Saturday, 8 September 2012

What is Design, yo?

I've been a bit more typey typey lately lately, so much so I've wrote up 2 concept docs for game ideas, entered a competition about games design and wrote a short essay on what I think Design is.

The last one is the only serious entry I felt like I had to do, its been buzzing in my head and whether it gets read or not, I felt like I needed to write it for myself.

Making a mental note less, mental.

Anyway here is that essay: 


What is design?
It’s difficult for me to call myself a “Designer” of video game or otherwise without actually knowing or establishing my own definition of what game design actually is. It’s a very abstract term. I think I know what it means and the people I speak to and ask, they think they know what it means. “The bit before you put a game together” or the “bit before you build something” is usually the stock answer. But when I ask my friends or indeed, myself, to explain that further, to really get into what design means and its process, its philosophy and tenants, words and explanations are harder to come by. I find myself drawing a strange blank where I know half the answer, but the other part, the most important aspect, is just out of view of my minds eye. I’ve decided then, to write this short essay for my own notes and to establish myself on the first rung of a very long ladder into the world of video games design.
So, to begin Ill attempt to offer my own interpretation of design, or at least my initial conception of it:

“Design is technical planning”.

It’s easy to see why I would come to such a basic explanation. Design from a technical standpoint is about the pre-emptive design of an object or event that will ultimately deliver a purpose or a function to the user. From the concept stages of an idea to the production is the design phase and everything and anything that happens during this time, is the essence of design. This is a very technical way of looking at design and indeed, a very logical one. Designers plan so that a function is delivered.
    Next, I thought about what that function was and its connection to the original designed idea. This gave me a very rudimentary way of looking at things that was very much grounded in reality and the physical. I expected to see blueprints and planning documents, which indeed every design will have, but it’s around this time I started to realize the designer doesn’t design the object to fill a purpose; the designer creates an experience, the object being the tool used to fulfil this.
     A strange way of looking at things and I still have trouble explaining just quite what this means to me. A really relevant quote by Franz Kafka a friend added;

“I write differently from what I speak, I speak differently from what I think, I think differently from the way I ought to think, and so it all proceeds into deepest darkness.” 

The best example of this design method is a mobile phone. These devices are created almost identical, yet, so diverse in their critical reception. The technical and planning phase of design ends with the physical act of using the phone. Such as, you can call people, send texts, take photos, listen to music, surf the internet etc, but next, comes the designed experience when using the phone. Why do I feel more comfortable using my iPhone than my brothers Samsung? It’s because of the experience we both felt when using the phones, something which is abstract and parallel to the physical act of using them and registers more with our personalities and character. 
    So with that said, I can update my explanation:

“Design is creating an experience.”

The physical object does not matter as much as the user’s ultimate feeling when using it. This is what designers seek to achieve and the goal of every appliance and object we use. My kettle in the kitchen is designed to boil water, but through its metallic design, button catch to open the lid and glowing button to indicate temperature, the experience of using it is much easier than boiling water on the stove. It serves its purpose of an experience to be “easy and efficient.” Tying this back to my phone example, some things can have more than one purpose to achieve and meet for the end user. My phone needs to be quick and efficient, but it all needs to be fun and enjoyable to use; perhaps these are conflicting ideals but it us up to the designer to ensure that during my usage, I experience all of these.
    One problem I face however with this explanation is an argument a friend made, “You prefer your phone because you own it and your brother, his”. This is very true. It’s arguable that I choose my phone because it’s just that, mine. I know it thoroughly and whilst it might be technically identical to any other phone of the same brand, it’s still mine. It’s different. It’s personal.
It’s at this point I think I understood a little better what It meant to be a games designer:

“Design is creating a personal experience.”

