Good design is good communication

Just as a writer uses words, a game designer uses visuals, text, sound, interaction (or any input really) to communicate its message. But a good book is not just a collection of words. It’s words chosen with purpose and intent. So in the same way a game designer chooses its ‘words’ carefully to convey a message*. And this is where the hard part begins. Communicating is easy, but communicating well is a whole lot harder. You’ll need to know a lot more.

For one, who are you talking to? Your design can be completely misunderstood to one and be perfectly clear to another. And with so many ‘words’ to choose, what’s the best way to explain it? You’ll probably want to be as concise as you can and prevent any distraction from clouding the message. Arguably, the easiest way to explain something is with actual words. They can be specific and clear up any confusion. But as you may soon notice, players don’t really like to read. They’ll have to stop playing your game and take some time to read your text, it’s not always ideal. Often there’s better ways to convey a message.

I’ve come to believe that interaction is the language of the game designer. It’s unique to the medium of games and convey concepts like no other media can. By interacting with a game, players learn more actively about the subject, are able to explore it on their own and ask questions of their own.

As a game designer, you’ll have to find your voice and learn how to communicate well. Learn to speak with intent and maybe most importantly, learn to listen. To your players, your team-members, your clients, your game and yourself. You’ll get better at communicating and in turn, better at design.


* With games, the game designer is not always explicitly choosing the message. Often the game itself reveals a certain truth and the game designer will continue to explore and curate it so it can be best appreciated by the audience of the game. Rather than enforcing it, players will be able to explore the concepts and ask questions of their own.

Why would people play your game?

This may sound like an easy question, but the better you understand your game, the better you can improve it.

Answers like ‘just because it’s hard’, or ‘because it has cool weapons’ only skim the surface. In this case, you’ll get closer if you say it’s because players like the challenge in your game. Better said, they like to feel competent, effective in what they are doing. Both in our work lives and our leisure we are intrinsically motivated to seek out opportunities to experience competence and the satisfaction that accompanies it. So naturally, this also leads to games and the challenges they offer.

According to research of Richard Ryan we have three innate psychological needs: competence, autonomy and relatedness. When these are satisfied, we are motivated, productive and happy. To see how this applies to games, defnitely read the article Rethinking Carrots on Gamasutra.

Earlier I gave the tip find your intrinsic motivation, you can find the answer somewhere in these 3 needs. And in the same way, you can better understand the intrinsic motivation of you players when they’re playing your game. Find which ones work best for your game and your players.

The first prototype for Circles had something fun about it, but it took some time find exactly what that was. I thought an aspect of it was in its puzzle challenge or its navigational challenge. I tried out tricky levels with narrow spaces, switches that would open areas up and in general more complicated levels. But it seemed focusing on more challenge and satisfying a need for competence did not work out well for the game. Instead, I switched and tried to focus more on letting the players experiment and discover how circles behave. This meant simpler levels consisting of just one or a few circles and made making it clear to show off their behavior and interactions. This focus on autonomy worked a lot better for the game and was a lot more engaging for players.