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The "Game Designer Polymath" Myth
by Tadhg Kelly on 11/18/10 08:36:00 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.


Over on the Escapist a few days ago, the good people on Extra Credits attempted to answer the question of what is needed to be a game designer. On an excellently produced video (see here) they explained that the game designer's role is communicative, systems-oriented and team-oriented. They enumerate the basics, such as:

  • Communication
  • Not a Director
  • Not Being a Concept Guy
  • Systemic Perspective
  • Open to Criticism
  • Analytic Skills
  • Cost Awareness
  • Technical Writing Skill
  • Logic Skills
  • Basic Psychology
  • Medium Understanding
  • Mathematics Skills

Then they get onto what they consider to be the more rounded traits of what a game designer is and needs to be, and their list turns a bit ambitious to the say the least. Such as:

  • Thorough knowledge of literature, philosophy and myth
  • Understanding of world religions
  • Basic scripting and programming
  • Understanding of art principles
  • Understanding of audio design and musical principles
  • Understanding of graphic design
  • Thorough library of games to reference
  • Life experience


The Game Design Polymath Myth

Basically, what they're doing is projecting a version of what they think a game designer should be. A lot of people in the industry, or rather a lot of designers and design theorists who write weighty tomes on the subject, are of the opinion that a great game designer is a noble multi-skilled monk-like figure who is enlightened on all topics but who also cedes all authority to the group mind, for the betterment of all.

No wonder that students and would-be designers end up asking the question "What Skills Do I Need?" a lot: The person that is being described in the video above and in many books does not really exist. 

The reality is that game design is not as hard as these people are making it out to be. You don't need to be informed on world literature or the principles of Dadaism in order to be able to sit down and make a racing game, and a lot of what is being described here are skills that - while nice to have - are as often as not describing intellectual achievements that they think make them look smart.

In the real world, when it gets right down to it, designers who waffle on about Cubism or rhythmic syncopy or Gaudi's Cathedral as an inspiration for their Diner Dash clone are actually just bores. They don't get any respect because they come across as aloof, pretentious and generally the sort of people who are far too wrapped up in the meta idea of what games are to actually sit down and do any day to day hard work.

Is that too much? 

I certainly don't want to be making an anti-intellectual argument (given that I am quite the aspiring intellectual myself) but rather to say that a lot of what is being bandied around here as essential skills as opposed to just the traits of some well-rounded human beings, are in fact not required to be a great game designer.

It's a myth. You do not need to have picked the special blue lotus flower and climbed up to the top of Mount Fuji, studied martial arts under the monks for 7 years and returned to the West in order to be a game designer.

What you do need to be able to do, on the other hand, is have an idea.


What You Actually Need

1. Imagination

You know that trope about "ideas are cheap but execution is everything"?

This is a phrase borrowed largely from the products and software industry, and what it means is effectively that anyone can come up with an idea for a simple product, but how it's executed really sets it apart. In product development this is true: Anyone can have an idea for a book light or a cup or a smartphone, and replicate others' ideas of same, but how that light, cup or phone are constructed matters greatly to the final appreciation of the product.

For games, it's total garbage. And damaging garbage at that. Ideas do have different levels of quality, and the passion that makes a great game team click starts from the place of trying to have great ideas. 

The reason is that games are not a product. While the industry certainly may talk about selling product, games are a creative entertainment industry. The actual game itself is not a product. It is instead an object of entertainment, and entertainment that tries to do what product developers do - which is copy everything and execute better - usually end up creating damp squibs. All games, even the bad ones, represent the creative effort of some people to try and make a bespoke, non-replicable things. 

That's what makes games an art.

The idea behind a game matters enormously because it's the single biggest thing that carries the game to the public. The strength of an idea, whether immediately recognisable or out of the ballpark, is what gets mainstream, early adopter, casual and hardcore players to pay attention (but not all at once to everything - that's basically impossible). Without that initial magical seed that perks interest in a sea of well-executed clones, your game will probably sink without trace.

So you need an imagination. A really good imagination. And don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

Exposure to other sources, as the Extra Credits guys described, is a bonus in this. It's good to know about more than the boundaries of World of Warcraft if you fancy being able to have a thought in your head that isn't World of Warcraft, but it's not necessarily so. Some people are just genuinely more imaginative than others.

Being able to accept criticism is also vital.


2. Coherence

You also need to be able to express what's in your imagination coherently. You need to be able to visualise not just scenes and scenarios, but underlying rules. A grasp of game mechanics is really critical, but more importantly what you need to be able to do is frame an idea in such a way as can be broken down into production parts.

That means being able to separate out:

  • Player actions
  • Game world rules
  • Physical constraints
  • People concerns
  • UX problems

And so on into discrete parts so that each can be individually examined, but at the same time with an eye on whether each of those segments continues to interrelate. Coherence is not just a systems-level understanding, it is also a contextual-level understanding, and it takes a lot of skill to hold all that understanding in one place and stay sane.


3. Leadership Skills

The Extra Credit guys describe that a game designer is not a director in the movie sense. This is true. Instead they paint an image of a designer as a contributor and convincer, someone who's good at getting different aspects of the team on side so that they are enabled to do the work. This is false.

A designer who does this sacrifices their power to other team members in the process. What that designer is trying to do is sell the team on the vision, so that the team is convinced and can start to bring the vision forth as a group. You actually don't need to do this, and it never works.

What happens is that everyone else starts to chip in their ideas, believing that since the designer is acting weakly and trying to bargain them into doing work, that they have equal creative stake. For small groups that is often exactly appropriate, but for large teams it's a recipe for disaster. 

What you need to be able to is lead the charge. That means selling yourself to the team that you know how the thing is supposed to fit together and fly, and so what you need the rest of the team to do is work on their individual parts.

In short, they have to believe in you and be willing to follow you into the inevitable muck that development will become on the promise that you will all emerge shining on the other side. A leader is able to take a vision and inspire the people around them to do great things by making them believe that their contribution is vital. 

Rather than sell the entire team on the entire vision and effectively end up submitting to creativity by committee, the skill you need is to make the programming team feel that the programming is vital, the art team likewise, and showing each part of the team that you empathise with their personal struggles (even if, in reality, you think they're just whining to be heard).

