You need a Design Process!
People often ask “how can I get good at designing games?” or “what’s the best thing I can do to become a game designer?” and among designers, the stock answer is usually “play and design lots of games.”
But that answer is kind of deceptive and in some ways even destructive. You may spend any amount of time working on games, but if you don’t have a clear process or goal in mind, the end result will be unfocused. If you spend all your time making games, and not observing and improving your process from the outside in, you don’t improve.
It is one thing to hone a skill, which you can do by playing and designing. It is another thing to master a craft, which requires deliberate observation, planning, and refinement. Ultimately, you must become two people: one who performs the design work, and another who observes the work process and endeavors to improve it.
Making a game without a process is like building the walls of a house without blueprints or a foundation. Time is just wasted. No amount of doing that can make you a good architect.
And that’s what being a designer is really about. You are the architect that is planning and executing a complex game—or a whole line of games. Your craft is not the games themselves, but the process that you create to consistently produce great games.
There are three major parts to the Design Process.
One part is planning the game. This is where you create the concept, experience, and systems.
The second part is design. This is where you prove that the systems you’ve imagined can deliver the experience you’ve promised.
The third part of the process is development, where the finished design is refined so that it creates a consistently great experience.
It’s useful to complete as much of each of these steps as possible before you move on to the next, as revisions become significantly tougher and more involved at each layer.
Planning the Game
Before anything else, it’s useful to gather ideas and organize them. Collect ideas from everywhere you go and anything that inspires you. Consider how these might be arranged together to create a game experience.
Try to play out the game in your mind, or do a “white prototype” with blank index cards and simple rules (also called “calvin-balling”). It only takes a little work to understand if the majority of the game is going to be successful once it hits the table.
Creating the Game
Creation is the process of hypothesis, observation, integration, and repetition. It is an iterative, scientific process.
Create your prototypes as quickly and simply as possible, and most importantly, create them with a goal in mind.
Many designers create a game and bring it to the table without a goal. The assumption is that they’ll “know when it’s ready” by the fun they’re having. However, fun is a finicky thing. The right group will have fun with a deck of playing cards, and the wrong group won’t find fun in a masterpiece of game design.
Temper a trust of your gut instincts with a bit of scientific hypothesis and testing.
“What do I need to prove to know that this game is ready for press?”—That’s the starting question to ask yourself. Write out a big list of everything you need to know or prove before you assume a game is done.
Build your prototypes to answer these questions quickly and efficiently, and you’ll be on your way to building a great process. In future games, you’ll begin to see patterns emerge in the most important questions and their outcomes.
This process is sound in both design and development. Though your goals will differ, the method of hypothesis, testing, observation, and fine-tuning will serve you well in both phases.