Saturday, April 14, 2012

Game Design: Aptitude, Productive Orientation, and Self-Indulgence

"The general rule is: everybody thinks they can design [games]. But Sturgeon's Law and practical reality means most of them can't." 
--Richard Aronson

"It has been my observation that most people get ahead during the time that others waste."  --Henry Ford


I like to listen to music, both popular and classical, and I have some hundreds of CDs (and LPs) in my collection.

But while I can talk about music as a layman, I do not have much musical aptitude, and am not a musician though I did once know how to read music and play a simple instrument.  I've never composed any music.  I suppose if I intensely studied, and made myself work at it, I could compose SOMETHING, but I don't think it would amount to anything.

And that's probably true for the vast majority of people who like to listen to music, that they'd never amount to anything as composers.  And I don't think this idea is surprising to many people.

Similarly, I have read a great many fantasy and science fiction novels, but I don't have the internal makeup that is (I think) required of a successful novelist.

If I were not a teacher and game designer, I would be happy to be a successful orchestral composer or novelist.  But the possibility just wasn't there.

So why is it surprising to so many people, especially teens, that the same kind of thing applies in (video) games?  A person may just *love* to play games, but still have no aptitude for designing games.  What's required to love playing games (to excess, in many cases, for video games) isn't what's needed to be good at making games. This is the norm, yet so many young people who love to play games think they'd make wonderful game designers.  I suppose it's a form of wishful thinking, the hope that we'll be able to do something to make a living that's closely related to what we love.

I do think it's possible for anyone who loves games to design a halfway-decent game, with a little help.  But halfway decent games shouldn't be published (though they often are).

However, I would never tell someone they don't have the aptitude.  This is something they need to figure out for themselves.  Furthermore, I can't really tell whether they have the aptitude or not; I'm not sure I could even with much more time than I have with anyone who isn't a friend.  There are college-age people at one of my game groups who have designed games that folks play.  I cannot judge with any certainty whether they have aptitude or not.  In any case, it may take much time (years) for the aptitude to really show, or not show.  Other things, such as the productive orientation I discuss below, get in the way.

Bad Habits of Playing Video Games

I have some experience teaching video game design and game production to college and high school students.  Young people often have many delusions about these topics, and it's part of a teacher's job to eliminate delusions so that people really know what they're getting into.  (For example see "Student Illusions About Being a Game Designer" .)

The biggest problem may be inherent in the "video game experience".  Many if not most people play video games at least part of the time to kill time.  And many (especially non-adults) also play them in order to escape from everyday life.  This is certainly true for typical beginning game design students, who are usually "hard core" and often don't quite "fit", though I won't call them misfits.  So students come to the curriculum with long experience that games are completely unproductive, and with a tendency to spend vast amounts of time doing something that is completely unproductive and that avoids reality.  (I recall in particular a student, 27 years old rather than 18, who had played a game for 40 hours over a long weekend and found when he went back to work that he'd been fired because he was supposed to be working during that time--he'd simply lost track of time.)

Yet game designers must spend their time productively, they must aim toward creating something rather than wasting something (their time and effort).  The simple manifestation of this is that video game students need to recognize that playing games is completely different from making games, but it goes further.  A productive orientation is always good for any employee but especially for someone who shapes what many other employees are doing.  If students bring typical attitudes from game playing to game making, they will fare poorly.

I'm convinced that a major reason why so many video game studios have resorted to "crunch time" to finish games is that the employees waste a lot of time instead of working productively on games upwards of 40 hours a week.

When students do play games, they've got to learn to think as a game designer, not a game player, and figure out why a game is attractive (or not). This may actually reduce their "pure" enjoyment of game-playing, but it's necessary.

Productive Orientation

The immediate impetus for writing this piece was to a 2011 audio interview with fantasy and science fiction author Glenn Cook (Black Company, Garrett P. I., Dread Empire).  Cook wrote as many as three novels a year while working full-time on an assembly line for General Motors, also raising (with his wife) a family of three sons.  He allocated his time very carefully, in fact he said in the interview he writes less now that he's retired and his kids are college age and older because he doesn't have to budget his time.  In the extreme case he worked on an assembly line where he had intervals of up to 28 seconds when he had nothing to do, and in any case he had nothing he had to think about as he worked, and he used the opportunity to write novels.  He would think about what he needed to do as he did his work, and write by hand in the available intervals, and then transfer to typewriter or computer when he got home.  (

What does the typical game player does with short intervals of time nowadays.  They pull out their handheld device or smartphone and play Angry Birds or some other bagatelle.  Mind you, I like Angry Birds but it is clearly just a way to pass a little time; there's very little to it.  If I find myself waiting somewhere for a short time I'll think about game design, and if it's for a long time I have probably anticipated it and have a book (fiction or nonfiction) to read.

Cook's experience is an extreme case of a productive orientation, but it points out the yawning gap between how the typical hard-core video game player behaves and how a productive person behaves.  So a video game teacher has the really enormous challenge of persuading students to change their behavior, in effect to become adults.  This is really tough, we all know lots of people well into chronological adulthood who still don't behave as adults most of the time, and this behavior gap seems to be more and more common as the years pass. 

Part of the change in orientation is learning to plan, to think ahead.  Life in the 21st century tends to encourage living by-the-minute, rather than planning.  People rely on their cell phones to compensate for lack of planning.  It's harder to design games by-the-minute than by planning.  Many students have to change how they run their lives, really, if they want to do well.

In my experience in community colleges many of the kids who think they want to make games will rapidly realize that it's work not play, and that they're not cut out for it, and they'll try something else.

Not "About Me"--Self-Indulgence

As the video game industry has changed there's a related problem that beginning students must face.  Taghd Kelly has described the change in a blog post at

The video game industry has matured, and game players have matured.  Successful video games are no longer about "me" (the designer), people don't buy games to participate in the designer's vision, games are no longer self-expression.  A successful game has to speak to the potential player, must meet the player's expectations and his sense of genre and community.  The simple expression of this is that you design games for other people not for yourself, whereas in the early days of the industry you could design games for yourself and be successful.  Once again we're looking for a productive orientation, not an "artist's" orientation, not "me" or "look how interesting I can be".  The big names of the industry can still indulge themselves by making games they like, but students have not attained the recognition (and track record) to do so. 

In other words, designers have to learn not to be self-indulgent.  Which is another characteristic of growing up, isn't it?  In game design self-indulgence is particularly damaging, because one of the foundations of game design is the ability to be self-critical.  Self-criticism and self-indulgence rarely coexist.

In the following, sf/f author David Brin is talking about writing novels, but it also applies to game designers:

    "Beware of self-indulgence. The romance surrounding the writing profession carries several myths: that one must suffer in order to be creative; that one must be cantankerous and objectionable in order to be bright; that ego is paramount over skill; that one can rise to a level from which one can tell the reader to go to hell. These myths, if believed, can ruin you.
    If you believe you can make a living as a writer, you already have enough ego."  
-- David Brin

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