You need to be able to stand your ground when an arrogant producer or a dickish programmer are complaining. You need to be able to tell people that they are wrong to their faces sometimes, or to be diplomatic yet insistent. Leaders are not appointed nor do they issue directorial demands. Instead what they do is inspire trust. That's the skill you need. 

This comes with a word of warning though: In some studio environments, being the guy who's the leader taking the hits and telling people that they are wrong can result in getting fired. Blame is an easy game that all to many environments play rather than acknowledging that there are some serious flaws in the team or the game itself. 

But you know what, if you get fired from a studio for being the leader and taking the risk, chances are that that studio was a toxic environment anyway and you're better off going elsewhere.


4. Technical Awareness

In most studios a designer really does need to know some technical skills. In smaller studios especially, tasks like scripting are very much a part of what you need to be able to do because with the best will in the world, there isn't often enough consistent work 

A designer does not need to be a programmer, although being a programmer or at least having some rudimentary past with programming is often key to getting programmers to trust you. Programmers in particular are vital toward making a great game work well, but they are an inherently suspicious bunch - especially of a designer who knows board games and movies but has no technical awareness.

Technical Awareness means you are able to perceive the sorts of problems that a game concept is likely to run into, even if you're not exactly sure how they might arise or might be solved. If you can speak with at least some sense of acknowledgement of those kinds of problems then most programmers will want to work with you (as a lot of people working in production have no such awareness).


5. An Eye for Elegance

You need to be able to think in a class->object fashion. The number of people who cannot do this is huge, but in many ways it is the core of all game design.

Designers who cannot think in this way almost invariably end up coming up with game concepts that are like Homer Simpson's $80,000 car. Such designs are basically cobbled together from various parts and lack any sort of elegance. They are inefficient, will result in a game made of various mini-gamish-ideas which feel like much less than the sum of their parts, and balloon the scope of the project massively.

An eye for elegance is what separates idea guys from real designers. A game like the first Left 4 Dead is stunning not just because of any one individual part, but because the mesh of the game world rules, weapon choices, perspective and level design produces endless robust emergent results. It's terrific game design, possibly the best example that I have seen in the last 5 years.

On the other hand many roleplaying games are very poorly designed, with redundant systems, half-thought-out mechanics, easy exploits and brittle scenarios that offer few in the way of really emergent results. 

Elegance is hard to define, but it starts from thinking in terms of stuff like player actions that are widely applicable, reduction of needed numbers to bare minimums, reduction of individual game objects and instead asking does each have distinct and meaningful function, and so on. 


6. An Ear for People

Hand in hand with elegance is empathy. You really do need to be able to understand how players see and play with games, otherwise what you'll end up making is games that you and your team think are awesome, but the folks out there just won't get. A lot of indie games and gone-to-seed studios basically lose touch with this facet of design and instead become introverted, making the project that they want for themselves and forgetting that other people are supposed to see this thing they've made too. 

Focus groups help with this a bit, but really I think it's the experience that comes from talking and listening. You need to develop a nose for what players in the real world just won't get, what they'll think is cool, what was cool but is now old news, and what might be an evergreen idea. 

This ear for people should be the single biggest determinant in your deciding that ideas aren't working by the way. Not your own inkling, not the team's and not the marketing guy's. All those people will have opinions, but it's always best to get your head "out the building" and take the temperature of what the real world thinks. Even if you can't reveal what it is you are directly working on, there are ways (for example, looking at similar ideas in other games, see did they work there ) that should give you a clue.


7. Self Esteem

Lastly, you need self esteem. A lot of people will rag on you and tell you that they don't know what a game designer actually does. Don't let that get to you: Those people are just envious of your contribution.


Those, to me, are the foundations of a productive game designer. Nobody will have all those traits equally, and that's fine. Game making is a more human than factory activity anyway and sometimes it's an artist who is the leader or a tester who has the ear for people or the programmer who has the ability to design a game mechanic. All those things are fine.

Ultimately what you need as a game designer is the right group of people to work within. And they need that from you too.

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Darius Kazemi
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Re: point #1: You say that "ideas are cheap and execution is everything" is damaging garbage for game design. Yet points #2 and #5 (coherence and elegance) are to me ENTIRELY about execution. To pull from an example you used, it's what makes Diner Dash a great game and what makes most Diner Dash clones pale in comparison.

Tadhg Kelly
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The timing of Diner Dash is highly significant though. With it now out in the world, all other games of the same mould are trying to compete on being more worthy. Way too late.

Darius Kazemi
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You're right, that was kind of a poor example.

And I agree: for a game, first to market with a great idea plus at least PASSABLE execution will probably beat second to market with that idea and great execution. Probably.

Alex May
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Diner Dash is an interesting example actually, as it is arguably a more-polished clone of the earlier Betty's Beer Bar:

scott anderson
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Ugh, I hate that this is still being perpetuated to this day. Diner Dash isn't really a BBB clone, the games are different mechanically and the only thing they really share is basic theme of "girl serving customers." This is the same logic that makes every FPS a "Doom Clone". If you want to be that generic then both games are clones of Tapper.

Joe Cooper
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In practice, a lot of times second to market really nails it because they have hindsight.

But overvaluing the herd can prevent you from being second to market.

There's a persistent theme in the anti-ideas crowd that "the conventions are what works", but these people would, for example, tell you not to make a Farm game because Harvest Moon's niche status shows "the market doesn't want that". You'd have to be able to toss that conventional wisdom aside to go ahead and make Farmville.

Megan Fox
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Minor point, but nobody's too late ;) The time management games released now aren't Diner Dash clones, they're just time management games. It's established itself as a large casual genre, and nobody expects a Diner Dash-esque success (though they certainly hope for it - just like FPS makers hope they could be the next Doom or Quake or what have you), it's just games in a genre. It's a bit like attacking all FPS's as Doom clones.

John Trauger
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Related but off-topic: Can someone tell MMO makers that "WoW clone" is NOT a genre?

Luis Blondet
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Zynga didn't go against conventional wisdom, they copied from someone who did, just like the rest big anti-innovation bullies. The one who created the Farm sim on Social Networking Games was myFarm:

Joe Cooper
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Well... F*** Zynga then. Still, someone broke conventional wisdom and the idea worked fantastically well.

