Design by Trane

Message boards clamor for it; freshly minted designers can’t help but gravitate toward it. Oh, for that revolutionary MMO gameplay that’s going to flip the genre on its ear and take it in a whole new direction. The thought of shaking off the baggage of EQ and WoW and never looking back is a very popular notion these days.

It’s also a path fraught with peril… but not for the reasons you might suspect.

I’m not talking about the risk inherent in thumbing your nose at a model proven successful by 9 million players; that’s for investors and executives to deal with. I’m talking about approaching this from a design standpoint, because when it comes down to it, game design is a discipline like any other. And like any discipline, you need to develop a toolset and learn how to apply it.

See, it’s tricky with game design. Everybody who ever played an MMO has come up with ideas they think could make the game better. But as my colleague Dymus is fond of pointing out, ideas are not the same thing as game design. However, since good design is harder (in a general sense) to quantify than other forms of artistic expression–and since everyone thinks they can be a game designer on some level (c’mon, admit it!)–the discipline doesn’t always receive the respect it deserves.

Allow me to illustrate my point courtesy of one of my favorite musicians of all time: John Coltrane. By the late peiod of his career, Coltrane was known for taking jazz into unheard of new directions. He shattered expectations and turned out amazing avant-garde work that blows away most artists who have tried to touch it.

But Coltrane didn’t always play this style of music. His early recordings are much more traditional jazz, and while unquestionably brilliant and creative, they follow a much more expected progression than his later material.

What does this have to do with game design and the danger I alluded to back at the start of this piece? If Coltrane hadn’t learned the basic tools of his craft, he would never have evolved to the point in his career that he eventually did. Sure, someone who has never played an instrument could pick up a saxophone and delve immediately into atonal work, but without the fundamental training to back it up, odds are they’re just going to make noise.

MMO design is the same way. If someone fresh off the street jumps in with the intent of revolutionizing the industry with their grand new ideas, odds are they’re going to blow it. Why? Because they likely lack the basic toolset necessary to hone their craft. It would be like trying to paint the Sistine Chapel the very first time you pick up a brush–you really need to learn how to paint a bowl of fruit first.

This is not to say that the only way someone is going to innovate is by first making a WoW clone. But unless you get inside the basic concepts and execution which made that game what it is, you’re not going to really understand them… which in turn makes it less likely that you’re going to transcend them.

And though I hate to break it to all the bloggers out there, just playing these games is not the same thing. Listen to Coltrane in Japan a thousand times and you might be able to visualize the notes and appreciate their structure, but in no way does it mean you can make an album with the same skill and intensity.

Ideas live in a vacuum and can be debated ad infinitum. Game design is the structured implementation of lots of carefully considered ideas into a cohesive system that feels like an organic whole. To do it well, you must practice your standards and paint your flower arrangements so that one day you can take the tools you’ve mastered and build something truly unique and every bit your own.

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Steve Danuser, also known as Moorgard, is a a writer, editor, and game designer.

14 thoughts on “Design by Trane”

  1. Ok.. I have to bite the bullet a bit here and just spout off a bit.. Yes, there’s something to be learned from studying past iterations of game design in general, or MMO-specific. It’s good to know what were good design decisions and what were bad. It’s good to know how to crawl before you walk, walk before you run, etc.

    That said, you have to be very careful to not approach everything as a derivative of the previous concept or idea. Certainly you can abstract tons of meaningful psychological analysis from how people react to various mechanics to identify what is fun and why, but that doesn’t make it a mathematical algorithm that works in every case. I’m not saying that YOU believe this is so, but I felt it should be stated none the less.

    As a matter of fact, it’s quite likely that the repetition of many patterns in games, MMO or otherwise, will eventually leave the player unfulfilled. New patterns must be presented to the player to prevent boredom. Derivatives of previous mechanics that remain too familiar to the old concept, or are just the old concept re-dressed in a pretty package might work in the short-term, but do not hold interest for long, unless of course the player is new and has not mastered these patterns already.

    The games that find new ways to engage the player are the ones that will be remembered as great, as has always been the case. Super Mario Bros, Half-life 2, Oblivion, even EverQuest when it first arrived are all good examples.

