The Unselfconsious Game Designer

12 Aug

All top down shooters involve shooting the same little enemies in patterns, with different art; you need a sprint, a jump, a reload, a crouch; racing games must have lots of tracks and cars, like all other racing games; you need a rocket launcher and a pistol in your FPS.  These are all givens that have been defined for the game designer by other game designers.  Who knows whether the originator(s) intended for the solution to their problem to become a staple.

I recently became aware of Christopher Alexander’s work after browsing Ben Cousins’ (Home, Battlefield franchise) site.  Alexander is a big name in architectural design, and Ben picked out this choice quote.

In the unselfconscious culture the same form is made over and over again and again; in order to learn form-making, people need only learn to repeat a single familiar physical pattern. In the selfconscious culture new purposes are occurring all the time; the people who make the forms are constantly required to deal with problems that are either entirely new or at best modifications of old problems. Under these circumstances it is not enough to copy old physical patterns. So that people will be able to make innovations and modifications as required, ideas about how and why things get their shape must be introduced. Teaching must be based on explicit general principles of function, rather than unmentioned and specific principles of shape.

I shall call a culture unselfconscious if it’s form-making is learned informally, through imitation and correction. And I shall call a culture self-conscious if its form-making is taught academically, according to explicit rules.

Does the average game designer know why the reload mechanic he is implementing is the way it is, or is he building the mechanic in that way because that’s how it worked in Quake?  This certainly wasn’t the focus of my schooling in game design, so I’m going to assume that on the whole the answer is no.

Game design is largely unselfconscious.  To say so is a generalization, as people work in different studios and come from different backgrounds.  But I can say with certainty that no language exists to allow the teaching of game design methods, and it’s alarming.  What is taught is unselfconscious.  I was never taught why variations in height in a game level were good, I was taught that variation in height is good.  It’s the equivalent of solving a math problem without knowing the formula; that’s why your math teacher was always such a stickler when it came to showing your work on a problem.

We should also be careful not to misinterpret structure for standardization.  Christopher Alexander also proffers that in understanding a method of design a loss of innocence occurs; no longer is creation a mysterious artistic venture but rather it becomes something which can be recreated.

Many game designers refuse to admit that design can be broken down into a science.  It’s a silly thought since even the artists on the team follow the rules of their trade, or bend them knowingly for a special purpose.  Colour palettes are chosen for a certain reason, leading lines are used, the rule of thirds is taken into account, etc.  None of these rules restrict the artist, but rather let them concentrate on being creative without worrying if their creation will work as intended.

/edit if you’re interested in the subject, check out Stephane Bura’s article on Gamasutra titled Emotion Engineering: A Scientific Approach For Understanding Game Appeal.

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5 Responses to “The Unselfconsious Game Designer”

  1. Mélanie August 12, 2008 at 7:41 pm #

    Hey Nick,

    Good article! It’s true we didn’t get that kind of formation but I think it was mostly because the school had to teach so many hard skills at the same time. What you’re talking about could take more than a year to teach…

    I also believe that a good designer will understand why “variation in height is good” without behind told exactly why – no decision should be made upon guts feeling.

  2. nickhalme August 12, 2008 at 9:49 pm #

    Thanks for the response!

    It does beg the question; would longer, more traditional programs be necessary to teach that way, as opposed to a faster trade school environment.

    Your last statement kind of contradicts itself; the idea that ‘a good designer should know’ is quite unselfconscious, and reliant upon gut feelings.

    So for example, in order to teach the rule that variation in height is good in level design we would establish why no variation in height is bad, and then see what the added variation adds. The result is an understanding of why it works so it can be repurposed, rather than an understanding that ‘it is the right thing to do because I was told so’.

  3. Duncan August 17, 2008 at 12:58 pm #

    I’ve spoken to a couple of people about research into getting a scientific standard for video game mechanics. It’s a double edged weapon these days, especially with the amount of shovel ware floating around. For example; if someone worked out the most ‘fun’ physics for a platform game, best jump times/distances it would give more room for complacency; instead of going through the iterative process of working out what works best for the game being created it would be much simpler and less time consuming to default to the metrics that had been laid out as the most fun by scientific study. I think this would lead to a lot of derivative same-y games that would be easily consumable but not original.

  4. Sande Chen August 17, 2008 at 7:17 pm #

    I suspect that some game designers don’t have time to keep up with reading research and game criticism, just like some M.D.s don’t have time to follow the latest medical research. As for research on game design, it is spread across many areas: education, psychology, communications, computer science, visual arts, software design, etc., so it makes it quite hard to follow. Game designers should endeavor to be more well-informed. Recently, I read a Gamasutra article and it was pointed out in the comments that this so-called revolutionary idea had been presented at the GDC about ten years ago.

  5. nickhalme August 17, 2008 at 10:53 pm #

    “I think this would lead to a lot of derivative same-y games that would be easily consumable but not original.”

    That’s not what developing principles of function would entail. If we’re going to first establish that what we are doing can be classified as ’emotion engineering’ then fun cannot be an emotion. Nobody can figure out the ‘most fun’ way of jumping. You can figure out the scariest ways of jumping, the most controlled ways of jumping, the most empowering ways of jumping — but in no way does that limit creativity, rather it gives you a toolbox of standards to deviate from with confidence. The opposite is recreating the same systems for reasons not fully understood and perhaps seeming to be original to the developers.

    “I suspect that some game designers don’t have time to keep up with reading research and game criticism, just like some M.D.s don’t have time to follow the latest medical research.”

    I recently listened to a short speech by Tony Robbins on TED, and he made a good point about resourcefulness: people will always complain that they don’t have enough resources, whether it be time or money, but it is the people who can be resourceful and compensate for that deficiency that succeed. If they don’t have time to keep up on their field, then they are becoming part of the force that is holding advancements in the field back.

    “As for research on game design, it is spread across many areas: education, psychology, communications, computer science, visual arts, software design, etc., so it makes it quite hard to follow.”

    Yes, there are many disciplines involved, but they are all involved in small chunks. They each lend a part and not the whole and coalesce into something that we haven’t yet organized properly, into game design.

    “this so-called revolutionary idea had been presented at the GDC about ten years ago.”

    All the more reason to keep spreading the idea, because obviously there has been little action since. Perhaps due to those who don’t endeavor to be well informed. All of these articles weren’t written to be revolutionary, they were written because nobody talks about it. If it seems revolutionary, it’s only because it’s the elephant in the room that everybody has been putting off.

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