Game Design: Huge Cosmic Potential, One Tiny Simple Concept

3D and UX Design for Games, VR and Animation

Game Design: Huge Cosmic Potential, One Tiny Simple Concept

June 29, 2012 Uncategorized 8

“If science is the experimental process of understanding What Exists, then design is the process of discovering What Could Be” – Daniel Cook, Spry Fox

Mandelbrot Fractal by J. Gabas Esteban

[Inspired by a twitter discussion with  Daniel Cook (Lost Garden and Spry Fox), Ben Britten Smith (Tin Man Games), Paul Callaghan (Freeplay) about the nature of game design and how to teach a discipline as increasingly complex and changeable as game development. Fractals by Dilshan R Jayakody and J.Gabas Esteban]


How do you teach game design when imposing a strict formula is the surest way to kill creativity? When the definition of what makes a great game changes from individual to individual?

New games redefine the design benchmarks of our medium every year. The latest tech and skill critical to development changes from game to game.

Rather than emulate what other designers have done and play catchup to the end of their story – why not start fresh with yours?

You go from gamer to game designer the moment you ask “What if…?” and “What happens when I..?”

Start with just one core question. Anything from:

  • What idea fascinates you right now that you want to explore?
  • What are you really curious about that you want to answer?
  • What problem frustrates the hell out of you that you want to solve?”.

And game design becomes a straight forward Method of approaching and exploring those issues, answering those questions and solving those problems.

That initial question sets you on a focused Google-Fu journey of discovery to find:

  1. The tools you need to explore and test your assumptions (engines, development tools, platforms),
  2. How you’ll communicate your findings (visual/audio/physical input and feedback),
  3. How you’ll help someone understand what you’ve come to understand (art/psychology/cultural expression)
  4. And how that understanding will be shared around the world (business model/distribution channels/community engagement).


Game design as the creative equivalent of the scientific method


What do you do when you become passionately curious about something? You Google it. You follow threads of Wiki to try and wrap your head around it.

At some point you’ll start looking into the best tools for the job. You’ll download tutorials. Eventually you find the right forum to start asking questions (maybe answering others, getting to know folks in the community).

Starting from one core question that sparks your curiosity gives you focus. Makes it easy to see what you need to figure out next.

And you’ll be the only one making that game. That market doesn’t exist until you’ve created it. If those games had already been done well you’d be playing them 😉


What Kinds of Games Would we Get?


More of your favourites, Only Better.

Everyone needs a summer blockbuster sometimes. Cognizance-Light. Show up, sit down, lose a few hours to something entertaining. There will always be a market for that.

And big budget AAA studios have that market thoroughly covered.

They’ve got more money, more time and more people available to scratch that itch – and those big studios are in a CPU and GPU arms race to find some point of difference with a bit more detail, sexier shaders, at least 25% more explosions…

That market is so saturated it’s two-tone (see what I did there? artist joke!).

You’ve played these games. You’ve wondered what it would be like if you could…

And what if you were able to…

Still asking that question? Want to feel exactly what that would play like?

Design a game around it 🙂


New Scientific Breakthroughs

Games worlds are mini simulations of Our World. Only we don’t have to follow the laws of Newtonian physics exactly!

We don’t have to design the world as it should be. We don’t have to limit it to what we already know.

We can design games to explore what we haven’t discovered yet. Create opportunities to look at old problems in new ways. Uncover what we haven’t been able to see clearly.

In three weeks a group of gamers unlocked the secrets to a complex enzyme that has had medical scientists scratching their heads in bafflement for 30 years.

Because for the last three decades those scientists had been looking at a 3D problem through 2D lenses – and would have continued to do so if Zoran Popovic and his crew at the University of Washington hadn’t thought to take that medical puzzle into 3D.


First Person Experiences

We’re smart enough to realise that first person military shooters more closely resemble hollywood summer blockbusters than the real theatre of war. Really smart people, with very big degrees, have built their academic careers debating the effect this has had on our cultural perception of modern warfare.

But for a brief moment in Unmanned you can experience what it’s like to really get into the head of a soldier. How he deals with his job, his family, his life.

You’ve had moments where you desperately wanted to help someone you care about change for the better – but you know that the only way they’ll see the need for change is to experience it themselves.

Sometimes that real thing is an experience we can’t come back from. Or it’s something we would never otherwise encounter in our day to day lives.

Games can create a safe place to have those experiences. To be given the opportunity to see the world differently for a moment.


[EDIT: Originally there was a section here on “Freedom of Expression” addressing how games can be a creative outlet for those unable to express themselves to a society that otherwise wouldn’t listen. That’s really it’s own rant. I’ve pulled it out to include in a future article]


Organic Design, Developed Sustainably


And if, after reading this the thought of such freedom of exploration, such unfettered design, fills you full of dread at the notion of endlessly iterating development cycles and amorphous, malleable release schedules:

Let me remind you that the world is filled with something like 7.023 billion deeply unique, multifaceted individuals who come in every size, shape and variety of personality imaginable – and every one started as a single embryo with a single core question and one core mechanic to explore that question: what happens if I divide…like this?

