Qualities of a Good Designer

Practical game development demands more than being creative, and when I say practical I mean real development – not just sitting around dreaming up ideas. I’m talking about the day to day life of a designer. Yes, creativity is required, but it is not the primary metric against which you will be measured; think of it as a support structure, not the foundation.

I often speak adamantly, if not a hyperbolicly, about how ideas are meaningless and that execution is everything; emphasizing the amount of uncreative tasks that make up your day. Do not, however, confuse unimaginative with unimportant. The day I spent opening every level file in Chains of Olympus, finding every fight encounter, writing down what enemies were used, how many were used, and then painstakingly transcribing this information back into excel was eye-gougingly, soul-suckingly boring – I would be lying if I said otherwise. But, it was necessary. Though this task failed to utilize a single creative bone in my body, I was skillfully executing for the game’s benefit.

That is only one example, and there are many more examples, such as the days I spent describing needed features to programmers, the days I spent acting out special case animations we needed to the animators, or the days I spent bashing my head against the monitor wondering why my scripts wouldn’t function. You see, not all of the work involves being creative, and yes, some of it is glamorous, like the day you first see your level come to life, and some of it is tedious, like the day you must salvage your level after half of it was cut. If all of this unimaginative, tedious work is not creative, then what exactly makes up a good designer?

A designer is comprised of four equally important pillars: Creativity, Clarity, Adaptability, and Wisdom.

Creativity

Creativity in this context refers not only to ones ability to create fun ideas, but also ones ability to recall fun ideas. True creative inspiration is neither reliable nor controllable, but what you can control is the identification of fun when you see it; not just that something IS fun, but what MAKES it fun, and then to recall those moments at a later date.

This concept, if you will permit the sidetrack, draws a lot of parallels to comedy. Notice how one person can say something to make you laugh, yet someone else can say the exact same words and nothing – no response. Comedic timing is not just a part of what makes something funny, it’s a critical part; just as two games with similar mechanics can be totally different experiences. There is even more to the comedy analogy. It showcases the double nature of creativity as I define it; both creating fun ideas and knowing fun ideas when you see them.

When I was younger people would tell me I was funny, but I always shrugged it off. Nine times out of ten I was just repeating something I had heard, and it felt like I was cheating – I wasn’t funny, the person who said it originally was funny. It was only when I was older that I realized this mentality was bullshit. The words were simply a tool, a device, and it was knowing when to use that tool that was comedy. Sure, some jokes or combinations of words, like any tool, are more effective, but even the best joke is not funny when told at the wrong time.

Fun and creative gameplay experiences, like any good joke, are tools, and recalling just the right mechanics to fit the timing of your game is just as important as having brilliant ideas off the top of your head.

Clarity

Having good ideas is the first step, but if you cannot cleanly and clearly explain your ideas, in a way that is relevant to your audience, then you’re dead in the water. Clarity for a designer is not only about aural and written communication, but also about understanding your audience. Most designers have a decent command of speaking to others, some good designers can write clean documents that are well formatted, but it is the really great designers that write their documents with an eye for who is going to be reading it.

There are lots of great articles, written by smart designers, expressing the importance of clear writing, so what I would say about writing has been said better, but designers don’t just write documents, in fact, if all you do is sit at your desk and write documents you are doing it wrong. Let’s say I have just finished a very important document, which details a new enemy for the game. A short while later I get an e-mail from an animator asking for clarification on a move. Don’t click reply — don’t even THINK about clicking reply. Get the fuck out of that chair, get away from that keyboard, and just go act it out for him. You’ll notice I did not say “explain” it to him, or “describe” it to him. No, I said “act it out”, because damnit that’s what you need to do. Expressing the idea in a way that is relevant to your intended audience is critical.

Understanding your audience also includes not overwhelming them with information they don’t want or need. If there is one thing, one single tenant of the game design ideology, that truly boils my blood it is the “design bible”. Monolithic tombs of such incompressible density that one can be assured that the only person who has ever read it is the person who wrote it. I hate them with the passion of a thousand burning suns. Let me be clear: I do not believe they are unnecessary, but that they are inadequate. Every designer has had that moment where they learned no one has read something they wrote.

