The Designer Ouroboros

When you’re stumped on a project, what do you do? You can bang your head against a wall — and I usually do, for quite a while, because sometimes that does get results — or you can pivot to another project to clear your head.

And when you get stumped on that project, what do you do? Maybe more head-banging, or maybe you decide to pivot to yet another project to clear your head, again.

And when project number three stumps you, where do you turn? Right back to project one.

Rinse, repeat.

On paper that sounds like a dog chasing its tail, an endless vicious cycle, but when you come back to a project that’s laid fallow you might discover surprising insights lurking just beneath your waking mind. The trick (and there’s always a trick) is to make sure your projects don’t drift into something else when you leave and come back to them. So you write down your maxims, and you check your maxims. Can you change your maxims? Absolutely. But it has to be a conscious choice, not forgetfulness.

Irrational Methods & Sacred Holograms

I’m very organized. But sometimes organizing is not your friend.

Recently I noticed I was really grappling with my design notes, that the organization itself was making it harder to work on the game. So I made a strange leap to a totally different approach. On paper a completely irrational method. Disorganization, really. But I’m finding at a particular stage of the development process that it works much better for me, for reasons I’ll explain.

Here’s the logical method, which is what I usually do: if you’ve got a design in the works, you set up folders or some kind of hierarchy for each facet of the game. Maybe a section on character creation, with a subsection on relationships, and really overarching folders for setup versus play and so on. And when you have ideas you go to that section of the hierarchy and write your thoughts in their proper places. Maybe you have different folders or one big outline document with different sections — whatever, doesn’t matter. The point is, as you work or brainstorm, everything you make goes in the section where it belongs. Even if you’re debating three different ways to frame scenes, all three methods are in the “scene” section.

And that’s totally logical. But what I’ve found is that it also creates a small organizational hurdle every time you have an idea you want to jot down. Where does it go? How does that change the structure? Do I need to re-order all these folders? That kind of micro-introspection can stifle the flow of ideas. You can’t just add one idea, you have to stop and think of how that idea fits in the whole right then.

Enter my irrational solution. I usually keep journals for games I’m working on, to reflect about the process and think through timelines, etc. But now I’ve switched to putting the bulk of all design notes in those journals. If I have an idea of how to revise relationships during character creation, I just slap it right in the Tuesday entry rather than trying to put it in the proper section of the notes hierarchy.

The result is a big chronological thread of ideas as they came to me, completely disorganized. And right now, for me, it totally works. Because there’s zero barrier to jotting down new ideas or kicking around some snippet of analysis. I just open the journal and add something.

Later on, yes, there will be a massive culling, where I’ll go through the whole journal and scoff at all the ideas I came up with and abandoned, and then write the true final rules.

But I think this method reflects a very important truth, which is that the true structure of the game doesn’t exist on the page, it exists in my head. If I can’t see the whole thing floating in my brain, I’m not there yet. And then, yes, once that sacred hologram is complete, the next step is to translate it into words that players can read. But the mental construct comes first. Writing things down during the design phase is just a way to help me put it into focus.

A corollary is that this is exactly where some game designers go wrong. They have a clear mental construct, but the words they put on the page don’t express the game in their head, and they can’t see the discrepancy. Which is also why I’ve said in the past that if you’ve been kicking your text around for a long time, it can be revelatory to put it all aside, start with a blank page, and write your entire game out from memory. Because your brain knows how the game works.

And that’s also why a lot of game design work looks like me just walking around the house, starring into space, not writing a word. Because I’m building up and tearing down the construct in my mind.

    Ben Robbins | February 14th, 2022 | , | show comments