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Commentary on Games Design

On being wrong

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Game design is equally described as both an art and a science and I am sure there are designers coming to mind whilst you are reading this that you are mentally sifting into ‘art’ and ‘science’ pots with regard to their approach. My day job is a as a commercial scientist. I shan’t bore you with the specifics (although I could- consider this your first warning), but it will suffice to say that I have to occasionally remind non-scientists that failing to get a product or service to market is not ‘failing’ as long as we learn from the process and findings.

To quote a guy called Steve Easterbrook:

The argument that scientists should never exhibit human weaknesses is not just fallacious, it’s dangerous. It promotes the idea that science depends on perfect people to carry it out, when in fact the opposite is the case. Science is a process that compensates for the human failings of the people who engage in it, by continually questioning evidence, re-testing ideas, replicating results, collecting more data, and so on. Mistakes are made all the time. Individual scientists screw up. If they don’t make mistakes, they’re not doing worthwhile science.

Or, more succinctly:

science-youre-doing-it-wrong

Applied to game design this line of thinking mean that whatever you come up with might fail under testing. Which is probably why playtesting is so hard for some designers to deal with, often ignored and why Kickstarter is so popular, but I digress. A game, or mechanism within it, failing when tested is not a failure. You have not failed as a designer: you just haven’t found the right answer yet. You must be able to let a wrong answer go and be willing to replace it with a different one. That one might not be right either, but you need to at least test it.

This might go on for a while. If it doesn’t: you are not ‘doing’ design. You are, in fact, ‘doing’ self-delusion.

Here’s an analogy: imagine your ideas are like puppies. Sometimes they grow into animals you are proud to share your life with. Other times, due to a lack of care, they might tear your face off. Now you could put such puppies into a sack and head for the nearest major water course, but that would be pretty cold and you would not really learn anything from it. Instead you might seek to re-home that puppy to a place where it will serve a useful function or be re-trained. Mentally though: be prepare to use the sack as a last resort.

That got pretty dark, sorry. The point is that some ideas might be a bit wild and better suited elsewhere. So park ’em up. Have an ideas document or file for things to slot into other games or work them up at a later point.

No design is going to fly like a bird from v1.0. It’s why publishers ask for evidence that there has been at least some level of playtesting from people who aren’t blood related to you and might not be infected with the same level of crazy. It’s akin to the peer-review process in academic science in that those who choose to ignore it or subvert it are rightly treated with a bit of scepticism from those who don’t and those who have to use the information submitted. It’s an idea refinement process: others checking that you haven’t allowed you own thoughts and feelings ride roughshod over the finished article.

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. It shows that you are well on the way to making ‘something’ worthwhile.

Games are like scientific enquiries in a lot of ways: a designer will see a gap and attempt to design into it in the same way that a scientist will develop a theory as to what is in a gap and test it. Start with the mindset that every part, every mechanism might be wrong or broken or both and if a design isn’t working then take it apart and put in some different parts of the same quality that might fill the same gap in a more elegant way. Switch, change, test, re-design, re-test and keep on questioning the results until you are certain there is no better way to make the game work to achieve what you want with it.

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3 thoughts on “On being wrong

  1. It would be worth altering the “poster” to say “Game Design”, and replace the photo with a prototype. But who has the copyright?

  2. Pingback: Game Design Theory: Mistakes | Ruby Cow Games

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