How to Be a Star in Game Industry Design Meetings

February 2, 2018

For aspiring game designers, we have created three tips to help you excel in design meetings in the game industry. Check it out:

  1. Make It About the Player
  2. Playtest Notes Beat the HIPPO
  3. Know the Canon

 Make It About the Player

Your job as game designer is firstly to be an advocate for the player. You make decisions based on what will be best for the experience of the person playing your game.

The primary way you know what the player wants is by playtesting with your actual players (the target audience for your game). Playtesting with your teammates and friends is nice, but you really want to test with people who don’t know you to get real feedback.

When in design meetings, frame your statements through the lens of what the player wants rather than what you think is cool or what is trending on Gamasutra.

Under the category of not-widely-known, check out the Gamer Motivation Survey by Quantic Foundry. You can use this to understand yourself as a gamer and get recommendations for games you might like to play.

You can also read this article about “7 Things [Quantic Foundry] Learned About Primary Gaming Motivations From Over 250,000 Gamers.”

Playtest Notes Beat the HIPPO

… That is, if you document what you observe in playtests as objectively as possible.

Some companies, like Microsoft Games, have dedicated user researchers, whose job it is to create playtest reports for the team to follow. Regardless of how you get the notes in design meetings, you want to reference them — as opposed to your own opinion — when talking about how to solve a design problem.

This means you would say things like, “Players keep getting stuck at this point on the map. I think we should provide a weapon drop here for them to keep it moving,” instead of, “I think it would be cool to have more weapons.”

This technique is not only professional-grade, but it is also important when dealing with the “HIPPO” in the room — the “Highest Paid Person’s Opinion.” Solid info from your playtests makes it easier for everyone to get on the same page.

Know the Canon

The word “canon” means “a collection of sacred works.” You hear the word used to describe the canon of great literature and film and music, but there is also a canon of great games.

As an aspiring game designer it is important that you know the great games, and play as many as possible. When you are in game industry design meetings, your colleagues will be mixing and matching points about game mechanics, art direction, story arcs, and other elements of a variety of different games. You want to understand what they are saying and be able to contribute.

Most of the games that come up will either be in the canon or were heavily influenced by the canon. Importantly, the canon includes great video games but also a diversity of lesser-known games that broke important ground — e.g. “Atari Adventure” is a simple game that influences the entire action-adventure genre, including all the Zelda games.

What is the canon, you ask?

While there is no definitive list, here are some good sources to read:

  1. 25 Video Games Every Game Design Student Should Play Before They Graduate
  2. Time Magazine’s “The 50 Best Video Games of All Time
  3. Metacritc’s “Best Video Games of All Time”

Finally, related to the canon: two titans of gaming education, design, and writing, NYFA Game Design Chair Chris Swain and Jeremy Bernstein recently took NYFA’s Twitch show “Schooled” to give their list of “10 Games You Should Play Before You Graduate from Game School.”

We highly encourage that you catch the episode here:

The two created their best games list because, as Swain puts it, “Designers are constantly brainstorming and incorporating bits of mechanics from other games. So it’s important to play and understand lots of different kinds of games so you can hang tough in these meetings. This list is not meant to be exhaustive but rather food for thought for a variety of different kinds of games and genres. You actually need to play lots more than what we talk about in the Twitch episode, but those games are a great foundation.”

Throughout the episode, two themes emerged: “innovation” and “gameplay over graphics.” The show kicks off with Swain introducing “Adventure” for the Atari 2600, the game that invented action adventure, top-down scrolling, fog of war, and easter eggs. He shows how it provides “primitives” for the whole action adventure genre including the “Zelda” series, “Uncharted” series, and even the “Grand Theft Auto” series.

Bernstein underscores the value of playing tabletop games as game design student, making the point that playing board games forces aspiring designers to get hands-on with rules, procedures, mechanics, and adjudication, intimately and in ways that are not accessible when playing digital games.

We have included their list of games below and encourage you to play them all.

# Title Platform Video Link
1 Adventure Atari 2600
2 Dungeons and Dragons Tabletop
3 Tetris Soviet DVK-2
4 Blokus Tabletop
5 You Don’t Know Jack PC
6 Sim City PC
7 Dune 2 PC
8 Magic the Gathering Online Tabletop
9 Wii Sports Wii
10 Pokemon Go Android

To recap, here are three things you can do to be a star in game industry design meetings:

  1. Make It About the Player
  2. Playtest Notes Beat the HIPPO
  3. Know the Canon

All of them take a lifetime to fully master, so just jump right in by making games, playtesting games, and playing lots and lots of games.

Ready to learn more about game design? Study at the New York Film Academy’s Game Design School.

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