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“Play as many games as you can?” Maybe not.
by Lewis Pulsipher on 12/16/13 08:09:00 am   Expert Blogs   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.

 

“If you want to quit playing RPGs, start designing them.”
(quote from a GenCon 2012 panelist)

(Revised slightly from its original appearance in my game design blog at http://pulsiphergamedesign.blogspot.com/2013/11/play-as-many-games-as-you-can-maybe-not.html )

I sometimes see or hear game designers give the advice that is quoted in the title of this piece.  I have to disagree.  Game designers need to spend their time efficiently, just like anyone else.  And playing games (other than their own for testing) is not very efficient, certainly not the most important thing game designers should be doing.  Because playing games is *very* different from designing them.

The idea behind the advice is that game designers need to know lots of games.  That’s a reasonable point of view.  But playing a game is not necessarily the best way to learn about games:

•    1) Playing games is not, *for some people*, the most efficient way to learn about them.  
•    2) When you reach a certain experience level, you’re not going to learn a lot playing games, *compared to the time it takes*.
•    3) For most people it’s too easy to play games and not do what you should really be doing, which is designing, testing, and completing games.

Let’s eliminate right now a supposed reason not to play games.  Eric Hanuise (Flatlined Games) says "Every now and then I meet a game designer wannabee that proudly states he will not play other games or look at what's published, in order not to be influenced in his design."   That's *nuts*.  You need to know what is happening with other games more than you need to worry about being influenced by other games.  I would never worry about being influenced by other designs because borrowing is endemic in game design, yet insofar as I make games as models rather than collections of mechanics I’m unlikely to borrow as much as mechanics-constructors might be.  But that might not be true for someone with a lot less experience.


Now let’s go through the three reasons I’ve stated above, in greater detail.

There are many ways to learn about new games, and playing games is not always the most efficient way.  In fact it’s often quite inefficient.  If you rely only on playing the game you need to play several times to really understand what’s going on.  (This is why writers of formal detailed game reviews should have played the game several times.)  Some people (myself included) can learn more efficiently by reading about games, reading game rules, watching people play games, and *talking with people who have played the game several times*.  That is, not everyone has to actually play a game to understand it.  

On the other hand, I’ve seen many people play a game once and thoroughly misunderstand it.

The oft-expressed presumption that the only way, and presumably the most effective way, to learn about a game is to play it, is simply ignorant or self-centered (take your pick).  It depends on the person, on the situation, perhaps even on the game.  There also tends to be a presumption in some people that if you don't play a lot of games, you're not learning anything about games, which is clearly NOT true.

I almost never play a published game (including mine), period.   Also, by watching and talking with players I can learn about a game that I would obviously dislike strongly (and I am *very* picky, and am no longer keen to play against other people).   I cannot recall ever having the experience of playing a board game that I was pretty sure I would dislike, only to find out I liked it.  Maybe that’s something that comes with age.  A senior citizen (me) has a lot more experience playing games than a 25-year-old, and so may be able to understand a game better without playing it.  

The more time I spend playing someone else's games, the less time I have to devote to my own (which must be played solo several times, if nothing else).  I don't even play my own published games *as they were published*.  On the other hand I've played my 4 hour game Britannia in several versions more than twenty times solo this year, but that is in aid of making and testing rules for the new editions.

I don't mean to compare myself with him, obviously, but when some presumptuous dude decides that my views must be useless because I don't actually play a lot of different games, I point out that Reiner Knizia doesn't play other people's games.  (If you're interested in games and don't know who Reiner (as he likes to be called) is, you need to read more and get out more.  He makes over a million dollars a year as a freelance designer, originally of tabletop games, now also of video games.)  I hasten to add that there are few other resemblances between me and Reiner.  

