My response to Against Design (Blog Post)

Frank Lantz wrote an article last night called “Against Design“. When I read the article, I was kind of confused by what I was supposed to take away from it, as there are some conflicting statements in the article. However, based on the title and what I know of Frank, I took it as “to some extent I am rejecting the idea of game design as a discipline”.

I’ve since had a bunch of conversations with Frank (and others) on Twitter, and it seems that what he meant to say was that we should be humble and not over-estimate how much power the game design discipline is granting us right now. That sentiment, I totally agree with. I think we are just barely uncovering the tip of the iceberg. We are right now where music was in the 17th century.

So, yes. We shouldn’t be getting cocky and arrogant about how much game design – the theory and the discipline – can do for us.

Here’s the thing, though. Game designers really, really do not have this problem.

Let me get the issue of myself out of the way real quick. I think that I am in the top, top 0.01% when it comes to “how much a person expects game design can do for the quality of a game”. In fact, I might be literally at the top of that list, because in my view, even our best games come up pretty short. I envision interactive systems as being wholly, just fundamentally better on every axis in 10 years, and not because of technological advancements, but because of advancements in understanding of game design theory. I am that optimistic when it comes to game design – I really, really believe in it.

I also think we already see some huge improvements in newer games, and I’m really optimistic about even the very near future.

I also think that there’s a huge gap on this axis between myself and… just about every other designer I’ve talked to. With the exception of a few people, almost everyone has a view that sounds something like one of these:

  • “At the end of the day, theory isn’t useful, it just comes down to what’s fun.”
  • “You can’t say anything is good or bad, it’s all subjective!”
  • “I actually think that my ignorance makes me a better designer!”
  • “Game design isn’t a discipline, it’s just coming up with ideas.”

Those are the most commonly expressed opinions with regards to what game design is good for.

And it makes sense, since many game designers… really aren’t doing that much game design. They’re just deciding which abilities you’ll have in this particular third person action game, or designing levels for this particular puzzle platformer. So it’s really no wonder that people don’t think much of this discipline – most of those who, on paper are doing it, aren’t doing much, and the discipline hasn’t been explored very deeply.

With that in mind, I just think it sucks to hear one of the few guys who maybe believes in game design as a real discipline write this hemming and hawing article about it with a title like “Against Design”. Statements in the article like:

  • But lately I find myself questioning design as a way of understanding where games come from and what makes them work.
  • There are so many great games in the world that don’t reflect good design principles, or that don’t seem designed at all.

If there are games that break your models, why not just adapt your models? Instead of saying that the AWP wasn’t made by sensible people, why not try to unpack what it is about the AWP that is actually working. Maybe the guys who made the AWP are just way more sensible than you are!

Ultimately, I think that the real story behind this article is really an appeal to a kind of mystical thinking. It seems to me that some people really want there to be some “unexplainable mystery” so badly that they will throw their hands in the air at the first sight of something that seems confusing or or that conflicts with something else they know.

This is particularly annoying, because don’t worry – even if you’re pursuing answers full time, it’s still going to be super-mysterious! It reminds me of people inventing stories about fairies and ghosts and bigfoot, while there are actual worlds worth of flora and fauna all around them, waiting to be discovered.

I think we have to stop fetishizing the unknown. We don’t know most stuff. Not knowing is the starting point; the default, so it’s not the exciting thing. The exciting thing is these tiny, tiny bits of knowledge that we’re able to eke out. What makes us special as human beings is our ability to do this, so that’s what we should be celebrating.

Of course we should be humble, and of course we should remember how easy it is to get stuff wrong (I probably need to hear that more than most people). But no matter how much stuff we get wrong, we shouldn’t be encouraging each other to abandon the search, and I think that that is exactly how a lot of people – people who are similarly on the fence the way Frank is – will take the article.

  • franklantz

    Thanks for this thoughtful critique Keith.

    1. Acknowledging the limits of your predictive and explanatory models is the *opposite* of mystical thinking. In fact it is one of the most important steps in the process of improving your ability to predict and explain.

    2. I know I am guilty of slipping between rational argument and elliptical commentary. I’m sorry, I can’t help it, and I honestly think it’s the best way to communicate clearly what I am thinking about.

