Three Truths Every Game Designer Should Know

Over the past year, as I’ve designed Legacy’s Allure, I’ve spent a fair amount of time discussing game design advice in /r/gamedesign, /r/tabletopgamedesign, and /r/boardgamedesign. Recently I realized I’ve been making the same three points repeatedly — points I learned from my time as an entrepreneur.

  1. Game design requires making business decisions. The better you are at business, the better you will be at game design. I actually think business knowledge separates the winners from the losers within the game design community more than anything else. The winners might not even realize they understand business better than others, but they do. So practically that means if you can get business experience, such as making a product or working in a company that makes products and seeing how the entire sales and marketing process works, it will help you as a game designer. One of the most important business decisions you’ll make as a game designer is whether to self-publish or use an existing publisher. If you self-publish, you will be starting your own business, which is no light task. Self-publishing is basically saying, “I want to be a game designer and an entrepreneur,” whereas using an existing publisher is basically saying, “I want to be a game designer only, and leave the business stuff to someone else.”
  2. Design games that you want to play, not what you think other people want to play. You’re always going to have the greatest chance at succeeding at something you understand very well, so creating a game that you personally wish existed is going to help a lot. If you like games that others don’t like, you can change that, with enough marketing (see point #1). Red Bull effectively created the market for their product. No one in Europe was looking for energy drinks. Now look at them. Moreover, I can tell when someone is pursuing game design just for the sake of being a famous game designer, not because they have a specific vision for creating games that don’t already exist, and its a big turn off to me. I would never want to work with that kind of person, and I doubt they are going to ever be great because you can’t craft a game experience around the idea that you’re awesome. I could name famous designers whose games feel more like a celebration of their intelligence than an actually good game. (No, I’m not going to name names.) A common example is games that have cool mechanics but the theme feels arbitrary.
  3. You are creating an experience, not a game. This is a basic marketing concept and one that always deserves repeating. When you’re sold a diamond ring, you’re not really being sold a diamond ring, you’re being sold the idea that you’re beautiful (or going to be beautiful) and therefore valued. Same concept applies with games. What is the experience you’re selling to players? Is every element of your game working toward reinforcing that experience, or are you throwing in mechanics because they’re popular right now? Tying into this, I recommend you read this article I wrote on the KonMari method applied to game design. It will give you a simple, instinct-based test for helping you streamline your game down to its purest form so you can deliver the experience you want with minimal “experiential clutter”. Too many designers add in mechanics, for example, not because they contribute to the core experience but because they’re cool in and of themselves. It just makes the game more cluttered and tedious, even if on the surface it seems impressive or innovative.