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The Game Designer Class - What is he like?
by Adriaan Jansen on 02/29/12 08:53:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


This blogpost is written with great care and attention at Abbey Games.

Last week, I started with a series of blogposts about what it's like and what it takes to be a game designer. Because we're talking games here, I'm approaching these posts as an RPG character creation guide. The series consists of the following chapters:

  1. Role: What are the tasks of a game designer?
  2. Passive Abilities: What are favorable character traits? (This chapter!)
  3. Powers: What are important skills?
  4. Weaknesses: What are the biggest pitfalls?

So this week, I'll talk about the passive abilities of the gamedesigner: the character traits. We all know some favorable character traits for a lot of professions. A good firefighter is brave and vigilant, and a good nurse is often sympathetic and caring. As with any profession, game designers have favorable traits too. Here I will give my take on the traits that will improve your game design capabilities. Traits are more like naturally born talents, that can be developed, but hardly learned. For example, you are either brave or not. There is no such thing as a brave school where you learn to be brave. Becoming brave is a difficult task, one that requires a character change. Note that these traits I mention aren't requirements for being a game designer, but traits that, in my opinion, will give you a significant head start.
Before I start, I need to credit Jesse Schell, Extra Credits and Joost van Dongen again, for their words of wisdom that have influenced my view on game design. Some viewpoints here might be shamelessly copied from them.

Good talker/writer

Obviously, if you're going to communicate a lot, you'll need to be able to communicate well! You're going to talk or write to other designers, programmers, artists, business-guys, publishers, and sometimes, even your target audience! If the way you communicate is boring, you're bound to lose the interest of others. Say you're having a team meeting where you're going to pitch a mechanic to the team. When you talk as passionate and interesting as a bag of potatoes, you run the risk that the people will stop paying attention. They'll misinterpret your idea, or worse, they'll just won't think your idea is fun because you're not fun!If your way of communicating is unclear, you're going to sow a lot of confusion and misinterpretation. When you're communicating with the team, like writing a gamedesign document, make sure to be clear and explicit. If the reader get's it right away, it will shorten the test loop.
Having a knack for reaching people with your words is a great talent for a gamedesigner. You're the only one that can explain the team what has to be implemented. So make sure you do it well! If ideas don't get implemented, you want them not to get implemented because they weren't good enough, not because your talk was uninteresting. Also, if ideas get implemented wrong, you didn't do your job of communicating good enough.
A nice plus is that designing a good talk has a lot of similarities with designing a good game. If you have a talent for interesting people with words, you're more likely to interest people with games as well.


Well duh. Of course you have to be creative! You are trying to craft an exciting new experience! Making something new of high quality is the practically the definition of creativity! So we're done here, right?
...Not entirely. People often come with:"I have an awesome idea for a game or a mechanic!", and it seems that creativity stops there. While composing new ideas for experiences are a very valid use of creativity, they are probably the least frequent one. Remember "Experience Crafting" from the last blog? Look closely on how creativity is used there:

  • Creating mechanics and concept: So you want to make a superhero game? You have great ideas for how a superhero should progress through the game, and how to awesomify the boss battles? Great! Valid use of creativity, very fun to do, and sadly, just a small part of the game design process.
  • Creating problems: This sounds very silly and stupid, but the better you are at creating problems for your mechanics and concepts, the better your concepts and mechanics will be. This is creativity used to create new perspectives and finding new problems. A talk with a bad gamedesigner will go something like this:
    • Game designer: I have an aaaawesome idea X!
    • You: Sounds cool! But... how will the player do Y?
    • Game designer: Uuuuh... I didn't think about the idea that way....
    While a talk with a good game designer would end with:
    • Game designer: I already thought about that problem, and the  player just needs to do Z!
    Changing perspective is an important part of game designing,  and it takes a creative person to come up with new perspective and seek problems from that point of view. Your initial mechanics are never perfect, and it will take many iterations to distill out the best design. Using your creativity to find new perspectives and problems in your design will improve your distilling-speed, and thus allow more iterations. By the rule of the loop, more iterations means a better product!
  • Creating elegant solutions: Now that you used your creativity to find new problems, it's time to use that creativity to come up with elegant solutions! With elegant solutions I mean solutions that don't add to the complexity of the game. Your game can be complex, but it should be complex because you choose to make a complex game. The reason shouldn't be: "There was this problem and the only way we could fix it was to add more rules to catch this exception." It sounds easy, but finding a solution that doesn't add more strange exceptions is harder than it looks. When you can make a design that is resistant to change of perspective while not becoming increasingly bloated, you're using your creativity well! It's the game design equivalent of the programmers "neat code".

