One of the skills that make a game designer instantly hireable is the deconstruction of games. It is no easy task to complete, since the first instinct is to end the job once we have identified the core loop, the secondary loop and maybe some unique feature.
I have seen too many times teams copying from here and there after a quick deconstruction and the result is something like
Not cool huh?
A good deconstruction looks for the audiences of some game and wants to really empathize. Having a document with the core features is nice, but having empathy maps, customer journeys and personas at the end of it is key for the success of a project.
Play the game for the right amount of time
Look for its update logs: you need to know where developers put the highest efforts
Read reviews and study them
Look for streamers, those are free playtests
Join Discord channels and Reddits to spot the interesting and pain points
Run playtests of your competitorsTry to interview core Players
With all those insights, build your Player. Forget demographics, focus on behaviors and needs!
Richard Bartle was one of the designers and researchers around the online communities for MUDs, multi user dungeons. The very first version of MMOs.
He identified four different approaches of players of that time to the medium.
What I learnt from his work was that it is very interesting to haver your own taxonomy to create your player persona.
But, people still seem to use it to start thinking in the very first personas as if they were part of a ‘90s MUD. Players changed a lot. Your game is probably not a MMO. Using the same taxonomy for those cases will probably lead to mistakes.
It is true that it may be good to discuss with your team, but you are not doing the right job. Do this instead:
Create your personas
When your game is running, identify your player personas by interviewing players
Create your own taxonomy
Stop using Bartle’s taxonomy, unless you are designing a MUD for telnet. You will most likely not have killers among your players!
Marketing people are often not part of your immediate team. They are external stakeholders, people less involved in the day-to-day of your job. Their role is critical for the success of the game. In fact, you can make the best game but a lot of people around the World is making the best game right now. Marketing can drive the success or failure of the whole game.
Intention is the most important layer. Is about the changes that you are seeking to make with your game. What are your unique selling points? Game designers help in aligning visions and prioritize resources. You may start from your competitors and your Personas and help define every iteration.
Retention is the second grade. Getting new players costs money and if your players are happy with your game they can bring others. Mouth to mouth is still the most impactful spreading medium out there.
Remarkability (conversations that happen as the result of your work) and Permission (the privilege of delivering anticipated, personal and relevant messages to the people) are part of core marketing activities. You can observe them, but it’s their job not yours.
Working with the marketing team
The marketing team usually does the job alone. Best realities I have worked for have regular meetings with them. Game designers can help with the brand, the voice and the tone consistency. We can help with intention and retention.
In case of f2p a company has to run massive creative campaigns (mostly on Facebook and Google) game designers can be of great help in developing creative concepts. From creative concepts, marketing team is capable of develop multiple variants. The big user acquisition machine is constantly fed up with those creative variants. As you can imagine, your role at the top of this funnel is critical.
Help to sketch creative concepts that match the game’s brand
Maintain and use content guidelines for those
Make sure that the feature of your game set your players for success
Get information about the strength of signal of the monetization events. Those events are sent to ad platforms as postbacks to optimize user acquisition campaigns. Put the strongest ones near of the start of the experience!
If you want to get a job as a game designer do the job, don’t look for it. You have to be already working as a game designer if you want to hope to being paid for that.
I remember when I was compulsively looking for a job sending resumes. Poor me.
“I sent 5 resumes today, I have done my job.”. That was my comfort zone.
Some job offer put “having participated in at least 5 projects from start to end”. Some other was more intrepid: “having participated in the complete development of a TOP250 grossing game”. The good old days of 2013!
Do the job everyday
I started, every single morning, waking up early. Having my shower and breakfast. Dressing up with my best clothes, putting my shoes and my clock on. Working all the day at my desk, at least 8 hour per day. Imagining I was going to my office. I discovered the superpowers that “faking it” enable. I started studying seriously from books at night before of going to bed.
I maintained a document with all the job offers and companies here in Barcelona. I studied their games and imagined to work on those. In fact, those games had already their players and their competitors.