“What moves does this enemy have?” — “Didn’t you read the doc I wrote?!” — “Yeah. . . wait which doc?”

Somewhere inside the head of the designer he associates the person’s failure to read his document with a lack of information — wrong! What’s more likely is that they opened it, were instantly overwhelmed with information, and then closed the document and moved on. If there is one thing that artists, or anyone really, never want to see it’s a giant wall of text, which is exactly why I hate design bible’s. People think that because they have written one that their job is done; some are even proud of how long they are. They point to the bible and say, “There – there is your info! Stop asking me!” Yeah, so what? What is the point of information if no one wants to access it. If you have any aspirations of someone other than you reading a design bible, then you are going to be disappointed.

As I said, though, the design bible IS necessary. Its use comes in the early stages of a project, when you move from the high concept into the minutia. You need to nail out those little details, and writing it all down will force you to do that; however, once those cracks are filled its job is done — DONE! Now you must take that information and disseminate it to the team in bite-sized chunks that speak directly to them. The additional crime of the design bible is that you will never be agile enough for the realities of a real dev cycle. Ideas change, morph, dissolve, and reform constantly, so you need to be able to adapt – if you can.

Adaptability

Shit gets cut. Deal with it. The next quality of good designers is the drive and ability to maintain the experience you want despite a constantly shifting feature-set. Note: maintaining an experience is not the same as maintaining a vision. The latter is a personal thing, where you have a picture of how it was supposed to look. The former is an impersonal thing, and its only concern is the end user.

Let’s say you are working on a level, and it was going to contain the introduction to Monster X. One day we discover that the previous few levels of the game are lacking in big monsters, and to enliven the experience as a whole, we move the Monster X intro to another level. I don’t give a flying shit if your “vision” for the level was to have a grand reveal of Monster X – deal with it.

You must adapt, and hopefully you will find a way to maintain the experience. Maybe Monster Z would work just as well? Who knows — certainly not the player. The game is not going to ship with an extra piece of paper: “We’re sorry that the Ice level is a little bland. It was supposed to have this monster intro, but it got moved. Sorry!” Not happening. The adaptable designer wouldn’t even waste the braincells it takes to feel sorry their level was altered, because they are already busy solving the problem. They can handle the change.

See, being adaptable is more than thinking quickly on your feet, it is about having thick skin. I’ve mentioned this before, but a designer must always avoid ugly baby syndrome. You must not only show no fear in the face of change, but also no fear in sharing your ideas, or you are never going to survive.

Working with a talented designer is incredibly intimidating, but let me share a secret. While it seems as if every idea she lays on the table is a golden egg, don’t get the wrong impression. I know the feeling, that somehow your ideas must also be this way — always good and solid. What you fail to realize, however, is that you are not hearing the hundreds of ideas she has internally rejected. Through years of experience, she knows which are shit ideas without needing to vocalize them. Everyone has flawed ideas, but the difference is that they have the final and essential missing piece.

Wisdom

You must be the kind of person who invokes and appreciates good ideas, you must be the kind of person who clearly expresses those ideas, and you must be the kind of person who handles things changing at the drop of a hat, but all of that is moot if you are not the kind of person who recognizes an idea is either too much work or overcomplicates the core experience. It is rare to find people that not only know when but also where to say no. To be a game designer you must be a dreamer; you couldn’t do the job otherwise. We are explorers on a quest for awesome, but never forget that old saying, “too much of a good thing”. Just because you CAN add something doesn’t mean you SHOULD add something. The wise designer knows when to make this call.