That also jives with my thought that second to market often nails it.

Microsoft is, quite famously, master of being second to market. I'm sure anyone can think of an example, but my favorite is C# with respect to Java. I'm a Java programer and I can see a lot of ways that C# was designed both off of Java, and off of Java's problems.

Dan Felder
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Thank you for bringing up the Idea vs. Execution war. Naturally, great ideas are useless if you can't make them happen - but a great idea poorly executed has a better chance at becoming something special than a poor or yawn-inducing idea executed professionally. In the first case, you stretch for greatness. In the second, you are on a straight path to mediocrity.

Additionally, after speaking to so many game designers and would-be game designers at mediocre companies (SO much more valuable than great companies, where it's difficult to tell just what the X factors are that make them great) and hearing them try to justify the position that everyone has great ideas... The more it seems like they just don't know how to tell a good idea from a bad one. This is common across a variety of fields. People who claim that everyone has a great script for a movie and that it's the directors, actors and marketing that matter usually don't know how to tell good scripts from bad ones.

Considering the amount of mediocre games pushed out every year, even accounting for execution, I'm still not sure how people can claim that everyone has good ideas. If you think that everyone has a great idea, no matter what line of work you're in, that is detailed enough for a team to work on (otherwise it's not an idea, it's a shapeless impulse)... Well, you might want to raise your standards just a little bit higher. That, or go open-source.

Wesley H
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Considering from your argument that people have ideas that they claimed is good, but later found out it is mediocre after publishing the game. Perhaps another job for a game designer is to test their ideas out to see if it works on small scale testing such as testing out the game mechanics with people who don't know about games.

I'm not sure if the game designers test their ideas on a small scale games or programs. But it will definitely be beneficial if the game designers test their ideas first with players.

Joe Cooper
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The idea v. execution war is a silly one.

Execution, or craftmanship, is of course minimally necessary...

But then people take it to this extreme and insist that ideas are of zero value.

No, nobody will buy your idea and having an idea alone is useless.

But if you can also execute that idea, and judge what ideas are good and bad, than you can really stand out from the pack in a positive way.

People should be encouraged to learn to execute to make ideas happen, rather than piss on anyone with creative impulses for violating groupthink.

Tim Carter
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Well said.

Dan Felder
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Eric Carr
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Good piece. Lots of good stuff. I especially like the part on coherence. Understanding how all the moving parts and mechanics function together allows you to refine the emergent gameplay and keep track of how a small change in one part of the system can have effects on the others. I would call that the most important bit, but that may just be me.

In terms of ideas vs. execution, I have to disagree with you though. Ideas are worthless. They truly are. The reason for that is that since a game should be "fun," it needs to be iterated. No game design comes out fully formed, it must grow and be iterated upon. That iteration is a thousand decisions and revisions, all of which will vary based on the designer and the team. So since a basic idea can come out so many ways based on how it is developed, the idea itself no longer has value. It was just a starting point for the real work to happen.

Adam Bishop
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I think that ideas are far from worthless. Try thinking about the original Metal Gear Solid without its "cone of vision" AI; it's not even remotely the same game. The idea was extremely important. But so too was its execution. I find it pretty tough to believe that no one had thought "Hey, wouldn't it be great if enemies could track the player when they come into the enemies' field of vision!" before. But implementing AI that is capable of doing that and then tuning that AI so that it remains compelling after you've been interacting with it for several hours is a non-trivial task. It's actually pretty easy to think of some awful and boring potential implementations of the idea. That's why execution is more important. The idea is a simple one; the execution is what makes the game worth playing.

Eric Schwarz
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Very well-written article, and encouraging for someone like me who has aspirations of getting into the industry as a designer. I found the video at The Escapist much as you did: well produced, but strangely out of sync with a lot of what I've seen of real-world designers, who are often smart and communicative, but not always what I'd describe as intellectuals or philosophers. Sometimes it's enough to just be able to read and write clearly, and be able to work with people to achieve a common goal.

I also think that the ideal "Renaissance man" vision of a designer may come from the fact that some of the more visible and celebrated people in the game design world - the Warren Spectors, Ken Levines, etc. - tend to speak in a way that doesn't always suggest that some of their better ideas were the product of extensive teamwork. And of course, these guys are exceptional individuals, someone who the likes of myself would feel proud to even vaguely resemble. The bar may be high, but certainly isn't so lofty as to exclude 99.9% of people.

Ara Shirinian
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So with regards to the trope about "ideas are cheap but execution is everything," I do not think it is anything near total garbage, nor is it damaging unless you are interpreting the phrase in the most extreme way. In fact, I think too much emphasis on concept over detailed implementation is much more damaging, assuming of course that you do not live in a development environment with unlimited resources.

When one is actually doing the hard work of implementing a game idea, technical, practical and other unexpected constraints appear and ultimately shape the reality of that idea as actually executed. In the process of implementation, often you discover better and more interesting ideas, and sometimes you are forced down a different road. You also discover details about rules that have to be resolved, details that are generally ignored in the pure 'idea' or 'imagination' space.

It's these small and numerous details that directly define the reality of an idea as executed, and that is why execution is said to be everything and ideas are said to be cheap.

Ideas have value and are the catalyst for implementation, but an idea is just a potential that is yet to be realized. If a designer is not able to think in terms of the details of the actual rules and grammar of how an idea will work, and if a designer does not have a good understanding of the technical and logical tradeoffs inherent in any implementation, they will have a hard time translating the idea into reality.

Tim Carter
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Right, but what happens is that the very notion of having an idea becomes attacked.

It's almost viewed then as better if you have *no ideas*, but can make stuff.

Ara Shirinian
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I'd say that if you are understanding the phrase "ideas are cheap but execution is everything" or some other flavor of it as an attack on the very notion of having an idea, you are missing the spirit and meaning of the saying.

Obviously, idea precedes execution and if nobody had any ideas about anything nothing would ever get done.

