Using process to unlock creative game design
I’ve been working in the games industry for well over 20 years now, and something that always keeps me feeling excited to get out of bed and get to work in the morning is that games are always changing. From my time working on quirky original PS1 games at the start of my career, to now on major blockbuster PS5 titles; I’m constantly learning and discovering new things, and I’d like to share some of these with all you aspiring and seasoned game designers today.
I found my way into games after doing photography and multimedia at university. I started using computers as part of that course, working with Adobe and creating little interactive experiences. I quickly realized I was much more interested in creating experiences than I was in photographs, and I started making games for my coursework!
I started off really focusing on level design, but then also started to write little mechanics; writing special weapons and adjusting the way those weapons behaved. Even though I’d loved games since my ZX Spectrum and trips to the arcade, I’d never really thought of it as a job before because I never knew anybody that worked in the games industry.
I decided to do a Masters degree in Game Design at Bournemouth University, which I think was the first course they ran in the UK on game design and it was the first year they ran it. I think there were seven of us on the course! That was a lot of fun, it was a year of making all sorts of different games, I started doing Quake and Doom levels and working a lot with those early editors. After my degree, I got a job at Psygnosis working on PlayStation 1 games.
Game design as a profession and how it connects with other disciplines evolves over time. I’ve seen some notable changes in game design since my start at Psygnosis. One big change I’ve seen in the industry is the size of the teams and the specialization of designers. When I started, we had two Junior Designers - my friend Dominic and I - and we had a Lead Designer, and that was actually quite unusual then to have as many as three designers, compared to the much larger teams now. Also, when I started you were doing a bit of everything, but designers who are coming in now are specializing quite early on, going into level design or game design or narrative design.
Even today people still have a misunderstanding of what a game designer is, or they don’t even realize that game designers exist, and I think the biggest misunderstanding about the role is that it’s only about having ideas. The bulk of your job as a designer is actually to take someone else’s idea and make it compelling, make it a fantastic experience. How do you take an idea and make it give players what they are looking for? It’s quite often looking at spreadsheets full of numbers, balancing data and analyzing tiny details. I often say that a really good game designer can make a game about cabbage.
My favorite description of what a game designer does is “The Door Problem” by Liz England and it’s a really useful resource if you’re looking to get into the career or want to consider game design from a new angle.
So, how do we as game designers craft or work with an idea and make it brilliant for people to play? Well, a lot of that is process. Whilst I have been in the industry, there’s been this constant drive towards coming up with processes which help you make games more efficiently. At first glance, “process” might seem the polar opposite of creativity and not at all what you imagine the exciting work of a game designer to be about - but in fact I’ve found that a great process can help get ideas rolling. We all know of course that a few constraints can actually help creativity, giving our minds something to focus on, and a process can help set these constraints. A process can also help us spot potential gaps in a design before they come to trip us up.
So, here’s a few of the favourite strategies I’ve tried and tested throughout my career, some processes from my grab-bag of game design tricks that I use to help creativity flow!
The “100 Ideas in an Hour” Method
I love exchanging ideas collaboratively to find solutions to unexpected occurrences, but if you are really stumped with a blank slate, or faced with a lacklustre design, the “100 ideas in an hour” method is a good way to get that creativity flowing. The method helps you break out of being stuck in your usual rut by forcing us to move past our first few initial ideas. We can get over attached to the first thing we think of, closing ourselves off to new ideas, but by making the focus of the session the number of ideas rather than the quality - and making that number ridiculously high - your brain is forced to power through those first few initial ideas; to keep constantly iterating to come up with new ones and go to some pretty far out places to get to the full 100! At less than a minute per idea your conscious brain hasn’t the time to get caught up in the merits of an individual idea, and your subconscious creativity will come to the fore.
Once your hour is up you can go back and assess what you’ve come up with. Doubtless many of the ideas will be too daft to consider, but you may well find a few real gems in there worth working up further, and all for only an hour’s worth of time spent.
The Design Validation Checklist
You probably know that you can assess the actions that a player takes within a game in the short-term (second to second – shooting, driving, cooking… whatever gameplay the game features), mid term (minute to minute – making your way through a level) and long term (hour to hour – completing a whole game). And you probably know that you’ll need a game to contain particular elements to be engaging for players: challenges, obstacles for the player to overcome; a way for the player to experience “mastery”, to feel their skills have been recognised; something that makes this experience different for each player; audio and visual cues that tell the player about success and failure, a varied pace, a way for the player to experience progression and so on. However, when you’re in the middle of designing the game, it can be easy to “not see the wood for the trees”. To get some distance I like to create a simple matrix that has the layers of gameplay along the top (short, mid, long term), and the elements (challenge, mastery, difference etc) you want to see down the side. For a well-rounded game, we’re probably going to want to see those elements at each layer, so now just fill in the cells with what there is in your design that ticks this box – so it’s like a 2D checklist. It’s a nice quick way of throwing light on any potential gaps you have in the design.
Think of Your Players More
The best advice I’ve ever been given throughout my career is simply “think of your players more”. You might like a design, but will your players like that design? Don’t get too precious or attached to particular features or particular designs. Often, you’re going to need to cut things that are in a game and you might have to cut something that you personally feel very invested in. Just take it in your stride, a good designer will always be able to come up with new ideas, new solutions, new features. Embrace that you’re going to be thinking of all sorts of solutions and designs throughout your career. Also, keep looking at and what new stuff is out there, never imagine that you know everything - because you can never know everything.
I hope these processes can be useful for you in your approach to design – I passionately believe that if you’re thinking of new, better, different ways to approach whatever you do, you’re truly embracing creativity.