What is Game Design? Three Perspectives

What is Game Design? Three Perspectives

This interview originally appeared in Game Hihyou. Designers Kojima, Nakamura, and Tajiri were at full-stride in their careers, and each shares a very different perspective: the emphasis on cinematic devices and themes from Kojima (who was working on Metal Gear Solid at the time) contrasts sharply with Tajiri and Nakamura’s more “traditional” conception of design as rules and gameplay.

Hideo Kojima – Konami
Satoshi Tajiri – Game Freak
Kouichi Nakamura – Chunsoft

Even in the world of games, one sees the word “design” used again and again. While it is easy to imagine the meaning of that word in the narrow sense of graphic design for characters and the like, in this article we’re going to take a deeper look at the question of “what is game design?” by asking three creators their views.

Hideo Kojima, who created Snatcher and Policenauts, describe game design as “the fundamental idea that controls the direction the game will take.”

Kojima: In game design, I think the theme of a game occupies the same position of importance as the gameplay. The hardest part for me of any development is building a theme that will enliven and enrich the gameplay.

In your typical command-style adventure game, time is actually stopped while the player decides what to do. If you get interrupted by a call from a friend while playing, then the game, too, will just sit there and not advance. It’s not “real-time” in any sense of the word. After searching for a way to make that kind of game feel more “real-time”, I came to this idea for Snatcher and Policenauts: even in normal conversations, the protagonist should have his gun at the ready, finger on the trigger. He must be cautious about not mistakenly firing his gun and killing and innocent person—yet at the same time, if he’s too slow in deliberating he risks being killed himself. In this way, I tried to reintroduce a sense of tension and excitement to the adventure game.

What kind of story is going to make the gameplay come alive? Likewise, what kind of gameplay is necessary to advance the story? I think “game design” is the practical work of reconciling and combining these two elements in a game.

L-R: Koichi Nakamura, Hideo Kojima, and Satoshi Tajiri.

This makes sense coming from Kojima, who declared in his hiring interview with Konami that he “wanted to make a movie”—which elicited laughter and derision then. For Kojima, the cinematic possibilities of gaming are paramount.

Kojima: When I talk about “games that are like movies”, I don’t mean just having a bunch of FMVs. What I mean is a game that draws on the various elements and techniques of film: direction, script, lighting, etc. However, games differ from movies in that the user controls the advance of time. Having a lot of interactivity is therefore very important, but while I want each moment to be enjoyable, ultimately my desire is to make a game imbued with a central theme.

We next spoke with Koichi Nakamura of Chunsoft (responsible for Dragon Quest, Shiren the Wanderer, and sound-novel Otogirisou) about the process of designing brand new gameplay systems.

Nakamura: The development of Otogirisou began with the idea that reading is fun; however, books sell at a lower price, so it wouldn’t be profitable for a game development. The question then was, how do we bridge that gap in pricing? Our answer was that graphics and sound would increase the perceived value of our game, and allow us to sell it at a normal price. Once that concept was in place, we had the basis of our game.

I do feel like game design was simpler in those earliest days of video games. These days it feels like every month there’s some new “revolution” throwing everyone into a big commotion. For gamers who have been playing since those earliest days, their number one priority may still be the core gameplay of a game. But for those who have come after, I get the impression that gameplay is of secondary importance to them. And in reality, there definitely are a lot of games these days whose entire selling point is that they have “good graphics”.

It’s similar to how in movies, a good screenplay alone doesn’t necessarily make a movie great. And while there certainly are movies whose deft combination of every element (acting, directing, set design etc) designates them a masterpiece, for me personally, I have a few movies which are masterpieces to me because of a single memorable scene.

I think the same can be said about games; now that we’re living in an era where powerful hardware is ubiquitous, it’s inevitable that there is an increasing emphasis on graphics and visuals. Games that feature plain character graphics, no matter how strong the gameplay fundamentals are, will probably not do well in this climate. I think that “is it fun?” and “does it have strong core gameplay?” are, in fact, two entirely different matters.

Nakamura’s “gameplay first” attitude is reflected in Chunsoft’s long-running Shiren the Wanderer series, a console roguelike.

Advances in hardware have enlarged the scope of game design, too. One could even say that without technological progress, the entire concept of “game design” would never have arisen in the first place.

Nakamura: Another approach to game design is to take a new piece of hardware and ask yourself, what is it capable of? how could I use it? It may be that new design insights come to you as a result of exploring those possibilities. I doubt the person who invented titanium had any idea it would end up being used in everything from golf clubs to glasses. Similarly, consider the SRAM technology. PCs had long had the ability to save data between games, but the person who first saw that technology and realized “I could make a huge console RPG now”—that’s a person who is capable of game design.

Satoshi Tajiri of Game Freak defines game design as “creating new rules”.

Tajiri: Rules are the very lifeblood of games. whether a game is interesting or not depends entirely on the agreed-upon rules. Game design, then, when you boil it down, is simply the construction of those rules. I often get approached by aspiring game designers who want to tell me about their idea for a game. Usually all they can tell me is some vague story or plot outline, like “it takes place in outer space” or something… but that isn’t game design—it isn’t even a game. Only after you’ve devised a set of rules for your game, can you call it “game design.”

In Tajiri’s view, “as video games have become more and more complicated, a designer’s mindset is now required.”

Tajiri: In actuality, there are very few truly “new” games. And despite what I just said about rules, the truth is that the majority of rules in any given game are just recombinations of existing rules. However, I think the potential different combinations are practically infinite.

“It’s similar to music,” Tajiri points out, in that the human ear can only hear a limited number of frequencies, yet no one calls music limited.

Tajiri: However, as the audio/visual aspect of video games have become more complicated, so too have the rules. With so many rules, contradictions inevitably arise. Even in digital rules which should have no space for subjective or emotional interpretation, once you start working with layers upon layers of such rules, surprising inconsistencies pop up.

Featuring multiple enemies with distinct behaviors, Tajiri’s first game Quinty (aka Mendel Palace) best exemplifies his “game design==rules” philosophy.

Take, for example, vs. fighting games. The most basic premise for that genre is “two players fight each other until one is defeated.” A second rule would be “there is a time limit.” Rule 3: “If you don’t kill your opponent within the time limit, whoever has more life remaining wins the round.”

From rule 2 and 3, one could imagine a strategy where you land one blow then run away from your opponent until the time runs out, and that would violate rule #1—that the players should fight each other!

To avoid this contradiction, you can add Rule #4, that if you go outside the ring space, you lose the match. I think this kind of work—solving the contradiction between Rule A and Rule B by creating a new Rule C—is precisely what “game design” is.

Tajiri also shared his thoughts about the advances in hardware.

Tajiri: You know, after the release of the Super Famicom, it took nearly two years for the sound of Super Famicom games to mature. Hardware advances encourage new ideas, but it takes time to cultivate and develop those ideas. When hardware advances too quickly, there isn’t sufficient time to do that.

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