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Can we deconstruct games and determine what skills can help design them? Making sure we regroup these skills orthogonally will allow for an easier way to learn and develop skill groups, and offer opportunities to specialize in them if required.
Rules, math and logic: System Design
In its most basic form, a game needs goals, rules, and general conditions that control the way the game unfolds, and establish processes for players to play and try to win. Because of the mathematical/logical nature of rules and conditions, it seems clear that analysis, logic and algorithmic will be relevant skills.
As these skills will also help create systems, state machines, and AI trees, we will call this branch of game design System Design and we will be set to design most of the rules and mechanical parts of games.
A typical example of the use of mathematics for game design is found in all games that rely on randomness. It's obvious that the calculation of probabilities is required in that case, either for payoffs or for odds of occurrences. In fact, an understanding of mathematics is going to help in most aspects of a designer's job across the board.
Interface, controls and readability – Interaction Design
Now that our game has rules and that they are stated clearly so that our player can understand them, we need to communicate the game state to our player so he can make decisions based on his understanding of the rules, and then input his decision back into the game world, basically "play his move."
The discipline that studies these aspects is ergonomics, and while less absolute to grasp, ergonomics is a well covered field that can help design interfaces, which give the right information to players, as well as controls that make it easy, even enjoyable, to input back into the game. Of course, depending on the type of interface considered, knowledge of biomechanics and cybernetics can also come in handy. For lack of a better word, let's call this second branch Interaction Design, as it focuses on the output/input loop between the game and the player.
When dealing with human-machine interfaces, knowledge of the principles of human body operation at the mechanical and psychological level leads to efficiently designed interactions. It is key, not only when trying to adapt a mouse-based interface, like FPS controls, to a gamepad, but also now that we're dealing with touch-based controls and gesture-to-full-body-movement interfaces.
Ergonomics was created to focus on making work tools and environments as comfortable and as efficient as possible. Now that we are applying its conclusions to entertainment, we have to learn to design enjoyable interfaces. Working in conjunction with human expectations like inertia, gravity, rhythm, and the action-reaction loop can give more of a natural, and thus enjoyable, experience, through what Steve Swink (Shadow Physics) described as "virtual sensation".
Reward, frustration and learning – Motivation Design
The last, but so essential, branch is the one that ensures players are so engaged that they actually want to play. Our motivation is largely based on chemical neurotransmitters that reward our brains and body through pleasure, generally in response to behaviors that help develop our evolutionarily selected traits. Endorphins make us feel good after physical exercise, dopamine rewards us when we understand something new, or establish new social relationships and so on.
Because we play games for the main benefit of entertainment and pleasure, understanding what is going to please our brains and bodies is essential to creating relevant experiences. Psychology, the neurosciences and cognitive sciences are obvious fields that will bring insight into these aspects and will strengthen an approach to the third branch of game design that I call Motivation Design.
Brain Age deals with issues that everybody can relate to.
The emergence of casual games was made possible by improving the perception of benefit to a type of player that was not motivated by the benefits of core games. Nintendo's Brain Age series is definitely a typical example of this.
First by advertising the benefit of "mind youth", a real-life associated benefit that would resonate with customers beyond the core gamer audience, then by a mix of constant praise, slow difficulty progression, scheduled reward, even some tempering with guilt when the player would miss a session, these games really established a standard on how to motivate non-core players. This is obviously becoming of growing interest within the industry, especially through the growth of the social games market.
Now it is my belief that because the three branches of System Design, Interaction Design, and Motivation Design are quite orthogonal and also constituted of established and academically studied disciplines, it becomes possible to use existing literature to improve in each, create a workable vocabulary and even establish a career path for designers that would want either to specialize or diversify in each.
I think this approach would go a long way for managers to help their understanding of the game design position. It would better integrate game designers in the development process and help them in the hiring process, as well as in task assignation, and ultimately, performance reviews.
Note: I'm leaving level design out of the scope of this paper; this is not because it is of less importance, but just for simplicity's sake. Similarly to mise-en-scène, level design can be argued to be of a higher level than game design, as it aims to build a directed experience for the player, using elements of other technical fields in conjunction.
Historically, level design has been considered as game design's little brother, but recent blockbuster games have clearly showed the importance of thinking otherwise. A similar analysis could be done for that design discipline, also leading to better specification and understanding.