Being completely untrained in game design comes with its ups and downs.  On the one hand, trained designers frequently learn rules and expectations that the industry has set for no reason other than that everyone else does it; a new eye can break through that.  On the other, by studying from game designers before I delve in, I can develop good habits early-on.  An article featured on What Games Are, written by TiedTiger, definitely falls into the latter, and is a must-read for any game-designer (even the most experience) to think about the way they make games.

TiedTiger (or Mr. Kelly) explains that most game designers begin with either a visually-oriented concept (creating a world, a story, an idea) or an action-oriented concept (Where is the camera?  How does the character move?  What can they do?).  Read the article for more details on each of those.

Oblivion: Where the story and world are key

In Oblivion, It's the world and story that make the game stand out from competitors

This simplification made me analyze how I have been brainstorming games (while I haven’t build any games yet, I have two ideas for simple ones to start working on in Game Salad.)  I definitely lean more toward being a visual designer – creating a basic story I want the game to tell with emotions I want the player to have while playing.  However, upon setting up those basic things, I almost immediately move into action-oriented designing: picturing where the camera would have to be to best tell that story, what actions the character would need to do to feel those emotions, and what stats or points would need to be important.  Mr. Kelly argues that starting predominantly tends to lead action-oriented leads to more creative and successful games (which overall made sense), but something rang a little false to me.

If game-designers were simply robots, than creating a game starting with just the actions would be obvious, and Mr. Kelly’s arguments convinced me that we would probably have better games for it.  But he points out that large companies especially tend to use Visually-oriented design concepts, as they sell to investors, board members, and a team better – and I’d argue that they would sell better to most of the designers creating them, too.  I personally don’t know how I could be excited to work on a game’s design without knowing WHY the character was here, WHAT was being accomplished, and WHO they were.  As I mentioned above, I do not feel a need to create sweeping worlds or complex stories early on, but I need to feel emotionally connected to what I am working on, and I just don’t feel that with some springs and boxes in a plane any more than those investors and board members do.

Portal: Shooting doorways to solve puzzles

Portal: Example of Action-Oriented Design (I bet)

In the end, however, I think Mr. Kelly does raise important points about game design (his reference to Mirror’s Edge was perfect – I was one of the people who just could not get into it – I needed to see my character and the moves she was doing to understand what sort of interactions I was creating and how to pull them off).  Especially in Facebook, I see a lot of people struggling to innovate; they see a series of actions that work and just create a new story around those.  I’m sure most of us would agree that Portal is one of the most innovative games of the past decade, and it sounds like the epitome of action-oriented creation: trying to describe that game to friends without showing them is damn-near impossible.

But either way, the article has definitely made me think more analytically about the choices I am making designing games in my head and, from what I’ve read so far, that’s definitely a key ability to have if I want to get hired some day.  A must read for anyone interested in the industry.

Visual vs. Action Oriented Games, on What Games Are by Tadgh Kelly