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Tag: design

No more famous designers

When I read the history of games, I think of its present too. Modern game developers will never become legendary like Miyamoto, Kojima, or Iwatani. We will probably never see a David Jaffe again in the future.

The industry is establishing processes and has become less risky and creative. We will probably never have the chance of being famous again.

And that’s actually a good thing.

Choosing your visual style

There are two lenses with which to check the visual style of your game. Consider them in this exact order.

  1. The first is the lens of invitation to play. The marketer calls this user acquisition (horrible naming, as always. :P). The people watch a video or an image showing your game and decide to take a step into your magic circle. Users decide to install your game, using that cold terminology of business. You are investing money to reach your audience so the visual style is very important at this stage. You should consider the devices from which the people will watch your trailers.
  2. The second step is the realization of the fantasy proposed to the Players. People made the step into the magic circle and became Players. The game makes them a promise and offers a fantasy. If the visuals unmatch their expectation, they can feel something is not OK. For instance, in my case, I have played RPGs my whole life. When I open a modern gacha-based RPG from Asia nowadays, I see boobs and sexy poses everywhere. That hypersexualization makes me step out of the magic circle. Using the boring business language, I will not retain (really business guys? retain? What a terrible word choice, honestly…)

Common visual styles are cartoon, stylized, low poly, and realistic.

Remember: first there is the invitation to play and then the realization of a fantasy. To balance those two things is an art. The art of game design. Especially the marketing and art department are responsible for that. Game designers help their communication.

Game design connected with empathy and culture

I was walking with a friend and we were thinking about why so many f2p games aren’t good, from a design point of view. So excluding bad market research, imprecise budgets, lack of planning, and things like that.

There are games that are enjoyed by players more than other games that are essentially identical. Is it due solely to the firepower of marketing? Or is there something in the design?

For me, there is a great responsibility in game design. Game design intended as the collective effort of the whole team, from the head of product to the junior QA.

On the one hand, there is the problem of copying, without understanding why a certain type of game works. A desk is a dangerous place from which to see the World, John Le Carré said.

At the other extreme we find teams capable of empathizing, but who do not share the typical practices of free-to-play. They never spend a cent on a game downloaded for free, they don’t put themselves in the players’ shoes. Even if they have the ability to empathize, they do not.

Games that fail do so for a thousand different reasons. Those that are successful, however, have always a clear reason behind it: a team that believes in the product. And it does so because empathizes with the Players. There is a cultural discourse that must be taken into consideration.

The company culture is shaped by each person who comes in with their own energy. You can define the values you would like in your team, but people are much more complex. It’s about understanding what people are with you and what you can create with that. The empathy starts with you.

  • Empathy doesn’t mean your child likes the game your company is playing.
  • Empathy does not mean achieving a good D3/D1 ratio.
  • Empathy does not mean that the reviews are positive.

Empathy means putting yourself in a player’s shoes and participating in the event you launched this weekend. Become a player of your game, play your game every day. Be present in playtests where unknown people try your game and also other similar games. If your team connects with people, a social casino game can be very stimulating even for a technical artist who wants to create RPGs.

Tips for writing better documents

I joined a list of mentors in the games industry a while ago. I receive messages from all over the World that make me think a lot. Very grateful for receiving those energies from different cultures and people.

One of the most common requests I get is about how to write better design documents. The main issue with documents is the harsh reality that most people don’t want to read. Also if some of them have this duty, I have noticed that oftentimes they keep what you said in a presentation or chat. So, why boring to write a wall of text?

It’s important to write a lot on the game we are making, for ourselves. It is not important, instead, to write a lot for others to read. That is my point. I do like this.

  • I start by writing by hand on paper. Very important to create meaningful connections in my brain. I don’t get the same result when I write on a keyboard.
  • I continue by writing digitally a short resume of what I wrote on paper. Sometimes very short.
  • When something needs more words, I create an image instead. It can be a flowchart, a UX flow, a wireframe, or a sketch.
  • Then I read the document again in a loud voice. This makes me spot things that are hard to read. It has to be aloud. Don’t be shy, don’t be lazy. It doesn’t work if you read in your mind.
  • If I have time, I try to add something fun to spot in the most boring parts. That happens very few times, honestly.