    3. Your theoretical system is one of the things that I’m reacting to and an example of a framework that I believe is too certain and too constraining to be useful. I think it would be better if it had a little bit less rational argument and a little bit more elliptical commentary in it. This is the nature of our artform, of any artform, it is a strange blend of things that can be seen and measured and spoken about and things that will forever elude explanation.

    4. Telling someone that their radar is noisy is not “encouraging them to abandon the search” it is a way of helping them become better searchers.

    5. Mario is not as good as people think, but Mario is better than your system declares. This is the nature of aesthetic judgment, it cannot exist outside of a communal practice of shared taste creation. Art is the Bayesian logic of the human soul.

  • Blake Reynolds

    If Keith’s system was around in the time of NES, Miyamoto would have chosen between a high score OR a “beat the game” state, rather than having two conflicting goals, one of which is completely ignored by 99% of players. It would have either random content to continually test your reflexive decision making, OR it would have way more intricate and brain-teasing nonrandom content, and eliminate lives and “progression.”

    The “can I” would be considered as a separate thing from the “should I.” We may still be playing Mario 1 today, and not just for retro/nostalgia appeal. I mean the way we still play solitaire.

    The point is, I just illustrated several specific, predictive ways to make that software a lot lot lot better. That’s what the development of theory does. Keith’s taxonomy isn’t any more certain or constrictive than the advancements in music theory during the baroque era. I am a trained composer. I can tell you that the theory of functional harmony opened WAYYYYY more doors than it closed.

    Making good stuff is hard. Selling a good thing is even harder. Imagine going back to ancient Japanese No theater and whispering into an audience member’s ear, “one day we’ll have Breaking Bad.”

    It’s like the allegory in the cave. That audience member thinks No theater is as good as we’re going to do.

    Keith thinks that one day we will have games that make even the shining stars of today look like infantile garbage, the way that Renaissance madrigals made medieval chants look. The way Bach’s Magnificat made Renaissance counterpoint sound like caterwauling. The way Mozart’s Requiem made Bach’s harmony seem stuffy and so on.

    We just can’t see how good it’s gonna get. All we can see is “like God of War but with more more polygons.”

  • Frank, thanks for being super cool about this somewhat prickly article. I actually am in the process of going back and softening up the language here and there and clarifying because I don’t want to sound overly negative.

    1 – Agreed, totally. But I think people disagree with my proposed limits and then maybe think I’m not acknowledging the limits. I do acknowledge limits, just not the ones other people necessarily are thinking.

    2/3 – I had to look up with Elliptical Commentary was. I now know what it is, but I have no idea why anyone would want to use it. Can you point me in a direction on this?

    5 – The thing that bothers me here is, you are saying this stuff about Mario based on some criteria that you personally have. I would like to know what that criteria is. By your criteria, I’m sure what you’re saying is right. By my criteria, I’m sure what I’m saying is right. We should discuss the criteria itself and try to figure out which is more useful.

    Anyway, thanks again for starting this conversation and for being cool about my reaction to it.

  • Peter Everett

    Theory doesn’t make art any less special or any more contrived, it makes it a lasting art form and not a passing fad. I don’t think any art form can reach its potential without theory being established. Yes, you can sometimes combine elements until you come up with a winning combination and end up with a beautiful accident, or you can lay the groundwork for theory that can change the way games are made, played, and understood for the better.

  • adrix89

    >Your theoretical system is one of the things that I’m reacting to and
    an example of a framework that I believe is too certain and too
    constraining to be useful.

    The problems with Keith’s theoretical system and basically his design chops are pretty concrete.

    If you contrast and compare Keith’s work with Sirlin’s and Chris Crawford you can basically understand his strengths and weakness fully.

    A framework composed of all the major players not just one I believe would be a very strong foundation.

  • Paul Spooner

    Agreed. “Against Design” strikes me in the same way, a capitulation in the face of difficulty and surrender to superstition. Let’s hope that, instead, it is merely an honest admission of ignorance, and a momentary weakness, resulting in broadened horizons and a new respect for the vastness of the unexplored.

  • franklantz

    Everyone seems to think that I am advocating a rejection of theory. I am not. Nor am I advocating some kind of mystical thinking or superstition, or radical “anything goes” relativism.

