How to Play Games as a Designer

If you want to be a game designer, you need to play games. This probably seems obvious, but there is a difference between playing games for fun and playing games to gain deeper insight as a designer.

Photo: iStock/Marco_Piunti

If you want to design games, they are most likely something you are passionate about. Hopefully this is accurate, because you should be playing many various games whenever you get the chance. This includes the good, the bad, the uninteresting, the new, the old, the frustrating, even the weird; whatever you can get your hands on. You should play not only to expand your overall gaming knowledge, but to analyze what makes up different games, and how these components affect the experience for better or for worse.

Playing a game as a designer means taking a critical approach to how you play. You must ask yourself a lot of questions, consider alternatives to what is being presented to you, and examine perspectives that differ from your own. Taking notes while playing a game may seem silly, but reflecting upon your experiences will allow you to become a better designer; you can analyze where gameplay went right, and where it went wrong. You can easily identify problem areas that you could possibly improve upon in a project of your own.

What good is it knowing that you hate your least favorite game, if you cannot explain why? If you cannot understand what makes a game bad, you are likely to repeat the same design pitfalls.

Rather than games with a linear storyline, I tend to gravitate towards games that encourage exploration and creation such as The Sims, Minecraft, and Animal Crossing. I enjoy puzzles and problem solving as well as creating my own stories, but dislike strategy and combat. This is the kind of player I am personally, and this is unique to me. Every person has their own play style and interests.

Though I may not find an action-packed shooter game to be fun, I need to understand that there are many other types of players with different perspectives who do enjoy first person shooters.

In the same vein I need to understand that though I may have hundreds of hours in The Sims 4, other types of players find that this sandbox type game lacks direction and is boring.

You need to identify what kind of player you are to recognize what aspects of games and different genres you may prefer. This way, you can recognize your biases and consider other perspectives while playing.

Ask yourself:

  • What genres of games do you enjoy?
  • What genres of games do you dislike?
  • Do you enjoy puzzles in games? Do you enjoy combat?
  • Do you prefer when mechanics are based on skill and strategy, or luck and randomness?

Firstly, before you even begin playing a game, ask yourself:

  • What is the genre of the game?
  • What is the game’s target audience?

Recognizing what a game wants to be and who it is made for is an important step in critical play. If you are not the game’s target audience, the game is not designed to cater to your play style or interests. For instance, a game marketed at kids may not be the right fit for a grown adult who loves dark, gritty horror games. Though the adult may hate the game, he cannot say that the kid-friendliness of it makes it a “bad” game.

Moreover, the game’s genre determines its gameplay and story, as well as the look and feel of a game. Here is a list that goes into more depth on various genres

Photo: https://vidchord.com/2020/01/26/my-top-10-video-game-genres/

Just as movies and books have genres, games fit into different categories as well. With these come genre standards and conventions that enable us to separate each game into its own genre. For example, a Call of Duty title is a first person shooter (FPS). Thus, it will most likely follow the conventions of a standard FPS game such as having combat, multiple weapons for the player to select, reloading of these weapons, and health stats.

Gaming standards help players understand what to expect when they buy a game. Players know what they are buying when they pick up Call of Duty because the game follows the rules laid out by the genre. Games do not need to follow a concrete blueprint to fit into a certain genre, but they should take inspiration from these instructions to ease a player into gameplay, or even expand upon these ideas to create something new.

Photo: Steam

By classifying a game’s genre, we can create a list of expectations. These expectations can be either followed or subverted by the game. The impact this has on the game depends on the execution and how to player reacts. If you are aware of your own expectations before playing a game, you will be better equipped to identify these moments as well as reflect on how they affected the overall gameplay.

If you do not know any conventions of the particular genre you are about to play, that is perfectly okay! You are playing games to learn! Play multiple games of the same genre and see how they are connected and how they differ.

Start playing! Try not to look at reviews or ask for your friends’ opinions on the game before you begin. This way there is no influence on how you think; as you play, everything happening is from your genuine reactions.

If you are able to, beat the game. If not, play as much as possible to get a good sense of how gameplay works and how the game feels. You do not want to start forming definite opinions on the game right at the start as you may feel differently at the end of play. For example, certain elements of the game that may have felt weird in the beginning could have tremendous payoffs in late stages of the game, altering how you felt about that element entirely. The opposite can also happen with no payoff for what you thought you were building up to. Your opinions are susceptible to change, so be open minded and do not jump to conclusions.

The most important thing to do while playing is to ask yourself questions. You want to identify different game mechanics and how they either help or hinder the overall gameplay. You want to find the fun and analyze where it is coming from. If you cannot find any fun, you should ask yourself where the game is attempting to create fun, and if there is another type of player who would enjoy this. Or maybe this game is not trying to create fun at all.

Questions to ask:

  • What is the game’s core mechanic?
  • Is this core mechanic fun or interesting?
  • Is this game attempting to create fun? If so where is it?
  • If this game is not an attempt to make fun, what is its purpose?
  • If the game is not fun, but is trying to be, how would you change the game to create fun for types of players such as yourself?
  • Which of your expectations are being met? Which of your expectations were subverted? How do these affect your opinion on the game?
  • Which mechanics feel comfortable and are enjoyable to do?
  • Which mechanics are uncomfortable and how would you fix them?
  • What is the difficulty level? Too easy? Frustratingly too hard?
  • Is it rewarding to complete levels / puzzles?
  • What is driving you to move forward in this game?

Write down notes as you play and ask yourself questions about what you are doing and why. Examine problem areas and try to come up with solutions to them. If something in a game does not work well, how would you change it?

Explore as you play: think outside the box, and try things the game does not explicitly tell you to do. Are there alternative ideas that you see, but the game does not? Would this alternate way of play enhance the game?

Reflect! Write down a reflection including what you did mechanically within the game and how each action made you feel. Brainstorm ways to improve what you just played. The more critical thinking you can do on a game the more practice at game design you can get.

After reflection, talk to other people about the games you play. You hold only one perspective; no game is viewed exactly the same by every individual who plays it. Talk to other kinds of players and get their opinion on the game.

Read reviews. Find negative feedback about a game you loved. Find positive feedback about a game you hated. What differences are there between you and the reviewer? How did you interpret the same things differently? Their opinion is as valid as your own, and can give you great insight into how other types of players think and react to certain mechanics.

Photo: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/01/arts/gaming-introduction-basics-quarantine-coronavirus.html

There are more games out there than one person could ever play in one lifetime. There will be games you love, games you hate, games that are carbon copies of others, games that stand out with their originality, and many, many more.

If playing game after game does not excite you or seems like a daunting task, ask yourself why you want to design games in the first place. If you dislike most games, are you trying to finally create one for yourself to enjoy? Or are you simply considering working in a field that just is not right for you?

We play games for a wide variety of reasons such as for fun, escapism, competition, or investment in a story. Everyone’s relationships with them are different. For instance, as I play games for relaxing fun and creation, others may love the challenge of strategy and competition. Continue to immerse yourself within the market of games, absorbing new information and perspectives as you go. For whatever reason you are drawn to games, taking the next step as a designer means playing games with a critical lens and questioning everything. Look at a game that you hate. Could you do it better?