I was on the jury this year for the Independent Games Festival design award, an amazing experience that made me rethink what good game design is, and what game design is in general. None of the stuff I’ll be talking about will reference games in any way that will divulge what games were played and nominated, and the fact that I was on the jury was made public a while ago. This post will talk about questions that came up in my mind, and I’ve saved the best and most controversial one for last.
The first thing that came up in discussions between the judges was the question of what constitutes game design, and where the limit is on what falls under design vs. some other aspect of the game. Keeping in mind that there’s also a Grand Prize to vote for, we started discussing. On one side of the spectrum, people will say that everything is design. How the audio interacts with the setting and the movement of the player, how the story interacts with game mechanics, the difficulty progression, the art style serving the game’s purpose—all of this is design. On the other end of the spectrum, people will say that design is what is left when you remove everything else: the art, the story, the environment, the audio—if you removed all of those things, are the underlying systems, level design, skill progression, reward systems, etc. well designed?
In our group, it seemed that the majority ended up agreeing that we should be looking at design as specifically the elements that designers touch, and the Grand Prize discussion would take into account more broad design things like how it all comes together. For this case, I concluded from discussion with judges that game mechanics themselves need to be cleverly designed, well balanced, and tie in with the other elements of the game, and the design has to be innovative in some way. Doing something that’s already been done—but doing it really well—is definitely praise-worthy, but I don’t think it’s what I imagine for the Design award for the IGF. As someone who tends to skew more on the side of “everything is design”, I was okay with this mostly because I put my favourites for all-around design as votes for the Grand Prize.
This brings up the point that our definition of design depends on what we’ve read and learned, and how we came to be game designers. In my case, I consider myself a designer but not “the designer” on my team, as we all pitch in on overall design tasks. We’ve never hired a designer whose job title isn’t either artist, programmer, or something else along with designer. That surely plays a large role in my feeling that the game design includes everything about the experience and not only its systems. I’m sure someone who did a bachelor’s and master’s degree in game design would have differing views on this.
Another question was how innovative the design of a certain game actually was. For example, I played a game which had a very innovative storytelling mechanic, and I thought it was incredible. Then, in discussion with other judges, I learned that the mechanic had actually been done several times in other games that I hadn’t played. That changes things. I didn’t have time to play all of those other games—some of which were 10 years old and on PS3—and so I had to rely on gameplay videos and other judges for input.
How good did the overall game have to be for it to win an award in design (or anything else)? How much is your opinion about the design mired by something like bad writing, or an inconsistent art style? Two points here: first, I think it’s unlikely that a game that fails miserably in some important facet (other than design) will be nominated for design, simply because people will not have had a good time with it and that will influence their thoughts about its design. Second, I think I would have trouble voting for a game for design if it was truly awful in another respect. Some of the games I saw were decent in writing or art but had great design, and that was good enough. Anyway, all of these questions came up and needed to be addressed while looking at the nine gazillion games that were played.
The last, and most fun question, involves whether or not good design = commercially successful games. Games were sorted by votes per view, to avoid giving an advantage to games that were voted for simply because they were popular and judges had already played them. It seemed that the top voted games in votes/view in design also happened to be mostly commercially successful games. This doesn’t give anything away because there were plenty of top design contenders that weren’t as commercially successful, just for the record. The question is: were games nominated for design because they were already popular and more people knew them? Or are well-designed games generally commercially successful because good design leads to good game sales? I don’t have the answer, but it’s something to think about and discuss.
Thanks for reading! It’s been very enlightening and hopefully I’ll be invited back again!