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The Language of Game Design

Originally appeared in "The Games Game" column on The IGDA website was massively redesigned in 2013, making old columns unavailable, so select columns are now being reposted here on Sloperama, on an as-needed basis.
The Games Game, July 2012

Dear Tom,

I was never trained or educated in gaming design, but I recently lucked into a gaming design job. My employer is not exactly in the business of making games, but our company's work result is very game-like. (I'm sorry if this is vague, but I am not supposed to talk about it.) Because we have no people with gaming industry experience, we are sorting out our work process while our company is building staff. I'm writing to you for advice on how best to do my job.

I know that my job is to come up with gaming concepts, but I don't know exactly how to do that. I've played puzzles all my life, which is partly why I was hired, and so far I've been making Powerpoints. Give me tips? Also where can I get gaming ideas?

I heard somewhere that one aspect of the job is leveling design. Or is that a separate job? Is it really necessary to have gaming designers and levelers both? Couldn't a gaming designer do his own leveling?

I'm having difficulty with how to express my ideas to the guys at the job. For example, I might want to tell them that when the player moves the onscreen player, thing X will happen, but when I try to tell them, it sometimes gets all twisted around and they don't get it. Help!

Dirk (not my real name)


Hi, Dirk not your real name.

Game design (it's not called "gaming design") is all about communication. Well, okay, it's about creativity and fun, too. But you have to speak the language of game design. For example:

- We don't say "gaming design." We say "game design" and "designing games." The job title is "game designer."
- We don't say "leveling design" or "level designing" or "leveling" or "leveler." Leveling is what lumberjacks do to a forest. A leveler is a thing at the bottom corner of a refrigerator, for making the refrigerator stand vertical. The term is "level design." A person who practices level design is called a "level designer." While he's doing it, it's called "designing a level." In the case of small games and small teams, a game designer may well design his own levels. As you work on different scale games, you'll find out when a specialist is needed.
- The "player" is that thing that has a biological brain, and has biological hands holding a game controller or mouse, or whose biological fingers are swiping and touching the screen. That digital pixilated guy moving around on the screen is called the "player character" (or, if the player character's name is Fred, "Fred").

And there is lots more to the language of game design. It's very important that a game designer be very precise with his words. Terminology must be consistent; you mustn't use multiple terms for the same thing, and you mustn't use a term multiple ways.

As for coming up with game concepts, the overall concept for a product is usually dictated by the company executives or by the client, rather than the responsibility of a game designer. It is very hard to just invent ideas out of the blue when the whole wide world is your oyster. It's easier to come up with ideas when you have guidelines from your boss or client, or restrictions (like hardware capabilities, or licensing limitations). If you're assigned to come up with ideas for games or play mechanics, then put that assignment in the back of your mind as you go through life. As you observe movies or construction or playgrounds or museums, you'll see gamelike things all around you, and ideas will come. If you're stuck creatively, I recommend the books by Roger Von Oech.

Now look what you've done. You got me onto my favorite topic and made me go way over my word count limit. Shutting up now.

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