When the boss gets in the middle

Every game designer has experienced at least once in their life the horrible feeling of being deprived of their ownership.

You design a new game mode, a mechanic, a progression, an economy. You spend your attention and energy on it, perhaps for weeks. And the person in charge of the project, a producer or product manager, changes everything without warning.

It’s hard, I’ve even left companies for things like this. But it happens. It’s a huge lack of respect disguised as “sorry, but the project needs this“, “the data speaks clearly!“, “I wasn’t convinced…“.

The reality is that there are very few true creative leaders and changing numbers on a spreadsheet or in-game setups requires no skill. The pressure that some people feel leads them to this disastrous behavior. So what to do?

Seeking an agreement and understanding the problem is the first step. Many people want to be successful, others want the team to be successful. Some think more broadly about the entire company. We need to understand what motivated the choice.

This is a wrong choice, in every sense. A serious mistake. But we do it too, let’s remember this. I therefore recommend staying calm to make the correct decision.

Making games is hard…

Three ideas on ads

Ad-based monetization mechanisms have established themselves in the mobile market in recent years. There are many providers and related SDKs that need to be implemented in our games. From a business perspective, they make completely sense. Players get free entertainment and in change they are exposed to promotions.

To date I haven’t met a single game designer who likes ads. Why?

The answer is very simple, ads work against the game itself from a gameplay perspective. You are participating, you are involved in the game and you are offered to see an ad. This advertisement may also take you out of the game to install a new one. Generally, in fact, advertisements in games are for other games.

This is working against your own game, risking losing the players’ attention. In the long term, among other things, they can be really boring and affect people’s retention. Too many announcements, I’m not coming back!

I as a player, and I’m sure I’m not the only one, use ads as breaks. I start the ad to get a benefit, I move away from my cell phone to do other things. The ad is a pause.

But does it have to be this way?

Advertisements are an opportunity for entertainment and television has demonstrated this. The ads could be very funny.

  1. We could show things more related to the universe of the game itself. If we refuse privacy permissions, the advertisements are generic and random.
  2. We could integrate the content with the characters and lore of the game we are playing. Instead of starting a generic video, the characters could give us purchasing advice. With new programs that use machine learning algorithms, this blend is very workable.
  3. You could show ads alongside recommendations for the game we are playing. You play the ad, and a video plays that explains specific things about the game. In the bottom half, the announcement of another game. This way, seeing a video makes sense and we will also show an advertisement.

Perception, reality and imagination

Our perception shapes the reality that is presented to us. This is a double-edged sword, and any person working with creativity knows it.

We get the information using our cognitive system and we form meaningful patterns. Perception is the system that holds those patterns. On the one side, we have fewer things to store in the memory. On the other, our cognitive system doesn’t have to understand everything. It can reuse those patterns quickly!


Working every day as game designers, our perception of games forms lots of patterns. And so does the reality we think we know about the Players in our games. And we are players too, maybe in other kind of games.

We work almost always from a desk, too. And a desk is a dangerous place from which to see the World, as John le Carré said in a novel.

To mitigate the risks of perception:

  1. Be aligned with the business, understand how the system works. Listen to your producers. How can our design be impactful?
  2. Be aware of the context and processes that will deliver the final piece of software. Understand the code architecture, and how art pipelines work. Something that seems like “a little change” can turn into weeks of work.
  3. Get in the players’ shoes and empathize with them. Understand what they do in our game and why. Be informed on what they will be looking for.

Nowadays we have a lot of information available! When I start a new project or the design of a feature, I start by researching the solutions already adopted. Be aware of the business. I use Liquid&Grit which offers reports and has a db full of captures and videos. In that way I speed up my work, every design takes me 20% less than before.

Then I switch to YouTube, looking for gameplays to watch and take notes. Many games nowadays have a Reddit page and a Discord server, too. It is not that hard to put ourselves in the Player’s shoes. I need to really get their jargon, and understand what they look for. I need to form new patterns with which to read reality.


Perception helps our memory system. We form patterns we can reuse in a different context. And this helps our imagination as creators. For instance, when we have to create the plot for a story. 

