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7 Habits of the Highly Effective Games Designer

July 28, 2011

Making games like Chainsaw Warrior, Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land and NarcoGuerra means I think not only about games a lot, but the process of making them too! Ok, so I’m not really going to say I’m ‘the highly effective’ games designer, but if makes for a good title mimicking ‘The Seven Habits of Higly Efficiently People‘. I was going to only list 6 habits to show I’m not claiming effectiveness per-se, but thought I’d have people emailing me to point this out, having not got the joke I borrowed from here. So 7 it is and here goes my habits of game design accrued over the years…

1. Play games. Sounds obvious, but once you get into the games industry and you start working long hours on games, the last thing you want to do when you get home late is look at a screen. However as a games designer it’s vital that you do. The amount of time I spend playing varies depending on what I’ve got on, but I always try to make time to play.

2. Keep an Ideas Log. Ideas either for a feature in a game or for a new game can and do happen at any time. You need to be ready to capture them. Just jot down a few notes to remind you what the idea was and what it was about. I use notepad and an iPod for this, then transfer them to a Google Document to store. Makes it easy to search though later when I’m looking for an idea to fit into an idea-space. I also then ‘mine’ these ideas when we’re at a new ideas stage. I also keep an ideas list for the current project I’m on, so there are always things I’m hoping to add or explore.

3. Use Pencil & Paper. When I’m working on outline designs for games, I often start on scrap paper. Just drawing screens, flow charts and the like. While there are lots of good tools to make these into usable images at a later date, if need be, the simple nature of pencil and paper keep the clutter of digital environments at bay and so frees to you concentrate.

4. Use a Text Editor to Start Design Documents. When it comes time to write a design document, I start in a text editor and not word-processor. When in Ubuntu I use Gedit and in Windows I use Notepad. Like the pencil and paper, it is the simplicity that is the plus here – you don’t get bogged down with auto-corrections, lists, spelling and grammar checks (though I need that!) and all the other features. You just write. I write out most of it in there then once the bulk is done, copy it over to a word-processor and to it presentable.

5. Walk. When I’m walking around is often when I do the best ideas work.  Indeed, I often plan in advance what I wish to ponder before I set out.  I find it a great way to ruminate on issues and formulate idea.  On famous thinker who used this method was Charles Darwin who had a special ‘thinking walk’ he used for this purpose, kicking rocks into a pile after each circuit of the garden to mark time.

6. Play Paper RPGs and Board Games.  The original social games!  In board games and paper RPGs the guts of the games stats – and so most of the gameplay – are on display for you to see.  I’d like to think I learned much of the core tools of the design trade – the stats systems that underpin a game – from playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, Call of Cthulhu and others.  I was (am still am) a huge reader of RPG systems, even if I’m not playing that game.  I like to understand how the games designers are using the games stat systems to model the world they seek to breath life into.  Ideas from those early RPGs, like Hit Points or Character Class are so pervasive now that we take them for granted and forget from whence they came…

7. Read. A lot.  My mum used to read me the Hobbit as a child and from that I developed a life-long love of fantasy and sci-fi as well as reading.  I feel reading is the ultimate skill, for if you are a strong reader – everything else can follow.  There are books to will teach you any subject, provided you’ve got the time and inclination to absorb the information.  Being a games designer is about drawing in diverse ideas and interests.  I’m an avid reader of fiction and non-fiction in many and all areas.  I feel this helps to make me a better designer.

And I plan to add more, so feel free to let me know yours… (there’s a book in here somewhere!)

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