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Against Design


I’m a game designer. And I teach game design. So I have a lot invested in the idea that game design is a discipline, maybe a young discipline, one that is still defining itself, but nonetheless a legitimate, professional design discipline with established principles and techniques and hard-won knowledge to be cherished and preserved. And I believe that idea. I do believe game design is something you can study and learn and work to master.

But lately I find myself questioning design as a way of understanding where games come from and what makes them work. There are so many great games in the world that don’t reflect good design principles, or that don’t seem designed at all.

Look at Shadow of the Colossus for example. What do we, as game designers, know about videogames? Well, we know a few things, we know boss battles suck. We know jumping puzzles suck. We know you get great games by focusing on meaningful interaction and you don’t get great games from aping cinema and focusing on graphics.

So, how about a videogame that is nothing but boss battles, and each boss battle is a jumping puzzle, and the whole thing is set in a giant empty world with nothing to interact with, and a lot of the main motivation of the game was an attempt to achieve some film-inspired visual effects? Does that sound like a good recipe for creating one of the greatest videogames of all time?

Or take League of Legends. This game breaks so many rules of “good design”. It is a clone. It is over-complicated to the point of utter indecipherability. It is fussy, baroque, full of arbitrary, non-intuitive details (Last hitting? Inhibitors??). It makes no attempt to teach the player or draw them into its labyrinthian systems. If you didn’t grow up playing it you might as well not bother trying to learn. And it’s the most popular videogame in the world, and maybe the most important and the most beautiful.

Look at the AWP, the signature 1-hit-kill weapon in Counter-Strike. It’s completely unbalanced. Any sensible game designer would have rejected it. Luckily for us, Counter-Strike wasn’t made by sensible designers, it was made by unreasonable people who kept this unbalanced ingredient and evolved the rest of the game around it.

Or look at Counter-Strike surfing, one of the weirdest, most beautiful and interesting game genres of the past 10 years, which was created by players and map-makers without the help of any official game designers at all, thank you very much.

I admire good design. I respect good design. But I have to admit that many of the games I have truly loved do not seem to be the result of good design, they seem like beautiful accidents, hot messes, mistakes that worked, acts of God, or lucky, miraculous mutations.

Design implies a kind of rationality, an ability to identify clearly-defined problems and apply known techniques to solve them. But I think we overestimate the utility of our definitions and the power of our techniques. Like economists who overestimate the predictive power of their mathematical models we are overconfident about our ability to predict and explain the qualities that make great games.

I have even grown skeptical of the iconic image of the designer – smart, confident, sophisticated, stylish, informed. This image has come to represent a romantic illusion about the scope of our ability to define and solve problems.

But songs are not designed, paintings are not designed, poems are not designed.

The alternative is terrifying. That we don’t know, that we will never know, that the problems we are trying to solve are not only unsolvable but undefinable, inexpressible, beyond comprehension. That we are negotiating with trees and shouting at volcanoes. But I have come to believe that this alternative is the truth. Or, more precisely, that the truth resides somewhere in between – close enough to seduce us with faint glimpses of its profile, far enough to forever elude the grasp of our design patterns, our textbooks, our lesson plans and our clever blog posts.

I recognize the value of building an established discipline, and of crafting a shared set of principles that define game design as a profession. But, I also think that in our efforts to define and legitimize our practice as a professional discipline we sometimes forget the history we inherit, the legacy of games made by communities of players, games made by amateurs, by dilettantes, by mathematicians, mothers, scientists, gym teachers, shepherds, inventors, philosophers, eccentrics and cranks.

And in honor of this tradition I would like to suggest other verbs for us to describe where games come from, alternatives to the overconfident precision of the word “design”. Words like invent, discover, compose, write, find, grow, perform, build, support, identify, copy, re-assemble, excavate and preserve.

At the NYU Game Center we struggle with this issue daily. Our approach is to define game design broadly, as the act of making games in a way that is driven by vision, in pursuit of a creative goal, mindful of how what you make will intersect with the people who play it, of how it will intersect with the world. We teach critical literacy and the fundamental principles of solid design, but within a context that leaves space for the unknown. Game design, from this perspective, is not so much the application of rules and guidelines as it is an unruly collision of divine inspiration, hard work, and good taste.

And for my part I will continue to design games, because that’s all I know how to do. But I will attempt to do so with a renewed sense of humility before the inexplicable greatness of games that have managed to spin the silver thread of love from the wool of the world in ways that I cannot hope to understand. Clutching my rulers and my pencils to my chest, in the night, in the middle of the storm, begging for lightning.


  1. “we know boss battles suck.”