The image below is a joke, it’s Friday! I am a lover of fantasy and was a heavy D&D player. Because of that, I have already many patterns formed.

  • The left side is a quick overpaint I made with GIMP on a very popular photo of one of the lowest moments in the history of sport.
  • The right part was generated with Midjourney using the prompt: “a dungeons and dragons scene where a mind flayer has taken the head of a female ranger in his head to attack her”

I am a game designer

I remember the opening of Jesse Shell’s book, The Art of Game Design. There is a mantra: I am a game designer.

When I think about game design I identify 4 main areas:

  • Systems design
  • Gameplay (or UX) design
  • Level design
  • Narrative design

To be more concrete, all game design is system design. Level and narrative design create gameplay and shape the player experience (UX, if you prefer). Narrative design has many things to share with level design too.

The narrative design delivers the most evident pieces of the game, from the Player’s perspective. The system is less visible but rules them all. In the middle, there is gameplay and level design.

Rules, which are part of the gameplay to me, influence the design of the UI. The UI is that part of gameplay (or UX) that connects with the narrative. UI is evident and tells something to the Players. So that is narrative to me.

There are many points of view on that, and that’s good. The simple term “design” has a broad meaning. And the geo where we work influences our vision too. Companies from the US tend to focus more on hyper-specialization. Here in Southern Europe, we do EVERYTHING. Also the coffee!

Then there is the personal factor. I am a game designer. That to me means:

  • work with everything from system to narrative
  • grab a course on narrative design and a year later on level design.
  • strive to master Excel, Unity, Unreal Engine and all the tools to create systems and gameplay
  • take screens and create wireframes and docs detailing rules and mechanics.

Support their autonomy

Working on player retention is always a challenge. You must be careful with all the levers you touch. By concentrating on one you can inadvertently change another.

As a general rule, I always recommend thinking in the long term. Very often to improve player retention on the first days, we offer just external motivators. Daily bonus, shop bonus, special offer, weekly tournament.

Anything that controls players’ autonomy is to the detriment of their intrinsic motivation.

  • “Come in every day for 7 days and you’ll get this”,
  • “Hey, check the shop now”
  • “Watch this ad, double your coins”

Especially that part of Players that enjoys our game, can see their internal motivation shrink. This translates into lower long-term retention (60, 90 days).

There are games with low short-term retention compared to the average. Those manage to retain players in the long term because those who stay motivated.

Why do match-3s work well in the long term?

  1. They offer a very intuitive mechanic: combine 3 or more elements of the same type in line to match
  2. Every match counts because it can unlock a cascade
  3. Players can create power-ups: special tiles that help them towards their goals.

Feeling that you can create power-ups with your ability is great for intrinsic motivation. There are many elements that support the autonomy of Players.

If we add rewards and bonuses for playing a match-3, we will see that D1 retention increases. But the intrinsic motivation of our PRO Players, true fans, can decrease.

If we add mechanics to support and encourage player autonomy, in the short term things can get complicated. This can mean lower D1-D3 retention. But in the long term, we could have a more stable curve.

It is much easier to think about rewards, deadlines (tournaments), and bonuses. But the art of game design is a Swiss army knife that offers many tools. If you see that in your pipeline there are only new bonuses and tournaments to develop, ask yourself: “how will that affect the long term retention?”.

Trees and leaves

When we talk about free-to-play casual puzzles, we generally hear about a predominantly female and adult audience.

However, we have no idea how many kids play the most popular match-3 games. If you notice, the narrative theme is very childish in most of them. There is a reason for that: a connection between adults and children. Adults also download games for their children, and children influence the choices of adults. It’s fun to play a game that your kid also plays, right?

There are successful puzzle games with adult themes (see Gardenscapes, Lily’s Garden, Project Makeover). But pay attention: the most popular (Candy Crush Saga, Royal Match) offer childish fantasies. The concept of reign, candies, smiles, and so on.

When you think about your audience, also think about their child version. It works like a tree: on the trunk, there are the children, and the branches are all the directions they can take in life. The leaves are the adults.

You may want to think in the whole tree if you are aiming to build the next free-to-play hit. Every adult was a child in the past, there are fantasies that still resonate with us when we grow.

It’s always good to start from the trunk if you want to have a massive audience!