Designing Computer Games Is Hard

Snarky gaming article commenters are total bastards. I’m one of the worst bastards. Designing games is really, really hard! I encourage anyone that has ever ruthlessly criticised a game to actually sit down and plan step-by-step a game they think would be better, on any level. Its fucking difficult, we are such bastards to constantly deride these people (not that we should ever stop).

I’m in the midst of designing my first real game now (and by that I mean the first game I’ll finish), and even with heavy expectations I’m finding myself shocked at every step how fucking difficult it is. I can sum up the problem (or the demonic host of problems) designers face in one, ugly word:


Every single step of games design, and I mean EVERY step is a pain compromise. Any actual designers will be nodding their heads sagely at this point, I’m sure. Here is the problem folks, here is the reason All Games Are Shit ™:

Games are a construction of rules, of situations, fields of opportunity and choices. But every single choice and consequence must be mapped out, so every second of resource placed anywhere is cutting off another choice at some other junction. As designers we want out games to be perfect, to have something to personally offer every player, but this is simply impossible, at every step we are forced to cut our losses. There is an ideal scenario for everything in our heads, but choosing all of them is impossible, so every single choice must be a compromise. Slowly the idea map must fold in on itself and form the solid shape of the finished game (this is some sort of origami metaphor). The trick is making sure the ideas you are left with are the ones that were worth keeping (and not bursting into tears every time you think of all the ideas left out).

You’ve probably heard this all before, but its worth repeating. Again and again. Obviously it applies to big studios with hundreds of employees and mult-million dollar budgets but just as much to timid one-man teams or ambitious indie groups. Everything is a gamble and we are always cutting our losses.

Okay, here comes the best metaphor of the bunch:

The process of designing and making a game is the process of killing your idea. At the start the concept is infinite, sprawling, it is perfectly formed and artistically pure. The game idea exists in this platonic realm of possibilities, but the finished game will be a mundane series of rules. Every rule you make, every line of dialogue, every choice, every single line of code is killing that ephemeral idea, making it solid, mundane. Once the game is finished and shipped, the idea is dead, you can’t affect it anymore. It is exactly what it is, and players will experience and judge it totally independent of its original cause.

I feel like some obtuse french philosopher here but it appears being a good designer is making sure that the child born from your ruthless culling of your idea is worthy of the concept that spawned it. This must be the case for other art-forms (I’m thinking especially film), I can’t really vouch for that. What I can vouch for is that designing a game is the most pitifully painful creative activity I can imagine.

Its bloody worth it though, isn’t it?


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February 2010
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