Matthew Woodward
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Most of this is absolutely bang on, IMO. The two points I'd want to make:

First I think the Escapist piece is describing the parts you'd need to guarantee being a great designer. Sid Meier is a great designer. I'm trying hard to be a good one. I know I don't tick all of the boxes the video lists, but I think I tick some of them, I'm working towards others, and I see the value in all of them. It's an aspirational list, not a required one.

Second, the ideas issue (surprise). A list of points:

- Ideas, in and of themselves, are (IMO) valueless (at least in the monetary sense and probably in some but not all other sense too). They have no value. You cannot (generally, and in this field at least) sell an idea. An idea on its own is not a useful thing.

- Games absolutely need to be based on good ideas.

- It doesn't matter so much /which/ good ideas a game is based on, provided they hang together.

- Anyone can have a good idea.

- Most ideas most people have are not good ideas.

- A designer absolutely must be able to identify a good idea when they see one.

- A designer does not need to have good ideas (at this scale), if they can identify the good ideas of other people. (It does help though.)

- A designer probably /does/ need to have good ideas at the sub-feature scale - you want to be able to have good ideas about how to solve particular problems.

- Most designers aren't going to be having the big important ideas for their games; that usually falls to the lead or creative head honcho.

- Even for these people, "coming up with ideas" is usually a really, really small part of their job. It's important, of course, but it's almost incidental in timescale terms.

- It is, I'd estimate, vanishingly unlikely that a given person is ever going to be hired as a game developer /primarily/ because of the quality of their ideas.

I agree strongly that designers need imagination. I disagree with the assertion - not made here, but which the "ideas have no value" argument is typically made to rebut - that designers need to have lots of good ideas, particularly for whole games or whole features. That's a common fallacy which IMO is both inaccurate, and devaluing of design as a discipline. Game design isn't about having ideas, it's about taking ideas and making them useful.

Tim Carter
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Anyone can have a bad idea.

Good ideas, on the other hand, are extremely rare.

And what "execution" is is a series of micro-ideas that pile on top of each other, driven by the will to keep going. If the micro-ideas are good, then the "execution" works.

Stephen Chin
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Ideas/Execution: (TED Talk) - The most poignant part of this talk is the difference between kindergardeners and most everyone else. Kindergardeners prototype and iterate. Ideas can be good and bad... but it's the accumulation and refinement part of a basic idea into a better one that's an important but overlooked part of the creative process. Left 4 Dead didn't start off as "Zombie coop shooter". It started off as many much smaller ideas, many of which aren't original at all - "swarm v single player", "co op", "shooter", etc.

For the leadership part, I'm reminded off this talk. More or less, the speaker suggests that it's more effective to start with the Why instead of the What.

Paul Tozour
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Erik Foss
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I agree with this article by and large, but a minor point: in #1, you say that video games aren't a product but an entertainment medium, and talk about how a traditional software product-centered approach can be harmful to the development of a game (which I agree with). However, that being said I think it's clear that video games are products as well, just media products. It seems to me that any piece of popular media is inherently both a product and an art form. Again, not that big of a deal, but I thought it was worth noting.

Aside from that, great work. I wish more people (educators and employers included) would give some thought to what they actually want out of their designers.

Tadhg Kelly
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Depends on what you mean by 'product'

Erik Foss
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That's true. I was using it as "something that is commercially distributed to people", a pretty general sense of the term.

Tadhg Kelly
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I meant more 'product' as in the sense of a commodity (like food) or object (a laptop) that people buy to use as a part of their day to day lives. There's a whole slew of studies on how to design products for audiences, create compelling products etc, but the root of it is that people buy products as objects of status, usefulness and reliability.

The one thing that distinguishes art media from most products is that people are buying it to be surprised. It is in the nature of entertainment that no matter how well made, reliable or well executed it is, the purchaser is looking for the X factor of the unknown, which means the bespoke, the unusual or the odd.

Erik Foss
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That makes sense. After all, the act of entertainment is basically a learning process, even if most people wouldn't phrase it that way.

Luis Guimaraes
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I'd love to live in a world where everybody could have good ideas.

Mark Venturelli
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You already do. Design is a technical skill, not "having ideas".

Luis Guimaraes
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Yes it actually is a technical skill.

The problem with this whole discussion is the word "idea". So i'll use "vision" from here. Vision isn't a boolean value. Visions are designed, they grow mature, until the point where you find if they are worth executing.

Visions are roads. Roads to take when developing, and after that, they end in roads to take when playing. Not every road is worth getting.

99% of the visions aren't worth executing. If you think 10 seconds to get a point, you have 10 different points, one for each second. One point, out of 10 points, out of 10 different visions is a good one, or a path to a good one. And yes, it's a technical skill to know which one is the good one, and how to perfect it.

The fact "design is an actual skill that you learn and get better at" is the reason why not everybody can do it. Doing, and learning how to do, are different things.

The point is, everybody can tell a good idea when it's already executed. Not everybody have vision to tell a good idea when it's an idea yet.

Tadhg Kelly
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Design is *not* a technical skill. It may involve many technical elements, but it is fundamentally a creative and critical skill. Judgement and instinct for what will work and what will not play a huge part in design because there is often no one right answer.

Mark Venturelli
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I think it is not *fundamentally* creative, if by creative you mean expressive. 'Critical', in my opinion, is not in the same page as 'creative'. I guess my opinions about that are in the response to your comment below.

Tadhg Kelly
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Well we disagree.

Unless a designer actually want to spend your live designing clone replicas of other games, they need to bring their creativity to bear.

Rey Samonte
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What would you say about technical designers whose primary role is to implement rather than come up with creative ideas or decide what goes into a game? In most of the companies I've worked for, the scripter/designer was pretty much considered junior programmers due to the fact that they did have to create systems and implement gameplay logic, etc. You wouldn't consider that technical? IMO it would because these types of designers are solving similar problems as programmers.

Tadhg Kelly
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That role (thought not necessarily that person) is basically an assistant coder or content implementer. It's not game design.

Rey Samonte
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Hrm, I see what you're saying...but a lot of times, these types of designers interact with both programmers and designers, and come up with solutions or give suggestions in how to implement a specific idea. Most often, what is designed on paper does not always work out once it's in the game. These design issues are found by the technical designer who can then give creative input on how to solve various design issues. Sometimes during those discussions, gameplay ideas will come about that can enhance the original idea.