So be creative, but don't forget to put that creativity to good use after the concept has been thought out!


Wait, what? Empathy? We're not trying to comfort anyone! Why would a game designer need empathy more than any other human being to excel?
When you think about it a little bit longer, it makes a lot of sense. Look at the definition of empathy according to the Collins English Dictionary:

the power of understanding and imaginatively entering into another person's feelings

When someone is playing a game, he's entering an experience that will give him certain feelings. The feeling of power while being a superhero, or sadistic pleasures when playing an evil overlord. The point is, you as a game designer must maximize that feeling. What better way is there to understand the player's experiences, than entering the state of the player himself? When you're playtesting, and people do not enjoy the experience, it's your job to figure out why. It helps a lot if you're able to let your premises go, and identify yourself with the player.
People use many ways to "practice" empathy. First and foremost, they ask and listen, listen very closely. If the player is frustrated by a jumping course in your game, and he says: "The jumping sucks!"  it means something different than if he would say "I can't seem to get the jumping right...". You might think that both indicate that the jump mechanics aren't smooth enough. However, in the first case, the player is blaming the game. While in the second case, he's blaming himself. If the player thinks the jumping sucks, he's having a negative experience that is probably interfering with the target experience. The second case is not necessarily a bad experience, since the player feels he's in control. There are games build around the experience of improving your mastery level, even while the controls are ace (Like Super Meat Boy and VVVVVV). Listen close to your players, and see through their words.
A second way to empathize with a person, is to look at his or her body language. Facial expression, posture, focus of attention: all these things reveal motives and feelings the player doesn't even realize he has. It's not uncommon for game designers to record their playtest session to have more time to analyse the player's body language. Understanding and entering someone else's experience is a very useful talent to have as a game designer!
Now it seems that empathy is used for testing purposes only, but in my opinion, it's used in every aspect of game design:

  • Experience Crafting: Remember to use your creativity to find different perspectives? Empathy helps you experiencing those perspectives. Basically, you're empathizing with another fake version of yourself, trying to experience feelings that aren't really your own.
  • Communicating: I don't think I even have to mention this, but empathy is at core of communication. Understanding someone's views and motives is vital for good communication. Also, if you listen well and are able to empathize with your teammates, you might hear and understand new perspectives, problems, and solutions that you would have never encountered yourself. Listening to your team is just as valuable as talking to them.
  • Testing & Tweaking: As mentioned above!

Someone who has difficulties understanding the motives and experiences of a person, will most likely have difficulties creating a beautiful experience.
That's it for now! Naturally, there are many, many other traits that will help you, but I think these three are the most valuable. If you have all of them, I think you've got a great talent for becoming a good game designer! If you miss any of them, well, there are many roads that lead to Rome, but it will probably hamper you somewhere along the way. Next time, I'll talk about important skills for a game designer. Thanks for reading!

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Bart Stewart
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Lists are fun; the things that should be on or off a list are endlessly debatable. So it doesn't pay to get worked up about any particular list, including this one. I think all three of the traits proposed here are very reasonable if you're trying to identify the inborn traits that make one person a natural designer and another person not.

That said... what about curiosity? I think a very strong case could be made that natural designers are born with an insatiable desire to learn about and understand the world.

It's possible to produce a workable design knowing just a few things, or a lot in some very specific areas. But how much easier must it be for someone who is naturally curious about physics and psychology and economics and literature and engineering to design systems that work? How much more elegant and diverse and plausible and interesting are the designs of someone who knows a little about a lot of things because curiosity about the world is an inherent part of their nature?

Being naturally good at communication and empathy can, I think, make someone a better designer. And creativity is certainly helpful, although sheer bloody-minded persistence can work, too.

But the one thing I believe makes someone a designer by nature in the first place is never-ending curiosity.

(I'd say "naturally seeing the world in terms of nested systems" is another key innate trait of designers, but maybe those are just different ways of saying the same thing....)

Adriaan Jansen
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Thanks for reading, and good points! Curiosity is a big gun in the game designers arsenal, but there is a reason why I didn't mention curiosity in this top 3 list. As a disclaimer, I need to split curious people in two groups: Curious in general, and curious in design structure (game design, architecture, art etc.). I'll discuss the first one only, because the second one comes awfully close to something I want to address in the next blogpost ;)

Curiosity is like a diamond in the rough in my eyes. A curious person will gather endless more perspectives. I think it's pretty fair to say that a curious person will experience more, and therefor have a bigger pool of experiences to draw from. My "problem" with curiosity is that it needs a lot of work before it can be really useful to a game designer. I like to use myself as an example here. I'm a broadly interested and curious person, way more than I am a good speaker or writer for example. I read about history, science, religion, etc. with great interest, and see a game in everything. The thing that bites me more often than I would like, is that reality is horribly complex. It takes insight or creativity to find the fun parts and the problematic parts of a system you've studied, and make a game about it. I often found myself designing tangled systems that should simulate some wonderful thing I just discovered, only to find out that
a) it wasn't fun
b) it didn't even simulate the situation well

I think the combination of curiosity, insight and creativity is really strong, and what leads to games like SimCity. However, I don't think you would be a really good game designer if you were curious instead of any of these three (with a lot of exceptions, some game designers will hardly have to communicate to more than one person for example!).

