What is Games Design?

When I tell people I study games design, I usually get a positive reaction: “Oh that’s great! So… It’s about making good games, right?”. Well, is it?

Games design is one of these disciplines that most people understand, but struggle to define. “Making good games”, “coming-up with concepts”, “owning the game experience”… What’s the right way to break it down, and is there one and only way to do so?

This is a question I will be discussing in my Contextual and Theoretical Studies, a module exploring the social context and influence surrounding games, related societal issues (diversity, violence, addiction, crunch, advertising), the components that make a game, the concepts of flow and magic circle, gaming history, and last but not least: the “WHY” behind making games.

My first session this week focused on some initial questions to get us thinking. Here are my notes from the front.

List different types/kind/genres of computer games

RPGs, FPS, platformers, MOBAs, Horror, Strategy, Puzzle, Music, MMOs.

This sparked a larger discussion on the subject: how do we know the genre of the game we’re looking at? Several clues could be in:

  • Gameplay – levelling-up? Likely to be an RPG. Massively multiplayer? You’re in an MMO.
  • Visuals – platforms or guns? (or both, I guess?)
  • Sound – epic RPG strings? Or the silence of a horror game?
  • Audience – who is this game for? Is it listed in the 3+ section of an App store? Or the “Dark Souls-like” lists on Steam?

Define Games Design as a practice/act using full sentences (50 words)

Games design is a practice that involves creating interactive content for games, be it mechanics, levels, narrative scripting, or engagement strategies. Games design looks into creating a meaningful experience for the player by ensuring consistency between gameplay, art, sound, and narrative. It also involves managing a feedback loop between the development team and the player (prototypes, play-testing).

List other design disciplines with relationships to games design

Colour theory, UI, physical interface, etc.

Finally, list the 10 most important games to date

Here’s what my team came-up with – note that these are the 10 most important, not our 10 favourites!

  1. Super Mario Bros
  2. Final Fantasy VII
  3. Crash Bandicoot – we picked this as our most important as it ushered in the 3D platforming/PlayStation era. One we all remember fondly! (also, Mario was taken…)
  4. Doom
  5. Counter Strike 1.6
  6. Guitar Hero
  7. World of Warcraft
  8. Tetris
  9. Silent Hill
  10. Minecraft

Extra Thinking

The genre question is actually a little deeper and trickier than it looks. I looked back on my genres I allocated in my Steam library – then compared my list to two friends’. They list Civilization as a God-Like, I list is as Strategy. For me, Alien: Isolation is an Action/FPS. For others, it’s Horror/Survival or FPS. Are indie games Indie as a genre? Is BioShock an Action/RPG, or an FPS? Or all of it? Who is correct – or is there such a thing as a “true/correct” classification? Hard to say. There is also the consideration that games increasingly mix genres, by adding levelling-up stats to FPS, shooting to RPGs, puzzles to RTS, etc. TV tropes has an interesting entry about these sub-genres – and I have a feeling this list is far from comprehensive. Maybe genres are the new job titles – they look nice and final on paper but they don’t always show the whole truth.


Soundbites

  • “There are exceptional games but nothing exceptional about games”
  • “This subject is more about raising interesting questions than finding all the answers”
  • “Is games design the same than games development?” (this one really gave me food for thought)
  • “With games, under-promise and over-deliver” (this came after a [heated] discussion on No Man’s Sky. No comment!)
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