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10 years of design lessons from  Portal 's Kim Swift
10 years of design lessons from Portal's Kim Swift
November 20, 2012 | By Brandon Sheffield

November 20, 2012 | By Brandon Sheffield
More: Console/PC, Smartphone/Tablet, Indie, Design, GDC China

At GDC China's Independent Games Summit in Shanghai, Kim Swift outlined the design lessons she's gleaned as she went from a student game developer with Narbacular Drop, to her professional work on Portal, Left 4 Dead 1 & 2, and now Quantum Conundrum.

“If you're looking to be a good designer, you owe it to yourself to learn everything you can. And I mean everything,” she began. “Learning how to sew when I was younger made it actually really easy for me to unwrap a 3D model,” adding, “If you're not learning something new on a day-to-day basis, then you're doing something wrong.”

But be humble, as well. “Sometimes your ideas aren't always great. One of the best abilities you can have in this industry is to take a step back.

“I have just as many crappy ideas as the next person,” she admits.

So how do you figure out if your ideas are actually good? Playtest, playtest, playtest.

“It is seriously one of the most important processes for game design,” says Swift. If players are learning the wrong things “It's not the player's fault -- it's your fault.”

Playtesting should begin with your team, who you should be very actively listening to. “If you have a small team, you have literally no excuse not to listen to your teammates in a small group,” she says. “If you don't trust your teammates to make the right choices and give valuable input, then you've probably chosen the wrong team.”

If you get into a situation where you have to cut features, she says you should “Focus down on the core mechanics that will make or break your game. ... Categorize features into 'integral,' 'somewhat important,' and complete 'wishlist.'”

When teaching new concepts, as with Portal, she says you need to first “teach a skill by itself, with very few distractions. Then you reinforce it. Show that skill to a player again and again and again, but make it a little more challenging this time.”

Swift says you should “reinforce newly-taught skills at least twice,” but then “give players an a-ha moment.” That is to say, after you've given people a few skills, bring them together; “this will make players feel really smart and accomplished.”

But don't be afraid to take risks either. “Strive for random things, because you really never know if it might take off,” says Swift, citing the “Still Alive” song in Portal as an example of a weird idea that paid off.

“The game industry right now is super weird. It makes no sense and it's kind of scary,” she concludes, noting the console transition, free-to-play gold rush, and mobile space.

“I have no idea what the next few years are going to look like. So as a small developer we have to stay on our toes, and adapt to whatever comes along.”

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Ariel Gross
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“If you're not learning something new on a day-to-day basis, then you're doing something wrong.”

Agree times a billion. Would love to see this full talk.

Thomas Happ
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Agreed; or a transcription.

Yama Habib
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There's so much I'd love to know about Kim Swift and her experiences at Valve.

Michael Gao
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Registered an account just to upvote this!

Greg Quinn
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"So how do you figure out if your ideas are actually good? Playtest, playtest, playtest. "

I can attest to this. Sometimes you can playtest until you're blue in the face.
Come back fresh the next morning and playtest and you'll pick up something you never thought of before.

Joe Cain
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I think the humility lesson can be applied to more than just your own ideas. Just because you made it to the top of the mountain at some point, it doesn't mean you can expect to survive on your reputation and automatically succeed at whatever you do next. Having confidence in your abilities is one thing, but learning from your mistakes when things inevitably don't work out the way you want them to is vital to surviving and thriving in this industry.

If there's one thing I've learned the hard way, it's that the only guarantee is that there are no guarantees.

TC Weidner
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I think one of the huge advantage indies have, who arent constrained by a timeline is the ability to step away from the design for a day or so. To come back to a problem or decision with fresh eyes. I cant tell you how many times I found myself up against a coding or design dilemma, only to have it easily solved a day or two later during my time walking my dog in the park or some other moment.

Allow your brain to breathe, allow the natural problem solving of the mind to play out. Being stuck in some office building, under some arbitrary time constraint simply isnt natural. The RUSH rush Rush of the corporate culture, the pressure and the like is what causes so many poor decisions IMHO. Great minds, great designer put in an bad environment is not going to lead to good games.

Why are 9 out of 10 games released lacking? IMHO, the corporate world just doesnt allow the artistic mind to flourish.

marty howe
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"So how do you figure out if your ideas are actually good? Playtest, playtest, playtest. "

Wow, what a surprise

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“Learning how to sew when I was younger made it actually really easy for me to unwrap a 3D model,”

I don't understand, how would that affect your ability to unwrap a 3D model?

Lisa Brown
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Conceptualizing a sewing pattern is basically like unwrapping UVs, because it's a 3D shape that's been flattened into 2D spaces.

For example,

sewing pattern:
unwrapped UVs:

Alex Covic
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No young designer can live up to a pompous headline like "Ten Years of Design Lessons", which turn out to be a couple of sentences from her talk (which was called "Designing Fun: Easier Said Than Done"). It lacks the weight?

I hate this kind of (old) Kotaku style, click bait headlines - unworthy of Gamasutra.

Yama Habib
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Agreed in that the article lacks content, but to be fair, not all "young designers" can boast a track record like Swift's, and she *has* been making award-winning games for roughly ten years now.

I'd be interested in seeing the entire talk, or a more in-depth Gamasutra interview.

Justin Sawchuk
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We keep hearing about kim swift she's now a "celebrity game designer" but we never hear about the other guys who worked on Narbacular drop why is that.

ian walker
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yes.... I often wonder about the origins of creativity... Just as a hint, Kim - I live on Mitchell Street - 'chell street. Funny that. And no accident. We should talk...

Josh Rough
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Portal was great but it seems like Kim got a lot more credit for that then she deserved. Cut to Quantum - a game that was actually driven by Swift - and we get a highly derivative experience that was fairly meh, alongside lukewarm reviews trumped by several other XBLA games already released that year. She needs some consistency to merit this hype.