this is an important decision. Some academics argue that video games are not yet capable of rendering internal emotions as well as novels or films can. If your theme requires the rendering of internal emotions and you want it to be a game, do you have a counterargument against those academics? How would your theme benefit from the medium you chose?

I wish that there was some kind of medium cheat-sheet that could nicely summarize what mediums are good at doing which things, but something like that can never exist. Technology moves so quickly that it seems as if any medium can do anything. Instead, you’ll just have to take it on a case-by-case basis. This is why Step 1 was so important: if you understand your theme well enough, you will naturally arrive at the medium that best suits it.

Let’s say that the core theme you want to use is “despair.” There are books about despair (A Series of Unfortunate Events), there are paintings about despair (The Scream), there are plays about despair (Hamlet), there are video games about despair (Binding of Isaac). And yet, each of these conveys a very different version of despair. The Series of Unfortunate Events is about despair in unexpected situations, The Scream is about all-pervading infinite despair, Hamlet is about a slowly creeping yet inevitable despair, and Binding of Isaac is about the despair of confusion. Try to make a game about Series of Unfortunate Events and you’ll get a bad game. Likewise, try to make a painting about Binding of Isaac, and you won’t capture the same sense of confusion.

So take some time. Maybe do some prototypes, try your theme out in a different medium and see how it feels to you. If you can, make an outline of your product, or a flowchart of how it should be experienced, and see if that helps you identify a medium. You don’t want to screw up on this decision. This is the reason why everyone hates video game spin-offs of movies or books, but even original titles can suffer from a poor choice in medium. Remember that everything should point back towards the theme you decided on.

Once you decide on your medium, good job. You’ve unified your very first component. Now get a little bit more specific and do it again, and again, and again. If you’re making a video game, what platform will it be for? If it’ll be a web browser game, what will the perspective be? If it’ll be a 2D sidescroller, what actions can the player take? If players can have their character shoot rockets, what are rockets used for? If rockets are used to blast away terrain, why do players need to blast away terrain? If players need to blast away enough terrain to reach a goal, where should the goal be placed? If the goal is 100 abstract units directly to the right of the player character’s starting location, where is the terrain? And so on and so forth.

Every single one of those components is another decision, another part of the medium you are creating. And each of those decisions is just as significant as the first one. Just as a book is different from a video game, a 2D game is different from a 3D game. Each time you face a decision, you need to weigh all the options and decide on which one will carry your theme most efficiently. If you want to make a game about pervasive despair like The Scream, maybe it’ll be good to aim for mobile devices for quick access and persistent notifications. Or if you want to make a game about unexpected despair like Series of Unfortunate Events, it might be more interesting to randomize the terrain layout and have sudden cave-ins, rather than designing the terrain by hand. But maybe you’ll decide that shooting rockets isn’t the best way to convey despair in the first place. Remember all the effort it took just to figure out which medium to use? Step 2 means doing that a couple thousand more times.

As a massive oversimplification, games in the component unification process will generally progress from the medium to the technology to the genre to the mechanics to the level design. Remember that this is a massive oversimplification, and design is never a clean linear path: maybe a cool level will inspire you to change the game mechanics, or maybe you’ll need to design for multiple genres simultaneously. But as a designer, you want to move from the general idea down to the specific details, so you can make sure that everything points towards the theme.

Step 2 is the part that is most traditionally associated with “design.” People write books about this, teach classes about this, devote their whole lives to this. There is so much more to design than what I’ve written here. This approach is only a bare skeleton, but hopefully it is a generalized enough skeleton that it gives a cursory idea of what design is. But it doesn’t end here: there’s still one more step to consider during the process.

Step 3 – Ensure The Delivery

So you’ve unified every single component you could possibly think of. It seems great and everything works for your theme. But everything that has happened up until this point has been internal, only existing within the designer’s world. Remember that the goal of design is “to create a product that conveys a concept from the designer to the perceiver.” This is the step where you must consider the last part of that sentence: the perceiver.