    Like Coltrane.. learn the basics for sure, but only so you can shed them entirely and begin to truly feel the music.

    My two copper…

  2. You’re starting to sound like a stodgy old republican, Steve ;)

    There are a couple of different people with “ideas” here, IMO. There are the peope who throw out ideas because “omg I don’t like this, why don’t they just do it THIS way???” followed by arm flailing. Yes – they are destined to fail.

    Have you considered that people’s “ideas” are a form of eliciting feedback though? Like you said a lot of people want to be game designers. It’s not like there’s a Game Design 101 manual or class out there that’s easy to find (or is there? It’s eluded my scans…). You talk about “practicing standards” and “painting flower arrangements” which basically equates to some level of developed experience – i’d ask where the average joe who isn’t in the industry is going to get a chance to do that?

    Some people submit ideas for the sole intent of watching it get picked apart and mutilated by people who actually know what they are talking about. Why? Because this is the only interaction that aspiring game developers have with the real design world – submit idea/watch it get picked apart, achieve some insight into the gaming world, and go back to the drawing table. I could easily argue that this process represents the very foundation of one’s growth in the field – interaction with mentors, submit/rewrite/resubmit and feedback/criticism. Doesn’t this very process in itself represent the “painting of flower arrangements” needed to get someone to the Sistine Chapel stage?

    I’m all about “putting your money where your mouth is”. If you’re going to criticize and suggest ideas, you have to be ready for a professional response that will overwhelmingly bury your idea under a mound of technicalities. If you get buried and give up and go home – then game design wasn’t for you. If you get buried, and dig your way out, learn from it and come back for more, then maybe it is. The only way revolutionary ideas come about is when they are scrutinized, picked apart, beaten about, shredded, then rebuilt, rewritten, polished and refined to the point of being a quality that stands above the rest which has gone through the same process.

    The good thing is these people have already identified an area they’d like to improve on, and as they acquire a bigger picture of the design world and what needs to be done to do what, they are constantly formulating ways to make that aspect better as they learn. Hence why “fresh blood” is a good thing. I’d say, take one of those people who has grand ideas of revolutionizing the gaming world, temper them with mentors, and watch where the gaming world takes off to. No, they won’t revolutionize the gaming world, but isn’t that the mentality game companies look for when they put “must have a *passion* for games” on their job descriptions?

    But then they put “must have lots of experience in game development” and then it’s back to practicing jazz without a musical instrument.

  3. I think what Moorgard is pointing out is really the difference between being a creator and a critic. In order to be a ‘good’ critic, you need to have a huge amount of experience for comparison… but being a creator is very different as it involves fundamental skill and knowledge. Take the idea of a food critic and a food as an example.

    It’s fun for me, as an avid MMO gamer, to try and shift my point of view from critic to creator and honestly think about design and development. It’s quite scary and far harder than one would initially think. Just try and come up with an idea or a few concepts for an MMO that doesn’t revolve around the standard play features. It’s very tough.

    This post is really interesting and makes me curious to hear about what 38 Studios are going to develop. Want to spill any beans, Moorgard? :)

  4. Ooops. “Take the idea of a food critic and a food as an example” should read “Take the idea of a food critic and a CHEF as an example”. It makes no sense otherwise :)

  5. I’m not saying that working first-hand on a WoW-like game is the only way you’ll understand it. But unless you have gotten the proper tools and training in the discipline of game design, it is less likely that the average person would be able to examine particular systems or content and fully understand what does or doesn’t work, thereby being able to move beyond those systems or content in ways that are truly better.

    That’s convoluted and pretentious, so let me try to rephrase.

    One of the great things about this business is that great ideas can come from anywhere at anytime. That’s partly what makes online communities such a major facet of games–especially games that constantly evolve like MMOs do.

    But for each player-generated idea that gets posted somewhere and ends up being put into a game, there are hundreds/thousands of others that aren’t, even though they may sound equally cool. Why aren’t those put in? Probably because they didn’t fit within the context or overall goals of that particular game.