I do think you can be a really good game designer without being curious. I once participated on a gamejam, where I was teamed up with this seemingly uninterested guy. Our assignment was to make a game inspired on National Geopgraphic magazines. While I was curiously reading through the magazines, the guy was boring himself out while flipping page after page. In the end, of course, I came with a civilization like mini-game based around the astonishing ethnic history of Serbia. He came up with this amazing platformer using dimension shifting based on... the way pictures where put on top of each other on a certain page of an article he didn't even know what it was about. His creativity exceeded his curiosity by a million, but his ability to take many perspectives on a single experience made him an ace game designer (in my opinion).

Curiosity in already distilled experiences (like architecture, painting, movies, and foremost, games) is a bit of a different story, but more of that next time! :D

TL;DR: Curiosity is ultra awesome, but in my opinion, needs creativity to work.

David Serrano
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@ Bart Stewart

"That said... what about curiosity?"

Exactly. Anyone who has not seen JJ Abrams's TED mystery box speech, which is about curiosity, needs to watch it. Because everything he talks about directly applies to game designers and the game industry as a whole.

Skip to 3:35:

Russell McDonald
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Just want to say thanks a lot for this blog. I'm a student who's massively interested in becoming a game designer but I've had troubles finding clear definitions of what a game designer is and needs to be able to do.
This has helped me a lot to identify what I can and should do in the gaming industry.
After you're done with this please consider something that talks about tips and tricks to breaking into and becoming a game designer.
Thanks again.

Adriaan Jansen
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Thanks! I'm happy I could help! Also, that's a good suggestion :). I'll think about it!

Manny Vega
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Good read, looking forward to the rest.

I think curiosity is basically the same as creating problems if you think about it. You are deconstructing something and trying to put it back together. Let's just call it Creative Curiosity ;)

Empathy is a double edged sword as well. Having too much empathy will cause a Designer to waffle on his gut decisions or try and water everything down to appease everyone. Sure, Empathy is something that can help people in almost every walk of life. It just kinda goes without saying. In fact it's probably more important to list the trait "non-empathetic" for some jobs (like a coroner or programmer;) than it is to list Empathic as a good trait to have.

One edit:

Your bold heading says: Emphatic - Showing or giving emphasis; expressing something forcibly and clearly.

Then you talk about being Empathetic... it's a typo, but it was confusing at first since my brain automatically replaced it with Emphatic each time.

Adriaan Jansen
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Woops...thanks for the heads up on the typo!

Creative curiosity, I see what you mean. It's a very valid point that someone who's curious will probably find more perspectives and problems while reconstructing what he deconstructed. Naturally, curiosity also makes you a faster learner and is a powerful motivator, which is always nice for every profession that requires study.
Maybe it's just me being biased towards creativity because I frequently get punished by my own curiosity. Too often I find myself understanding something out of curiosity, thinking that I can reproduce that thing, and then get slapped in the face by the incredible complexity of reality. :(
For me the bottom line is that curiosity is about figuring out how stuff works. However, games are more about how stuff feels, which is a narrow set of how it works. I think it's pretty hard to find out what is vital for your game, and what can be simulated easier, maybe even in a totally different way. To find the sweet spots, it takes a good amount of experience and insight, or you must fit it in your system with weird new hacks using your creativity.

Your point about empathy looks a bit corrupted with eh...swayability? I don't know the word for it, but something that measures how easily you're swayed from your own vision. Feeling what a person feels and understanding its motives doesn't mean you have to please him/her no matter what, just as seeing a sign doesn't mean you have to do what it says. Although I have to admit, that most people who are one, also are the other. :P I think empathy is more important for game designers, because they must understand what the motives are of player, since you're trying to create motives. You're a manipulator! For most other walks of life, you just need empathy to understand the situation of a person. You hardly have to manipulate that person into another state of mind. (unless you've a profession like psychiatrist, nurse or undertaker). But you're absolutely right that people can easily be swamped by the input and try to please everyone, even if it means losing character.