Friday, July 08, 2011

Different ways for designers to think about/approach game design

While my favorite game is "the game of designing games", I do occasionally try to find commercial publishers for them. (Not nearly as often as I "should," however.) But there are lots of reasons to design games, ways for designers to look at their role as game designers.

Games as a way to make money. Perhaps this is obvious, yet I don't think many people started to design games because they thought it was a way to make a lot of money. In fact, people who do start that way are probably unsuccessful. That's partly because choosing a job simply because you think it will make a lot of money is unlikely to be satisfying even if successful. But more because it's difficult to make a lot of money as a game designer, especially as a tabletop game designer. Game designers don't get much credit. And if you don't get much credit you won't get paid much. In the video game industry programmers are routinely paid much more than game designers. In the tabletop industry game designers are paid less than the authors of books (fiction or non-fiction). In either industry it's very difficult to make a living as a freelance designer.

A subset of this is games as manipulation of addictive tendencies. Many "social networking" games and free-to-play games succeed because players are somehow persuaded to keep playing even though outsiders cannot figure out what the attraction is--the same kind of reaction sober people (the outsiders) have to drug addicts. Simplistic and repetitive, these games nonetheless can make money, sometimes lots of money. Designers tend to think in terms of ways to extract funds from players who have been conditioned to keep playing, not in terms of entertaining players.

Games as a form of self-expression. Some people have personalities that thirst to derive meaning from life, many others don't. Some designers just want to express themselves and choose games as one form of self-expression. At some point this melds into "games as art," as a designer wants to use the game to express something meaningful to others.

Games as Art. All games are art, though the players don't care. But games are rarely if ever high Art (with a capital A). As Ian Bogost has said "Art is about changing the world; entertainment is about leisure." Nonetheless, there are many video game designers who desperately wish to believe that games are Art. (Tabletop designers don't care.) And some will create games as artistic works rather than as entertainment or commercial venture.

Games as a form of control. This is more likely for video game designers (who often design interactive puzzles, not person-to-person games), than for tabletop designers. For example, I once read a comment by Warren Spector, a very well-known video game designer (Deus Ex, Epic Mickey), who said he wants to control everything the player does, and was opposed to the addition of human opponents. (That's how I remember it, I don't have it at hand.) If you're designing a puzzle, then this is not an unreasonable point of view. Even tabletop designers want to control what the player can do, but in relation to other players who provide input that the designer cannot control.

Games as entertainment. This is the viewpoint of many designers including Shigeru Miyamoto (designer of many of the most famous Nintendo games) and Reiner Knizia, who makes more than $1 million a year as a freelance tabletop (and now video) game designer. If people don't enjoy the game, what's the point? The game doesn't have to be "fun", but has to be enjoyable.

A sub-category of the above is games as storytelling. Wannabe storytellers used to become novelists or playwrights or, more recently, filmakers. Now some go into RPGs and video games.

Games as interesting problems to solve. This is close to "game design as a game." Every game involves constraints and limitations. Many designers specify those constraints and limitations, and then try to solve the resulting problem to produce something a target group enjoys playing.

Game design as a game
. Games involve goals and rules. The whole process of designing games can be seen as a game in itself. Some people use money or unit sales or the number of people who play a game as a way of keeping score. Other people find other ways of keeping score.

I'm sure there are other ways to look at it, these are some of the more common ones.

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