    That’s the difference between ideas and game design. Designers have the burden of making sure their implementation matches the goals and overall feel of the game they’re working on, or else the idea will end up on the cutting room floor. It’s not all that different from watching deleted scenes from a film. Very often, directors will talk about how a particular scene that got cut is their favorite moment from the movie. So why cut it? Because it just didn’t fit with what the project was at its core.

    A dedicated MMO player could sit down on any given day and list off dozens of features from their favorite games that they’d like to see end up in their dream MMO. And on the surface that makes sense: why not just throw a whole bunch of fun cool things together? That will make something even more awesome than what’s come before, right?

    The problem is, all those cool features (even if there was time to implement all of them in a sane production schedule) don’t necessarily gel together in a consistent way. And if they don’t, no matter how cool they are, they need to be cut.

    (This is one of the reasons combining awesome musicians into a single supergroup rarely works out all that well, by the way.)

    The game designer part of you needs to understand that and accept such conclusions, even though the player part of you is screaming for the feature to remain. Successful design is all about being able to send your most beloved ideas crashing to the floor if the game is stronger as a whole for it.

    The other point I want to clarify is that I’m not talking about absolutes, such as “You just don’t get it because you aren’t a real designer.” As with anything, there are many shades of grey. The distinction I’m trying to make is that:

    ideas + implementation = game design


    ideas = game design

    Which is a point that is easily lost in the critique-by-talking-loud atmosphere of many online gaming communities.

  6. I had to add my 2 cents in to this. While I dont work in the game industry I do work in mainframe development. Explaining to a CEO why their brilliant idea doesnt work within the technical framework that exists is for the most part a waste of time and effort. People (especially gamers) typically believe that they are smarter than anyone else so why shouldnt their ideas be better. The fact that the idea has probably been considered and discarded by those who are AWARE of what the system can and can not do is immaterial. I for one dont think the statement that in order to innovate you must understand the basics is elitist. I think believing that you will be the next John Carmack without the knowledge to back it up is naive.

  7. “But unless you have gotten the proper tools and training in the discipline of game design, it is less likely that the average person would be able to examine particular systems or content and fully understand what does or doesn’t work”
    I agree- it’s a credibility issue really. But then there’s the people who want to establish that level of credibility but don’t have the tools/training nor is it readily available. In music, if you want to learn to play the piano, you can go out and buy a piano and take some piano lessons. Game design is a wee bit more complicated, expensive and way more time consuming to be taking on as a non professional venture. So what avenues does that leave a person who wants to establish credibility?

    “Successful design is all about being able to send your most beloved ideas crashing to the floor if the game is stronger as a whole for it.”
    I’d even go so far as to say some already existing designs, no matter how hard everyone wanted them to work, should have been scrapped :) I’m curious to know at what point designers are trying and trying to fit something into the achitecture and at what point they finally say “this isn’t going to work”.

    Another subtle point is the old highlander catch phrase “There can be only one”. Lets face it, there’s a million ways to implement one thing, and several hundred might even fit perfectly into the existing architecture and “big picture”. But reality is – there can be only one way. And people will complain “well why wasn’t it done this way” or “that way”, and really it comes down to the fact that if it was, then an equal # of people would complain “well why wasn’t it done the (first) way?”. Did anyone ever read through the SWG Jedi forums? If you want an idea graveyard, dig that place up. There was a billion ideas there, and I’m sure an excellent designer could have properly implemented a hundred of them, but lets face it: there’s only one Star Wars MMO and there can be only one way to do it.

  8. “Game design is a wee bit more complicated, expensive and way more time consuming to be taking on as a non professional venture. So what avenues does that leave a person who wants to establish credibility?”

    There are a few free or low-cost game toolsets available to the public. Create a mod in one of them. Fine tune it until it’s satisfying game play as you see it. Submit your mod to that game’s community and look at the feedback.

    Make another. And another. Each time you go through the process, you learn more about what makes it fun, what makes it interesting and what needs to be cut.

    This is just one way to gain some design experience without have a game industry job. Some designers got their start this way, so it’s a definite possibility.

  9. “Listen to Coltrane in Japan a thousand times..” I’d have stopped right there.

