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"The Door Problem" of Game Design
by Liz England on 04/23/14 09:01:00 pm   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.


“So what does a game designer do? Are you an artist? Do you design characters and write the story? Or no, wait, you’re a programmer?”

Game design is one of those nebulous terms to people outside the game industry that’s about as clear as the “astrophysicist” job title is to me. It’s also my job, so I find myself explaining what game design means to a lot of people from different backgrounds, some of whom don’t know anything about games.

The Door Problem

I like to describe my job in terms of “The Door Problem”.

Premise: You are making a game.

  • Are there doors in your game?
  • Can the player open them?
  • Can the player open every door in the game?
  • Or are some doors for decoration?
  • How does the player know the difference?
  • Are doors you can open green and ones you can’t red? Is there trash piled up in front of doors you can’t use? Did you just remove the doorknobs and call it a day?
  • Can doors be locked and unlocked?
  • What tells a player a door is locked and will open, as opposed to a door that they will never open?
  • Does a player know how to unlock a door? Do they need a key? To hack a console? To solve a puzzle? To wait until a story moment passes?
  • Are there doors that can open but the player can never enter them?
  • Where do enemies come from? Do they run in from doors? Do those doors lock afterwards?
  • How does the player open a door? Do they just walk up to it and it slides open? Does it swing open? Does the player have to press a button to open it?
  • Do doors lock behind the player?
  • What happens if there are two players? Does it only lock after both players pass through the door?
  • What if the level is REALLY BIG and can’t all exist at the same time? If one player stays behind, the floor might disappear from under them. What do you do?
  • Do you stop one player from progressing any further until both are together in the same room?
  • Do you teleport the player that stayed behind?
  • What size is a door?
  • Does it have to be big enough for a player to get through?
  • What about co-op players? What if player 1 is standing in the doorway – does that block player 2?
  • What about allies following you? How many of them need to get through the door without getting stuck?
  • What about enemies? Do mini-bosses that are larger than a person also need to fit through the door?

It’s a pretty classic design problem. SOMEONE has to solve The Door Problem, and that someone is a designer.

The Other Door Problems

To help people understand the role breakdowns at a big company, I sometimes go into how other people deal with doors.

  • Creative Director: “Yes, we definitely need doors in this game.”
  • Project Manager: “I’ll put time on the schedule for people to make doors.”
  • Designer: “I wrote a doc explaining what we need doors to do.”
  • Concept Artist: “I made some gorgeous paintings of doors.”
  • Art Director: “This third painting is exactly the style of doors we need.”
  • Environment Artist: “I took this painting of a door and made it into an object in the game.”
  • Animator: “I made the door open and close.”
  • Sound Designer: “I made the sounds the door creates when it opens and closes.”
  • Audio Engineer: “The sound of the door opening and closing will change based on where the player is and what direction they are facing.”
  • Composer: “I created a theme song for the door.”
  • FX Artist: “I added some cool sparks to the door when it opens.”
  • Writer: “When the door opens, the player will say, ‘Hey look! The door opened!’ “
  • Lighter: “There is a bright red light over the door when it’s locked, and a green one when it’s opened.”
  • Legal: “The environment artist put a Starbucks logo on the door. You need to remove that if you don’t want to be sued.”
  • Character Artist: “I don’t really care about this door until it can start wearing hats.”
  • Gameplay Programmer: “This door asset now opens and closes based on proximity to the player. It can also be locked and unlocked through script.”
  • AI Programmer: “Enemies and allies now know if a door is there and whether they can go through it.”
  • Network Programmer: “Do all the players need to see the door open at the same time?”
  • Release Engineer: “You need to get your doors in by 3pm if you want them on the disk.”
  • Core Engine Programmer: “I have optimized the code to allow up to 1024 doors in the game.”
  • Tools Programmer: “I made it even easier for you to place doors.”
  • Level Designer: “I put the door in my level and locked it. After an event, I unlocked it.”
  • UI Designer: “There’s now an objective marker on the door, and it has its own icon on the map.”
  • Combat Designer: “Enemies will spawn behind doors, and lay cover fire as their allies enter the room. Unless the player is looking inside the door in which case they will spawn behind a different door.”
  • Systems Designer: “A level 4 player earns 148xp for opening this door at the cost of 3 gold.”
  • Monetization Designer: “We could charge the player $.99 to open the door now, or wait 24 hours for it to open automatically.”
  • QA Tester: “I walked to the door. I ran to the door. I jumped at the door. I stood in the doorway until it closed. I saved and reloaded and walked to the door. I died and reloaded then walked to the door. I threw grenades at the door.”
  • UX / Usability Researcher: “I found some people on Craigslist to go through the door so we could see what problems crop up.”
  • Localization: “Door. Puerta. Porta. Porte. Tür. Dør. Deur. Drzwi. Drws. 문”
  • Producer: “Do we need to give everyone those doors or can we save them for a pre-order bonus?”
  • Publisher: “Those doors are really going to help this game stand out during the fall line-up.”
  • CEO: “I want you all to know how much I appreciate the time and effort put into making those doors.”
  • PR: “To all our fans, you’re going to go crazy over our next reveal #gamedev #doors #nextgen #retweet”
  • Community Manager: “I let the fans know that their concerns about doors will be addressed in the upcoming patch.”
  • Customer Support: “A player contacted us, confused about doors. I gave them detailed instructions on how to use them.”
  • Player: “I totally didn’t even notice a door there.”