Perhaps a comparison to another field will help.  Many people like history but learn in different ways.  I was educated as a professional historian, and if I want to learn history I’ll read a book (or, these days, something shorter depending on the level of detail I need).  Some people learn history by watching the History Channel, which I very rarely watch.  That’s partly just how habits have been established and partly because the History Channel can go overboard in dramatizing history to the point that you don’t know what’s true and what’s not.  It’s “Hollywood history.”  Some people like to learn history by playing historical games.  Now I like to teach history through games, but I certainly don’t learn history that way, for me it’s not efficient.  I can learn a lot more in less time by reading a book.  

But I don’t tell everyone that if they don’t read history books they can’t know anything about history, no more than I would tell someone if they don’t play lots of games they can’t know anything about games.  There are different ways to learn, of different efficiency for different people.

Let me repeat, I'm *not* saying you don't need to *know* a lot of games, I'm saying you don't necessarily need to *play* a lot of games.  Because *one of the biggest barriers to productivity in the game industry is game playing.*  If you want to be *productive* as a designer you can't play too many games, because you won't have time to do the design.  (Caveat: if you're playing your own game prototypes then that's another thing entirely, because that ought to be productive.) Playing games is not very productive, or perhaps I should say, the Law of Diminishing Marginal Returns kicks in when you play other's games, and you need to work on your own games rather than play more of others.  I have a friend who has designed quite a few published games, but he would have published a lot more if he didn't enjoy playing games so much.  

 

Also, when you get to a certain stage in understanding game design (or, for those novelists, fiction writing), when you play a game or read a novel you see how it's constructed, and it takes away some of the sense of wonder and the enjoyment that brings.  Kind of like when Keira Knightly at age 12 or so played Queen Amidala's handmaid in The Phantom Menace: being part of the production took away her sense of wonder of Star Wars.

Just as a professional game designer shouldn't be designing games for himself – unless he *knows* he is typical of his target audience – he shouldn't be designing games that are just like some other game.  The two sometimes go together, the designer likes a particular game so much that he tends to design games just like it.  On the other hand, I have had several favorite games over the course of the past 40 years, the biggest one Dungeons & Dragons (first edition).  I have never designed a role-playing game that would take the place of Dungeons & Dragons, instead I design additions and modifications to D&D.  In other words, I haven't tried to design an RPG for me, I've modified my favorite game instead.

Yes, an awful lot of games and game concepts submitted to game funders and publishers are very, very much like existing games, and those aren't likely to get very far, although there are exceptions (usually self-published).  But in those cases the designer has consciously modeled his game on another one.  It is also possible to design a game that turns out to be much like a game designed independently by someone else - this has even happened to Knizia - though it's not likely.

 

I'm not discouraging you from playing games, as long as you enjoy it, *unless* it is a detriment to, an excuse not to work on, designing your own games. (If you’re only designing one game, you’re far out of step with most professional designers, who work on many games each year.)  If you like to play lots of published games, go ahead.  But recognize that you're not using your time efficiently, and may be unconsciously avoiding what you ought to be doing, if you want to be a game designer.  What you need to be doing is *designing and completing games*, not playing published games.


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Comments


David Klingler
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I agree that sometimes it's faster to learn a game by reading than it is by playing it. I learned how to play Halo 3 by reading about it on the internet without playing it literally at all. Then, the first time I played against my friends, I beat all of them, who had been playing avidly since CE (they weren't MLG or anything, but they thought they were darn good before that). That was enough proof for me that it's sometimes faster to learn without playing. I've done the same thing with a few other games, so it's not just that Halo 3 has an easy learning curve.

That's an example of learning strategy of a game by reading about it, but I feel the same way about learning about the underlying design of a game by reading instead of playing. Sometimes it really is more productive.

I however have a problem with doing scheduling, planning, and overarching design more than actual programming/development work on some days. That, I suppose, is my form of "playing games instead of working."

TC Weidner
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huh? what? Half of game design is thinking about game design. Sometimes the best way to do so is simply playing games, it can give you ideas, insights. Playing a lot of games is and can be even looked at as research.

Why read about a game from someone when you can actually in many cases try it yourself if it is of interest to you.

Now I agree that game playing can be a detriment if your playing 40 hours a week of the same game, but I dont think you actually stated that clearly.

