Game Design Philosophy

My design philosophy comes from thinking that games are fantastic tools for creating experiences rather than telling stories. There are many design philosophies you can have that will let you make fantastic games, but this one is mine.

The Demonstrable Cool

It was industry veteran Ian Stephens who phrased this in his sadly defunct blog.

“[L]isten to your game, not your documentation. Listen to the playable element that’s in your hands – the demonstrable cool. Ignore the dogma of forward planning. You can’t plan fun. Fun happens to you.”

Ian Stephens

Fun happens to you if you listen to the game you play. This has been my philosophy ever since. Don’t talk or write about it – play it. At least some part of it.

Behavior Beats Content

Content is the levels and the characters you play, it’s the cutscenes you watch, and the voice-over dialogue recordings you listen to. But content is not king.

It doesn’t matter that you see the same enemy over and over, like white-armored Storm Troopers, as long as they behave in ways you didn’t predict or expect. A game can retain a sense of discovery by introducing more behavior rather than relying entirely on producing more content.

Behavior always beats content.

Play It, Show It, Say It

Game writers Flint Dille and John Zuur Platten wrote about the differences between storytelling in films and in games in their book, The Ultimate Guide to Video Game Writing and Design. In movies, they say “show, don’t tell.”

In games, we should let the player play before we do anything else.

“[W]hen dealing with your narrative, create a priority for telling your story as follows: play it, display it, say it.”

Flint Dille & John Zuur Platten

In my opinion, games are simply not the medium for telling stories – they’re platforms for experiences. (Like I keep saying.)

Build to Find Out

Face one thing – you have no idea how fun your game will be. At the idea stage, it’s just an idea. The only thing that actually matters is execution.

Build boardgame or role-playing game prototypes to explore your idea. Use game engines to prototype certain mechanics or flows you’re interested in. Take one step at a time and then eventually reach a fully playable prototype that can answer your questions. Is the game fun? Is it worth finishing? Does mechanic A fit with mechanic B?

Don’t just have ideas. Make them.

Systems Everywhere

When you get shot in your game, do you simply decrease a value called Health by some number or do you have a whole system that handles the data (subtracting armor, adding elemental properties, etc) and returns new data?

In Michael Sellers’ words, the first is to make your number “spreadsheet specific,” and you will definitely do that at some point. But before you do, you should think about doing the latter – a health system. How the features you want for your game interconnect and how to turn them into systems that leverage that interaction.

Have all the features in your game hook into each other in natural ways and let players explore that interconnectedness on their own terms.

Challenge Your Tastes

You can find the coolest ideas in the strangest places. Try not to get too stuck in a favorite genre or specific type of game. Actively seek out games you think you wouldn’t like and try to play them with your designer goggles on.

Play boardgames. Role-playing games. Read books. Watch movies. Follow the news. Get as many impressions as you can and let them inform your game design.

You don’t have to love all of it but you can always find something to like and that something may very well inform a game design you’re working on five years from now.

Open your mind. Challenge your tastes. Actively seek inspiration. It will help you design better games.

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