Long title is long. I tried a few different titles, and they all failed to convey my intent. But before we get to my intent, some backstory.

One of the biggest hurdles I had to overcome as a system designer was my obsession with “efficiency”. I am a scientist. It defines everything I love about game design. I love knowing that a group of systems has come into perfect balance, and knowing that this balance leads to the funnest experience possible. God, excel can be mind-numbingly boring on a normal day, but I would be lying if said I didn’t seek out and choose tasks that revolve around using it, so as to find some kind of mathematical perfection.

Sometimes, though, it isn’t about the numbers. I have talked about this in the past, but why I am here today is to talk about a corollary to this problem. I hate the blank page; starting from nothing and trying to come up with something “cool” is very much my personal nightmare. I hate it. When I was first starting out, I combatted this fear and hatred with science. I would create rules and guidelines to help me get over this, and one of these rules was, “Focus on the most important feature(s) first, because if you can design that, everything else falls into place.”

This was dumb.

It doesn’t sound dumb. In fact, it sounds quite logical, but that’s the problem with logic and design. They don’t always play nice. Working on God of War I learned that the importance of a feature does not determine the order it gets designed. (Hey where have I read that line before?). Sometimes you get stuck. You can’t think of anything interesting, but you are sure you are supposed to finish this big important chunk, so you spend days thinking of a solution. Focusing on it like this is a great way to end up with logically cohesive systems that have all the excitement of an expense report. Here’s what I learned:

Don’t Force It

When you get stuck, design what excites you, regardless of the importance. If you aren’t pumped about what you design, I sure as hell am not going to be pumped to play it. Fact. The great thing about a well designed system is that all the pieces work together, so even if you are designing a small piece, you are still working on a piece of the whole. What’s more, as you work on these other features you will indirectly design the main feature.

You know what else? Don’t get discouraged if you can’t think of anything. You are not the first person to draw a blank, and you won’t be the last. If you try and force a design, it is just going to come out crappy. You can’t always logic your way to a solution, as much as your brain tells you it can. I cannot stress enough the difference this made in my life. I still hate the blank page. Fucking hate it. But you know what I hate more than a blank page? Designing something crappy.

Addendum: I feel this was not clear – probably shouldn’t write something at 2 in the morning. Starting with the big features is important, but just because it is important does not mean that it MUST be designed first. Becoming fixated on minor systems and ignoring major systems is JUST as bad. You must have balance in all things.

Allow me to give an example. Let’s say I’m tasked with creating monsters for a new game. You are going to have small, medium, and large enemies. The small enemies will have 2 variations, the medium has 5 variations, and the large has 3 variations. By the logic of importance, you should design the medium enemies first. It has the most variations, and will net the largest benefit. Let’s say, however, that you get through 3 of the 5 variations and you are stuck. You have NO ideas for the last 2. Assuming you have done your research, do not sit around waiting to get an idea, and do not try and force a solution. If you have ideas for the others you should immediately go work on those. The goal is not to be come obsessed, as I did, with what is the most important.