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What is a modern computer game made of? It fuses a technical base with a vision for the player's experience. All of the disciplines involved (design, art, audio, levels, code, and so on) work together to achieve this synthesis.
In most disciplines, industry evolution is obvious: The machines we play on are far more powerful, screens have better resolution and more colors, paint and modeling tools are more sophisticated, audio processing is faster, and sound cards are more capable. Technical issues not even in our vocabulary ten years ago are solved and research continues with essentially infinite headroom. The technical base on which games stand (game code and content creation tools) is evolving.
Across all genres and companies, we build on our own and others' past ideas to expand technical limits, learn new techniques and explore possibilities. Ignoring an anomaly or two, no single company or team would be where it is now had it been forced to work in a vacuum.
Design, on the other hand, is the least understood aspect of computer game creation. It actualizes the vision, putting art, code, levels, and sound together into what players experience, minute to minute. Clever code, beautiful art, and stunning levels don't help if they're never encountered. Design tasks determine player goals and pacing. The design is the game; without it you would have a CD full of data, but no experience.
Sadly, design is also the aspect that has had the most trouble evolving. Not enough is done
to build on past discoveries, share concepts behind successes, and apply lessons learned in one domain or genre to another. Within genres (and certainly within specific design teams), particular lines have evolved significantly. But design evolution still lags far behind the evolution of overall game technology.
How Do We Talk About Games?
The primary inhibitor of design evolution is the lack of a common design vocabulary. Most professional disciplines have a fairly evolved language for discussion. Athletes know the language of their sport and of general physical conditioning, engineers know the technical jargon of their field, doctors know Latin names for body parts and how to scribble illegible prescriptions. In contrast, game designers can discuss "fun" or "not fun," but often the analysis stops there. Whether or not a game is fun is a good place to start understanding, but as designers, our job demands we go deeper.
We should be able to play a side-scrolling shooter on a Game Boy, figure out one cool aspect of it, and apply that idea to the 3D simulation we're building. Or take a game we'd love if it weren't for one annoying part, understand why that part is annoying, and make sure we don't make a similar mistake in our own games. If we reach this understanding, evolution of design across all genres will accelerate. But understanding requires that designers be able to communicate precisely and effectively with one another. In short, we need a shared language of game design.