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The Designer’s Code

February 22, 2009

Pre-Post Note: Much thanks to Brenda Brathwaite for allowing me to quote the quiz below verbatim.

I had a bit of an eye opener a couple days ago. In Brenda’s “Design Patterns for Games” class (I refuse to call it by its redundant title of “Game Design Patterns for Games”) we were presented with a rather interesting quiz.

Name: __________________________________________  Grade: _________________

Quiz #7

 Being a game designer is about being able to create rule sets for the player to follow in order to achieve a specific dynamic and outcome, typically “fun” in pursuit of a goal. This test is similar to that.

 It is has a set of rules in the form of a narrative that you must interpret in order to achieve a specific dynamic and outcome, in this case, some study in pursuit of a grade.

 Consider these things: 

  • Game designers make rules and follow them.
  • Game designers have oddly strong bonds to their fellow game designers in the field. We have one another’s back.
  • Game designers, to be successful in the long term, must gain the implicit trust of their team.
  • You either trust someone, or you don’t.
  • Your art as a game designer happens in your head.
  • Your lead designer trusts you to do your very best working on the project they have assigned.
    • Reading the chapter and understanding (not just memorizing) its patterns.
    • Considering how these patterns may impact your game and improve it or change it completely.
  • No one will know if you gave the project everything you had, or if you gave it some of what you had. You will.
  • No one will know if you later thought of something so much better, but declined to say something because it would result in more work for you (sometimes, days and days more work for you)
  • But your conscience will know how well you did.
  • A strong conscience is a gift.
  • This test is worth 10 points. Please go to the top line where you see “Grade” and enter your grade there.

My mind froze up at that last part. I had done the reading, but this had nothing to do with the reading. This was a quiz of our own conscious, and I had to sit there and literally think about everything I had accomplished – and failed to accomplish – in the last four years. It went something like this:

“You suck, everything you’ve made sucks, you’ve never reached a milestone, all projects you’ve done have turned into extended crunches, and you don’t make excuses for it.”

It made me think about Triwing, how it’s been pushed to the side just because it’s a shmup; about NightRise, how I am 8 years in and have nothing to show for it; about Absolution, how I messed up my alpha presentation; about Stalin’s Stash and how there are so many better board games that will be at Entelechy this year; what a nightmare the Global Game Jam was; and how despite all of that I am going indie. Very smooth.

“One minute. If you’re not done now, you’re never going to be.”

That’s when I realized it. Everything I was thinking? That was the point. If you can’t reflect on everything you’ve done in 5 minutes, you’ve got nothing honest to reflect on. You either know how you did or you don’t, and if you don’t know how you did, ask around.

For me it’s not about the money. If it was I’d be working my butt off trying to fix the economy on top of trying to get a job. It all stopped being about the recognition a long time ago. I’ve never won a damn thing in my life and I don’t need to to be proud of what I’ve accomplished. But I thought about the fact that my team managed to have a game by the end of the Game Jam, and how far Absolution had come in six weeks, and what a beautiful product Stalin’s Stash had turned into, and I realized that… screw everything else, it’s about making games.

There are two kinds of games. One is the good kind you get a pat on the shoulder for having made and then everyone forgets about it, and the other is the bad kind that no one ever lets you live down. Every once in a while you will get a great game that will change the face of the industry: Sim City, Civilization, Super Mario World, GTA IV, Gravitaiton, just to name a few. But for the most part, even if your game wins awards, for most people it’s just a game and it’ll be forgotten in time. For instance, who can honestly say which Madden game was the best? Conversely, could we please shut up about Daikatana already? The bad outweighs the good, so what can you do but be proud of the bad?

So after thinking long and hard, I wrote down an A, mainly because I had to think long and hard to convince myself it was right. It was more than just, “I did the reading and would have done well on this quiz anyway.” It was that no matter whether my games have been good or bad, I have not once strayed from the first advice I ever received regarding game design:

“Make a game you love. If you don’t love it, no one else will.”

Games, like everything else in life, need love. Supposedly humans need 4 hugs a day minimum for survival, 8 for maintenence, 12 for growth. Basically, you start out with 8HP, or 8 Hug Points. If you get 4 hugs, you don’t lose any points, but if you get under 4 hugs you lose a point for every hug you didn’t get. If you get 8 hugs, you can refill all your hug points, and if you get 12 hugs you get 4 more permanent hug points, thus bringing your HP up to 12 from that point on. See? I just made a game out of hugging. Doesn’t sound very difficult, and there’s no exponential growth for hug demand when you level up. I think everyone should play this game. Why? Because lo and behold, you can make a game about hugs, and that’s pretty awesome. But if your love goes into making a game, how do you hug a game? Sure you can grab its box and squeeze it as tightly as you want, but if a game is a set of rules developed into a philosophy for how we interact within a game state… how do you hug that?

The way I see it, every time you play a game, you are hugging it. Every time you playtest your game you are helping it grow into something better. Then the game is released into the public, people play it for a couple months at most, and then stack it in their collection or sell it on eBay or back to Gamestop. The whole prospect is a bit upsetting, really. If I loved this game while I was making it, then that means that in some way or another it has some semblance of life. Which means it needs to be hugged/played as much as possible in order for it to survive. Best example I can think of? Everquest, 10 years old, and it still has a community. World of Warcraft, 4 years old, still the most popular MMO to the point of putting all new MMOs to shame. Those games, and others, are getting their hugs. What about Grim Fandango? How often does that classic get its needed hugs?

The good dies. The bad lives. You’d think it would be the other way around. We still talk about Hitler, we rarely talk about Churchill. It is the garbage that teaches us the lessons we need to learn, that tells us, “That was a bad idea, let’s not do that again.” The bad lives on for us not to become ignorant of what it was. We all know it’s there, but bad games, like bad people, just can’t be forgotten, and for good reason. They are the ones that teach us the lessons we need to learn, and that is, I think, something any designer should be proud of.

“No one will know if you gave the project everything you had, or if you gave it some of what you had. You will.”

“An A can be a 9 or a 10. Which is it?”

“… 9.5”

I’ve always liked 9.5. Honestly, I like it better than 10. Nothing is a 10. It’s like, “Yeah, I may have gotten a 10 on this test but I totally guessed on that last question.” That’s not a 10. That’s just luck, and good design doesn’t come through luck. The way I see it, there is always room for improvement. We may not see it, but you know what you did wrong. You know what corners you cut, either to save time or to fit technological limitations. Whatever your excuse, it’s an excuse. There’s no room for excuses. What’s done is done.

So I took a less than perfect grade. Why? Because I’m not perfect. I am proud of what I have accomplished because I have given it all the love it deserved. Does that make all my games perfect? No, but it makes the games I wanted to play. I love ’em. Someone else out there is bound to love ’em too. The award isn’t what’s important.

Just leave them smiling.

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One Comment
  1. great post, dan.

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