    One of my favorite things, one hour of My Favorite Things from that album. Great call. When I was in college in St. Paul during Bush I’s tenure, the late night Jazz DJ would play that at least once a week – I think so he could eat or nap.

  10. I think you touched on an excellent point when standards were mentioned. What exactly are the standards of the game design industry? Oh sure, there are professional organizations, but are there actual standards?

    In many ways, game design follows a very archaic structure of master/apprenticeship. if you look over the online resumes of a hundred game designers, the most popular path into the industry seems to be QA. I think this fits very much into what you’re saying here – that you have to learn the basic rules before you can attempt start to write new ones. QA is the epitome of “learning the rules”. Generally speaking, one isn’t creating in QA. One takes the creations of others and systematically applies rigorous testing standards to the design over and over to verify the systems work as expected. In many ways, it’s an assembly line of apprentices, with most, I’d expect, hoping for a chance at that brass ring – a shot at actual design.

    But again, I used that pesky “s” word: standards. In my primary profession, the standards are fairly straightforward. There are professional organizations for Project Managers, such as PMI or the Agile Alliance. Project Managers can follow several different schools of thought or and we can earn actual certifications in a wide range of methodologies, such as a Six Sigma Black Belt or a CAPM or PMP from the Project Management Institute. These are industry recognized standards, which indicate to our peers that we have proven a certain standard of knowledge related to our profession.

    With standards, you establish firm expectations of what is and what is not an accepted path of advancement within the industry. With many professions, these standards have been formalized and laid out for all to see. Where then, are the standards for game design?

    To my knowledge, there are none. There are some degrees from some schools (SMU’s Guildhall comes immediately to mind), but in general, the industry still seems very much reliant upon internal promotions (i.e. – QA, CR, etc.) and the aforementioned Master/Apprentice system.

    In many ways, I thought it was particularly appropriate that you chose Coltrane to illustrate your point. After all, there’s not real “certification” to become a Jazz musician, either. You either got it or you don’t. You can certainly come up the ranks of Jazz by way of rigorous instruction and classical training…or you could just pick up a instrument and learn how to play.

    Trane learned in public schools, community choirs, and even in the Navy. However, for the most part, he did as Owlchick suggested – he played and played and played for small audiences, gaining invaluable feedback along the way. He learned from other greats, such as Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie (master/apprentice) and eventually started to come into his own in a big way.

    This is very much how I see the game design industry of today. There’s work underway to more formally train and certify designers, of course, but for the time being, it’s basically just jazz: lots of trial and error; apprentices learning from established masters; and of course, improvisation.

  11. It is funny you mention Jazz as your example. I have read Adorno, and I am somewhat acquainted with his aesthetic ideas and his ideas about creativity.

    Adorno hated Jazz, which he equates to nothing more than kitsch. A common art that is meant to appeal to the masses. Adorno said it was not revolutionary, and was more of the same, with different flourishes where everyone expects them.

    Of course Adorno, thinks that Schoenberg is a great example of revolutionary and creative art, but this is another story.

    I might be talking sacreligious nonsense to all in the Jazz crowd, but my point is not to bash jazz, but to challenge the game design industry.
    If you keep making Jazz all you will get is Jazz. Where is the creativity? Where is the revolution? Perhaps all the public desires, is what has worked before, with the proverbial flourishes where everyone expects them.

  12. Funny you should mention Jazz as your ideal medium of creativity. Let me introduce a different line of thinking about creativity.

    I have a novice grasp of Adorno’s ideas about creativity. Adorno loathed Jazz. He thought it was not creative and was nothing more than kitsch, made only to appease the public’s tastes. The creativity in Jazz, to Adorno, was not creative nor revolutionary and the improvisation and the flourishes were where everyone expected them.

    Not to speak blasmphemy to the Jazz fans around in this forum, but Adorno has a few valid claims about creativty. If you keep making Jazz, then all you will get is Jazz, with the aforementioned flourishes where everyone expects them. For the game designers, is the design really revolutionary and creative or is the public forcing what they want to [hear] play? Which is what Adorno thinks about Jazz, so grant me that we can apply this towards game design. Is the designer actually making a game, or his he going along with what is expected of the design, by the public.

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