There’s a lot of debate on the difference between art and design, and I think it’s all about whether or not you take this step. Art is when you make what you want to make for your own purposes, and maybe you’ll throw it out into the world and let other people take what they will from it. It’s selfish, it’s self-fulfilling, it’s masturbatory, it’s cathartic. And when you make something that you’re really proud of, it’s tempting to just hold it close like a baby, protecting it from the harsh world outside.

In design, we have a saying: “kill your babies.” Take those precious works of art you’ve done, take everything you’re proud of, and rip them to shreds. Art is internal, but design is external. Designers have a job to do, and that job is to make sure that the theme gets safely delivered to the perceiver. The product must be crafted carefully and lovingly in order for that to happen, but the product is not the end goal.

This is the step that I personally struggle the most with. When I make something that I’m proud of, I’m very reluctant to change it. People look at my work and tell me that it’s confusing and they don’t get it, and even though it’s clear that they’re not getting the theme I still won’t make changes. I’ll explain away their complaints by saying “their way of thinking is old-fashioned” or “they didn’t spend enough time to get used to my product” or “they’re just stupid.” If you’re attached to something you made, it’s really hard to listen to other people when they want to change it.

Maybe you’re designing a gladiator arena and you love how perfectly symmetrical it is, but the symmetry causes perceivers to think that they’re going to see fair matches. Maybe a villain delivers a beautiful poetic monologue before their death, but perceivers just skip the scene anyway. Maybe you shrink your game’s resolution size so that the player character lines up with the rule of thirds, but the reduced size makes the screen more cluttered and perceivers get confused. Maybe you carefully tuned an ambient sound effect to resonate with the scene as a whole, but perceivers are too focused to even notice it. This can happen anywhere.

Even if you think that a component you designed is brilliant and marvelous and perfectly captures the essence of your theme, you must remember that all of that is from your own perspective. Perceivers aren’t looking at the product through your perspective, they’re looking at it through their own. That means you need to step out of your shoes and into theirs. You need to be able to admit that you are wrong, because even if you’re absolutely 100% correct from your own perspective, your own perspective doesn’t matter.

In the world of game development, this step is called “playtesting”. Film calls it “test screenings” and other industries call it “focus groups.” Step 3 is the key part of agile development and rapid prototyping. This step is important for all types of design, but especially so for game design because of its interactive nature. Perceivers of a video game choose their own paths, and we have to ensure that they still receive the theme while enjoying their freedom of agency.

There isn’t really a method to completing Step 3. Rather, having a clear-cut method here would be a little antithetical. Step 3 is all about reacting to the perceiver rather than focusing on yourself as a designer, so it’s about being receptive to everything your perceiver says about your product. Some people say that design is all about listening, and I think that’s definitely true for Step 3. I can’t provide anything practical here, people have written whole books about how to do this step properly.

The good news is, this step is quite possibly the most rewarding one when it’s executed properly. When other people interact with the message you’re trying to tell and raise discussions about it that you never even thought of, it feels great. You’ve left your mark on the world and you’ve changed it in your image. That feeling is one of the reasons why I chose to be a designer in the first place.

Conclusion

I only recently got my thoughts in order to frame my approach, but good design (and bad design) can be felt without explicitly knowing these three steps. All of my past critiques of games have been about disconnections between these design steps. Likewise, all of my favorite games (and products as a whole) were the ones that delivered a resonant message and made me think.

Whether or not we’re conscious of it, we go through these three steps many times in our daily lives. When you talk to someone, you’re designing an improv speech so that they understand you. When you get dressed in the morning, you’re designing an outfit to match your personality. When you sit down in a chair, you’re designing a pose that conveys your mood at the time. At its core, design is communication, and we communicate a lot.

You don’t need to be a designer to benefit from knowing how design works. Likewise, knowing how design works doesn’t make you a designer. It’s not a simple clear-cut field that you can encapsulate in a neat little definition: rather, design is more like a mindset, a way of seeing the world and responding to it. Maybe that ambiguity is the reason why design is so underappreciated in the game industry.

And as I’ve been saying over and over and over again, my three-step model is only scratching the tip of the iceberg. So yeah. Design is serious business.

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