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Zen and the Art of Game Design

While chomping through the remainder of Robert M. Parsig’s epic book during this flight my thoughts pondered over how game design might exist within a qualitative value system in both a practical and metaphysical sense.

While reading a few things became apparent:

We are becoming lost in our own mythos.

As this gaming medium grows older its concerned professionals and academics, talented & hardworking, have become hopelessly wrapped up in Aristotelian method. New genres, definitions, mechanics, and algorithms are churned out continually, ‘experts’ of the medium go to enormous lengths to rationalise & categorise these entities into rigid defined objective blocks. Why experts do this? …Because of our faith that we can design our own successful games out of these blocks. The problem is that belief is  a complete lot of offal, and has lead in an awful lot of smart people to squander their time making low quality games.

Any salty developer who has seen the tides of change knows there will never be a formula to winning, no matter what infallible tower of logic we try to build.

Scientific method applied to game design makes little sense.

In science we try our best to approximate the rules of nature. Through testing and hypothesis mankind brings itself closer to finding what’s ultimately ‘true’ in our universe. Over time we have come to regard this scientific method of hypothesis and testing as the beacon of civilisation. To the extent that as a collective we consider it our manifest destiny to shine a light on all of natures secrets.

It will come as no surprise that game developers and academics are mere humans. Being wrapped up in our value system we diligently apply scientific reasoning to games in order to seek out the pure ‘truth’ of it. Only that the ‘truth’ designers seek in our field is ultimately engagement, a totally subjective phenomenon experienced by individuals.

Our beliefs are proven wrong continually, yet we are incapable of letting go of them. Because to let go seems crazy.

Routinely we see games that do not adhere to established formulas of engagement become successes. When this happens designers: A) Twist existing success formulas to incorporate our new reality B) Create new hypothesis on what creates engagement, add it to our forever growing list C) Be devout, hold on to existing beliefs and dismiss anomaly as a fluke.

We cling to objectivity as it seems that to let go of it is to admit that game design is a purely subjective discipline, hence cannot be rationalised. On the shop floor its far easier these days to say things like ‘Our parts mechanic will drive revenue and retention’ rather than ‘Our game will succeed because we care about it, hence players will care about it’.

Our methodology is cheapening what we make.

We butcher games up into subjective and objective chunks, game teams will commonly consist of people who are classical (concerned with underlying forms and architecture) and romantic (concerned with aesthetic, connotation and feeling) thinkers who work on each chunk. Game design could be considered the thread that joins these equally important schools of thought to create something engaging and stimulating. When game design as a profession becomes scientific and objective in nature we wind up shipping ugly products that are objectively good but very often subjectively bad.

Game design should not be regarded as objective nor subjective, but qualitative.

Game designers are seekers of high quality experiences. If you are a designer and you do not strive to live a high quality life how can you hope to create a high quality game? Without a natural feeling for what is ‘good’ we often rely on tips and tricks as a shortcut to try and achieve it, throwing in mechanics, features and flourishes that we have seen elsewhere and often coming up short. If one truly wanted to make the perfect game that engages millions, then it follows you must strive to live perfectly, then design naturally.

It’s 2am now and this plane is shuddering through the early Bangalore mist, soon we will touch down. Thanks Parsig.

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