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What game designers should never do

I had a minor epiphany today that I would like to share:

“If you want to be a successful game designer, the one thing you must never do is think of fun things for other people to do.”

Now, at this point your reaction might be “huh? Isn’t that what game designers are supposed to do for a living – think of fun things for other people to do?”

The key part is the words other people. Thinking of fun things for other people to do requires putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and imagining what they might find fun, as opposed to putting yourself in your own shoes and imagining what you might find fun. Or even better, just having fun yourself, without having to imagine it.

Trying to come up with novel situations that other people might find fun – without actually having fun yourself – is something that is so difficult that it should be, in my opinion, considered impossible for all practical purposes. I’m not talking about merely listing previously-known activities that are already known to be fun – I’m talking about dreaming up new activities, which have not yet been discovered to be in the “fun” category.

What’s worse, a lot of people seem to arrogantly believe that they can do it, when in fact they are really terrible at it. And they waste enormous amounts of game developer resources attempting to realize their designs which turn out, in the end, to be – not fun.

Game design of this type is a lot like drunk driving, in that there is a mismatch between what the drunk driver believes that they are capable of, and what they are actually capable of. A drunk drive may believe that they are capable of getting home safely. And in fact, they might, if they are lucky, accomplish it. But they are more likely to crash and kill someone. So in order to prevent this, it makes good sense to reinforce the belief that it is utterly impossible to drive safely while drunk, even thought it’s not. In the case of game design, we aren’t at risk of killing anyone with our false beliefs, but we are at risk of wasting many millions of dollars of developer resources on products that eventually fail in the marketplace.

In my experience, the idea of “fun” is a slippery, emotional concept that contains a whole set of interesting mental paradoxes – such as the fact that as a game buyer we want games to be hard, but as a player we want them to be easy. Because of this, “fun” is not something that we can really reason about logically so much as experience.

Think of it this way: Any given activity that you can think of will fall into one of four categories:

  1. Things that neither you nor anyone else would find fun.
  2. Things that you would find fun, but few others would.
  3. Things that others would find fun, but you don’t.
  4. Things that both you and other people would find fun.

Obviously, we want to avoid the first category, although there are a surprising number of games out there that seem to fall into it.

The second category is trickier. It’s easy for an enthusiast of a particular hobby, such as, say, scuba diving, to think that just because they enjoy it, everyone else will too. So unless you want to design games only for yourself, you do need to envision the mindset of your customers to some extent.

However, when we get to the third category, “things that other people might fun but you don’t”, the fact that you yourself don’t find it enjoyable should be taken as a warning sign. You need to ask yourself, why is it that you yourself don’t find it fun, and why shouldn’t that same reason apply to everyone else? Maybe in fact other people out there are closer to your mindset than you realize.

Now you might say, well – the reason that I don’t find this fun is because the “fun” part depends on hidden information. And since I, the designer, already know everything about the design, there is no hidden information, whereas if I didn’t already know the information then I would find this to be fun.

Unfortunately, there are so many flaws in this reasoning that I hardly know where to begin.

The first problem is that a design which depends on hidden information is not, in fact, a game – it is a puzzle. (I’m not talking about hidden information which is known by one player but not another in a multi-player game such as bridge – I’m talking about information which is hidden from the player by the designer.)

The problem with puzzles of this type is that they are disposable – use them once and throw them away. Once the player discovers the hidden information, the supposed fun (assuming that there every was any) is gone now. As we learned in the 80s and 90s, games which are essentially large and complex puzzles have effectively zero replay value, and have poor fun-to-cost ratios, both for the customer and for the developer.

This is even assuming that the game player doesn’t already know the hidden information before they even start. You can’t keep secrets in a mass market, and some secrets are so obvious that you don’t need to be told them.

And finally, you can’t really say “if I didn’t know the hidden information, I might find it fun”. First, because a hypothetical “you” who doesn’t know the hidden information is really a different person, and you can’t really know what that person would find enjoyable or not. Even if this “you” has the same basic personality and memories as the real you, you still can’t do it, because you have a fundamentally different vantage point. It’s like standing at the top of a building, and then picturing yourself at the foot of the building and trying to imagine what you would be seeing from there. You might get a rough sense of the general geometry of the scene, but you wouldn’t be able to imagine all of the details, or the general ambiance of the street.

So we come to category four, things which both you and other people would find fun. The best way to work in this category is not to sit around imagining things that are fun – but to go around having fun yourself. Of course, by “having fun” I don’t mean just take off and spend time at the amusement park – although, it might not be a bad idea – but rather a more restricted sort of having fun where you make up games for yourself and then play them. And if you find yourself playing them rather a lot, then you may be on to something.

In my view, there are two types of successful game designers: “formula hacks”, and “game players”. Formula hacks are people who don’t even try to design new kinds of games, they just re-use existing designs that are known to work. Most of their efforts are spent giving the design a new coat of paint, filing off the serial numbers, and generally upating the details without touching the essential core of the design. This may sound uncreative, but it works, and has a long and established history.

The other type of designer, the game player, is the type of person who basically has a lot of fun thinking up games and playing them. Very little of what they create is actually worthwhile, but because they create so many different designs, they can afford to only use the top ten percent and throw the rest away. They don’t try to put themselves in other people’s shoes, they don’t try to “imagine” what might be fun. They discover fun by experiencing it themselves.

Neither of these two types of successful game designer spends any effort thinking of fun things for other people to do.

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