The Lazy Designer

You are Not Smarter Than Them


Over time, especially with a string of successes under their belts, it is important for managers to watch out for the ‘we are smarter than them’ syndrome.

You Are Not (Always) Smarter Than Them

You’ve been in the industry for years.

You’ve worked your way up through the design department and are now leading a design team on a great new project. People ask you questions because you always have the answers.

Things are looking great, right?

Nope… now is the time to be worried. Now is the time to make sure you are still open to what else is happening in the game industry and not disregarding the expectations of fans.

This ‘smarter than’ syndrome, at its worst, can make a designer/team/company become oblivious to trends that are happening in the larger gaming community. At its worse this threatens innovation and competitiveness.

Beware of meetings where end user feedback — whether it be a focus test, an emotional reaction analysis or message board posts discussing your most recent gameplay announcement — is disregarded with statements like “they don’t understand”, “those guys are too hardcore”, or “that data doesn’t match what I feel, it must be wrong.”

Trusting your gut can be important. But when you have data — and you should have data when making the big decisions, more on that in another section — you need to really think about disregarding it, or not utilizing it effectively.

What do I mean by data? Well in a company that’s been around for a while its essential to start collecting gameplay data from end-users on past titles, review scores and analysis of review comments, and running focus testing of product early in the prototyping phase — before the real costs of development start. The bigger you become the harder you’ll fall — your team is larger than when you were a startup, employees have higher salaries and the owners have larger expectations.

What types of choices did your players make in your past games? What did they have difficulties with. This data does not need to be subjective; it can be tracked, in those games if the proper hooks are put in. Even if not tracked initially you can ask for savegames that can then be analyzed.

Don’t ignore the review scores other games are receiving. You might think their art/writing/audio is worse than yours but its worthwhile to understand what the people playing and reviewing these other games think. Are you spending too much energy in an area where you are already excelling? Are you missing a change in narrative pacing that other games have embraced and game players now want?

Finally, keep employees involved in your online communities — and not just as watchdogs looking for people to ban. What are players talking about? What things seem to be irking them? What can you give them that’ll make them happier?

Keep an open mind. If your last game was a hit, kudos. But don’t believe that success guarantees that your next one will be. Don’t ignore the successful tactics you used in that past; don’t ignore the new ones you need to master. There’s never an end to learning and improving your skills and the skills of your team.

Caveat – you can go too far obsessing about what others are saying or running focus tests on every feature; find the balance between yours and your team’s experience and market expectations. The prototyping sections of the Lazy Designer will go into more detail on finding this balance.

Former lead designer at BioWare (Dragon Age: Origins, Neverwinter Nights). Creator of Raiders of the Serpent Sea.