Emotional Game Design

Believe it or not, you shouldn't always look like this while designing games. Image from Internet Reaction Face Archive.

Believe it or not, you shouldn’t always look like this while designing games. Image from Internet Reaction Face Archive.

Emotion plays an interesting role in game design. On the one hand, people tend to do their best work when they are excited and passionate. On the other hand, strong feelings of pride and attachment can cloud your judgment, make it difficult to empathize with others, and ultimately lead to an inferior game.

If you’re reading this, I’m going to assume you have no trouble getting excited about game design. Few of us do. Instead, I’m going to focus on how excess emotion can cause you to make bad design decisions, and what you can do to avoid it.

Emotional Problems

The most common problem caused by emotion when designing games is attachment. You can become attached to many different aspects of a game, from mechanics to themes to specific components. Often times, you’ll have a soft spot in your heart for the first version of something, which might lead you to not even consider alternatives. And if you stick with a particular decision for long enough, you’ll become comfortable with it and any alternative will feel strange and worse.

Another common problem is ego. People prefer their own ideas to those of others, so many designers are more inclined to keep their own solutions to problems instead of giving other people’s suggestions a fair shot. While playtester feedback should never be taken as scripture, every suggestion needs to be seriously considered, so giving your own ideas an unfair advantage can be detrimental to the final game.

Peer pressure can lead to all sorts of bad decisions. Image from Strike the Root.

Social pressure can lead to all sorts of bad decisions. Image from Strike the Root.

Social pressures can also lead to emotions getting in the way of good game design. For example, you might closely associate some aspect of the game with one of your playtesters or collaborators, and feel like changing it would be a betrayal. This is social attachment.

Additionally, many designers strive to please all of their playtesters, even if it means watering the game down or complicating the game unnecessarily. The problem here is the urge to please and be accepted.

There are other ways emotions cause problems when designing games, but this is a good starting list. I encourage you to add to it in the comments.

Getting Help

You can avoid the pitfalls described above in many ways, among them simply being mindful of your own emotions and determined to not let them dictate your design decisions. However, a few best practices go a long way towards keeping your emotions in check.

Stick to the Script. One of the easiest things you can do is to take each step of design in turn. In my experience, a design works out best when you start with design goals, then establish a basic game structure, then flesh out the theme before balancing the game and ultimately cleaning up the graphic design and adding art. You’ll need to iterate at every step along the way, but if you start to work on a later stage before completing an earlier stage (like spending time coming up with lots of thematic special rules before the basic structure is solid), you’ll often find yourself less willing to iterate on the earlier stage. Keep later stages in mind as you work on earlier stages, but don’t let yourself dedicate time or mental energy to them until your game is ready.

Always Explore. Related to the above advice, at each stage, spend time brainstorming and exploring before you commit to anything. Even if you think you have the perfect idea, challenge it with alternatives. You might find that the idea really is perfect, but maybe it doesn’t work in practice when you playtest. Having alternatives you can immediately experiment with makes it a lot easier to accept that something needs to change.

Playtest with Many Groups. Many designers primarily playtest with their close friends. This can work, but often leads to problems. When players closely watch a game develop, they will become attached to many aspects of it, compounding the pressure to keep a prototype in its current state. If overcoming your own emotions is difficult, overcoming the emotions of many people is that much more difficult. While playtesting with more people provides more opportunity for social attachment, the pressure from each playtester will be weaker and easier to overcome.

Playtesting with many players has additional benefits. If you have problems with ego, you might shrug off feedback from one or two playtesters who identify a problem, but it becomes much more difficult to do that as the number of dissenting playtesters increases. The more eyes on your game, the more likely that serious problems will raise to your attention.

Identify your Audience. Playtesting with more people can backfire if you feel you must please all of your playtesters. One strategy to minimize this emotional pressure is to identify who you want to please early on and seek out that type of person for playtests.

I know, I know: you want your audience to be everyone. Unfortunately, that’s just not realistic. Even if your game can be played and enjoyed by everyone, deciding the type of player you’ll focus on will make the game more coherent and appealing. Plus, it will help you with playtesting, because you’ll know whose feedback to heed. It’s often a good idea to still playtest with people who aren’t perfect matches, but just make sure you think about whether your target audience would agree with feedback from each particular playtester.

Start Small. Many game designers dive into the practice head first, trying to create an enormous game like the kind they enjoy playing. I think my best advice for new designers is to shelve their pie-in-the-sky game idea. Start small. Create something quick you aren’t so emotionally attached to. Save the big dream project for down the road.

Why? We all start inexperienced and ignorant. You might be better than other novice designers, but believe me, you will make many mistakes and learn a lot from them. Your designs will get better as you go, so save the masterpiece for when your skills can do it justice.

Sunk cost can be emotionally difficult to overcome. Image from Economics Memes.