Mark Venturelli
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Great write, but your list missed one little thing: design skill.

Because, you know, it may be news for a lot of people in the industry, but design is an actual skill that you learn and get better at.

Tadhg Kelly
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That seems a bit circular. Care to explain further?

Mark Venturelli
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You may have imagination, coherence, leadership skills, technical awareness, an eye for elegance, an ear for people and self esteem and STILL be a bad game designer. These are all - like you put it - very desirable skills, but they do not make a great designer if he can't actually *design*.

And by that I mean have theoretical and hands-on knowledge about game systems, probability, design patterns, constraints, process, basic communication theory, understanding the models of how people handle information, how their eyes navigate a screen or a manual or a game board, being able to work with data and statistic, etc. Overall, being able to aim for something and achieve it indirectly through player interaction. You don't learn how to do that effectively until you've done it dozens of times. Empathy is a crucial trait. Perception is a crucial trait. But there are actual techniques and knowledge about how to design - you don't have to try and reinvent the wheel, which seems to be the problem with many aspiring game designers.

There are hundreds of ways to solve a design problem. Good designers are often lateral thinkers that can provide multiple solutions. But games will be played by people, and there is no denying when something works as planned and when something does not. Most of the time, you can stress your design and pinpoint with considerable accuracy what solution works -better-.

Of course, design is not *purely* technical, it has a considerable creative side. But which discipline is purely technical? There are meaningful differences between mathematicians' approaches and style when they try to solve a problem. All human activities can be used as means of expression - design is no exception, and "art" is not privileged in that regard.

In conclusion, it's the same thing as stating that a graphical designer's skills are all creative, or *mostly* creative. I wouldn't hire some guy that possess all of the skills you mentioned (which are important for any communicator, visual or not) if he had not already created hundreds of pieces, and had a solid technical knowledge of color, lighting, shape, texture and composition.

On the other hand, even if he has a lot of technical skill, he will never achieve greatness if deprived of all the traits you mentioned. It is the balance of "what" and "how".

Tadhg Kelly
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Actually I think a lot of those more manual skills that you listed were implied in what I wrote, particularly in the points on coherence and ear for people.

Something that interests me in your reply is this, however:

"But there are actual techniques and knowledge about how to design - you don't have to try and reinvent the wheel, which seems to be the problem with many aspiring game designers."

I think you sort of do have to learn how to reinvent the wheel actually. It's a part of the learning process and establishing your sense of what might and might not work that a designer needs to go down a few blind alleys. And on the other side, sometimes that wheel needs to be reinvented.

Design isn't just an ever growing list of game atoms (to borrow Raph's phrases) which, once known, are equally deployable forever. That sort of thinking is how a game starts to feel like a shopping list of features but with no soul. That's why game design (and game development in general) is an art and not a science.

On technical skills,

Architecture is an art that also uses considerable technical skill. The difference between technical arts and technical disciplines like mathematics (or programming) is that technical disciplines have one right answer at the end of the methodological approach. In the end of the day, if your game engine is able to crank out more frames per second and render more polys than the next guy's, that is an objective success.

A game, like architecture, is not objectively better than another. It is subjectively better, aesthetically better, it hangs together via its own internal rhyme and reason more than performance. So that is why games are an art, and it is also why game design (which is basically the glue that brings the various disciplines involved together) is an art.

Mark Venturelli
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You have quite a romantic view on the subject, I admire you for that.

But architecture is design. The difference between architecture and engineering is not that one has "one right answer" and the other does not (I never implied that, au contraire). The defining point of design is indirect crafting. The difference between an Architect and an Engineer is that an engineer's goal is to construct a building - so he goes ahead and does it. An architect's goal is to construct a living experience - so he has to indirectly construct it through space, metric and shape. It is not possible to directly build an experience.

And I strongly disagree about not being able to state that a design is better than the other. If the goal is the same, you definitely can. It is crucial that you can.

Also, to make sure that we're not arguing over semantics, here's one of the most simple and direct definitions of technique (from wikipedia):

"A technique is a procedure used to accomplish a specific activity or task"

Hence, technical activity: one that has a clear, specific, defined goal. Design knowledge is experience and expertise in the methods of accomplishing these goals. If design is not a goal-driven activity, then everything I know is wrong, and design is art, and there is no such thing as "good design" and "bad design", and I will jump from Rio-Niteroi Bridge tomorrow.

This view of design techniques, methods and processes generating "feature lists with no soul"? I hear a lot, mostly from students, academics or people who don't have a lot of designs under their belts yet. It's not a cake recipe, you know. It's just about reaching your creative goals easier. Like I said before, it is all about the balance of "what" and "how". There are a lot of "what" designers (like you, I imagine), a lot of "how" designers (like me), but only great designers are both.

Tim Tavernier
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"Design isn't just an ever growing list of game atoms (to borrow Raph's phrases) which, once known, are equally deployable forever. That sort of thinking is how a game starts to feel like a shopping list of features but with no soul. That's why game design (and game development in general) is an art and not a science."

I find this statement perplexing. Were it not engineers that invented and made videogames in its first decade and was this decade not called the golden age? Even Shigeru Miyamoto admits that Gunpei Yokoi (a full blow engineer) influenced him the most. Aren't the Facebook games not game-like implementations of Skinner's boxes, aka derived from the Natural science of Behaviorology.

I believe the evidence clearly points that Design is far more science, or at least heavily supported by science and scientific thinking, then you believe or will be able to admit. Now, not saying a game is just a set of sciences glued together. Thomas Edison didn't invent the glowbulb that way, he used science as a support, he still needed 85 attempts to get there. Sciences are there to support, helping you make the correct design decisions.

The truth is, videogames have in their history only benefited far more from an engineer/scientific way of thinking then an "art" way of thinking. Engineers and scientists are far more capable thinking in systems, parameters, micro and macro structures, interdependent processes and so forth. Our society is far more based and run on engineering and sciences then art. Art is the cognitive varnish we all like to have because it's shiny.

Tadhg Kelly
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If it were a science then we would see eternally repeated, non-varied game mechanics that improve and sell in greater numbers across a myriad of titles. Franchises would exist eternally and user numbers would always grow.