Deconstructing games is a process mostly mechanic at start. Start from the simple screen flow, make a brickfile. Spot their competitors and do the same. You find a feature that some competitor has and the game you are studying doesn’t? You have your design task! Use what you learnt from books and step by step build your own design framework. This is your secret, in your method there is your value.
Probably those companies you are monitoring will never hire you. They are still looking for the “best talent”. A game designer who worked on successful games. The dream, the rockstar. Nevermind, it’s YOU that want to work as game designer. They are too busy in filtering out people like you. So don’t wait for a company to let you in. Just do it.
Find your people
Try to create and maintain meaningful connections in the industry. I created a meetup, the Barcelona Game Design Meetup. My intention was to join game designers also from other companies. I ignored their strict policies most of those company had, instead. I also ignored that often people working for those companies are NOT the most motivated persons. They just do their job. They work as game designers, but often they are not intimately designers. I met a lot of wannabies and a few professionals. Making connections is still very useful. I just enjoyed any opportunity to talk about game design. Any opportunity!
The other day I was listening to a YouTube video (yeah, listening) with 2 people that I consider industry experts talking about leadership in videogames.
One of the two quoted this sentence from Orson Welles:
“…in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace. And what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”
His point was that, as a leader, you shouldn’t try to create a peaceful environment. In fact, great things come out from hard times.
This post is not to enter in the center of the question. In fact, those persons are people with at least five years more experience than me. And in companies with great products where I dream working someday. So that for the sake of this post they are right.
But I ask myself: what do I want to do with my job?
Do I want to become a name like Leonardo or Michelangelo? Or do I want to create something that brings fun in every place it is placed, like a cuckoo clock?
I have dealt with game artists everyday for many years. My background is computer science, that is why I find it challenging to understand them well. Someone said to me once “you will never understand artists” laughing at my face.
Something I know, anyways. All the people, all the time, give their opinions to the artist. I like it, why blue? Mmm I don’t know. Honestly? I would put that on the right.
You have to be efficient in talking to them. The best way I know? Describe to them what you are seeing. Use your honest and sincere words and wait for their comment on your description.
If something does not convince you, ask them questions. You are a game designer, but the game design is something the whole team will do. Also them. Do not lose the opportunity to use their brains. Facilitate the act of game design and respect their ego. Which, in some cases, can be very high.
When you get stuck in a creative process share your concerns as soon as possible. I advise you to do it with conviction. People react quite badly to extreme things. Propose a sudden extreme draft to your team so that their brains are activated!
I usually get stuck on the writing side. Finding a tone for a new character or for a specific moment. Finding the right words is always very complicated to me. I need time that often I don’t have.
Define a tone according with the context and circunstances. Write down lines as quickly as possible in that tone. Try to do it in an extreme way. Share it immediately with the team. If you have a week to prepare a dialogue (that never happens), imagine that you have one hour.
Pass your draft in slack or whatever with conviction: “I’m thinking something like this”. People will start to help you with ideas and concepts, believe me. They cannot accept that extreme thing. That is why you may want to be it: to activate their brain defenses!
With this technique you will get 3-5 potential tones and various references that I can explore! The team contributed to that and they will also feel more involved with the whole thing.
The most common suggestion I read when people ask “how to work as a game designer?” is: participate in game jams.
In my humble opinion, this suggestion is incomplete. In fact, game jams are a cool event where you are forced to make decisions quickly and to join the ideas of all the team in something you really want to show at the end. The time you have usually is very low, so that you feel you are really pushing your boundaries. As experience is great and you can also make meaningful connections.
BUT, game jams lack a very important element for game designers: Players. The result of your hard work will probably be shared with other game developers and also the final result is often voted by devs. Nothing to do with the real struggle of game design: understanding behaviors and needs of the people that are willing to play your game.
Once your game jam weekend is over, maybe you achieved great results. End a complete experience is a great result, arriving in the first 10 positions is. The first 3 is a great result. The 1st position is awesome! And then what?
Then often you speak with your colleagues, you polish what you did and you just publish it.
