Game Design Theory – Busy Doing Nuthin’

Of all the many tools at my disposal as a game designer one of the most important is my own subconscious.

Over the years I’ve learned to listen to it more and more, and it almost never steers me wrong. On the other hand, ignoring it has often proved to be a bad plan, and I’ve learned the hard way that having a “niggle” about something not being quite right is my backbrain’s way of telling me that something needs more work.

The way I see it, I’ve been reading, writing and playing games for decades, and even if I don’t consciously recall every detail it’s all in there somewhere. Whilst my conscious brain may struggle to find something or make a connection, my subconscious is happy to plod away for as long as it takes to find the link. When it does so then it’ll let me know. Unfortunately its voice is very quiet and hard to discern among the daily clamour. You have to learn to listen. This is where (apparent) idleness comes in.

In common with many writers, I think that my most creative time is when I’m not actually writing. It’s the random thought when you’re in the shower, trying to get to sleep, making a cup of tea or whatever. In other words, when your conscious brain is in neutral and the subconscious can dump something in your forebrain’s in-tray without interference. A flash of inspiration, if you will.

Intuition is another word for the back-brain’s voice – a feeling, a sense that something is either right or wrong. The why of it is usually the conscious rationalising things after the event because it likes tidy solutions. However, I’m increasingly inclined to just believe my game design intuition because it is generally right. If something I’m working on is right then it feels right. If it’s wrong then it doesn’t sit comfortably in my head and I know that I’ll eventually get the reason why or the solution from my back-brain – if I listen.

The way it works is simple. I’ll be beavering away writing something or testing out some new rule and I’ll get a sense of whether it’s done or not. Even when something works mechanically and might seem on the face of it like a neat idea it sometimes just doesn’t click into place properly. As I’ve said before, rules are seldom bad in an abstract sense, just out of place. The trick I’ve found is to frame the problem clearly in my mind and then just let it percolate for a bit. Do something else, preferably unrelated, and don’t worry about it.

Of course, there are alternatives. I can sit and work through a checklist of mechanical options and will get something that works. Writing rules that function to some degree is easy. Getting things to work smoothly and elegantly with a host of interesting emergent tactical options is much, much harder when working down a checklist.

Now I appreciate that this may sound rather like New Age nonsense. However, I’m not suggesting anything magical here – quite the contrary. I’m talking merely about how my brain stores and recovers over 3 decade’s of gaming experience and how to best work with that system (which I can’t change) rather than ignoring it. It seems to me that “doing nothing” ie not actively writing or sitting designing is a vital part of the process as it allows the other half of my brain to join in and be heard. Just as two heads are better than one, so two halves of my brain are better than one 🙂

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13 Responses to Game Design Theory – Busy Doing Nuthin’

  1. Minitrol says:

    I have an amethyst crystal with your name on it say the word…

  2. Quirkworthy says:

    And before anyone picks me up on this, I do realise that I’ve been a bit naughty here in conflating “right brain” and subconscious brain. However, for purposes of this post they are, effectively, synonymous.

  3. The whole right-brain/left-brain dichotomy has effectively been debunked by neuroscience, but lingers as a useful shorthand for abstract versus concrete thinking and other aspects of personality balance and the operations of the subconscious.

    I totally agree with this post. My game-design experience is minuscule compared to yours, Jake, but this is exactly how it goes. You roll mechanics around in your head and if I find myself thinking “No, that’s *right*”, then it invariably means that it’s wrong. In MechaWar, I cut out a whole stat and associated mechanic when I decided it was superfluous.

    The challenge, when you identify the things that’s niggling at you, is working out how to fix it whilst retaining the aspect of the game you wanted to pursue when you introduced it in the first place.

    • Quirkworthy says:

      Just so. Though you’d be surprised how often you can live without things. Sometimes it’s a useful exercise to go through rules elements and just ask yourself “what happens if I take this out?”

      “Not much” is a more common response than you might expect. And even if it does make a difference then you may be able to replicate that difference with something far simpler.

      For example, even something as apparently critical as a movement stat may be unnecessary. Models need to move, right? However, if every model in the game was a human then you could replace a stat with a global value.

      As I’ve said many times, what you leave out is often more important than what you put in. This is especially true of army lists and the equivalent.

      Regarding neuroscience debunking L/R brains – the concept is a neat and elegant one on which are based some practical and effective tools. Of course, it’s not located entirely in either lobe and the brain is far more complex than a simple split might suggest. It is, however, a better and more practically useful paradigm than any other I’ve seen suggested to replace it. For my purposes, anyway.

      But I’m not a brain surgeon 😉

  4. tornquistd says:

    I can not comment on the neuroscience as I know little about it. The subconscious problem solving is something I have a lot of experience with. As a programmer I often have complicated logic problems that need to be solved with a minimal amount of code or maintaining it will be a nightmare. I have learned through experience that problems I can not solve in the first attempt are solved best by the subconscious. To trigger the subconscious feedback seems to take just the right amount of activity. To little and you are focused on your thoughts and no feedback. To much activity and you focus on that and no feedback. What works best for me is casual driving and many times I have solved a problem with a casual drive. To save gas I am driving less perhaps I need to setup a slot car track to see if I can get the same effect without the petrol cost. Sometimes sleeping on it works but that is not as reliable for me as the casual drive. I don’t bath to maintain my geek status so I can’t comment on how effective that is for reaching the subconscious. 😀

    Perhaps I need a suitcase size slot car track to take to tournaments because it might work for subconscious feedback and maddening my opponent. I can see it now! It’s your turn quit playing with the cars already! Aaaaagh!

  5. Kristian says:

    Ah, a skill acquired through years of experience. Sounds like George Carlin describing how his brain worked after five decades of doing his job.

    “I’ve been doing this for a little over 50 years, […] By this time it’s all second nature. It’s all a machine that works a certain way: the observations, the immediate evaluation of the observation, and then the mental filing of it, […]
    […] at this age, I have a network of knowledge and data and observations and feelings and values and evaluations I have in me that do things automatically. And then when I sit down to consciously write, that’s when I bring the craftsmanship. ”

    (George Carlin, Last Interview, Phychology Today)

  6. Kevin Wesselby says:

    Hi I can remember an old quote.Science just explains how we know things and think about things.Art and intuition defines the knowledge science doesnt understand yet…Sort of related and sort of on topic.(I hope.)Great design is alway a mix of science and art.

  7. That way it works for me, too. Actually I have moved on to the level where I can “programm” my suconscious mind and nearly always get a nearly perfect answer within 24 hours. It´s mainly a matter of training, but it takes time to learn it.

    Now, does this makes us the forerunners of the mentats? 😉

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