Do not confuse wisdom with intelligence, because they are not the same thing. Intelligence is the common root between all genres, and wisdom is the specifics of your genre. Imagine designing games is like speaking a foreign language. If I spend 5 years working on action adventure games and you spend 5 years working on first person shooters, it is as if I have been studying French and you Italian. Despite our years of experience, if I tried to go make a first person shooter or you tried to go make an action adventure we’d face problems. Even though there are similarities between the two genre’s, much like French and Italian share a common linguistic root, when you get down to the specifics you find that some knowledge, such as the basic construction of combat encounters, is fundamentally different.

Understanding the nuances of your respective genre and knowing when to say no are not the only parts of what makes one a wise designer. It is also the ability to see the big picture; to see beyond your tasks, and understand how it impacts everyone around you. Do you keep loading constraints in mind when you design your levels? If you are making a fixed camera game, do you keep camera placement in mind when you design your levels? You can have a fun, brilliant, never before seen idea, and you can do an amazing job pitching it, but if three months into its construction everyone realizes it is going to take far too much time to implement you have done a disservice to the game. You cannot design in a vacuum. The wise designer knows to seek feedback from his team, and is always seeking to find not only if an idea is fun, but also if it’s feasible in the time allowed.

Is That All?

Is there anything missing? If I met myself 6 years ago, what else would I want to say, and would this tell me what I need to know? What would my younger self, having read this, ask me now? Knowing me, if this popped into my hands six years ago I would snarkingly comment, “This is all well and good, but you’ve gone and stated attributes to HAVE, but not how to get them.” True. Good point younger me.

Through no preplanning of my own I was always on the path of building creative stores to pull from. The quickest path, besides being a creative savant, is to inundate yourself with quality cool ideas to steal: books, movies, games. . . anything really. Every experience you have is a chance to store something for recall. If I had one bit of advice to my younger self it would be to open my mind to what you can learn from other industries. Great insight into game design can be seen in furniture design, iconographic design, concept art, and lots of other fields. A designer should be a sponge. You must absorb everything, you must absorb. . . life. Every experience contains some element that will be useful.

For Clarity the answer is simple. I wish all those years ago someone had forced me to read books like Elements of Style. Maybe I would not have been ready for the powerful message, but at least I would have tried. It’s hard to grasp the importance of words and conveying messages clearly until you are in a situation where you must actively communicate.

Adaptability is a tough one. As I stated, this is not only the ability to think on your feet, but also the ability to handle having ideas torn apart in a group setting. I struggled, still struggle, with ugly baby syndrome. If I could meet my younger self I would tell him that not every idea can be perfect, so stop being afraid to share them. You need to get used to ideas being shared and critiqued. My eventual solution was something I called my “game a week” plan. I designed one game every week. It did not matter how far along it was, or how good it was, new week meant a new game to design. It forced me to become less attached to the act of coming up with ideas, and to become more interested in sharing my ideas. Eventually, I had game ideas coming out of the bazoo! Who cared if someone didn’t like some of them, or all of them. Next week was a new game, and constantly designing games is has great secondary benefits.

The path to wisdom is simple: make games. Design and play the kind of games you want to make, so if you want to make FPS games, then design FPS mods in your spare time. If you want to make action adventure games work on those kinds of games. Wisdom dos not come from reading a book. At best, if you cannot make them, the next best thing is to find horrible, shitty, travesties of games. You can not believe how many crappy games I have played in the holy quest for what “not to do”. Because while it can be easy to “feel” that you are not having fun, it can sometimes be hard to understand the “why”. Knowing what, exactly, is causing you to not have fun is an invaluable skill, and it will help you to quickly become the wise designer you want to be.

The four pillars of game design are key components in being the best designer you can be, but they don’t make you the best game developer you can be. Taking pride in your work, working well with others, understanding a programming language, or being able to draw anything other than stick figures are important, if not directly related, attributes of being a critical member in a functioning team. You must have a thirst for the process. If you do not try and understand code, then how can you expect to make reasonable requests for features? If you do not try and understand art, then how can you expect to make reasonable requests for levels? If you do not try an understand concept design, then how can you expect to make reasonable requests for monsters? Be all of these things, be hungry for knowledge, be respectful of your coworkers disciplines, and most of all. . .

Try not to be a douche.