March 28th, 2018
Discovery in Game Design
They say "adapt or die".
I was a software engineer at Apple when Apple acquired
. Apple had decided to base the next generation of their operating system on NeXTSTEP, which was a UNIX-based OS. One of the challenges this type of migration posed was the merging of two passionate user bases and their conflicting views on the ideal user experience.
One of the hallmarks of the MacOS, for example, was that it was so simple to use, there was no user manual required. The OS and user interface protected the end user from having to deal with things like complex configuration, driver installation, hardware incompatibilities, etc.; it was all "plug-n-play". On the other hand, NeXTSTEP provided pre-emptive multitasking, a powerful development environment, a rock-solid OS, and a UI and command-line that allowed "advanced users" to tweak, twiddle, flip, automate, and reconfigure the system to their hearts' content (blasphemy!). What was to be done?
Simple - Apple adapted, and made one of the most successful and seamless low-level OS transitions in the world's history.
For those who use MacOS today, such as myself, most of them, even advanced users, still don't have to worry about complex configuration, driver issues, or using the command-line. But we advanced users find great comfort in knowing that if we ever we want to (or need to, heaven forbid) tweak something that the UI does not expose, the command-line is ever waiting for us like a loyal dog.
So what does all this have to do with game design?
Recently I sat in a seminar co-hosted by Brandon Raasch called
Getting Your Game Design Published
. Brandon shared 3 things that publishers look for when deciding to publish a game:
1. Is the game good?
2. What does the designer bring to the table? (e.g., followers on Twitter, sales history, etc.)
3. Is the designer easy to work with? (e.g., willing to change the theme of the game, willing to make rules changes, etc.)
#1 is obvious, and, to an noob game designer like me, might instinctively be the only one that seems to matter. However, if there is anything that life and career has taught me, "adapt or die" is a truism and a necessary part of progress, no matter the context.
Game designers tend to be very passionate about their designs, rightfully so! The creative process is very personal, and often an expression of ourselves in some way. So to recommend changing core features of a game design can be hard to hear and even harder to see as necessary for a better game. And yet, we play-test!
Most serious designers have embraced play-testing as an integral part of the design process. However, I have observed, even in myself, two competing motivations for play-testing:
Validation is ultimately a necessary outcome of play-testing; we all need to get our designs to the point where people don't need the designer to walk them through the game, where they have lots of fun, where the game feels complete and cohesive, and where we hear those magic words "Wouldn't change a thing!". However, we should not
validation in the play-testing process. Rather, validation should come as a natural result of the play-test -> feedback -> tweak -> play-test cycle.
Our expectations for play-testing should be to discover what changes need to happen next to make it a better game.
I have found personally, when I approach play-testing as a process of discovery rather than validation, the nature of the play-test changes for the better. For example, with an expectation of discovery, I:
* Listen without defending myself, out loud or in my head
* Don't ask leading questions
* Don't interrupt feedback
* Don't play favorites with my features
* Am more patient with the progress of my game
* Enjoy the process of change and discovery more
* Make a better game!
And then the unexpected will happen - you will be listening with an open mind, excited to discover what you need to change next, and you will hear something from your play-testers that will take your breath away: "Wouldn't change a thing!". All of a sudden, that feeling of validation you were avoiding throughout the entire creative process will hit you right in the solar plexus and knock the wind right out of you, and you'll have a smile on your face for a week.