Sunk cost can be emotionally difficult to overcome. Image from Economics Memes.

But there’s a better reason to start small and scrappy. Your first design will probably not make it to print. Your first half dozen games probably won’t make it to print. It’s best to get them out of the way quickly. One of the most difficult emotional obstacles for a designer is knowing when a project is hopeless and being able to cut your losses. Sunk cost is a hard pill to swallow, and it’s that much harder when you’ve dedicated countless hours and lots of enthusiasm to the project that isn’t meant for this world. Do yourself a favor and fail fast rather than letting a game limp on, taking you down with it.

Moving On

After reading this you might be asking yourself “if I’m not allowed to feel good about my designs, what’s the point?”. Many of us got into game design because we get excited about games and creation, and I’m telling you to avoid that. Why else do it?

First of all, I’m not telling you you have to be a mindless drone. It’s okay to have emotions, even good! It’s just important to remember that emotions can be dangerous if your goal is to create the best game possible. Be mindful and don’t let your emotions make decisions for you.

But you’ll also learn to take pride in other things. While I was excited about Shadow Throne throughout its development, I can’t even describe how happy I was when the advanced copy arrived from the printer the other day. I didn’t let myself get too emotionally attached during development, when things could have gone wrong, but now that the game is complete (and gorgeous), I’m really basking in that warm feeling.

And these days, I feel less emotionally attached to particular games or aspects of games, and more pride that I’m making good decisions (even when they’re not easy) and creating the best games I can.

Emotional Intelligence

Game designers come from all backgrounds, but one thing they all have in common is a love of games. It’s funny to think that that love can actually be a hindrance, but it can. Letting yourself get too close to a game will prevent you from seeing problems that are obvious from the outside. For the sake of your game, take a step back and try to maintain a level of rationality when making design decisions.

It’s not just good for your game, it’s good for you. It may seem easier to make decisions that feel good now, but in the long run, the disappointment of watching the game you’ve toiled over never make it to print or get ridiculed by reviewers will feel much worse.

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9 Comments

  1. Colum Higgins

     /  November 28, 2014

    Fear

    Fear of failure and of ridicule can stifle the creative process. Fear can also provide an excuse for not playtesting early or with strangers.

    Empathy

    Being able to empathise with your players while they are testing your game is a valuable skill.

    Reflection

    Be prepared to reexamine and reflect on your response to someone’s feedback by thinking about what emotion you were feeling just as you rationalised in the moment if someone’s feedback was valid or not. Learn from this reflection to recognise your pattern’s of emotional response as they are happening.

    Reply
  2. Thanks for the great post, Mr. Fristoe! As always, this is sound advice with easily relatable examples πŸ™‚

    The only thing I could possibly offer to this discussion is something I’ve experienced with my testers. I’ve managed to (accidentally) convey that, while I want their feedback and advice, I have the final say. In this case, tactful expression of emotions can help. If their suggestion sounds good, I show themI’m excited, praise like crazy, and try it ASAP (they had a good idea AND it helped the game). If I’m not sure it’ll work, I’ll slow down and ask them to walk me through it to make sure I understand. If I know it won’t work, (depending on the scale of the change and type of relationship) I will quickly assert the “No” and the discuss why not – I tend to adopt the air of a friend giving bad news. “Yes, I appreciate your offering, but no, it’s not good enough.” Admittedly, I often borrow Mr. Stegmaier’ s suggestion of having the tester explain how the change would be implemented. This usually kills bad ideas that just won’t go away πŸ˜‰

    Speaking of emotionally invested outsiders, have you dealt much with friends or loved ones (who don’t fall into the tester category) becoming too emotional about one of your projects in development?

    Reply
    • Sounds like a solid plan for dealing with playtesters who feel strongly about their ideas! Dealing with playtesters tactfully can be very difficult… you want to make sure they know you appreciate their time and feedback, but you also know your game and vision more than anyone else and want to make sure any changes are for the better. Sounds like you’ve found a good balance there.

      I wouldn’t say I’ve dealt with anyone who isn’t a tester becoming very attached to any games I’ve worked on. Testers, though, can get pretty emotional, and that can have a big impact on me.

      That said, my upcoming game Birds of a Feather is about bird watching, despite many strong suggestions that I adopt another theme, in large part because it’s something I share with my brother. I think there are strengths to the theme, but it will probably turn off a lot of potential players. We’ll see if it’s a bad move or not!

      Reply
  3. I’m actually excited about Birds of a Feather! A bit of a roller coaster for me, though. I’m a bird person, so the name immediately caught my attention. The relation to bird watching was a slight turn-off. Then, as I read through your description of the play, I got excited again.
    As you said, we’ll have to wait and see if it is successful. At the least, you have a great name and some beautiful art. I think if you can convey the play concept before people can make unfair, snap judgments about theme, you’ll have a winner. πŸ˜€

    Reply
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