    What planet are you from? How is this a common knowledge thing among supposed game designers? What would be the inspiration for such a line of thinking in the first place? Did you play a bunch of bad games with bad boss battles and conclude they’re terrible as a rule? Is there some underlying factor inherent in the concept of boss battles that make them inherently unsatisfying, like escort missions, that I’m somehow missing?

    It’s not hard to name games with great boss battles in almost every genre. 3d action games you have dark souls, bayonetta, ninja gaiden, devil may cry, metal gear rising, the Ys series. In RPGs you have pokemon, shin megami tensei. FPS games, Metroid Prime, Borderlands 2. Third person shooters, Vanquish, arguably Infamous. RTS games you have Starcraft 2 Heart of the Swarm, and MMO raid bosses. Fighting games you have Street Fighter 3, Smash Bros Melee/Brawl, King of Fighters. Action platformers you have metroid games, castlevania games, megaman games, cave story. Top down you have a number of diablo clones and competitors, 2d zelda games. Rhythm games you have Guitar Hero with that song, “Through the Fire and the Flames” (kidding here, though people were driven crazy trying to beat that song when the game it came in was big). There’s no shortage of games with good boss battles.

    Shadow of the Colossus drew people in a way Ico didn’t, because it was all about boss battles. That’s what drew me. I wasn’t interested in the cinematography or the art direction, I was like, “Wow, a bunch of boss battles involving giants that you climb on, that sounds really cool, I love boss battles.” (I legitimately don’t know where the seemingly recent anti-boss battle sentiment has come from. Is it because game designers forgot how to make good boss battles in mainstream games?)

    Beyond that, SotC picked the perfect subject matter to create a type of decision-making that jumping puzzles traditionally don’t have. Because the colossi are alive, they move and shake and threaten to throw you off. Because you have a limited grip meter, you need to let go of them not only to move, but to recover energy so you can hang on when they shake you. It’s like the stamina gauge in dark souls, you need stamina to resist your shield being broken, but you recover it much faster if you let down your guard. Because the colossi are articulated the way they are, and have such complex AI systems, not all parts of them are shaking simultaneously or the same amount, so you have these opportunities to move around in some places and you need to make this fuzzy judgment about whether it’s safe. Beyond that at a higher level, the game directly challenges you to complete each colossus as fast as possible in the time trial mode, and if you watch a speedrun you’ll see the game is filled to the brim with ways to quickly maneuver around the bodies of colossi, from jumping from wing to wing on avion, to using the shaking motion of many colossi to launch yourself up its body. From a design direction, SotC was a brilliant series of decisions in comparison to its predecessor Ico, because they realized the limited possibility space inherent in simple jumping puzzles and introduced elements and mechanics to create more uncertain decisions for the player, risk versus reward, conflicting player motivations (advancing forward versus safety, safety versus potential future safety), and depth overall. SotC is perhaps the embodiment of “identifying clearly-defined problems and applying known techniques to solve them.” I literally don’t understand how you can stare at this thing and claim that it somehow is an aberration of design principles rather than a vindication of them.

    As for League of Legends, how is being a clone bad design? Does this make the original bad design retroactively since it has a clone? (assuming that the bad design part is that there are two close to identical games) Regardless of how baroque or counterintuitive the game design is, there are wikis and other resources that explain how every element of the game works, and in many cases go into their strategic applications. The game practically doesn’t need to provide an introduction, the fans have done the work for them. Having so many systems is something that makes many people want to stick with the game, because they have fun learning them all, and they have fun knowing them all. Because more systems means more interactions, there are more possible things that can happen in the game. When a game allows players to make this sort of investment into the game, it tends to retain players better, assuming they find these knowledgesets interesting. How can you praise fighting games and make a statement like this about league of legends? Not to mention the popularity statement seems like a false equivalency to quality. Shadow of the Colossus didn’t sell much more than a million copies. Tetris has sold maybe 4 times as many copies as there are league of legends players (being the most sold game in the world). Wii Sports outsells it too, as does Super Mario Bros. Marketing, sales, and customer retention aren’t all necessarily intrinsic to the way the game is designed, and if we could judge games by how much they sold then we’d end up in a bleak place I imagine.

    The AWP in Counter Strike is balanced by the fact that players need to pay to get the weapon, therefore its application is an interesting choice™. Players can’t always use the AWP, using the AWP carries risks (like getting killed) and potentially losing it. The AWP offsets its 1 hit kill potential with longer reload and refire times as well. The AWP can afford to be the most powerful gun in the game, because it’s also the one that’s use is most restricted. This is why Quake 1 and every custom map designer since limited lightning gun ammo. This is why Half Life limited explosive ammo. This is a basic design principle, something can afford to be more powerful as long as its use is restricted or it has other drawbacks. Instagib mode predated counter strike, and in Quake 3 on release the Railgun did 100 damage, enough to kill someone fresh out of spawn.