They do not. The goalposts keep shifting because audience taste, boredom and appetite for something different are always on the move. Just when a behavioralist like yourself (I'm guessing here) thinks they've cracked the formula, along comes another inexplicable shift.

That's why game design is an art. Chasing and setting taste is what the arts do. Sometimes that means music games are the right thing to make, sometimes they're just not any more. Fads, fashions, rises and falls of game types, and sudden rushes of new ones, happen all the time because the market wants to be entertained, not bored.

Tim Tavernier
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You clearly have a very static view of science. Science is far more dynamic and aware of potential inexplicable shifts then you suppose. Any advance in "art" is directly and indirectly caused by advances in science, logic, technology and others. Remember, historically speaking, art has been an incredible dependent activity. Only with the Modern Art movement (and dogma) has the severity of "art" as it is present these days been so fierce (and short-sighted sadly to say). Art still has not lost that very dependent property though.

Yes the goalposts shift constantly, scientists know this the best. Einstein injected an enormous amount of relativity in the physics world, Skinner did the same, Anthropology did the same and so forth. Scientists are aware of that small percentage they can be wrong. This is called temporarily ignorance within the science community, the insight that we, at this moment do not posses the necessary technology to make 100% correct statements.

Conveniently ignoring this fact that scientists are aware of it on your part does not arbitrarily put Game-design into the "it's art" section. If you had no knowledge of this fact...then no harm done (I believe that people are allowed to deny the Holocaust...from a position of ignorance for example)

An audience tastes, appetite and boredom shift, but in the superficial properties. On a fundamental level they actually don't shift. People play games for the same reasons that they did 5000 years ago. Only the how and packaging has changed. Play-behavior is one of the most powerfull and consistent conditioned contingencies in man's history (and a lot of animal species) because it serves a clearly very important and crucial function (Behaviorology uses Darwinism to explain the creation and perseverance of behavioral patterns).

But what makes Behaviorology such a relativity moneky wrench? Because basically, behaviorology states that people can be thaught to like or dislike anything. Even the types of people you fall in love with is actually conditioned and subject of external stimuli who activate that conditioning. Yeah, try fathoming that...that's the scope that science has..."art" is just the showing of the cognitive top-layer of that.

And that's why engineers, programmers, mathematicians and so forth are better at game-design They are more intellectually trained and open-minded on an extremely basic level. Artists of these days are soaked in the Modern Art dogma and the end-result is clear: the implosion of the traditional hardcore, less games that become social phenomenons while more game-designers talk about "art" and "visions" and such.

Tadhg Kelly
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I honestly think you're talking about a completely different subject here.

Newton to Einstein to quantum mechanics is continuous improvement that reframes and re-analyses the world and provides better lenses, sometimes by undoing what came before. The answer that science seeks has becomes more objectively accurate over time.

When I talk about the goalposts shifting, I'm not talking about continuous improvement, or a better answer emerging over time. I'm talking instead about shifts in consumer taste. Where there is not one answer that becomes objectively more accurate, there is only the answer that fits in the moment, and then no longer does.

Scientism as a start for game design is thus wholly incomplete as a way of approaching the subject. We agree that logical minds are necessary to work out a game design, but the spark of an idea for what the game is to begin with comes from somewhere else. Whether it's being a soldier of fortune or a Guitar Hero or a social game farmer, the idea starts in the emotional.

While you may, as many scientism-fan developers do, reduce the importance of that by showing that there are common elements across games, the players out there do care about that a great deal and decide what games they want to play based on those indicators. So choices of mechanics, controls, levels design, art style and many other effectors must be bespoke. What works for the goose will not work for the gander, not work for the goose later when the goose is bored.

The engineering role in all that is, like with architecture, to help realise that idea. Ultimately the act of game design is to translate, alter, iterate and lead an idea out into the world and make it real. It's not a science working its way toward a better objective answer, it's entertainment.

Mark Venturelli
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That whole science thing threw you away from our discussion, but I guess the problem is that you are mixing up game design and game creation as the same activity.

Tim Tavernier
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And still no reason or attempt at counter-argument has been given why engineers are in fact better game-designers the past decades and still are.

Just a series of round-a-bout answers of "it's entertainment, it's emotions You're talking about something wrong" rounded off with some linguistic tricks. Science is about analyzing processes, dynamics and trends, seeking the why something happens, including the emotional. It isn't arbitrarily excluded from this. Changing consumer taste is also not excluded from this. Hell, the emotional are just bodily chemical/neurlogical states triggered by external stimuli who activate certain contingencies in the brain who then activates all necessary organs to create said emotional state. And those contingencies are perfectly determinable.

And game design is an intrinsic part of the broader concept of game creation, so there can't be a mess-up. It's all inter-connected.

This looks more like you are nicely dividing science and what you like to be non-science on subjective reasons and not logic argument. Ideas are part of logic, not some separate entity next to it. No good idea in history did not had a great amount of logic to it. It needs logic because ideas need to relate back to an existing state/action which it improves to be accepted. That's why I said that shifting taste is a superficial factor. The base-factor doesn't change.

the idea of a horseless carriage is teeming with logic, the idea of flight as well, the light-bulb, using games to prepare youngsters for the hardships of life in a tempered down manner is incredible logical.

Mark Venturelli
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Just found this article again while I was googling for something else and stumbled upon this discussion. It's two-years-old but still a VERY good and relevant discussion that future-me would now like to contribute a little bit more to.

Past-me and I both agree with Design being a technical activity. I wasn't able to step in and contribute with the Science discussion, though. Design is absolutely NOT science. Design is technology. I would go so far as to state that all design (whether it's game design, or architecture or graphic design) can be framed as "human technology".

From Wikipedia on the definition of technology:
"Technology is the making, modification, usage, and knowledge of tools, machines, techniques, crafts, systems, methods of organization, in order to solve a problem, improve a preexisting solution to a problem, achieve a goal or perform a specific function."

Design can't be science because it does not generate new knowledge about the world - it applies previously acquired knowledge from the human sciences to solve a humam problem.

Christian Allen
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You forgot shooting skills. It's a lot easier to convince a team member to implement a specific feature when he knows you can take him out at 400 meters.

