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Designer Fun – Design Instincts

I was rereading Bakuman* the other day, and in it one of the characters says “instincts are something you’re born with… if you don’t have good instincts, then you’re a lost cause.” I’ve heard that sentiment expressed before, but I couldn’t disagree with it more. (I’m talking about reasoning instincts, not “animal” instincts.)

People think instincts are inherent because when you use your instincts (especially when they’re right) you can’t explain how you came up with the direction they gave you. Your gut just told you the answer. But do you really think you were born with those instincts? You gained them though experience. When a professional designer’s gut tells them how to create the next great game (or Magic card) there is so much experience backing that up that they don’t bring the memories into their consciousness anymore. Their brain has so much practice with that topic that it feeds the answers directly from the subconscious. Today I hope I can give you some advice about how to hone your own instincts for design.

The most obvious thing to do is design a lot of things. You’ve probably heard that before now. But when experienced designers tell you that, they don’t mean for you to hide in your room and design 1000 cards or write 50 design documents. They mean you should create a game, and go play it. Your instincts won’t get better simply from the process of design. You need to feed them with observations of how a design plays out. If you design a game but never see it played you’ll only learn about 10% of what you could from that game.

Doing this might be hard at first. You will feel embarrassed. There’s no avoiding that feeling, but you won’t necessarily be embarrassed. The friends (or strangers) playing your game will know it’s not a final game, and if you learn from observing them play it, listen to what they are saying, interpret what they are saying (which is another article entirely), and make changes to your game, you can bring it back to them with improvements. They’ll see an improved game and that’s what they’ll remember about you – that you took a bad thing and made it mediocre, and then took that mediocre thing and made it great.

Playing games is just as important for a designer as designing them. You wouldn’t want to be a game designer if you’d never played a game, right? In college, back when I didn’t think that “game designer” was a real job that I could have, I was “studying” science and “wasting time” playing a lot of games. Now I like to joke that all that time spent playing games was really career preparation. Except I’m not really joking. Not all, but some of that playing was training my instincts for design.

Start paying attention to what games you are playing. Playing one game over and over, especially with different people will give you great depth exposure and understanding of how that game works (recommended for high-quality games, and ones in which the optimal strategy is not apparent in the first play). You must also play a great many different games in different categories. You have to break out of your gaming comfort zone and play things you’re not used to playing. You need instincts that tell you what will be fun, and what will be an effective solution to a design problem. The more games you are exposed to, the more ways to have fun and the more design solutions you’ll see. A game made by a designer who as played 9 games will look like a patchwork of those 9 games. Like a quilt made of 9 squares, you can see each one of them and recognize what it used to be. A game (or quilt) with 9000 influences will blend them all together like woven threads, and only the larger picture will emerge. (Okay, maybe that metaphor’s a little cheesy, but you get the idea.)

I didn’t know it at the time, but the first step I took in converting that play into a useful learning experience was in playing Hearts in college. We played with the same 4 people almost every time, and in order to predict what cards they were holding based on what they played in each trick I began paying closer attention to how each of them played. I had made the simple realization that the theoretically optimal play was not what they always did. Instead, each of them approached the game differently, and their personal style (or strategy) was what I needed to know in order to guess what they had based on what I saw. That small realization was a great leap for a future game designer. It was the kind of realization that leads to important concepts like psychographics, designing for multiple audiences, designing for people who aren’t you, and predicting the reactions others will have to your work.

When I began my professional career, I took that realization and used it to practice seeing games in the eyes of multiple personalities, and after years of doing that I often come to it by instinct. Even when I like a game, my instincts might tell me that something is wrong with it because it’s already ahead of me, looking for what other types of players will see.

Thinking about how others will play the game is just one of ways you need to be examining each new game you play. You can also look at how the rules come together to form the flow of the game. How elements like variance, hidden information, choices, turn structure (if any), and victory conditions are shaping the game.

Another example of something to think about is how the game is making you feel. Admit to yourself when you feel frustrated with the game, when you feel powerful with a play you’ve made, when you feel bitter and cheated by a turn of events. Take note of when you laugh and when you leap up and do a victory lap around the table. Then examine that feeling and figure out how the rules gave you that experience. Are you mad because you screwed up or are you mad because the game has a faulty rule? Probably the first one… most of the time a bad game makes you bored, not angry. Did you do a victory lap because you made a great play, or because the dice came up in your favor at a critical moment (probably the latter).

There are a lot more things to think about when playing a game with a designer’s eye. At first you may want to make a list, and go through them one by one. Don’t worry about having an exhaustive list, you can start with any 5 things. You can try rotating through different short lists to explore all sorts of aspects of game design. Eventually you won’t need lists anymore, and you’ll naturally think about a whole lot of different aspects of a game when you play it.

This brings me to the last major component – discussing it with others. Playing games with other designers may be the best way to train your instincts. Discuss the ins and outs of the rules with them. Everything you think about for yourself can be dissected more effectively by a group. You will get the benefit of their insights on top of your own (plus, socializing with them is fun). I don’t think I can really tell you how to discuss games, except that you should be respectful and polite. You don’t have to come to agreement, the important thing is to get practice examining games as a group, expressing your opinions, and learning from each other.

Discussion is the biggest thing that makes Wizards R&D so powerful. They are a big pile of smart people, mostly game designers, who discuss everything.

Summing up

To train yourself and hone your design instincts, I recommend that you:
• Design a lot – and be sure you observe someone playing with those designs
• Play a lot – get a lot of exposure to good games
• Think about the games you are playing – don’t just play them, make a study of them
• Work and play with others – you can’t do it alone and you’ll grow faster if you discuss what you’re doing with people you respect

Just this past week I was playing some weird boxing card game with other game designers, Paul and Dan. Paul pointed out that the game’s flood of information, normally a bad thing in a game because it leads to confusion, was used to create the feeling of being in the middle of a fight. You had to move fast, think fast, and it was okay if you missed something if you were hitting harder and faster than the opponent. I didn’t like the game very much, it wasn’t my kind of game, but I learned something interesting about the way they used a normally bad design element as a good design element. If I always stayed in my comfort zone, and if I didn’t play and discuss the game with other designers, I wouldn’t have learned something interesting.

I hope you’ve learned something interesting today, and I hope you’ll try a new game, think about how it works, and discuss it with a friend.

*Volume 5. Bakuman is a manga about two high school kids who decide to create manga together. Meta enough for you? One of them writes the story and the other does the art – which is the same way the creators of Bakuman itself work. They are some of the best in the business, and very well known for their previous collaboration, Death Note. Bakuman is an excellent read for creative types because it depicts the struggle to transform a creative vision into reality. The process of learning the ins & outs of your industry and facing the realities that become obstacles to your career is something we all face and that’s another layer that makes it interesting. If you read manga, I highly recommend it. Oh, I also wanted to note that in Bakuman, when the character said you have to be born with instincts, the setup indicated that we was wrong about that, and within just a few panels he realized it himself.

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