    “Greatness”, in my view, is:

    *not* precise adherence to some set of prescribed criteria

    *nor* is it a measure of a game’s historical impact, influence, popularity and the critical consensus

    *nor* is it some utterly indefinable quality of sublime power that cannot be articulated

    What it *is*, in my view, is a complicated mixture of all three of these things.

    Yes, to recognize greatness we need some critical framework that helps us evaluate and articulate a game’s qualities. But this framework can never be a wholly private affair. it must exist in conversation and negotiation with other frameworks, within different communities, within a historical context, within the heat and noise of the agora of ideas. There is no private taste. Aesthetics is always and forever a realm of exchange, dialogue, and debate. That doesn’t mean you can’t develop your own point of view, it means that your point of view always already exists in a complex network of other points of view, some of which correspond and some of which differ. It is necessary to bootstrap our personal, individual critical frameworks from the culture around us, to which we belong. And then we contribute that personal point of view back to the culture, enriching it.

    Think of Shakespeare. He inherited English, then he transformed English.

    This back-and-forth, bootstrappy, give-and-take, conversation about critical frameworks, about the criteria that defines greatness, about design principles, is, in some ways, like the conversation that happens in a deep competitive game, each player responding with her best guess at what is the best move. But in a game there *is* a best move, even if no-one knows for sure what it is. In the conversation of culture, there can never be an absolute best move, because we are making it up as we go, because we are in the process of generating shared values, shared criteria. There is some aspect here of empirical claims and evidence-based reason, but there is also an aspect of persuasion, advocacy, collective, bootstrappy, social reasoning whose outcome cannot be specified in advance.

    When Richard Garfield says “Chess wouldn’t cut it by today’s standards” I get it.
    When Sirlin says “Chess has these terrible problems and here’s how I would fix it.” I get it.

    But I think any critical framework that makes sense, that has a chance of being a substantive, robust, living thing-in-the-world, it has to acknowledge Chess as a great game. Because of Karpov and Kasparov and Fischer and Spassky and Nimzovitch and Polgar, because of Vladimir Nabokov and Marcel Duchamp and Yoko Ono and Harry Potter and Ingmar Bergman. Because Chess isn’t just a collection of qualities and properties, it is a shared human endeavor, a collection of lives. Chess has become a part of games the way Shakespeare has become a part of English.

    This doesn’t mean that Chess is beyond reproach, or shouldn’t be critiqued. It doesn’t mean we have to like Chess. It means that no matter how Chess stacks up in our personal critical framework, we should be able to recognize and appreciate its greatness, to have enough humility to *sometimes* stand before this great thing and look up quietly in awe.

    The same is true, I think, of Super Mario. I am less sure, but I think so.

    We are in conversation with the world. Sometimes the world tells us things we are not smart enough to understand.

    When someone says “I’m not even sure there *are* any great games”. I don’t get it. This is pure solipsism.

    Again, all of this is a matter of degree, a matter of emphasis, not an all-or-nothing stand. It is advice directed at myself as much as it is at anyone else. I want to have more Copernicus in me, I want to be more Bayesian. Not as an alternative to having refined, sophisticated, advanced, critical, personal taste, but as a way to achieve just that.

  • pandaman27

    Super thoughtful points all around. Maybe this is addressed in all the writings, but I want to expand on it. Sorry for the length – thanks for reading.

    In terms of reaching towards an ideal design: I empathize with Frank Lantz’s essay. We have lots of examples of games that work in ways they maybe they “should” not. The inverse is also true. Why? A few things, I imagine, are happening here.

    Miyamoto says when he designs games, he designs the first level last. By the end of your game, you are now endued with all the tools necessary to lend the ropes to the player in the most simplistic and engaging way possible.

    That little tidbit is a sort of design principle that if tested empirically, I bet would hold up very well in measures of player appreciation and engagement. But as with all the things scientific, there are always outliers, oddities, and the unexplained. By the law of numbers, there HAS to be an exception – that’s just how statistics and numbers work. And in doing so, reflect our problem that there is always the exception to the rule. And sometimes they’re glaring.

    I love Frank’s analogy about Shadow of the Colossus. But in the same way that a game like, say, Wario Ware succeeds by doing the opposite of much good sense, you can get by on virtually any design choice given the finessed appeal of other factors. (I’m reminded of the “old” flash game “You Have To Burn The Rope”.) Taking into account how games interact with players cognitively, emotionally, behaviorally, may inherently seem to be included in with all design choices, but they just necessarily are not.

