“What is Game Design?” with Soren Johnson

The following are excerpts from a discussion with Soren Johnson, Design Director for Zynga. Previously, Soren was the Co-Lead Designer of Civilization 3, Lead Designer of Civilization 4, Designer/Programmer on Spore and Lead Designer of Dragon Age Legends. Check out his blog Designer Notes.


EL: To start with, what is game design?

SJ: Well, it’s a broad question so you’re going to get a broad answer. The simplest way of putting it is, game design is how you find the fun of a project.

But, it really is managing that loop between the player and the machine, where you’re presenting them with decisions; they make a decision and then you give them relevant feedback, so they know the results of their action and then they make another decision.

The role of the designer is to make sure every step of that loop works out, because there are lots of ways a game can fail. A game can have really interesting decisions, but it doesn’t give the player good feedback on the results of their actions. So then they feel like they’re just playing in the dark.

Or, a game can give you really good feedback, but the actual decisions themselves are all very tiny variations of each other and there really isn’t any distinction.  Or, there’s just this one completely dominant strategy, so the game is not particularly interesting.

EL: Are there any examples of something you’ve worked on or played that you’ve admired, where feedback trumped mechanics that you as a designer would spend a lot of time on?

SJ: One thing that always pops into my mind, and I’m never sure how much of their game was satire or not, is Peggle. Because that was a game that was infamous for going way over the top whenever you do something right. You get the ball in the best bin and it’s going to zoom in with slow-mo. There’s going to be rainbows and stars popping out all over the screen. Someone’s like, “would it be too much if we also played Ode to Joy in the background?” They’re like, “no, it’s not too much.” You know?

So that’s important, that sort of feedback as encouragement. Peggle treads so much where I was like well, I don’t know whether I can take this seriously. Are they making fun of me for enjoying this or not? I’m not really sure. But obviously they did a really good job with feedback. And PopCap generally does a good job with feedback in their games.

I mean, I think it’s sort of half-satire in the same way that the people who made Spinal Tap, they’re not actually cynical about heavy metal, right? They love heavy metal, but they also enjoy the absurdity of it. I think that’s kind of what’s going on with Peggle. They love casual games but they also enjoy poking fun at the absurdity of how they’re presented.

EL: What is the role of the game designer?

SJ: Well, I think if you’re asking from an occupational point of view, I think there’s different types of designers.  There’s the project lead/lead designer type role, which is where you have to be concerned about everything. How the game presents itself to the player. How even just stuff like what’s the banner art going to look like and what’s the box going to look like? How are we telling people what this game is going to be about? How do we get the right people to buy the game, as opposed to just anyone to buy the game?  How the systems work together at a meta level? For Legends, that’s like thinking about how the castle interweaves with the combat, with the consumable loop. So there’s that level.

Below lead designers, there are what I  would call system designers and content designers. My natural aptitude is as a system designer. These are the type of people who, if there weren’t computers, would be making board games.

System designers come up with rules and systems and loops. If you come up with interesting, loops of interesting decisions that are also fun thematically, engaging thematically, then these people are doing a good job.

Then there’s content design – which is not something I’m super good at – where you figure out how to interweave narrative with game mechanics. They can take a mechanical system and then come up with a progression of monsters or a progression of quests or a story that leads people someplace.

Not every game needs that and I think games have a spectrum. I’d say there’s three major elements. Is a game more strategy focused? Is it more twitch focused? Or is it more narrative focused? And I think some games have a variety of all those things.

Uncharted has high narrative, medium twitch and no strategy. Civ is very, very high strategy, no twitch and a little bit of narrative. I think every game has some ratio of that. In fact, I think that lens is a good way to look at franchises and sequels. Because I think when franchises and sequels get in trouble, it’s when they screw with that mix of strategy, twitch and narrative.

They move forward to a new version that suddenly became all about story, when that’s not what people are interested in. Or they threw a bunch of twitch into some of the strategy game, and that’s not really what players wanted.

You can change a lot, but keep that ratio constant.

EL: As a project leader, how do you approach deciding what’s important early on?

SJ: Well, in some sense, you don’t know the answer to that question until you make the game. If there’s one thing that I emphasize a lot, and I’m not the only person to emphasize this, but try to get a playable version of the game going as soon as possible. And don’t let anything hold you back from that.

