Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

14 April, 2016

What does it mean to think like a game designer?

One of the projects I mentioned yesterday is a book I’m tentatively calling “Thinking Like a Game Designer”. It’s an idea I’ve been kicking around for a while, and how seems like a good time to pick up my old notes and organize them into something coherent.

Let me talk a bit about my thoughts for this project.

The Inspiration

I had two sources of inspiration for this.

The first is Dr. Richard Bartle or, more specifically, his blog (and associated social media posts). When I started reading Richard’s blog years ago, I was struck by how he would often seem to write about game topics without necessarily writing explicitly about game topics. The way he looked at the world, especially how he pointed out “bugs” in the offline world, was fascinating. As I grew as a game designer myself, I grew to see how his point of view came from him being a game designer.

I later came to know this as “systems thinking”, or understanding how parts fit together to make up a whole. This is incredibly important for a game designer, as you’re often working on smaller parts of a game (combat, progression, interaction, story, etc.) and have to make sure each of these fits together into a coherent product.

The second source of inspiration is the game industry itself. Ask 10 people to describe game design and you’ll get at least 15 different answers. And despite there being “game design” degrees now, the path to becoming and growing as a designer is unclear at best, or pure luck at worst. The industry still expects you to “pay your dues” doing grunt work in obscurity and then be fortunate enough to get on a high profile project. As teams grow, an individual’s contribution tends to get obscured and it can be hard to stand out from the crowd. Sometime self-promotion and networking advance a career further than actual game design experience does. So, I’d like to lay down some thoughts about what it takes to become and grow as a game designer, through my own experiences and from the scattered work (including non-obvious work like Richard’s blog) to help others out.

Also, I’d like to help indies to understand game design better. With no resources to turn to, it can be hard for a talented and creative person to understand what they need to do in order to create a solid design to work from. So, this book should be useful for people who aren’t looking for the title of “Game Designer” at an established game development company.

The Topics

I’ve written about this topic briefly before as it’s something I’m keenly interested in. But, the book would be more than a wordy version of that post. Here are some more thoughts on what I would write about. I’m still organizing my thoughts, so forgive me if this seems a bit scattered right now.

At the core, I think design consists of three parts: Analysis, Synthesis, and Genesis. The first thing you do is analyze what is out there and how constraints influence the results. When I was young, before I even knew what game design was, I thought about the games I played in a simple form of analysis. How did the limitations of the controls of Space Invaders influence the game? Compare this to games like Scramble and Gorf a few years later and how the advancement of technology allowed for more movement on the screen and how that changed gameplay. Understanding other related games and the constraints from things like controllers is important, even if you’re creating something entirely new not based on another work.

Next comes synthesis. When you understand different bits and pieces of games, you start to put them together in novel ways. Take a racing game and add shooting, and you get a game like Spy Hunter. Sometimes this process involves taking an existing mechanic and refining it. We often refer to this as “adding a layer of polish” to a mechanic to enhance it by bringing out the essence. This combining/refining of elements is the foundation of what we call “creativity”, and the most creative people are usually the ones who can combine/refine elements in new and interesting ways.

Finally, there is genesis, or the actual creation of a work. This is the hard work of actually implementing the sometimes amorphous ideas; where the rubber hits the road. This includes dealing with the fact that sometimes realities force you to change your grand plan. The actual work tends to be the neglected side of discussion as it’s less sexy than talking about grand ideas and designs. But, I think this is one of the most important areas to understand because, until you actually create your work, it amounts to little more than idle daydreaming. Working on your design and communicating that design to others is vital. Learning how to work as a team to improve the design is also imperative for a good end result.

Beyond big-picture concepts like this, I’d also like to cover some practical topics. For example: what is creativity and how can a game designer harness it? The importance of communication in design. The nature of interactivity and how to design for it. Understanding the audience and how a player thinks in a game. How to use data as both a servant and a master for design. Thinking like a Lead Designer: convincing and leading people, leading the creative process, maintaining a vision.

Lots of possible content for a book. As I said, still putting together notes and reading reference material. I should have a good outline soon.

The Process

A little while ago Randy farmer wrote a book called Building Web Reputation Systems. What was interesting is that if you visit that site, they have drafts of the chapters posted online. They posted the chapters online and got feedback from interested people. I think that would be a good way to handle this book. As I wrote chapters, I’d post up drafts for people to review. I’d go through the editing process with suggestions in hand to improve the work.