    Even the an otherwise identical, world-class game can get mocked if played on the wrong CONTROLLER by a reviewer!

    I feel even tightly honed game design, because of endless uncontrollable factors both conscious and unconscious, don’t take into account more than just what they are designed to take into account. Seems obvious, but worth restating.

    Try playing Hotline Miami on mute and see how much of the experience is taken away. Why are Pac-man and Tetris ENDLESSLY engaging today while many newer arcade titles become duller after a time? Why are people arguing that newer Smash Bros titles are worse when, by virtually all surface accounts, they trump Melee overwhelmingly? Why do people still play Super Mario 64 over and over and over again, when Super Mario Galaxy exists? If all Pokemon games deviate so painfully little from title to title, what nuances drive people to argue over which is superior? Why do I keep playing Civ for hundreds of hours a year when I could be playing anything else ever? And on and on. You’d think “more perfect designs” would lesson my game play hours. Sometimes this is true of older titles I simply appreciate but get lesser mileage from, but sometimes it isn’t.

    Thus, I appreciate the idea that we are going to trump our understanding of game design ten years out. I absolutely don’t disagree that in general, design is getting better in very many ways at an accelerated pace. And I don’t even disagree that game theory isn’t often vastly appreciated by even the game examples I gave, and thus applied liberally by their creators.

    But I think that Frank is right to say that we have yet to *fully* grasp the very thing we are so understanding of. I don’t think it’s harmful to say as such publicly, and I would take it a step further to even say that we don’t even fully consider a great MANY variables that we as a collective of game appreciaters need to further study – especially cognitively and psychologically!

    Good discussion.

  • burgess

    Frank’s post is not nearly as controversial as it seems people are finding it. Nearly all creative disciplines are some mix of design and art, which I understand are some deeply nebulous categories. I take design to be the aspect that, as Frank says, is rational. It requires some results to measure itself against, it’s more externally focused in this way and tends toward determinism, and precludes the truly new. Art contrasts and tempers these conditions. Game making necessarily requires both. In my reading, Frank is simply advocating to adjust our collectively accepted location along this spectrum.

    I think confusion is arising due to a conflation of game design, meaning the whole discipline of game making, and design, meaning a methodology that informs the making of games. Questioning the extent of our present command of methodology does not deny the discipline that strives to further advance this dexterity of making.

    It’s a question of how much control we have right now. In imagining what’s possible and what we’ll accomplish eventually, I’d say we have quite little. This acknowledgement doesn’t suggest that we can’t, won’t, or should not seek greater control or that we are presently ineffectual. What it does is gives us a more acute understanding of our latitude.

  • franklantz

    Wario Ware is so good.

  • Thought about this comment a lot today. I think ultimately the difference might come down to what we mean by “great”. Is chess one of the great-est games we’ve made so far? Probably. Will it still be one of the great-est games 100 years from now? I don’t think so at all.

    I also think Chess’s value *already* has dipped dramatically in the last 10 years due to advancements in game design, and will continue to drop, faster and faster in the next decades.

    One thing I find funny about this conversation is this undercurrent of telling me that I’m out of touch for not thinking Chess or SMB are good enough (“have enough humility to stand up and look in awe”, etc). I actually think I’m more in touch with how people *actually feel* about Chess. Like classical music or medieval paintings, ask people if they’re good and they’ll say yes. Ask people if they actually want to interact with the things and, more and more, year after year, they’ll pass. In the modern world where we have humans who specialize in designing interactive systems, things are just… way more efficient, and people – on some level – pick up on that.

    (Ultimately, I’m just saying the same thing Richard Garfield said, which you said you get… so we’re probably talking past each other from the same position again.)

  • pandaman27

    Oh no, did I embarrass myself?

    Also, wario ware is tops.

  • harlan entler

    Do you feel that Go/Baduk/Weiqui has been exceeded in a similar manner to Chess, with similar reasoning?

  • In short, yes. I think Go is way less playable, even, than Chess, and most modern people really wouldn’t enjoy it. I studied it for a couple of years and I still feel like I can’t really play, it’s sort of a ridiculous game.