Aesthetics and First Principles

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Occasionally I post some mostly coherent Twitter threads on game design. Some of them are worth saving here. – Max

Aimless Game Design ramble-

3 concepts that are tightly connected but hard to articulate:

  • Designing from “first principles”
  • Having a “personal aesthetic”
  • Making day-to-day decisions

Lemme talk about how these things work, and color perception of what “good design” is.

Game designers make many decisions, every day. 100s of little ones, several medium ones, maybe a few big ones.

(decision fatigue is very real, it can sometimes be a relief to get a week where you just need to repetitively implement already-understood things)

Choices like:

  • Direction: What do we want to achieve with this design?
  • Prioritization: What matters right now? When things are in conflict, what’s more important?
  • Details: What stats should this item have? Implementation: How do I set this up with the tools I have?

So how do designers make choices? Often one of these:

  • Intuition
  • Refer to established best practices for this project
  • Refer to genre/franchise conventions
  • Habit
  • Asking someone else
  • Analysis
  • Similar personal experience
  • Testing/Prototyping: Implement and see

Most game design choices are problem-solving: a big puzzle where all the pieces must connect, point to the same goals, reinforce each other, function within the tech, be feasible to produce.

And development is generally fast-paced: deadlines loom, other people count on your work.

When making design choices, there can be MANY unintended consequences, like:

  • Making more downstream work
  • You use a unique thing in a new spot – and it becomes less unique!
  • You re-use some VFX for a slightly different thing, reducing the clarity of the visual language
  • Etc.

A “good” design choice is one that solves it’s problem, AND it’s 2nd-order consequences are either desirable, or worth it. The side effects support another element of the design, add a cool new wrinkle to the experience, or the benefit outweighs the harm.

Miyamoto: “A good idea does not solve just one single problem, but rather can solve multiple problems at once.”

Frederick: “Any design decision should be justified in at least two ways. The more justifications you can find or create for any element, the better.”

So! You’ve got a fast-paced work environment where you make many choices, and those choices have a complex impact on your systems, content, or development ecosystems.

The question becomes: How do you ensure that the decisions you make are, well, effective?

The fastest way to avoid unintended consequences is to use known good solutions. From our list:

  • Refer to established best practices for this project
  • Refer to genre/franchise conventions
  • Personal experience

And, to a lesser extent:

  • Intuition
  • Habit
  • Asking someone else

A slower way, but one that may yield stronger results, is to do the laborious work of figuring out all the 2nd order effects and see how all your elements fit together and support one another. So that’s:

  • Analysis
  • Testing/Prototyping: Implement and see

But nobody on earth has time to do full analysis and testing for every decision they make. Not even close. It would be impossible to make even a small game that way. Designers need to pick and choose where they spend their time and energy.

The way people deal with this is to lean (perhaps unconsciously) on either a body of institutional solutions…:

  • Studio and genre conventions
  • Consulting peers and mentors

…Or on personal experiences:

  • Habits
  • The last game you played
  • Past successes or failures

These solutions are “cultural”: they’re built on the media or past that the team/individuals are exposed to, use as touchstones. When you’re making hundreds of choices a day, the way you see problems and solve them – quickly – is heavily informed by these backgrounds.

That body of known solutions is a big part of one’s “personal design aesthetic”: what default solutions and assumptions are you falling back on? What are your lizard-brain minute-to-minute priorities? What “feels good” based on your past failures and personal taste?

It may seem obvious, but a difference between an experienced and inexperienced designer is that the experienced one has a bigger and more precise library of known good solutions and their 2nd order effects bouncing around in their head, informing their intuition.

This same dynamic can be traced at a bigger scale, since this body of conventions is often shared. It helps explain shared “studio aesthetic”, or the Japanese vs Western design aesthetic.

(The other half is more about the non-problems-solving part of things: creative direction)

“Designing from first principles” is when someone intentionally questions and relies less on that body of known good solutions. They want to question everything: what are the core goals, the core vision? At every step, do more of that analysis and testing, solve the problem anew.

That shit is expensive. Time consuming. And often just reinvents the wheel, but worse. Even individuals and projects that _really_ lean into this and make it a priority, ultimately end up relying on known good choices a lot. Because there isn’t enough time in a lifetime otherwise.

Nintendo consciously threw out many of the conventions of the Zelda series – established largely by Ocarina of time – when they made Breath of the Wild. Supergiant Games seems to design all their games this way, to an extent.

But even those two examples were still built on the shoulders of giants. Breath of the Wild obviously has many lessons from prior Zelda games or games outside the franchise. Supergiant isn’t making up every principle of UX or gameplay feel.

Work long enough in a culture where everyone shares “known good” principles for design, and people will start thinking that their body of known good solutions is authoritative, a set of natural laws – when in fact they are just a set of ideas that are known to work well together.

That’s why we see certain experienced game devs do things like look at Elden Ring and proclaim that it is violating good design, that it is making objectively bad choices. Maybe they’re right – but maybe they’re not pulling far enough back from their set of conventions.

Anyways, whew, I don’t have a strong point here at the end. Just wanted to organize my scrambled thoughts by writing them out. Thanks for listening, twitter friends.