Some Notes on The Nature of Game Design

By Jussi Holopainen (Nokia Research Center) and Jussi Kuittinen (Univesity of Jyvaskyla).


So “What is game design?” – also looking at systematising creativity to foster creativity. One of the assumptions is that when analysing game design it isn’t just academic masturbation but you can help the game designers themself.

Why are we looking at game design from the game design and studies perspective? Are the creations of architecture, bikes, books, stories, games, posters equal? They are designed for a certain purpose. Inspected the game developer postmortems to see how the task of game design is handled. Also studied from a more general view.

Game design literature concentrates on the content – the features in the game, not the actual design activity.

However game design is an activity, and should be studied as such. Design is more of a black box in the iterative process – need to open it and conceptualise it more. Looking at abstracted models, there is in one example 3 overlapping sections.

Vision – Guiding principles or ideas – of course, focused, but always full of holes, incomplete, and so forth. Always verbalised when it is a vision, or not even something you can’t even express.

Operative Image – first explciit representations of the vision, such as sketches or simulations and prototypes.

Specification – Sufficiently detailed operative image that can instruct how to construct the final thing.

Finally once overlapped – it has implementation at the end. You leap between the layers too until this part.

Lawson’s model of designing – going into the black box. In stages:

Formulating – identifying what the task is to be completed. Can be very vague to very precise. Example of an architect building a house on a piece of empty land. A game might be a need to make a social game where players have fun and be nice to each other. Identify the elements and their relations to each other. The designer applies domain-specific knowledge here, about how best to formulate the idea.

Representing – Create a representation of the design, depending on the levels of abstraction – vague descriptions, up to concrete prototypes. Can be internal or external – internal view in the head of the designer, the external one being in text (which is pretty common, such as game design documents) or prototypes. Also can be forms of communications – noting especially people use analogies and precedents to explain complex game design concepts – like “More like Half-Life” – convey it in a very quick way.

Moving – Creating or modifying existing design solutions. Changing the model or design to get the new solution to a problem you were trying to solve.

Bringing problems and solutions together – They are two distinct aspects, and usually hard to discern. Sometimes you don’t know how to phrase something as a problem (example of Guitar Hero having a whammy bar wanted before knowing how the game would use it). You tend to create new problems from a solutions too.

Evaluating – Making judgements concerning the design situation – having an implicit evaluation all the time is usually what happens, so continually changes. Many postmortems speak of guy feelings of “felt it was great” or “great to ask “Does this Rock?” and proceed accordingly”. Sometimes more objective – expert evaluations, measurements and testing.

Reflecting – Continual thinking about the design situation. Reflection-in-action is the designer doing it, and reflection-on-action is a high-leve activity of monitoring the design process. This is postmortems themselves!

Why are we doing this?

Why is it interesting? understanding design activity in a way in a definable way, and the assumption is if we have methods we can make great progress and better designers – not any more relying on “I am a good designer because I am a good designer”.

It also helps to raise critical awareness of game design, as well as better situate game design not just for specific people.


Working with designers, many designers see themselves as artists and so don’t want any kind of analysis, do you find this?

All the time. Have looked at aesthetics, and people say they are good artists because they are good artists. They get mad when you analyse and say “this colour works well because psychologically…” – same with designers, the designers get annoyed when people perform analysis and it is their work they are proud of. They think they are losing something that is very dear to them.

Any suggestions to win over the resistance?

In some cases you have to show them that they see the methods and that they benefit from it immediately. Otherwise they just don’t take it.

Q – Method can be a tricky word – there are levels of formality of this. An artist would resist more using that rather then saying “deploy technique” – an ability to produce an effect, an artist might be much more agreeable to. Professionalism of certain arts – graphical and so forth, you run into utilitarian and other arguments. Have you considered some sort of formalisation of this apart from talking about methods? Very simply; does it have to be as you presented it?

They are just ways of conceptualising different ways of thinking. Method is a scary word – our intention wasn’t to not say “should” – just suggesting that they are good ways to think about design, just a tool to better understand it.

Are looking at it with designers to package it so it will best help the designers themselves. Gamespace previously was a systematic approach – the people participating were really into it, and didn’t think of it as a constraint, but instead a tool.

Q – What’s the difference between evaluating and reflecting?

Not much difference to be honest. Let’s say it this way, evaluating is making judgements on what you are working on – a specific design situation. The reflecting is what others do around you and more general.

Q – When do users come into the picture?

When do we care about the users? out! 🙂 There are user-driven design but the focus of the paper was on design, what happens when the designer does something and left out the user side of it. It’s much too big an area to investigate otherwise.

Q – This appears to be describing the entire process, what about the 15-20 minute designing? Process versus methods?

The process is very specific stages and steps – not stressed strongly enough here, it is not a stage model but just a conceptualised part of any part of the design process (small or big). The method would be if we formalise design knowledge but in this is just describing what the designers do. Usually a big part of the design process is the design of the process itself too.

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