I’m playing around with the idea of doing a Kickstarter for this project. Raise a bit of money to cover the basics, and perhaps get some money up front for things like an outside editor, professional ebook formatting, a cover design, and so forth. I could even spend money to do some interviews with notable game designers as stretch goals, which would echo the “I Wish I Knew” chapter that was perhaps the most informative one from the previous book. And if I could enough raise money, I’d be able to get his done faster as I could focus on it to the exclusion of other work.

I’d probably keep the book as an ebook to start, but with enough demand it could be something I get published in traditional dead tree format.

The Future

So, what do you think? Would this be the type of Kickstarter project you could get behind? Something that you think would benefit the world?

If you have any thoughts or feedback on this idea I’d love to hear it!


  1. Not to discourage you from undertaking this project (because it’s certainly a relevant topic of interest to many), but I wonder about the “benefit the world” part.

    With all the books published about various facets of game design, and the academia that has risen up around the profession in the last decade, has any of it actually moved the needle in terms of improving the craft? More than practical experience and advances in tools and processes, I mean.

    I ask that not to be pedantic. I honestly don’t know.

    From my experience, there’s certainly value in professionals getting together and exchanging ideas, which is built upon a foundation of shared or analogous experiences. It seems far less certain to me that non-professionals really benefit from such insights until they have experiences of their own which they can relate to.

    At the same time, I realize this sounds a bit like “Sorry, kid, you gotta earn your stripes the hard way.” Not trying to come off that curmudgeonly. :p But seriously, is there any way of knowing whether the attempts at scholarship are paying off?

    Comment by Steve Danuser — 14 April, 2016 @ 1:54 PM

  2. Well, there’s the question of whether the Kickstarter should cover publishing costs or just writing effort. We should have a chat about that, really, it’s too long of a blog post comment :(

    Comment by unwesen — 14 April, 2016 @ 1:58 PM

  3. Steve Danuser wrote:
    Not to discourage you from undertaking this project (because it’s certainly a relevant topic of interest to many), but I wonder about the “benefit the world” part.

    Not curmudgeonly, and something I’ve thought about quite a bit, myself.

    Part of the reason I entitled it “Thinking like a game designer” instead of something like, “How to design games” is because I learning is more fundamental. When we learn something, we often adopt a way of thinking in order to really understand the lessons. For example, when learning a language you can either parrot back phrases or really dig deep and understand rules of grammar and pronunciation to truly learn the language. I think a lot of the scholarship on game design so far as been of the former type, not the deep understanding of the latter.

    Once you cross some mysterious threshold and “become a game designer”, most professionals have an intuitive understanding about what “game design” means, or at least what is expected of the job. But, I think that we still lack the fundamental tools to help people learn about game design and how to help people become better game designers as a craft.

    I think the current system works well enough for those who have made it as industry designated “designers”, but it is still fraught with peril for people who haven’t received that recognition yet.

    I appreciate you asking the question, though! I won’t claim to have all the answers, but I have the time and inclination to think about it right now.

    Comment by Psychochild — 14 April, 2016 @ 2:10 PM

  4. FWIW, Steve, my sense from seeing the work produced by a lot of young designers these days, is that yes, there has been a very real gradual dissemination of tools and techniques down the chain. Brand new folks coming at this with only book knowledge have better communication and analysis chops, thanks to more widespread terminology (core loop, reward schedules, and lots more). It had led to more competent and polished work from newbies, and more improtantly, to much easier integration into teams because there’s shared practices and languages there that the newbies know about.

    They don’t necessarily have better *instincts* but those come with practice and experience. But it’s easier to explain why something’s off, etc. So it accelerates the learning curve.

    That’s just my experience, though.

    Comment by Raph Koster — 14 April, 2016 @ 2:26 PM

  5. I’ll buy that, Raph. I have noticed interns these days seem able to jump in and get up to speed quickly, probably thanks to a shared conceptual foundation.

    Now if I could just get those damn kinds to keep off my lawn…

    Comment by Steve Danuser — 14 April, 2016 @ 3:40 PM

  6. As I said on Twitter, Moorgard and Raph posting on my blog almost makes this feel like old times again! :)

    Comment by Psychochild — 14 April, 2016 @ 7:55 PM

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