I feel like the phone belongs to me and therefor my experience when using it, is a very personal one. It’s why I continue to use it and don’t sell out for a different (potentially better) model. You could argue that our attachment to items is something a designer has no control over, but if that is the case, why do I not care about replacing the kettle in the kitchen? Surely by mere ownership that kettle becomes mine and personal. If a designer has no control over my interpretation of something, then there should be no distinction between my phone and kettle. But of course there is and that personal attachment is intended, even expected of me by the designer.
    Back to video games then, it is the job of a good designer to make sure the experience I have with a video game is not just to be fun or enjoyable. It’s not just for me to enjoy the experience, but it’s to have some form of connection with the game whether it is ownership or an emotional attachment. Games have made me feel pride and respect. They’ve made me hate characters and love others and they’ve made me laugh and cry. It is through this connection, something which the designer has intentionally set out to do, that keeps me playing games. That not only makes the experience enjoyable for the time I switch the game on to the time I switch it off, but that stays with me and resonates for days, weeks, months even years afterwards.
    It’s the reason why I still remember the ending to Shadow of the Colossus frame by frame, or why I have to fight back tears when I hear “Snake Eater” or why I feel goose bumps at the Metal Gear theme. It’s the reason why I still remember the names of my Pokémon that I first beat the Elite4 with and why I’m still paranoid at night after playing Alone in the Dark. 

    These experiences have become personal to me because they belong to me. They are something that transcends the physical disk and digital game and exist in my mind and emotions. They are part of my history and have shaped me into the person I am today.
    It’s difficult for me to list you the games I have forgotten, since the list is vast. The games that mean nothing to me, that I have forgotten because their design did not reach me on the right levels, I didn’t care about them.
    I type this and have to physically stop myself from listing Call of Duty as an example of a bad gaming experience, but this would be immature. The emotional attachment with these games doesn’t come from the game itself, but from the experiences users have with each other as they play and this has been designed to exist this way. It’s easy to say you felt no-emotional connection to Call of Duty or Battlefield or any other FPS on the market, the games do not seek to satisfy that need in you but to feed the social side of your personality. I cannot recall and element of the Call of Duty single player, I do not know characters (outside of pop culture) or events of the game, but I can recall the day I won a very important clan match to take my friends through to the next round of a competition, much to their cheers and admiration. The adrenaline and rush I felt playing the game wasn’t through the game itself, but the want and desire to impress my friends and win the round for them. The game was designed to facilitate this.
    There is a painting I remember, “The Bridge” by David Shepard, which I saw in an old war museum in Wales somewhere with my family. This is going back a good 10 years. I remember standing in front of it and just staring in awe, (I was pretty interested in art back then anyway) but what really sticks with me about that day and what is the defining point of my experience, was looking over to my Dad and seeing him staring just the same. We both looked on for a good few minutes in silence, so much so we were last out of the museum and last into the car. Nothing was said between the two of us, nothing needed to be said but I’ll never forget that moment we shared. I’m not sure my Dad even remembers it, but that painting facilitated that moment between us, a moment where nothing happened, but was strong enough to keep us in that silence and that stasis together, it was a powerful image to me for achieving that. That painting is something I will never forget and in turn, the experience I had with it.

The last question I have to answer for myself then is as follows,

“How does a games designer create a personal experience, for everyone?”

Surely by my definition a “personal” experience has to be just that, personal. It cannot be replicated or copied to each individual person it has to be unique. So how do games designers ensure our attachment to a game? How do they ensure that what they have created is so powerful in emotion that it sticks with any number of hundreds and thousands of people at any given time?

They put themselves in the game.

I love Metal Gear Solid and by association I love Hideo Kojima. I know we would be best friends if I ever met the guy, because I already know him so well. It’s easy to play through any of the Metal Gear games and see elements where Hideo has put himself in the game, used his own personal experience and emotions to craft and shape the game world and by proxy, my experience when playing it. Empathy is powerful and to see such emotion and passion put into a game, it resonates with everyone. This is what it means to be a true games designer.

Papa and Yo is an amazing game because by the end of it, you feel like you know Vander Caballero. He puts himself into the game.

Watching Indy Game Dev: The Movie and in Braid, Fez and Super meat boy you can see elements of each designer woven into the fabric of their games; and not just their light side, but the darker side as well. You can see pain in some of these games; you can see flaws and insecurities in the designers through playing them. They have put so much on the line, that it bleeds through the gaming experience and transcends it to the point where, subconsciously, you`re almost having a conversation with the designer themselves, where they are almost speaking to you through the game.

This is the kind of designer I want to be.

This is the kind of designer I will, be.

I feel like I have moved forward and ranked up on my road to becoming a designer of video games. Understanding my craft is the start of that battle and only then, by stripping everything back to zero and rebuilding my definition of design will I feel ready to progress. I still do not think I understand design completely, nor do I think I ever think I will, but I am one step closer to that goal.

And that’s just cool beans. 

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