With Civ 4, we had a playable version of the game within a few months of starting.  And if you look at what it looked like, it’s kind of horrifying. Our units were little billboards of 2d art that popped around from tile to tile. There wasn’t animation, there wasn’t a terrain system, there was just some kind of vague, heightmap thing that didn’t really work all that well to begin with, but you can see units move from tile and tile. It was built as a multiplayer game immediately. There was no lobby. We had this crazy system for hosting a game, but it worked.  That stuff we’ll worry about later.

You have to figure out what are the things that are going to keep your game from succeeding.  Early on in the project, a lot of teams get very focused on a lot of tech questions. How is the animation system going to work? Are we going to be streaming stuff?

EL: Do we have real-time servers or stateless servers?

SJ: Right. How is the multiplayer going to work?  How people are going to be connected?  What kind of format are we going to use for the art? Just all of the stuff that has to get answered before you ship the game.

But these things are things you can figure out.  The project is not going to fail because you were never able to answer these questions. So you have to focus on the questions that do not have an obvious answer, or, at least an answer you can’t just brute force your way to.

Like, we will have animation system at some point. It’s not like we’re going to say “You know what? I don’t think we can figure out this animation issue.  Hundreds of other games have done it, but somehow we’re just drawing blanks.”

EL: Static sprites it is…

SJ: Yes, static sprites it is. Just don’t worry about that.  The questions for Civ 4 was, okay, we’re trying a bunch of new random things. We’re trying an idea of great people and religion and how should multiplayer function within the game. Testing those features out, not from a technology point of view, but simply from a gameplay point of view. That’s what led us to the team-based system. Civ is actually fun to multiplayer if you’re playing with teams. And you share technologies and you share wonders and line of sight. You get everyone pointed in the same direction.

The civic system that we wanted to try out with, a new promotion system, a totally different combat model, those are the real issues. So, don’t let anything stand in the way of trying to test those out.

EL: The problems that you know can be solved, shove them to the side.

SJ: Right. Yeah.

EL: Is it important that other designers you work with view game design from the same frame as you?

SJ: That’s probably my biggest challenge I think.  Usually I’m able, if I’m not familiar with what a programmer or artist is capable of, I can still work well with that person because we’re kind of orthogonal to each other. We have different skill sets but we’re both trying to attack the same problem.

It’s more challenging with designers, especially when we could both make a great game on the same topic.  I feel like you want the lead designer to really follow a specific path as far as possible, instead of some average between the two.

So if I work with a designer who has a very different philosophy about what type of game to make, it can be frustrating. There’s the difference between a good idea and a good idea that fits the frame of this game. It’s frustrating for them too, if they have a bunch of good ideas, but the ideas need to be in a different product.

EL: That goes back an earlier conversation we had about strong decision making at the outset to define the possibility space.

SJ: You definitely have to cut certain things off. One of the phrases I used a lot during Civ 4 is “look, there’s a thousand ways to make a game about the history of the world. We’re making one of those. We need to find one good way to do that. That’s it.”

We’re not trying to solve all the problems or put in all the good ideas. We’re just trying to find one cohesive answer to that problem. There’ll be other ones.

EL: When you’re working on big multi-year projects, like Civ and Spore, how much of the initial vision ends up in the final product?

SJ: Civ 4, it was pretty close. We knew the areas we wanted to tackle. We didn’t necessarily know how they would play out. Early on in the project, I was like, we want to tackle religion. We want to tackle great people. We want to tackle multiplayer. We want a game that is accessible. We want an RPG promotion system for units.

So that fit pretty well. But, there’s a huge difference between games that are in a franchise where there aren’t these big unanswered questions and games like Spore, where it’s just like “Okay, we’re plowing into a new frontier. We’re going to go explore this totally empty area.” You might find gold there and you might not.

I’d say, it largely depends upon the context of the game that you’re trying to make. That’s why there’s a lot of sequels. It’s also why sequels aren’t necessarily that bad of a thing in the games industry, unlike movies or books.

EL: I feel like games are unique in their ability to deliver sequels that are compelling.  Oftentimes, I find myself more and more excited about each sequel as long as they keep getting better.

SJ: Right, right. Like a book, a series of books, the content might keep being enjoyable, but they’re not actually going to also improve the method by which you read a book. Like, Harry Potter 7 didn’t have some radically new reading technology involved.

EL: Semi-colons never get better. [laughs]

SJ: Right, right. So, which is kind of a neat opportunity for games.

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