Yet, they all followed roughly the same standard 9 month development cycle.

Most shipped on time.


So Where do You Start?


Start with you. What fascinates you, frustrates you, intrigues you.

Explore what you have the skills and ability to explore right now – you’ll pick up the rest on the way (seriously, Google the origin story of your favourite game designers – they taught themselves what they needed to know as they needed to know it).

Find the people you do your best work with. Join those groups, attend those meetups. Get to know the folks who are going to eventually help you make better games, either directly as partners or indirectly as playtesters.

Give yourself permission to start making games. You’re a game designer the moment you start testing your theories and producing something playable. There’s lots of tools out there to help you do that right now.


What are you making games to explore?


[Want regular bits of indie beamed straight to your inbox or feedreader of choice? Visit the Subscribe page!

8 Responses

  1. Fantastic article. As a novice getting familiar with the game industry its eerie how the games created by different studios define and trickle down into every decision being made by development teams. You describe the concept of designing a game that fit’s you, but I propose that in order to do that one must consciously avoid the largest pitfall that Ive observed: the mistake of relying on past games to define new ones.

    I don’t know how many times I’ve watched people describe gameplay concepts through alluding to other games. “It’s like Street Fighter but mixed with Wow with graphics like Psychonauts.” Shit, I’ve done it too. Looking at modern GDDs is less about originality and more of gameshow encylopedia of pre-existing games. “How well do you know blockbusters?”

    The game isn’t even started yet, but it’s already been shot in the foot

    Unfortunately I don’t know a good solution to this problem, though I imagine many of the points you make in this article could easily start someone in a good direction. The only option is to try and catch yourself in the act of doing it and approach from a different angle.

    • Epona says:

      “You describe the concept of designing a game that fit’s you, but I propose that in order to do that one must consciously avoid the largest pitfall that Ive observed: the mistake of relying on past games to define new ones.”

      Well said Scott.

      So long as folks are generating around the same established design templates then they’re limited to competing on graphics and the MORENESS factor: MORE quests! MORE characters!

      250+ hours of MORE CONTENT!

      When it’s too scary to do something new and SO VERY EASY to keep doing the same old thing – it’s dangerously tempting to just bump up the resolution and increase the blockbuster WOW factor.

      But then we get stuff like that latest Hitman trailer…

      There’s a great line in Peter Thiel’s lectures that serves as such a perfect starting point for embarking on anything new:

      “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?”

      I think the solution is to start asking better questions.

      Not: “How long would it take to make…” or “What console do we want to develop on”.

      But instead ask something like “What would happen if…” and “How would it work when…”.

      Creation instead of manufacturing.

  2. Luke Kellett says:

    Another great article Epona, it actually reminds me of the book I am reading titled ‘The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses’ where the author recommends that game designers seek inspiration not in other games, but in everything else around them… It’s really eye opening!

    For me it’s more about the experience I can deliver to the player and less about what can be done like existing games. This can only really effectively be done in an organic manner, whats planned at the start and whats delivered when ready (cause it’s never _really_ finished) will most likely be two totally different things 🙂

    • Epona says:

      “This can only really effectively be done in an organic manner, whats planned at the start and whats delivered when ready will most likely be two totally different things”

      And that’s the distinction between game design and entertainment design.

      A game built to product specifications is an entertainment product (and sold as such).

      A game that’s as surprising and exciting to the developer as it is to the player? That’s something beautiful.

      Life can be crazy, chaotic and sometimes I wake up in the morning and fondly recall the days of a steady paycheck and a comfortable (if somewhat banal) life.

      Then I get to my incubator, sit down with one of my teams and get to play their latest build and holy shit – screw the comfortable banal existence – this freaking rocks 🙂

      • Luke Kellett says:

        hah, +1 one to that for sure 🙂

        There is a lot to be said in chasing dreams instead of chasing money. Sure we need money to eat and pay bills, but if that’s all I do for 50+ years then where is the challenge… I chased my tail for long enough, I know where it is… Time to do something better!

        • Epona says:

          Duuuuuuude so awesome! Ping us here when you’ve got a website up and games to playtest!

          Money comes and goes. You can always earn it (and lose it).

          Your life is it. Every hour and every day is precious.

          And the games we make are influencing the lives and hours and days of the people we make them for. We should be as respect of their time as our own.

  3. Luke Kellett says:

    Will surely do!

    I’m working on something thats pretty cool at the moment, so wont have to wait tooooooo long. *famous last words*

  4. Aaron says:

    Hi Epona,

    Very awesome article. A new part of my brain has been unlocked. I have been in a designers block. Trying to thin of new ideas. I usually make games on the fly if i’m prototyping but pen and paper has been harder to come up with ideas. I will try and ask more questions about life and be more fascinated with things.


Comments are closed.