David Klingler
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"Why read about a game from someone when you can actually... try it yourself..."

Mostly the purpose is to learn from a different viewpoint. If you just play a game, you're analyzing your side of things, and maybe at the same time analyzing the designer's side of things. If you observe a game or read about it from someone that has played it, you get a different viewpoint.

I definitely agree that half of game design is thinking about game design. However, I would also say at the same time that part of thinking about game design is being aware of different perspectives.

Ian Richard
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Why read about a game instead of play it? Because I don't have time to waste.

I can watch someone else play a game while playtesting my own or coding some new project. I can study other people's behaviors and understand new audiences by seeing how THEY encounter problems. I expand my knowledge and skills WHILE actually working.

If I can learn the new mechanical updates by reading a 1 page article, do I really need to play the 8 hour game?

Heck, if I play I'm stuck with a full hour of tutorials for things that I already know. That's not research, that's wasted time.

Sometimes, there are more efficient ways to learn than experiencing everything yourself. The more time I save by reading articles or watching others play... the more time I have to make games.

There ARE times that I watch a game and realize that it needs to be experienced... and I'm happy to put aside time and money for them. But if I can learn what I need to know without spending that time... I'll do it.

Again though, this is often personal taste. There are many designers who play more than me, and many who play less. A good designers finds the best methods for himself.

Btw, playing games for fun is still a valid option. Relaxation and fun are perfectly acceptable ways to spend your time,
It's just easy to claim it's "Research" when all you are doing is playing. Lying to yourself will hurt you in the long run.

Edgar Onukwugha
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I agree with this reply wholeheartedly. Ever since I've started to make games in my spare time, I can't play a game "just for fun" anymore. I've even caught myself looking at the un-smoothed triangles making up sand dunes in a desert in Fable 3. This constant urge to analyze games I want to play for fun has become downright cumbersome: I not only come out with more questions than answers about the design choices about the game, but I leave the game not feeling much enjoyment.

Meanwhile, reading an interview where Chris Hecker explains the reasoning behind the new additions to Spy Party were extremely useful when thinking of the reasoning behind implementing changes in my game.

Kaze Kai
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Now I have something to link to my more pretentious friends who think I'm an idiot because I have very niche tastes and a very extreme and outspoken intolerance for excessive violence.

Having the wonder taken out of something can hurt though, having gone through that with my art, I am less inclined to go through it with anything else, even though I'd love to get into some areas of game design. (Hopefully the non-programmy ones.)

I guess this advice could also be relevant for hobbyists as well.

Luis Guimaraes
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Those that do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

SD Marlow
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Playing a game designed by someone else doesn't remove your personal bias, so I think reading about how gamers in general feel about a game, or really, game mechanics, is of more value. Doing an indie game already implies a design and story that is often far removed from AAA titles, so again, why focus on them as a model to follow.

Brandon Kidwell
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I have to disagree. While reading and doing research outside of playing a game is necessary and useful I believe playing games, especially in the genre you are developing for is important. Some people do learn differently but a lot of what shows up in an article can overshadow many other features you may have missed from not playing the game. It is true that at a certain point, you can look at a game, what engine it was built in, the people working on it, and the buzz words floating around, and determine if it is worth your time or not.

However things like game feel and system design require your personal attention to the game and how you experience it. Youtube cannot provide you the feedback of your inputs only those of the player you are watching which you cannot distinguish well. Perhaps that Youtuber understands game feel and design so they can express a sympathetic situation.

I agree that a person should not play every game in existence, nor should they waste their time on only playing games. However many games are proof that the developers do not play games nor do they play games of that genre. Too many games these days have mistakes that should have been taken care of years ago but remain. The reason can be concluded that they don't play these kinds of games are basing their design on "what other people" have said or their previous designs.

The quote above "Those that do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it," is the primary reason for playing other games. I just think that some developers need to choose their games wisely.

To me this article is synonymous to telling a cook he shouldn't try other peoples food and just read about or watch video on making food. He will probably learn a thing or two but he might learn many things by first trying the food of others and then asking questions.


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