One of the reasons I like this example is because it’s so mundane. There’s an impression that game design is flashy and cool and about crazy ideas and fun all the time. But when I start off with, “Let me tell you about doors…” it cuts straight to the everyday practical considerations.

Reposted from:

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Jonathan Ghazarian
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This is a pretty great and thorough example. The character artist definitely loses on this example though.

Also, one more I would add is a rigger who sets all of the points for animation and actions.

Nick Harris
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No. The character artist's concern should be:

Will my character's busby be knocked off if they don't crouch?

Amir Barak
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Awesome write-up! What a great way to explain this...

Ryan Creighton
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'There’s an impression that game design is flashy and cool and about crazy ideas and fun all the time. But when I start off with, “Let me tell you about doors…” it cuts straight to the everyday practical considerations.'

Sounds like you're a real hoot at parties.

Robert Flesch
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I know this problem well. And this is only part of it. Following on from above...

Animator: “I made the door open and close.”
Project Manager: "Did you add animations to the character to make the door open, or is it a star trek door?"
Coder:"If the players backs up, what happens when he collides with player behind him?"
Customer Service:"We are having major issues with people opening and closing doors and not letting others thru the doorway"
Technical Artist: "There is no geometry on the other side of the door, its a portal, do I need to add geometry to the other sides of all the doors?"

ganesh kotian
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Player: “I totally didn’t even notice a door there.” this is very true

Ron Dippold
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Gaming forums: "Rumors say Door Quest 2 will use handles rather than doorknobs. This is worse than genocide!"

Amir Barak
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Entitled Moron: "WHAT??? You made opening the Brown Door 0.02 seconds slower!!!! I hope you die in a fire you ****".

Alan Barton
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I did laugh when I got to ... Composer: “I created a theme song for the door.” :)

Anyway, that's a great article and list and it really shows the complexity of the problem.

But you did leave out one role in the games industry ... the solo Indie games developer. e.g.

Solo Indie Dev:
I need to join two rooms ... hmm? do I need a door? ... No, I'll just make it so that I can't see more than 2 rooms from any doorway. Ok job done. :)

Dan Jones
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Steam Forum User: "You're asking $x for this game about doors?! SORRY DEVS. You fail. If you had charged half that price, you would have sold eleventy trillion copies, but I will not pay $x for this game about doors."

James Yee
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Or the Kickstarter creator:
"Currently we have 20 doors in this game, but if you can get us to our stretch goal of $150,000 we'll be able to add ten more doors that you help us design!"

Lisa Krummen
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Next time I have to explain to relatives what people developing games do/have to deal with/etc., I'll just refer them to this blog post. Love it.
Though last time I had to design a bunch of doors (from an aspiring concept artist POV), I said something more along the lines of "I made twenty variations based on four of the silhouettes I presented earlier and just picked six candidates for the door."

Christopher Landry
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Loved the article, learned more about Game Design from that than a dozen other articles that were 5x longer.

First point of interest, how come the Network Programmer and the Producer are the only ones that are left with questions instead of giving answers like all the other examples in List 2. List 1 is all questions, so I figured List 2 should probably be all answers.

Second point of interest, where can I find a game that has a theme song for the doors? That sounds like a fun game, like something we might find in The Stanley Parable.

Liz England
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Part two isn't answers to part one, they are just different ways of framing an element of a game to show how different people interact with it. They could have all be written as questions.

Lukas Kamenicky
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Great examples, well written!

Connor Fallon
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This was a lot of fun to read, and I may actually refer people to this article when they ask what I do. Though, the comedy does seem to skew heavily towards AAA dev.

"Let's just make all our doors archways and save us the time."

Kenneth Barber
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The indie dev: I've got this great idea for a game about doors, can I ask and answer all of the questions listed above by myself on a shoestring budget while working a full time day job and still ship by June?

Ian Verchere
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Or the SEO specialist: "Door, portal, passage, opening, entry, entrance, exit, gate, aperture, ingress, hatch."

Harvard Bonin
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Well done Liz. Nice, quality, insightful article. You know my thoughts regarding the producer definition but I truly appreciate your ideas here.

SD Marlow
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My door only opens at 30fps :(

Roger Tober
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There are a lot of problems involved in doors, however, in terms of game design, it's a very small problem that shouldn't even be talked about until well into the design process as far as I'm concerned. Start with core game play, decide if the game will have a story, then start painting in details.

Liz England
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Yes, but trying to explain game design to someone with very little experience with games by describing gameplay and story in broad strokes leads to them thinking "oh so you come up with the idea?"

Kurtis Richards
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Amazing article Liz, this will be linked and shared to many of my friends and family but especially people in other industries that don't understand why producing a game takes so long and has so many employees.

There are so many aspects of games design that Joe Bloggs doesn't understand, this is a perfect example of the complexities involved.

Thank you and keep the articles coming!

Andrew Dobbs
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Great article, Liz. The door problem is a great metaphor--definitely going to steal the concept and modify it to help explain my current job to people.

Eske Knudsen
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Good read!

Having thought a bit about the metaphor after reading it, I think it would be better suited for an introductory course on game design/development , rather than introducing game design to someone with no prior knowledge as to what game design is.

I say this since I think the humor and terminology taps quite heavily into a gaming vocabulary and mindset, which I know at least people in my family wouldn't understand.

Brandon Van Every
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I super duper feel sorry for the Writer, and could not bring myself to read anymore after that, I was so distraught.