Even in the simplest games, game design should be subordinated to the product's intention; however, it is very important to keep the distinction between the two very clear.
Game design, just like all other disciplines on a project, is here to help support the intention so it can be delivered to the final consumer. As a step between product vision and implementation through code, it reflects on the intended experience and proposes concrete rules and systems that are actually conveyed to the player, not only through the content presented, but also through the choices and challenges he will have to face in game situations.
As Griesemer and Butcher stated in their 2002 GDC talk "The Illusion of Intelligence", their intention in Halo was to make the player feel like Schwarzenegger.
The conjunction of the low enemy accuracy that gradually improves with constant exposure of the player to foes, and the fact that the player's shields regenerate after some time away from combat favors the engage/cover routine that Predator's Dutch uses during the outpost attack, thus ensuring that players will follow that routine.
In an industry, creation is always a top-down process that trickles down from intention to execution. Not only because it reassures the guys in suits, but also because it's the most efficient way to ensure that a collaborative project focuses on a given experience instead of becoming a juxtaposition of inspirations aimed at different targets.
The vision holder has to clearly state his intentions, then turn towards his specialists and ask them to propose technical solutions for the intended experience to transpire through the game. For this, they have to be entrusted with ownership over their specialties so they can feel they have enough autonomy to be creative.
It's at that point that they can feel safe enough to engage in creative thinking at their level of intervention and take part in building the whole structure. Maslow showed in his hierarchy of needs that the esteem level needs to be secured (self-esteem, respect by others...) before one can be at ease at the self-actualization level and tackle creative tasks.
Being recognized as a specialist and owner of a specific domain gives the designer the confidence to be responsible for a given part of the production. This is where the designer develops a sense of pride for what he does and naturally wants to improve, as he's being motivated at the intrinsic level. This is not to say that every discipline should be separated and keep their ideas for themselves. Quite the opposite, when someone is being respected for his skills, he is more likely to freely share his ideas with the rest of the group, and have them developed by whoever has the most adapted skills to do so.
Game designers need to focus on identified technical tasks, and be given ownership over them. That is the only way they can develop as individuals and as team members.
Once established as technical providers, game designers need to understand the overarching game vision, and come up with solutions in their area of expertise to support it and make it tangible to the player.
When that happens, on that day, we'll have lifted the Designer's Curse.
Three keys to a healthy game designer