This is an excerpt from the upcoming second volume in the Lazy Designer series.
In the section on deciding which type of game to make I suggested that the bias of the designer, the managers and other key stakeholders in the company, all interact to influence the game. What follows are my thoughts on how to recognize your own bias, how to use your understanding of expectations to build a better game, and how to control your own bias so it does not negatively impact the project.
Basically it comes down to knowing yourself.
So how do you go about doing this?
You can start by looking at the games you enjoy and the games you do not and build a list of features, ranking them by the degree they resonated with you. Then you take a look at games and features that you do not enjoy and start examining why. Can you objectively identify what you do not like about them? The key is to start peeling features away from the product and understanding why other players might enjoy them when you do not. Games are not like fruit: a rotten feature might be rotten only to you. To others it is still sweet and delicious.
This was an important lesson for me to learn because I had a tendency as a designer to neglect features I personally did not enjoy even if a significant portion of the players playing the games I helped build did enjoy them. This can be a difficult process.
Another method to analyze how design expectations influence you is to tackle a small-scale design product. The key is to design something as you normally would but to also remain self-aware of the design process as you undertake it. This can be more of a thought experiment than an actual game.
For example, here’s a hypothetical game system in which many of my own biases become evident. Let’s assume that I build a robot army and take over the world
(What? It’s possible!)
My Robot Minions
Imagine as dictator of the world that I want to implement a system to reward and penalize the governments of the world (hey, I promise to be a benevolent dictator… I’ll still let the world govern itself, more or less).
To do this I’ll be implementing a rewards and scoring system. Basically these will be like XBox achievements but rewarded to various governments for reaching particular milestones. Every country would have a score determined by their past accomplishments and would be encouraged (probably by financial incentives) to earn more achievements.
There would be a leaderboard so that top countries would have bragging rights over others. As well the first country to reach a milestone should receive a larger reward than others, to encourage competition (though a cleverer design might involve a pay-off that encouraged cooperation.)
Anyways, back to expectations! Here’s a sample list:
- Moon Base + 25 points for establishing a permanent moon base.
- Mars Landing + 75 points for landing a human on Mars. Bonus points if the human does not die immediately.
- Space Elevator + 100 points for constructing a functional space elevator.
Immediately as I make this list my personal biases are evident. I’m a space-geek but I missed the whole “rush to the moon” experience. So in a brainstorming session my mind ignores a host of more practical achievements governments should aim towards and instead fixates on my own personal wants. If my interests were more geared towards economy my initial list would have likely been populated with earnings milestones or tax incentives or tax reduction. Others might target democratic reform, health care, or military downsizing. (And of course even as I list these secondary items, my personality is again reflected).
The point is that even when you are just brainstorming a list of achievements or rewards or powers in a game your life experience, what has and has not influenced you, is going to influence that list (as an aside this is why it is important to have a broad and diverse design team… it is likely that the core of the features you add will be enjoyed by many but diversity ensures that there’s something for an even wider group of player types).
In this example it would be important to consider a broad range of financial, scientific, environmental and cultural goals. And it would also be important to identify negative achievements, such as human rights violations, non-approved military actions or the election of leaders who are too tall.
Finally even the point values assigned to certain items will illuminate your expectations. For example I ranked the space elevator as four-times as important as a moon base. Do I really believe it is? Rankings are often very interesting, I’ve worked on numerous lists of game abilities with other designers and the closer in culture and life experience we were the more closely our lists resembled one other. That does not necessarily mean our lists were flawed in any way due to the similarities but it is an important point to remember.
To be truly objective in game design is difficult (and probably not desirable — you are building a game towards a specific type of audience, hopefully one that you relate to and one that will relate to you). The experiences that make you value one thing over another will likely have influenced many others. Within a shared culture we are likely to have shared many similar experiences.
But if you gain an understanding of your biased expectations and learn to strike out the mundane you might find your design skills improve and consequently the games you make become more enjoyable.