The Clockwork Game Design Podcast: Episode 10 – Design, Improvisation, and Individuality

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In today’s (short) episode I talk about design as the most consistent way to create value. I also talk about how yes, it is wonderful that we’re all special snowflakes and we should be expressing our individuality, but the idea that we do that best by creating “one draft” of our work is a myth. We express more of ourselves through the process of revision.

I also talk a bit about the concept of “can something be over-designed”, and a semi-sidetrack about general anti-science/progress thinking (as usual).

Enjoy!

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  • Jereshroom

    I’m kinda playing devils advocate here, since I’m also very pro-logic/science and agree that intuition is overrated. But I think that sometimes when people think/design for a long time, they fall prey to certain biases — and they won’t be able to see that the earlier version was better. Two examples:
    Compromise — An artist might be more extreme/controversial/blunt in a first-draft, then tone things down once they get feedback. This can be good “All right, I didn’t really mean ALL women” or really bad “Maybe you’re right, if homeopathy is so popular it must be a little bit effective…” ( :
    Loss aversion — An artist might be wary to quit projects or remove features they spent a lot of time and effort on. For instance, I might design 5 more enemies for my game that I don’t really need, and then be unwilling to remove them.

    On the other hand, there are many advantages to spending more time designing and getting feedback, and there are plenty of negatives and biases to first-drafts. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t a few upsides to some occasional improvisation.

    Also, love this podcast. I get my game design and rationalist philosophy in one dose.

  • Thanks! And yeah, I agree with everything you said.

  • Van

    I think people don’t want to accept forward thinking, entirely because of emotional reasons. Its existence means that sooner or later they’ll have to apply themselves a lot more seriously or risk falling behind. Nobody wants to give up the feeling of empowerment they get from this take-it-or-leave-it brand of art and so it’s much more comfortable to slip into these delusions that there’s downsides to using your head.

  • Jimmy Mac

    Great podcast! Let me push against you a bit for the sake of discussion.

    I’m not sure science is the best analogy for (game) design. Science is based on objectivity. If I’m counting cells in a culture, or even answers on a psychological test, a key feature is that generally speaking, we can both observe the same thing. It’s unclear to me that’s the case in design because it seems like a lot of what is valuable in design is based on subjectivity. I might prefer one set of design principles over another for no objective reason. Now, it’s possible a weaker version of your argument would be applicable here, where given certain subjective aesthetic preferences, objectivity might hold, but I tend to think even then, there is too much subjectivity. I feel like much of your arguments here rest on the idea of objectivity in design, and I’m not sure design can be objective.

    Here’s another similar criticism: A good science to compare design to is psychology. Many things in psychology are not directly observable, just as we can’t directly observe the reactions someone has within a particular game system, we also can’t observe other psychological constructs like personality. In personality testing, as an example, we can generally observe the broad strokes, like the “big 5” personality dimensions, but in terms of how real people actually describe one another, it’s rather limited. I think that’s because we have a subjective sense of knowing a person, filtered through our own idiosyncratic lives and experiences, and so when we describe someone to another person, we tend to use metaphor, analogies, and symbols to capture our experience as well as the objective view of another person. Sure, the big 5 are useful dimensions to include in the description, and we can be confident that we are talking about something real, but alone, they don’t convey information that is complete. It may, in fact, not be possible for science to achieve the level of precision that people think they have in when describing someone else’s personality in everyday speech. That’s because when it comes to my own perceptions things can be “true for me” in the sense that they are subjectively true independent from objective truth. The problem for your argument is that games might work the same way. We might be able to define some broad strokes for “objective design” but not enough to really codify a very useful set of principles, or a set of principles that can describe how all good games function. In other words, you might be able to get soundness but not completeness.

  • Be careful not to confuse “it’s very, very difficult to identify objectively-better answers” with “there are no objectively better answers”. I agree with the psychology analogy, but psychology is understood to be a “soft science”. I can accept that design may be an even softer science, but to say that it *isn’t* a science is to totally give up on the pursuit of understanding, and that’s not something I can get behind.