    Look at Quake Defrag which predates Surf:

    Examples that seem like exceptions to a rule are either telling you that there is a deeper rule underlying your current understanding, or you’re looking at the wrong ruleset to begin with. Though a lot of these examples seem cursory, unconsidered, thrown in without a second thought. All of the examples you cited are successful designs for a reason that you seemingly didn’t want to or weren’t capable of considering.

    There are an infinite number of good designs, bad designs, and designs inbetween. Of all possible variations and configurations. Games are not a conventional design problem, intended to best serve a certain purpose. There is no theoretical best game, because no game can embody the best elements of every possible game design. You can make a game that is well designed or poorly designed, and the artistry is that there’s an unlimited number of different possible ways you could do it, but underneath it all, there are still rules. And this article is a poor showing of how design supposedly doesn’t mean much when you choose games that each embody a triumph of design.

    It only seems like design for games is elusive because so little is known on the topic that literally anyone can become an expert. The texts and blog posts are shallow, I’ve read most of them so I’d know. And truth isn’t known because a lot of people don’t want a truth and a lot of people don’t know how to look for it.

    Monday, April 27, 2015 at 5:05 am | Permalink
  2. Frank Lantz wrote:

    Hi Chris, thanks for the comment. I don’t think we disagree that much actually.

    Imagine a dotted line. The line is called “game design”. You and I both are on the same side of this line, the side that believes making games in a thoughtful, deliberate way is a valuable way to spend your life. The side that thinks deeply and seriously about why we like the games we like, and tries to understand what makes them good, and tries to make more games like them.

    Trust me, we’re on the same side. In fact, I’m trying to go even further in this direction – the direction defined by the vector that goes from the other side to the one we are both on.

    Saying we are sometimes overconfident in our conceptual models and our theoretical tools is not the same thing as rejecting all models or saying all tools are bad. In fact, it can be seen as a way of refining and evolving our models and tools.

    If I could boil it down, maybe my advice would be that those of us who are in the business of developing theories and concepts and rules should be a bit more humble, a bit less certain, that we should speak a bit less loudly and listen a bit more carefully, peer a bit more closely at the world.

    Monday, April 27, 2015 at 6:03 am | Permalink
  3. Rossignol wrote:

    Boss battles *are* rubbish.

    Re the article itself: I think this articulates a great deal of what a lot of people talk about when they discuss making games.

    My feeling has always been that they are only designed *so far*, in the sense that that a book’s cover is designed, its pages are laid out according to a design, someone designed the font, etc. In the same way, games are not primarily designs but constructs or assemblies, aggregates, of which design is a broad (but not all-encompassing) aspect.

    Monday, April 27, 2015 at 8:04 am | Permalink
  4. Tom Betts wrote:

    Hi Frank,

    I just wanted to briefly respond to this post, because although I agree with the basic statement you are making, I find the post itself is kind of symptomatic of the problem you are discussing. This is especially true to me with the line “But songs are not designed, paintings are not designed, poems are not designed.”

    I don’t think this statement holds true at all, in any of the mediums listed. To me its a bit of a dangerous statement saying ‘what is’ and ‘what is not’ design and art. It strikes me as exactly the sort of pigeonholing and assumptive ‘modelling’ that you are concerned about. Perhaps I am missing an ironic point here, but design & art are not mutually exclusive entities, many of the best art works have been born out of design sensibilities and vice versa. You state a concern about the image of the smart designer, but its equally wrong to promote the artistic golden nugget theory. Maybe its just that the modern usage of the term design is too restrictive, or that artistic practice is seen by many as unstructured emotion. I don’t know, but the discussion of the two based on finding differences rather than commonalities makes me a bit sad.

    Monday, April 27, 2015 at 8:11 am | Permalink
  5. back2cccp wrote:

    Some wrong assumptions leading to wrong conclusions.
    Yes, ALL the games have flaws, even the good ones, doesn’t mean the design is a mess or non-existent or bad. It means the core design is so good that even the flaws don’t make the game bad.
    Maybe it was achieved by intuitive and iterative approach instead of following some ‘good design’ rules, doesn’t matter.
    And why not have both? Would only make the games better if you combine intuitive and out-of-the-box design with good theory.

    Monday, April 27, 2015 at 9:19 am | Permalink
  6. Hello. Interesting that the games you mentioned still seem to strictly conform to ‘good’ design principles – they all appear smart, confident, sophisticated, stylish and informed.

