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How to Get Started as a Systemic Game Designer

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Look at different aspects of the game design process and how to get started in each as a systemic game designer. Figure out your strengths—and those places where you need to seek help from others.

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This chapter is from the book

In this chapter, we move from the foundational theory to the practice of designing games. Here we look at different aspects of the game design process and how to get started in each as a systemic game designer.

This is an overview that will be supplemented by Chapters 6, 7, and 8, where we go into more depth on designing the game as a unified whole, then its loops, and finally its parts.

How Do You Even Start?

Lots of people want to design games. They dream about it and talk about it but somehow never manage to actually get started. This is common, and most people who say they have a burning desire to design games never actually do it. Few manage to gather their courage and begin the journey of wading into the dark waters of game design. Rarer still are those who emerge on the far side, dragging their game kicking and screaming from the inchoate sea of design ideas. (That may seem like an overwrought metaphor, but when you complete your first game, you may no longer think so.)

One of the first questions people commonly ask when contemplating doing game design as more than a hobby, more than a “wouldn’t it be cool if” activity, is along the lines of “How do I even start?” Designing a game can seems like an impossible problem with no easy handles, no obvious way in. The sheer complexity and impenetrability of the problem can make it seem like the best you can do is leap in with both feet and hope for the best. That is, in fact, what generations of game designers up to now have done. At some point, those of us who have been designing games for decades just sort of made that first leap. For many the first few attempts are utter failures. Rovio went through 51 attempts before hitting it big with Angry Birds—and even this attempt looked like a flop at first (Cheshire 2011).

Failure itself isn’t a bad thing; anytime you try something new (which is most of the time in game design), you are going to fail a lot. However, you can reduce the amount and duration of failure by approaching game design systemically. Seeing a game as a system (containing other systems) is a good way to crack the problem of where to start in the otherwise overwhelming process.

From Wholes to Parts or Parts to Wholes

One key to knowing how to start is figuring out whether to begin with the parts, the loops, or the whole of your design. Opinions run high on this question. Many designers are firmly in one camp or another, and what they do works for them. Some designers will declare that any game design must start with “the nouns and verbs”—that is, the parts that will form the systems—while others begin with a more intuitive feeling of the kind of experience they want to create. Occasionally some will even start with Ellenor’s (2014) idea of “a machine that does x” and then work out what parts make it go and what sort of gameplay experience emerges from it. Differences of opinion on the “right” way to approach game design can make for miscommunication and talking past each other.1

Despite strong opinions from some designers, there is no single “right” way to approach game design. Our systemic view should make this clear: in designing a game, you need to get to the point where you have fully defined the parts, the loops, and the whole of your design. As a game designer, you need to be able to move up and down the organizational levels with ease, shifting your focus between the parts, the loops, and the whole as needed. As a result, you can start the design process with whichever of these makes the most sense and bounce between them as needed.

Know Your Strengths, Work to Your Weaknesses

When you begin thinking about making a game, where do your thoughts lead you? Do you think about things like having a game where players are sharks or superheroes, or where each is a kite in the sky? Or are you more likely to approach a game as a simulation or modeling problem? If it’s a game about a little one-celled organism, do you start by listing all the parts of the cell? Or do you maybe start thinking about a game where the player is the manager of a remote trading post by jotting down how buying and selling would work?

Every game designer has their strengths; everyone has their “home place” where they start—and then retreat to when making the design becomes difficult. You need to find out where your game design home is and then work out ways to not give in to the temptation to stay there; you also need to figure out how to work with others who approach game design differently from you.

The doing of game design is the best way to figure out which parts of the process come most naturally to you. Still, it is worth considering where you think it should start and working from there.

Storytellers

Game designers who tend to start with the whole experience often paint an evocative picture of the player’s journey through a game: how the player feels, what they encounter, and what sort of changes they go through. Game designers like these can sometimes seem like expert storytellers. They’re able to give you the grand sweep of the world…but they can run into trouble. Games aren’t stories. “Telling” a game like a story can be a satisfying first pass at building the world that the players inhabit, but ultimately the game has to be much more than that.

A storyteller needs to hang on to their talent for painting a mental picture of the experience of a world but not get stuck there. If you are a storyteller, you need to build your talents for creating working systems that have their own tokens, rules, and dynamic elements. You likely have the thematic part in hand, but you need to support it with the structure of the underlying game—and work with others who can help you do so.

Inventors

Many game designers are enamored of inventing complex mechanisms—things like clocks with lots of gears, marble-run sculptures, and so on. These can be mesmerizing displays of systems in action. Similarly, sometimes game designers come up with ideas for new kinds of ecological or economic mechanisms and spend time playing with them. For example, the early prototypes for the game Spore included lots of different simulation mechanisms, including one that (with a bit of help from the player) simulated the formation of a star system from an interstellar cloud of gas and dust.

But as fascinating as these inventions can be, they aren’t games. As with telling a story about a game, designers will sometimes build a mechanism that scratches the “watch it go” itch, only to realize that they left out the need for a human player. The designer may toss the player a few scraps of things to do, but it’s clear that the mechanism or simulation remains in the spotlight. If you are an inventor, you can do a lot to build fascinating dynamic systems—but don’t forget that games must have human involvement as an integral part of the system and that players need to have long-term goals and reasons to play the game (the whole of the game), or it will be uninteresting to them.

Toymakers

Finally, some game designers are first and foremost toymakers. They love to make little pieces or mechanisms that don’t really do anything but are still attractive and engaging, at least for a minute or so. Or they might be among those with highly specific domain knowledge—things like the climbing rate and ammunition capacity for a Sopwith Camel or the relative merits of different sorts of swords in medieval (or at least fantasy) combat, or the types of coral on a typical reef—or may just love digging in to find this kind of information.

Many game designers who start with the “nouns and verbs” of their design fit into the toymaker category. Maybe you want to make a game about cells in the immune system attacking invading viruses, and so you start with what you know (or anything you can find) about how a T-cell works. What the player does and why this is engaging or fun are questions that you may not think about right away or that you may have difficulty finding answers for. Having the ability to ground your design in specific parts and behaviors—tokens and rules, nouns and verbs—helps you create prototypes quickly. However, to make it into a game, you need to find ways to build interactive systems and find some goals for the player to pursue and experience.

Working Together to Find the Fun

The good news about these different views of game design is that once you find your starting point as a designer, you can extend your abilities into the other areas. Any one of these is great as a starting point, as long as you don’t end there, too. The better news is that you can also find others who have different game design talents and work with them. It can be difficult and even frustrating for game designers with different design styles to work together, but the result is almost always far better and more engaging for the player as a result.

No matter which part of the game design process you prefer, you will need to extend yourself into the other areas and learn to listen to and work with those who see the game design process differently from you. A lot of game design comes down to being able to communicate your ideas, hear other people’s ideas, and generally work together with those who have strengths that are different from yours. Understanding game design as systemic design helps illuminate these different views on games as systems and on game designers as system designers. That understanding should help you refine your skills and look for others who complement them.

A large part of doing game design is in the oft-repeated phrase “find the fun.” You may start with a cool toy, an intriguing mechanisms, or a compelling experience—the parts, loops, and whole of a game—but you will need all three elements plus engaging interactivity to build a fun game. To do that, you need to apply your knowledge of systems to creating game systems and games as systems.

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