    > We might be able to define some broad strokes for “objective design”
    but not enough to really codify a very useful set of principles, or a
    set of principles that can describe how all good games function.

    You might be right. But I think we need to try. So far everything else in the universe we’ve taken a hard look at has had objectively better and worse answers, so to me it seems reasonable to believe that it’s likely to be the case for design as well.

  • Jimmy Mac

    >Be careful not to confuse “it’s very, very difficult to identify objectively-better answers” with “there are no objectively better answers”. I agree with the psychology analogy, but psychology is understood to be a “soft science”. I can accept that design may be an even softer science, but to say that it *isn’t* a science is to totally give up on the pursuit of understanding, and that’s not something I can get behind.

    I’m trying to say something slightly different. Having thought about it a bit, I think a better way to say my doubt would be to say that in “sciences” of human experience, like design, psychology, art criticism, artistic craftsmanship (musicianship, painting, etc.), there may be something fundamentally irreducible. Science, or at least the theory-making part of it, is concerned with data reduction. We take a complex phenomenon, a set of hopefully representative observations, and come to a conclusion. The conclusion is necessarily more simple to understand than the phenomenon itself, but captures some essence of the original.

    I know the most about psychology, and I think it’s unlikely that we will ever have a full and complete understanding of a phenomenon like depression. Sure, we might be able to develop better tests, chemical and otherwise, more sophisticated classification, but part of the essence of depression is that it’s experienced by one person. I just doubt we will ever be able to feel what it’s like to truly inhabit another person’s mind, and because of that, we will always miss some essence of the experience. I think that’s true for all the “sciences” of experience, or at least, a problem with a scientific approach to art and experience.

    That’s not an argument for not trying though, I think that theories and attempts to codify rules are very useful. Music, as an art form, has benefitted greatly from artists operating within stylistic parameters. As the saying goes, restrictions can breed creativity. I see no reason why the kind of rules you discuss couldn’t work in similar ways. If I’m trying to make a Burgun-Approved Strategy Game, I have some framework within which I can be creative. This discussion itself is also a validation of what you’re doing. We are only having this discussion because you set out a structure within which to have it. Even if I disagree with somethings you say, the structure you create helps me formulate my own thoughts. Something similar can happen with other designers who may try to design “in opposition” to what you say.

  • Trevor Murray

    I think your claim as to what science does is fundamentally wrong. Science describes the observed universe. By necessity those descriptions must start off as simplistic, and the observations limited. But in any field we see them grow ever more complex and ever more accurate, as they grow to incorporate the new data the original models were not able to.

    The concept of something being fundamentally irreducible, is not one derived from science. It is instead a claim imposed on reality from above, often from dogma or ignorance. (Almost) Every time someone has made such a claim they have eventually been proved wrong and I see no reason to expect that will change any time soon, or that the human brain is made of different stuff to the rest of the universe.

  • Jimmy Mac

    I agree with the idea that science starts off simple and grows more complex. Thats not what I am claiming science does. What I said was, “The conclusion is necessarily more simple to understand than the phenomenon itself, but captures some essence of the original.” That is, scientific theories have to be more simple than the phenomena they describe. I don’t have to keep measuring every species to very the theory of natural selection is true; the theory makes testable predictions. In other words, there’s a lot of relevant information that I don’t need to care about because the theory already accounts for it. That’s what I meant by data reduction.

    The thing about aesthetics or experiences like depression is that they are subjective. I can measure what’s happening in the brain, but we cannot measure units of subjective experience (sometimes called qualia in the philosophical world). It might be true that we can measure them, but I’m not sure. It’s also not as if science has solved a bunch of things like this. Sure, people have made claims like this before, and part of that claim has always been that this information is categorically different than other types of information. However, like I said, I’m skeptical of being able to truly inhabit another’s subjective experience. I tend to think that this is a barrier for science that will not be solvable because science is founded in the objective, and it may not be possible to bring the subjective into shared awareness.