Just Design Better!

I’ve remarked on this peculiar attitude among players and amateur designers before, but it’s worth bringing up again. People seem to think that game designers are wizards and can ignore the laws of… Well, maybe not physics but common sense.

When a designer cuts a mechanic that’s proving impossible to balance, players often respond “you should have kept the mechanic, just figured out how to balance it”. The same complaint applies to a large number of things, from using level-up systems (“if your game needs level-ups to keep people engaged, you should focus on designing a better game”) all the way to tutorials (“you shouldn’t have cut this super-confusing mechanic only I could understand, you should have just figured out how to teach it better”). In short, just design better.

A good comparison is this:

Critic: “Painters should only paint with their fingers. It’s purer art that way.”

Painter: “But using paintbrushes makes the job so much easier.”

Critic: “Then learn to paint better.”

Notice these complaints don’t include any ways to design things better. It’s often like complaining that your car runs out of gas and when the engineer explains cars need fuel, you respond “engineer better”.

Sometimes there are great solutions to these problems and often the easy solution can make you miss something even better. Imposing restraints on your designs can get you to find brilliant solutions you’d never have expected. But at some point, it’s basically complaining that the painter isn’t painting with her fingers.

So here’s the real question: How does a designer make sure they aren’t needlessly handicapping themselves, but also aren’t missing the truly great solution in exchange for the obvious good one? The basic guideline is to stick to your design goal. I like to write out a list of goals for a particular component of my game, in order of priority. For example, it might be great to introduce some wider lore about the world in an early mission but it might be essential that this mission teaches how to use the new mechanic I just introduced.

Usually I’ll get a list of 6+ priorities. I’ll start by trying to achieve them all at once, then  if necessary I’ll sacrifice the lesser priorities when they clash with the higher ones. And if something doesn’t show up on my priorities at all, such as how ‘pure’ the art is, then it’s easy to figure out that not using the metaphorical paintbrushes is a needless handicap.

This type of prioritized list can also be great for resolving arguments in a design team. If people agree to operate by the order of priorities established, and you can build them as a team, it’s much easier to argue for making a necessary cut to someone’s favorite content for the sake of the wider project. It’s not you ripping their idea, you’re just following the list. If the whole team got to contribute to the list and agrees on the priorities in a vacuum, before their favorite content starts clouding their judgment on a case by case basis, they have already bought into the prioritization. It’s a great personal tool and a great team tool for those moments when you need to sacrifice something cool, and what they thing should be.

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