Seriously, though, I attended a round-table at GDC a few years back where a bunch of academics from various uni's were discussing what to teach to game designers. Much like the Extra Credits video, they also believed that designers need to be some kind of Renaissance Men. If you listed to them, only Leonardo Divinci would be a successful game designer.

Vision, Communication, Integrity, Follow Through, Persistence, and a bit of hardheadedness, along with technical ability in some area of development. Experience is key as well. Good Design chops are born in the blood, sweat, and tears of past failures.

I don't read philosophy, and my games have done pretty well.

Michael Fitch
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And he can drop you at 400 meters. Assuming appropriate scope and stabilization. And wind, or lack thereof.

I'm just saying, in the right conditions, Christian is not kidding.

Christian Allen
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Don't worry Michael, you are still in my good book! :):)

Pistachio Nats
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Not to rain on anyone's parade but a designer whose games sold really well does not make him automatically a great designer. The Transformers movies sold really well... but honestly, would you say they were good movies and had a great director?

The list above would make do enough to get you to be able to work in the industry and possibly get a game produced and sold, but don't hold your breath for the 'Godfather' or 'Citizen Kane' of games if you don't dig deep enough into the humanities. The escapist list is a lot more adequate in that sense.

Game designers don't always have to be Leonardo Divincis but they definitely need to aspire towards that. Never be content, even if your games sell like Michael Bay movies.

Jake May
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Hi Tadhg, another good post. A few points:

1. Imagination

It's worth clarifying that ideas and imagination aren't the same thing - I can have lots of boring, unimaginative ideas or a few wildly inventive ones.

Imagination involves leaps of logic, seeing the wood for the trees and so on; contrary to your assertion, that does involve being a bit of a polymath - exposure to many varied fields of knowledge at least on a superficial level (or maybe even especially) provides plenty of material for new connections and associations, fuelling that creative spark. Imagination doesn't exist in a vacuum.

It's also true that good ideas don't need to be outlandish - being able to take existing ideas and tweak them, to realise what's causing that annoying rattle and get the engine purring, is as valuable a skill to a designer as being able to take wild forays into the untempered psyche.

2. Games as products

Games aren't purely passive entertainment - you have to interact with them and as such that plants at least one foot into the product camp. If the player can't interface with the game in an appealing and effective manner then it will most likely fail, regardless of how imaginative it is.

Also remember that it isn't the idea per se that carries the game to the public, but the medium by which that message is conveyed, whether talking about the visual presentation or the manner in which the game is marketed. In this industry you can polish a turd - that may not be ideologically desirable, but it is what drives sales and ultimately will lead to financial, if not critical, success. In that sense, execution *is* everything.

3. Leadership

I don't think there is anything wrong with there being a degree of design by committee on any project - it is empowering and morale-boosting for the entire team to feel that there are avenues for creative contribution beyond their immediate role. Without this the team will quickly come to feel that they are following your vision rather than the project's. More important is that a designer is able to critically evaluate all presented ideas and clearly communicate the reasons for accepting/rejecting them to the rest of the team.

I'm not sure whether it was your intention, but you paint the lead design position as being somewhat superior to that of the other leads and the project producer - stubbornly standing your ground with that attitude will almost certainly get you in trouble, if that is your perspective.

In closing, I don't think that the Extra Credits bonus list really is all that ambitious - the first couple of points essentially come down to bothering to pick up a book every once in a while (which over a career as a game designer should add up to a lot of books), and the other points can easily be picked up on the job either through necessity of the systems you're working on, or by actually communicating with team members from the other disciplines. Life experience though, that's something you have to work really hard at.

Nobody should expect to be an amazing designer straight out of the box - it takes practice over a large number of diverse projects, interacting with many different teams and individuals in all manner of circumstances. To that end, perhaps the secret to being a really great designer is patience.

Tadhg Kelly
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Hey Jake,

1. Imagination

Check. There's a term called "edgecrafting" which describes this, how often the most compelling ideas are neither in-the-box or out-of-the-box but instead operate at the edge of the box and expand it.

2. Products

Yes, I agree that control interfaces matter. I don't think that's 'product' though, it's UX issues that affect everything. Products and entertainment differ in that products are built to enable people, and so work better the more that they satisfy user expectations. Entertainment, on the other hand, confounds expectations. Entertainment that does what you think it should do is by definition boring.

Actually in games I don't think you can polish a turd. The might and muscle of certain companies to advertise the hell out of a game isn't a guarantor of success, it's a guarantor of exposure. Usually what some people in the industry might consider turds are, in these cases, exactly what the market wants at that time. And the reverse is true (in fact, often so) that games the industry considers leaps forward are actually not that great in the eyes f players.

3. Leadership

Leadership and peer review are not exclusive, and I certainly didn't mean to imply that the designer should be the sole source of all ideas. Rather what I'm talking about is the role of design. It can go one of two ways, either as the person who is basically taking the crap from everyone and trying to muddle through, or the person setting the agenda and acting as creative and critical lead from a position of trust.

I'm also not talking about authority. A leader in the modern workplace is not a general giving orders, it's the person inspiring others to do their best. That person may be of high rank or low rank, because it's not a giving-orders role. It's a lets-do-awesome-stuff cheerleading position.

Mark Taylor
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Above all, do not be politically correct. So much that could have been good stuff has turned out rotten because of it.

Joe Cooper
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By the way, loved this post.

Christopher Enderle
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Is this a wisdom vs intelligence thing?

I'd just like to second the empathy sentiment. By the time I got to point 2 it had already popped into my head. If you can put yourself in another person's shoes and see things from their perspective, I think that's crucial toward being a good designer.

A lot of design is identifying problems and solving them in the most effective way possible. Sure, having a broad knowledge base lets you build an idea from various perspectives and imagine how well it will perform, but all you really need is to apply some critical thought and with enough time I would wager you'd come to the same idea.

Still, the way people react and accept things isn't always intuitive.

Henrik Pettersson
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While both the Escapist and you, mr Kelly, have listed relevant and helpful skills, you have failed to recognize the single most important skill.

The most important skill is 'seeing'. Human perception is always strongly influenced by preconceptions. When you design, you build up a lot of preconceptions about your product. What you want it to be, what your experience tells you it ought to be and so on. The end consumer of your product will not have these preconceptions.

