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Designing for Others

The 18-to-35-year-old male demographic really, really loves first-person shooters. Most students I teach in game design classes are 18-to-35-year-old males. Most pitches that I receive in assignments are for first-person shooters. This is natural. Many game designers want to learn about game design because they want to make games like those that they themselves have enjoyed. Game design can be a long, tedious process. Is it not better to go through all that work for an idea that you love instead of one you don’t have a passion for?

If the answer is yes, who is left to make the SpongeBob games? They do not hire 8- to 12- year-olds to make games for the 8-to-12-year-old demographic. In fact, much of the industry is making games that do not serve the “core” demographic of 18-to-35-year-old men. It is a gift to be working on games for a living, but it is an extra-rare gift to be working on games that you like for a living. This can be a double-edged sword. Sometimes working on a genre you like can sour you on the genre entirely. For example, I worked on AAA sports games from 2004 to 2009, a genre I really liked. I have not bought a sports simulation game since I left that job. I just played them too much in my day-to-day life, so the magic behind them was lost.

Another issue that arises when you work on the types of games that you already enjoy is that you may find yourself stuck remaking the things that you already enjoy instead of pushing the envelope to make something new and exciting.

The point, however, is that if you are working on a game and you plan on selling 100,000 copies of it, it is quite likely that all 100,000 of those copies will be bought by someone other than you. So you need to be able to step into someone else’s shoes to deliver an experience that they will enjoy. And it can be really difficult when what those people enjoy differs from what you enjoy. Yet this is the norm and not the exception. Most designers are designing for people vastly different than themselves. Legendary MUD designer Richard Bartle says, “Designers don’t create virtual worlds that they, personally, wish to play; they create virtual worlds that people wish to play.”4

However, some design breakthroughs can be made by considering first how other people react to different elements of games. Independent designer Zach Gage made the hit game SpellTower because he did not like the mobile word games that existed and he wanted to make one that would challenge him to understand their appeal.5 His outside view on the genre allowed him to make an acclaimed and popular title, one that he would not have made if he only made games he enjoyed. The same is true for Michael Brough, who made Corrypt. He did not like puzzle-style games, so he made one that was excellent as a puzzle-style game but (because he was not beholden to the norms of the genre) one that also subverted the genre effectively.

It’s easy to say that you should just leave everything to playtesting and that your target audience will direct you on what to make. This is tempting, but also quite dangerous. Playtesters cannot help until they have something to test, which means you must make something with them in mind. Additionally, playtesters reject new ideas as confusing if they are not familiar with them. Sometimes you have to warm them up to a new idea before they embrace it. Also, playtesting is expensive in terms of time. You cannot bring in playtesters every day to make every little decision, nor can you spend the engineering time to A/B test every possible decision. At the end of the day, the designer needs to have an innate understanding of what he is trying to do.

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