Posted by: Tj'ièn | May 1, 2010

What is good design?

There is no right answer and definitely not a single answer to this question as ‘good design’ is relative to your perspective on it, such as a commercial standpoint or an artistic standpoint. Ico, for example is a great game and a typical example of good design from an artistic standpoint, however, commercially it wasn’t a success. There are plenty of examples of good designs that are a commercial success, but aren’t necessarily exhibiting artistic strength, such as sport games for instance.

Ico and NKA 2K10

I do have a personal view on this. A good design is one that focuses on a single element and does no concessions in achieving this goal. Both doing no concessions and focusing are really hard to achieve and rarely happen in my opinion.

Focusing on a single element, a single phrase, a single thought or a single dream is really hard. When creating a game, there are so many ideas, so many cool things that you can insert into the design that it is all too easy to just add it. Next to all these temptations you’ll face daily when designing a game it is really hard to trust yourself, to trust that this single idea, this single thought or dream is good enough.

Also next to this it is really, really hard to not do any concession during the development of a game. So many unforeseen problems will arise during any project that it is tempting to just solve them, without thinking about the focus you had in mind for the project. More often than not, you’ll already be very glad that you found a solution to the problem that crept up. Going back to the problem and finding a solution that fixes the problem and matches your focus is ten times harder.

In a commercial environment it is even harder as there are so many external forces pressuring and influencing the design. Deadlines, budgets, planning, team members, publisher, distributors, platform holders and press. Each of them, directly or indirectly, influences the design. All of them need to be convinced; all of them need to get the focus of the project. And even then they might have different opinions, different thoughts on good design.

But as impossible as this may sound, it is this constant challenge that makes my job so interesting that I wouldn’t trade it in the world. Next to that I do believe that it is commercially valid to do good design that is focused and doesn’t give in to concessions, in essence merging commercial and artistic views on good design. If the focus of the project connects to its target audience the game will sell, that’s my hope anyway. Hopefully I’ll be able to proof this.



  1. Like to read your style of thinking and exploring the many aspects of a game. Every subject you mentioned (focus, concession, point of view, pressure, influence, etc.) deserves an article of its own. Hope to read many more!

  2. Love how you used 2K as an example, that’s an extremely well done game graphically speaking.

  3. Yo Tj’ièn
    Great stuff. Thanks for taking the time to share your knowledge and ideas!

    • No problem, glad you like it. 🙂

  4. Cool subject!
    I always like to think about stuff like this too!
    one thing though:

    “…one that focuses on a single element and does no concessions in achieving this goal.”

    Aren’t you afraid that this “single element” will become repetitive in a game? or can this single element consist out of multiple (for example) gameplay features to prevent repetitivity?

  5. If you start with an idea wich sets your heart in fire, then it is a good thing to stick to it. It will even solve the problems during the developmentprocess if it is really strong. If the idea is not so strong it becomes a problem of its own.

  6. Hey Gerrit: You’re absolutely right and that’s a great remark. That’s exactly the difficulty in focusing on a single element for multiple reasons.

    First reason is that the element you are focusing on should allow for progression to be experienced by your audience. The element itself should the players to grow, to develop skill and to experience progress.

    Second reason is that it is really hard to trust your own judgement. When you’re focusing on a single element you will doubt yourself and this decision. Is it the right choice? Is it enough? Will people get the point that I’m making? Don’t we need more things to keep the player interested? And so forth.

    Thirdly, when you finally convinced yourself of all this you’ll still have to defend such a choice amongst the team and everybody else. That’s why it is so hard in my opinion.

  7. Hey Joan: When an idea sets your heart on fire its saves you most of the trouble in convincing yourself. Next to that you’ll probably care less about other peoples opinion or influences and do not get distracted by them.

    Focus will indeed solve a lot of problems, but it will also create a lot of problems. Good design doesn’t give in to those problem. Good design doesn’t do any concessions and finds solutions, not short-cuts.

  8. As you said in the first sentence of your article, “good design” highly depends on your own perspective. I think you could define something, (not only design, but anything) as “good” when it scores “high”. But you still have to define on what aspects it should score high. Isn’t that exactly the sole thing that’s important when trying to achieve a “good design”: finding out what you want to score high on. And then the best way of getting a good design is by focusing on those aspects.

    So I wouldn’t say for myself that “a good design is one that focuses on a single element”, because it just depends on what you want to achieve. You might have multiple areas you want to score high on.

    Anyway, great read!

  9. Hmm, maybe you are viewing it a bit too narrow when I say focus on a single element. To further clarify what I mean with a single element, I’m not talking about graphics or even game-play being a single element, rather the complete experience should express a single theme, a single focus. This single element is both at the core and overarching the experience. All elements like graphics, story, audio and systems should express the same focus, coming from the same core and creating this coherent experience. This means all areas score high in achieving this goal. Does that make any sense?

  10. Good design to me is indeed that a game delivers what it pretends to be. A well designed game should give me the feeling that they hours that I spend on that game were well spend.

    I have to admit that most games that pride themselves to be story driven, often deliver something I’ve already seen in movies done many times before and much better also. Hardly anything is involving enough to keep me entertained.
    Why play a Star Wars game for 10 hours, while I can watch the original in 2 hours ?

    What’s more, story driven games -to me- feel most like set of cinematics held together by parts of incoherent gameplay – making it feel a very forced attempt to prove that “games can be movies too!”.

    Compared to the games I’ve been playing in the late 80’s and early 90’s, most games nowadays are very pretentious and over ambitous and (most importantly) don’t feel as real, pure games anymore.

    Games have lost their own unique identity that used to set them apart from other forms of entertainment. Pong is, in essence, a great example. But also Space Quest adventure games are just something I’ve never experienced anywhere before.

    Trying to deliver a good movie-like experience ánd be a great game comes from the idiotic idea to make a commerically visual attractive product…..and from a fierce inferiority complex toward the movie industry.

  11. Hey Bart-W, thanks for joining the discussion. I’m thinking we’re on the same line here. Games shouldn’t want to be like movies as they are something else. All too often games are designed for wanting to be epic, for wanting to feel cinematic, without asking themselves what it is that they want to express. A game that is truly about something epic shouldn’t look to other media and try to steal what they do, they should try to find out what epic really is and see if they can translate that to game-play.

    And I too agree that the games industry seems to display signs of a inferiority complex towards the movie industry, I guess coming from the recognition it has been receiving. Games are still not mainstream and as widely recognized as the movie industry, but are often compared to them, making it worse.

    Are there any current generation games that feel ‘uniquely game’ to you Bart-W.? I love to hear some examples, and I sincerely hope there are at least a few…

  12. I believe you are close. I think good design is about making your goals, set somewhere along the process, come true. This applies for both serious and entertainment games. This also emphasizes the importance of choosing the right goal and direction of your game.
    I wrote an article about that a while ago. Maybe worth reading:

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