It is the same in all arts. You need to develop your ability to turn on your 'virgin eyes' and see what you've actually built, rather than what you wanted to build. Only then will you be able to prioritize correctly, when it comes to addressing your products flaws. There are few books and schools that teach this seeing. It is still a skill though. It can be developed, and it starts with being very critical of your own work. If you can be that, and still keep generating ideas, you should have no problem with your point #7, self esteem.

'Seeing' can be seen as part of execution (as in idea vs execution), but in truth ideas are not single moments in time. They are developed over time. Thus, execution is equally important in the idea phase. You also need to be able to 'see' truthfully to evaluate your ideas.

Thank you for an interesting article!

Tadhg Kelly
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I think I did cover that though. As I said, being able to accept criticism is vital, you need to have an eye for elegance and and ear for people.


Henrik Pettersson
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Didn't exactly expect you to go "Oh gosh you're right!" :)

I disagree that you covered it, or I wouldn't have troubled myself. Made me read it again though, to make sure. Sounds to me that you are talking about the desired outcome, while I'm talking about explaining why it is so hard to achieve it. Never mind.

I agree that Elegance and Coherence was lacking in the list from the Escapist. Those are very difficult things to fight for in a team when the other guys just think you don't understand how cool their latest feature creep is. Just the other day I got the usual "I want a button that does X". More buttons is always the answer for people who can't see the forest for the trees. :)

Morgan Ramsay
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"For games, it's total garbage. And damaging garbage at that."

Ideas have meaning to originators and value to the creative process, but you can't place ideas on store shelves. Ideas without execution are merely ideas.

"The person that is being described in the video above and in many books does not really exist."

Polymath designers exist, such as Raph Koster and Will Wright.

At the start of your article, Tadhg, you said that the listed skills are not requirements for "great" game designers. In your conclusion, you stated that your precepts are requirements for "productive" game designers. These are very different classes of game designer. "Great" is a value judgment. "Productive" is a performance appraisal. "Successful" is a reliability rating.

"It [the game] is instead an object of entertainment"

Entertainment is a byproduct for many games. Ian Bogost (Persuasive Games) has said that the purpose of his games is to make arguments. Doug Whatley (BreakAway) draws a clear line between serious games and entertainment games. For Doug, serious games are about making the world a better place.

Tadhg Kelly
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At root, all games (like all art, music, film, etc) are entertainment. As we already know, all entertainment is by no means ha-ha fall-down jokes and the like, however.

Jeremiah Slaczka
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Tadhg -- loved this article. If you were defining a lead game designer, working on a commercial product, then you nailed every point on the head. It's not often I comment on these types of articles, mostly because I'd rather not get mired in the academics of it all, but I just wanted to say, excellent job!

Tadhg Kelly
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Andrew Dobbs
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Great post and well put! This is a much better definition than the game designer is a Renaissance person concept. Your point about leadership is well taken, but how often do game designers have that power and how do they assert it without hurting people?

I'd love to read a follow-up discussing the merits and drawbacks of being a designer. The only problem with these skills is most people seem to think they have them. Game design is hard because its a job everyone thinks they can do--I know I used to think that. I face the same issue as a writer. If any younger developers or students read this, I'd encourage you not to make your industry goal becoming a game designer...or at least keep it to yourself. Until you get experience, you may be wrong.

Aaron Pickard
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Thanks for writing this article, it's quite encouraging actually. A lot of great discussion here too, if a little too much quibbling. I'm not going to rehash or attempt to put my own spin on things since I can't speak with game industry experience (yet), but I think these qualities can describe the ideal "lead" in many businesses.

Obviously, the world would be a greater place if polymath-hood were everyone's goal-- but you can't exactly have that as a requirement in job listings, and I would laugh at a person who put that on their résumé. I definitely think people are capable of learning these things with experience, an open mind and willingness to improve.

Roger Haagensen
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"The person that is being described in the video above and in many books does not really exist."

Really? I could have sworn I exist. *pinches hand* Yep, I do exist!

Unfortunately it also means I am a Jack Of All Trades.

I've mainly focused on programming and music (3 albums released so far of my older stuff) so I could be stronger on graphical art. But I do know music composing, programming, scripting, networking, sound engineering, testing, knowledgeable of philosophy, religion, myths, literature, economics, ecology, science, medicine, manufacturing, I've played more games, watched more movies/tv, books than I can remember. I have a vivid imagination. And I've "been around for a while". And if it's something I do not know I'm always up for learning and researching. And I'm not afraid of being wrong. (although I really do hate being wrong *laughs*)

I think people like me are rare, and may not always make a good Game Designer.

However, it doesn't hurt to be "broad" as it does avoid the issues of the team asking about something and all you can do is stare blankly back because you have no idea what they are talking about.

If anything a Game Designer should have a vision and guide the team towards it. It doesn't need to be more complicated than that.

Sara Pickell
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You make it sound like being a renaissance man is the result of some massive outside talent, but I don't agree. The whole point of the renaissance man thing is that not everyone is naturally supremely talented.

If you aren't naturally empathetic to a fault, wouldn't you then study psychology? If you weren't naturally creative to a fault wouldn't it help to study world religion and mythology? If you aren't naturally good at making things elegant, wouldn't you study the best literature which usually is? If you aren't naturally a great leader wouldn't reading the works of philosophers like Aristotle and Machiavelli, his second work btw, which were written for leaders be helpful? (Personally I've also found a bit of nihilism is good for self-esteem, helps you get rid of those unreasonable demands for yourself.) Wouldn't it help you have a vision if you understood artistic principles and knew what your game could look like, how it could visually stand out?

Yes you don't need to be writing doctoral dissertations on these subjects, but I don't think it's right to just dismiss them out of hand either. Some people can't just say, "hey I'll be a leader now" and go do. And especially some people need a lot of help to understand the people around them. I just don't see how your list invalidates theirs, you just describe the skills while they describe the areas of study that will improve those skills.

Also, I've found the best ideas in most fields came from other fields. The carburetor came from medical perfume, the movie projector came from lighthouses, radar came from weather observation, etc... So being broad is really never a bad thing.