Try, instead, let common people play your game. Start with your family, especially the kids if you are lucky to have them around. Look for proof that your game doesn’t work! Do not look to confirm that you had a great idea. You have to put your concept in crisis if you want to really pass to the next step: publish something meaningful.
The onion model is the base that I use to think in any prototype of a new video game. I discovered it in a video years ago and I have never stopped to use it. I have never found that video again, sorry about that.
This onion model is made to be started from both sides. It works better to start from the narrative side and go toward the center. We have already a lot of core mechanics that are proven to work. Fire, match-3, gamble, merge, harvest, etc.
Which kind of feelings do you want your Players to have?
First question: which kind of experience do we want to give the Players? What are the feelings we want for our Players?
The answer can be pretty vague: “just a relaxing and quick experience.”
Or it can be detailed: “I want my Players to feel they are managing a video games company with its budget and people.”
Usually, this model works better with the second kind of answers. Try to spend the right amount of time in this part.
Then I try to identify the personas. Do not forget to use OCEAN!
I facilitate a session with all the team, in which we decide the kind of narrative we want to deliver. Content has a high cost, so that you may want to start from here believe me. It is good from the very beginning to start estimating its dimension.
Once we have the narrative, it’s time to pass to the progression part. Example:
Narrative: “You are a space traveler. You have to stop the evil Empire from oppressing the universe.”
Progression: “explore the universe, complete missions and quests.”
Do you really want to start with an open world game?
Progression: “beat the levels and defeat the bosses”
Ok, that seems better! Will the bosses have special behaviors?
Progression: “try to reach the best score and climb the leaderboard”
It’s Social, I like it. Is the leaderboard for real? NEVER do a real leaderboard for a prototype!
Only later think in the mechanics!
The secondary mechanic is related with the meta part of the game. Think of your Players when they are NOT playing your game. Which things do they think in when they have the intention to play your game again?
“I have to enter because I have to collect my boosters” (Candy Crush Saga). Boosters are your secondary mechanic.
“I need to play again because they are attacking my base” (Clash of Clans). Raids are your secondary mechanic.
“I need to play again because I have to beat the Royal Griffin” (The Witcher 3). Spells or Crossbow are your secondary mechanic.
Now you have it! The core mechanic, I am sure, will come alone!
No? Really? Do you want to create a new one? OK.
Forget about all that we said and make a prototype including ONLY the core mechanic.
Iterate on that until you have it.
Playtest a lot, put your core mechanic really in crisis.
Then, and only then, you may want to add all the rest. My suggestion is trying to be really conservative on the other parts if you want to avoid headaches.
Art may have a strict process to follow. You can follow a specific method to create art pieces. You can also decide to just follow your movements and what your mind says. The same exact thing happens with game design. When you work for a company, probably you may want to follow a method and adapt it to the company needs. When we are alone with our mind, instead, we can just sketch. Sometimes the magic happens. Just as in art.
Art is based on the aesthetics. Aesthetics mean the study of the essence of things. When I am drawing a person standing in front of me, I am not really drawing straight. The drawing comes out from the shadows I am able to synthetize with my charcoals. I am constantly trying to find the essence to explain what I am seeing. Same exact thing with game design. You and your team want to deliver an experience, so that the whole game design process is about finding the essence of that experience. Look at the classic MDA framework, where researchers found 8 kind of aesthetics. Someone should continue that research, actually. It was made when videogames were still artifacts. Today games are entertainment, not artifacts anymore.
Art presents a challenge to the viewer. The artists tried to explain the aesthetics of what they were seeing or thinking. The final result is presented to the World and offers always an interpretation challenge. Instead of visual art, think in music. The first musical instrument opens the melody, then maybe a drum puts the rhythm in. Then other instruments join to create the harmony. According to the listener, the music can be noisy or exciting. The music can be very complicated when the listener is not prepared. The same exact thing happens with game design, especially with UX and Level Design. The final game has a complexity which is in general based on audience tastes. Or, at least, I would prefer to be so.