So here's the post I intended to write yesterday (before I discovered that I'd not mentioned one of the games that I'd worked on). I did a podcast interview this weekend, which I'll link once it's live, in which I was asked about other games I'd worked on in my time here. I described my approach and it got me thinking about different approaches that I've read other designers talking about. It's kind of cool that everyone has their own approach and I imagine different ones suit different circumstances, I reckon that it'll be good to think about options I might switch to as circumstances change.
Power of Three
If you've been following my blog, you'll know that my current approach is to initially develop three games at a time, test all of them for a while and pick one for final development. That game then gets my full attention until it's done or the project is switched for some reason.
A lot of game design can be viewed as an optimisation problem. The vast plain of design space looms large, with its peaks and valleys. A concept is a single point in this space and the space is huge, so it's easy to come up with a lot of ideas for games. The role of a designer is to take the point they've identified and explore the adjoining territory through playtesting, to find higher ground (metaphorically: a better game). Of course some ideas are better than others and those that start higher up will be easier to improve, though progress becomes harder the higher you climb and there's a danger of finding yourself atop a small hill, where any change will make things worse but is necessary to reach a mountain.
To step outside of the extended metaphor, I like the 'power of three' approach because it lets me explore a few areas and pick the one with the best prospects before committing. However, once focused it also prevents procrastination. It's always tempting to focus on the easier early improvements than to put in the hard work to push a good design to become great. Forcing myself to narrow the focus to a particular game once I've explored a few starting points means that I'll put in the effort to reach my goal.
On a side note, for some reason people have a psychological attraction to lists with three items. I don't know why this is, but you'll notice that when someone's trying to list something if they only have two items they'll add a third vague item to finish the list. It's probably due to biology, culture and other stuff.
I've come across some designers who have a single game, that they work on to the exclusion of all else. I can empathise with this approach, since it's a state that I adopt for some of my process and I can see the advantages. Besides the ones listed above it also ensures that every moment poured into the design will be a part of the final project, I abandon hundreds of hours of work in games that don't make the cut, where a tunnel vision designer will absolutely focus on their goal and every minute they spending working on it will count. That's got to be an attractive prospect if time is short.
The downside to this approach is that it invests the designer very heavily in a single game, which has a bit of a history of leading to people becoming blind to their game's flaws. In some cases this can lead to upsetting situations where someone has become so engrossed in their vision that they lose things that are important to them in order to pursue a game that will never be as successful as they dream. On the other hand, a designer who is able to take criticism well and who is agile enough to adapt their ideas as often as is required could find that this approach suited them.
On a side note, people tend to blame their successes on their inherent qualities and their failures on the situation. As such most people believe themselves to be better than they are; statistically the average person thinks that they are of above average intelligence. I imagine that the set of designers that could make this approach work is smaller than the set of designers that believe that they could make this approach work. Since I'm not sure which I'd be, I'm hesitant to adopt it.
It seems reasonably common for designs that I speak to to have a stable of designs at various stages of development. A designer adopting this approach might have dozens of games on the go at once, ranging from an idea written on the back of a napkin to a virtually finished product seeking publication.
Having run into issues with waiting for other professionals I can see the merits of this. If I've got a game that needs a quote from a manufacturer before some key decision can be made or there's a similar hold up it's nice to work on a different project (and I often do!) It's also a good way to take advantage of sporadic availability of playtesters, as there will always be something at the playtest stage whenever there are some available. Finally it can be a good way to take advantage of inconsistent motivations, sometimes you can be in the mood to create rather than refine, it's nice to always have a design in a state that matches your mood.
There are a couple of dangers to this approach too. If a designer has a favourite stage of development (and a lot favour initial ideas and prototyping) then it's possible to wind up with a large number of designs just past this stage that aren't picked up again often. It's also possible to suffer some efficiency losses, in relearning old lessons upon picking up a game that's been left to one side for too long. I may be inclined to switch to this approach after a while, as I build up a bank of ideas.
On a side note, I can't think of a relevant psychological concept for this one. I guess I could talk about the brain as a parallel processor (It can do more stuff at once than a computer even though the computer is faster at doing one thing) but that'd be a metaphor at best since designers adopting this approach aren't literally dealing with everything simultaneously. It is why you sometimes have a flash of inspiration in the shower rather than when you're trying to focus on a design though.
And So On
I've mostly focused on how many designs a designer works on simultaneously, but there are a lot more features that differentiate approaches to design. The quantity and type of notes that designers take in playtesting. The way in which they solicit and use feedback. The start points for their games and where they look for inspiration when they're stuck. The degree of focus on an obtainable final product vs. developing the perfect theoretical game and cutting it down to fit inside reality at the end. I've only really scratched the surface of this subject, but all of these things are great to think about. The best way to learn is to watch an expert at work and I see a lot of other designers sharing their best tips and tricks everywhere I look