My Learning Journey of Game Design
Thanks to Raymond, Wassie (Play), and Cloud (GuildFi) for every "Monday Grinding" and "Wednesday Motivation" that always encourage me.
Recently, a lot of friends asked me how I learned game design. Some of them are game enthusiasts, and some are crypto analysts, they all have the same goal: to better evaluate a game project and help the team in some ways.
To be honest, I don't have much practical experience, and I’m not a lifelong hardcore player, but as a college girl who doesn't like major courses, I do have some experience in teaching myself game design to share.
In this article, I will review my learning experience and explain how I apply the knowledge to my current job in web3.
Where did I start?
1. Try it out in a small studio
In my sophomore year, I attended two game jams and had to build game demos with eight or nine other people in a very short time. One is a puzzle game, the other is a shooter.
Due to the lack of professional technical talent, I had to learn Unity and Blender (a game engine and a 3D modeling engine) and put the game model into the level after writing the design doc. Of course, I had to learn photoshop and PR to make the trailer.
Those two demo production experiences made me understand the composition of the game team and the basic skills that designers need to master. Many people think that interning at a large company will give us a better understanding of the industrial game production process, but the reality is that a larger project doesn't help us see the full picture (I'll explain this later). So for anyone who wants to learn game design, a small game team can be a quick and effective way to start your journey.
2. Create a personal portfolio
Later, for academic reasons, I began to prepare a personal portfolio. I only made two prototypes in three months, one a board game and one an adventure game. What I had to do at that time was much more detailed than what I had done with the team. Not only did I make paper prototypes, write code, write storylines, and draw pictures. I also invited friends to test the prototype and tweaked the game over and over again.
Balancing the skill and randomness of skill cards in a board game is the hardest part.
At the same time, I began to learn to write game analytics, which is also needed by game companies. It was at this time that I learned the fastest way to deconstruct a game, which is the most efficient way to learn how to design a game:
In the first two days, play the tutorial and the initial chapters, and feel how easy the game is for beginners to get started and how attractive the world is.
In the second two days, buy an intermediate player account (from Alibaba), mainly focusing on the game's content and combat experience.
And in the last two days, buy a whale account with all the advanced equipment and characters/cards in it. This is to check whether there is an unfair edge, whether the monetization design is reasonable and affordable for different kinds of players, and whether the expensive equipment is worth the money (psychologically).
3. Intern at a gaming company
A game company is a good place to develop one skill in-depth, but may not necessarily give interns a complete picture of the industry because each person's work is only one-thousandth of the total project, let alone the development normally takes two to three years.
What helps me is that everyone in web3 has blind faith in the so-called “metaverse”, the experience in web2 game development does help me to disenchant.
Take a Chinese game company for example:
If you work in a development team, you will know that no matter how experienced the game designers are, there will be lots of quarrels every day and they can't decide on the core gameplay all along; you'll know that the producer/ chief designer/ product manager/ system designer have completely different jobs, and the success of a game doesn't mean that everyone involved playing a significant role; you will also know that except very few people who work in the initial development of a project, any other participants in the later operation and content production can not prove their capacity of game design.
So, big companies’ backgrounds are not always very convincing when people say they can make a AAA game onboarding million users.
What do we need to learn?
1. Game development
Learning game development is about understanding how the game goes from 0 to 1.
In the process of making a game, you have to think about what you want and how to achieve it. This way of thinking can help you better analyze a game demo and suggest improvements.
We can tell from the demo whether the gameplay design is reasonable.
For example, in a to-down outdoor battle royale game, if the area design is so simple that there are no strategic choices for players to move around against each other, the game doesn’t have much depth of design. (If you're familiar with PUBG, you'll know how it creates the atmosphere of a horror movie from a first-person perspective, while third-person battle royale games emphasize the layout of obstacles on the map.)
We can also see if a game is polished enough through the demo. Some basic features you can check out when watching/playing an RPG or ACT game demo: Is there a variety of attacks (dodge/block/parry)? If a monster has a hit response or not? Is the hitting enemy lackluster or snappy? Are the sound and effects just right? How about the whole combating action (anticipation/contact/recover)?
We can also give the team more precise advice during playtesting if we’re familiar with the game engine, such as:
Instead of saying "the movement feels a little weird", say "try adjusting mouse sensitivity and jump buffer"; instead of saying "the combat isn't exciting enough", say "try increasing the defense of the last 20% of the player's health or the damage of the last shot to create positive/nervous feedback"...
2. Game system design
System design is very complex. I know that in western game companies, game design is often divided into content design and system design. But in Chinese game companies, there are content designers, battle designers, quest designers, numerical designers, and monetization designers. System design involves all the important gaming elements such as combat/level/economy/metrics etc.
The most effective way to learn system design is to deconstruct the game: usually, a game consists of many systems, such as weapon system, growth system, equipment system, home system, pet system, rune system... Like a big tree with many branches, we have to figure out what's on each branch and whether it's compelling enough to keep the player moving forward.
I will explain this by using the character system design of Genshin Impact as an example.
(Please note that most of the game design knowledge I accept is from China. Please let me know if there is a better way or if I miss something important.)
This is a simple character dashboard, but they're more design details in the character's growth system, related to the demand and supply of resources system.
These resources come from different faucets, so it further relates to the combat system, reward system, and monetization system. Besides, the system design of the mobile games I mentioned here is different from traditional MMO because of different target users. But in general, each system has to link with another and align with the core gameplay to serve a better gaming experience.
A friend and I are working on a system analysis of a traditional Chinese MMO, which hopefully will be released next month and better illustrate game system design.
3. Case study
Last but not least, keep an eye on new trends and conduct case studies.
I've always tried to remind web3 game researchers that don’t try to imitate successful traditional games like Wow and Rune. While there are natural opportunities for collaboration and P2E elements in those huge MMO economies, we're dealing with a completely different market than we had 20 years ago. Even though I spent a lot of time learning about Eve Online's economic model, that doesn't mean we could recreate the same game and be successful.
Instead, we should learn more broadly, including the top games on the App Store, the latest P2E games that are popular in Southeast Asia, and niche and experimental genres like Defi-related games and fully on-chain. By combining the experience of traditional games with new forms of web3 games, we can focus on improving the game experience and attracting more users from web2.
In addition to gameplay and monetization design, we should also focus on marketing and community operations. Not all web3 game teams have a balanced and comprehensive team composition, and they may need more advice from the marketing side. The traditional game industry has a much clearer division of responsibilities, with the development and marketing teams separated. Game design veterans may have little experience in marketing, while experienced level designers may have no idea how to be active in the player community. So we need to broaden our knowledge and use live examples to help the team. (E.g. the Discord community of Slay the Spire and the Reddit community of LoL.)
The last thing I want to mention is that learning how to collect and use Internet resources is very important. In addition to getting textbooks on game design, what teaches me most are videos and articles about games on the Internet. There was no one to teach me how to make a game even when I interned in a gaming company, thus I had the habit of learning 4~5 hours every day from online resources.
Learning game design is endless and enjoyable. Over the past two years, I've learned from level design, content design, and system design, and now I'm learning monetization design and the combination possibility of cryptocurrency. But I never feel I learned enough, especially when I go into the details, working with development teams to list out all the “juices” that may improve the battle feeling, remake the new UI and website, and create a complete renting system framework borrowed from Eve Online... I always think about how to help the team, and it turned out we are learning and growing together.
Hope we can all have fun learning game design and help make better games in this space. If you want to chat about game design and tokenomics, please reach me at https://twitter.com/0xAikoDai