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Why game design is important

A long, long time ago I worked at a company that did not have a game design position, and I wanted to convince the people there that, you know, maybe you should have game designers. Like, one per project, at least. Ah, the good old days.

So with the help of Mark Barrett I wrote a little essay and sent it around. And although I am not claiming a direct causal link, we did get a proper game design position after a while and game design was taken a bit more seriously.

This was a long time ago and I hope nobody nowadays has to convince people that maybe you need someone who is paid to think about exactly how this game will be fun. But you never know...

Here is the essay, unchanged from what I wrote around a decade ago:

Why Game Design is Important

Introduction : What is game design?

The goal of a computer game is to deliver an entertaining interactive experience to the player. If we examine games that have been commercial and/or critical successes, we find that the most common trait of these games is that they are entertaining. Although beautiful graphics, fancy technology, or a big license can contribute to a game's success, none of these, on their own, are sufficient for even minimal success.

If we want to increase the appeal of our games, it is necessary to understand what makes an experience entertaining, and how such an experience can be created. The discipline that tries to answer these questions is called game design.

Game design is not programming or art

The entertainment value of a game is not linked to any well-understood discipline such as graphic art or software engineering. A game can have brilliant graphics, a groundbreaking 3D engine, or fantastic artificial intelligence, while at the same time being frustrating or uninteresting to play. Conversely, a game such as Civilization, with lousy graphics and a lame 2D display engine, can be a classic masterpiece that has become both a critical and a commercial success.

So quality of entertainment is not solely linked to the quality of graphics or the quality of programming, although both certainly have an impact. Instead, successful game developers have found a way to make a game more than the sum of its graphical and programming parts, by focusing on and emphasizing design. Implicit in this is the idea that game design should be recognized as distinct from other aspects of game development.

Game design is hard

A close look at games on the market today clearly shows that making entertaining games is hard. How many mediocre games are released each year? How many games are exciting because of some gosh-wow feature, only to be forgotten a month later? If making software in general is difficult, then making software entertaining should be recognized as being extremely difficult.

Designing games takes time, effort, skill and sensibility. It is important to realize that game design is difficult, and to make sure that appropriate resources are directed at the process.

There is no "official" way to learn game design, therefore it is often ignored

In order to make an interactive experience entertaining, it is necessary to understand what an entertaining experience is and how it can be created. Unfortunately, although it is possible to study various disciplines that are part of the game development process, such as art and programming, these disciplines are not concerned with entertainment.

Worse, there is no formal education that teaches how to make entertaining games. Is there at least an informal way of learning game design? Aren't there theories on game design that are commonly accepted in the industry? The answer is no, and the central reason for this is that the field is new and constantly changing.

Which means that the skills needed to design an entertaining game cannot be easily learned or taught. Just as there are no accepted universal theories, there is no shared vocabulary. "Technical" terms commonly used in the industry, such as "fun" and "cool", are less than helpful. "Playability" and "good gameplay" are a slight improvement, but are far from being basic, well-defined concepts that allow for deeper discussion, or successful implementation. Still, it is possible to learn how to design entertaining games, but it requires a lot of effort and original thought. It cannot be done incidentally.

Game design is hard to identify

Without a commonly accepted theory of game design, it is hard to recognize good game design when it is present, and easy to ignore it during development and critical appraisal. How does a company determine if someone is a good designer? How does it train game designers? How does it prove that bad game design was why its last game was a failure?

The most serious consequence of this lack of common knowledge is that it is easy to underestimate the value and worth of game design. If you can't study game design as an educational discipline, and there are no accepted methods by which to measure the return of investment of a game designer, how can you justify investing time and money in game design? How can you justify paying someone to focus on game design?

Game design is essential

Given that game design is integral to product success, the more relevant question is, how can you justify not paying someone to focus on game design? However vague or ill-defined the process of game design currently is, without someone in the role of designer, the probability of making an entertaining game is largely left to chance. With a talented designer in a well-defined role, the probability of making a great game is greatly increased.

Someone must be responsible for a game's design

Someone must be responsible for the design of a game, and for making sure that the enjoyment of the game survives the production process. If no one is specifically charged with this responsibility, it is too easy to lose track of the end goal while facing the pressures and necessities of production.

Making someone responsible for game design ensures that game design skills are actually present within the team. It also forces people in the team to think more about game design, because they have to deal with the designer, in the same way that a lead programmer cannot make graphical decisions on his own because he knows the lead artist has to be consulted.

Does a game designer make all of the creative decisions on a project? Since game design is about entertainment value, and this is the aspect of a game that has the highest correlation with success, the game designer has a vital position within the team. However, without good graphics and programming, even the most well designed game will not be successful. It is the entire experience, the synergy that makes the whole more than its parts, that makes a game entertaining.

Contrary to popular opinion, one of the most important tasks of the game designer is taking the ideas of other team members and advising on the best way to integrate those ideas into a coherent whole. At other times it is important that the designer be able to explain the consequences of a given design suggestion, and to defend the quality and coherence of the design against suggestions which might damage the project's overall intent. (A lead programmer has the same task.)

Additional benefits of game design

While increasing the chance that a game will turn out entertaining and successful, a dedicated game designer and design process also provide other benefits. Chief among these is the cost savings associated with the streamlining of the production process that a good game design yields. Fewer features end up being implemented on a speculative basis, only to be cut later. Fewer surprises arise if only because someone has considered the ramifications of various design choices beforehand. And fewer morale problems arise because there is, from the beginning, a viable, coherent vision of what the product can and should be.

Conclusion: Design is good

Game design is a vital element of the game development process. Games such as Goldeneye 007, Metal Gear Solid, Starcraft, Resident Evil or Half-Life, to name just a few recent successful games, did not become great games by accident. They did not become hugely entertaining because they had good graphics or fantastic code. They became great because the people who made these games wanted to deliver an entertaining experience to the player. Like any non-trivial activity, achieving that end required careful thought and an intentional focus.

In any act of commercial production, it is important to know what you want to do, and how you are going to do it, before you begin. Although a relatively new medium, interactive entertainment is no different, and without careful game design as a basis for production the success of a given product is left to chance. When taken together with the fact that there is no detrimental effect related to an insistence on good game design, it only makes sense to pursue good design as vigorously as possible on a product-by-product and company-wide basis.

Update: I wrote about what to do if you don't have a game designer here.