    One difference however is that, at least compared to traditional design initiated to “solve problems” (eg. for a game publisher) things like cs_surf use design more directly from, and in service of The Imagination At Play.

    I’d love to see a more impromptu, realtime, procedural kind of emergent aesthetic which is, as you put it unsolvable, undefinable, inexpressible, beyond comprehension except through the (collective) act of design-as-play. The kind of stylistic play which makes players say “Hey, I really like how you played that level into strange existence.”

    Sincerely, RHD

    Monday, April 27, 2015 at 9:57 am | Permalink
  7. Frank, between this and the formalism chat we need to have, we’re both going to need a liver transplant.
    I appreciate the sentiment in your piece – as a romantic, I sympathise with your view of the designer in awe (storm included, Goethe would be proud).
    However, I think that design is the right word for games, only we need to think what design. Unlike most other design disciplines, game design is second-order design work: designers put an artefact in the world to help people play in ways they envisioned, but cannot control. That’s why architecture is closer to game design than industrial design.
    But we still need the design part there: we need to know the people that are going to play, we need to know what do we mean by play, and we need to be able to nurture (or eliminate) the creative output of players. All of those are design tasks.
    So I guess the problem is that game design is not really about systems, or machines, or a particular object; but about people and what they do, together, alone, with that object, through that object, or despite that object. As I often say, we should not make games, we should make people play.
    As for the teaching and research part of the what is game design question; well, we’ll take that over some drinks, no?

    Monday, April 27, 2015 at 11:18 am | Permalink
  8. I’m fascinated by your post, but I don’t think it’s a new concept. People have been adjusting to the idea that few things can be “designed” since the start of the millenium.

    Agile methodologies focus on how planning (one form of design) can cause trouble by not being flexible.

    The Lean movement gives businesses (and game teams) new tools to focus on “validated learning” as the mechanism of creating a product (or, for that matter, a piece of art like a game) that matches what the creators wanted to make AND the audience values.

    Creativity, Inc by Ed Catmull of Pixar shows how creativity requires an assumption that things will go wrong, and that blindly following rules leads to creative dead ends, but that you still need to run a business to make money.

    Adapt by Tim Harford shows how adaptation, not following stultified rules, is the secret to success in many areas of life, business and art.

    I think that rules are incredibly useful, if only to provide conceptual frameworks from which you can depart. All writers need to know the rules of grammar, even if they choose to break them all. I feel the same about game designers.

    Monday, April 27, 2015 at 12:09 pm | Permalink
  9. Hi Frank,

    Games gamiform us. Like a terra formed planet, we are different in and after interacting with a game. If we begin to look at identity as an ongoing individuation process, we realize the technical object that is a video game forms our identity in an emergent way (simondon). League of legends is about creating a collective subject and transforming identity. New models of viewing identity in this way are used by designers,like Journey. A way out may be to view video games as technical tools that shape our identity in new configurations. This model explains success of LOL and Journey. Thoughts?

    Monday, April 27, 2015 at 2:09 pm | Permalink
  10. Frank says that design is an overconfident term. Then, everyone comes in to tell him confidently what game design is.

    Monday, April 27, 2015 at 2:30 pm | Permalink
  11. I actually think the examples that this article are based on are – despite flaws – examples of GOOD DESIGN which actually does explain their popularity. It seems like you’re thinking that “good design” means “no bad design elements”, but in today’s world it really just means “on balance, better design” – which League, CS, and SotC all qualify in.

    Finally, I think the title of this article is way too strong. You’re not “against design”, at all.

    Monday, April 27, 2015 at 2:42 pm | Permalink
  12. Harold Pichol wrote:

    Great article. I see what you mean, Frank.

    However songs are designed. We know what chord progression convey what. We design the tempo and choose it accordingly, nothing random. Songs are shaped in production, problems arise (I can barely hear my flute!) and songs are crafted, manipulated so that all wanted frequencies sound good.

    That’s problem solving! And sometimes, an obnoxious “design” -say AutoTune vocals- is insanely popular and no one really knows why because everybody seems to hate that stuff.

    From my perspective building a house, a song, a game, it’s all the same process, with different tools. Guts play a big role. When you create, you always play with the unknown at some point. That’s the exciting/challenging part :)

    Monday, April 27, 2015 at 3:32 pm | Permalink
  13. Joshua Corvinus wrote:

    Your personal axioms are flawed, and as a result your entire understanding of game design is flawed. The problem here is not the ‘rules’ of game design (which are usually guidelines and always come with contextual conditions), but that your understanding of the subject is incomplete.

    When you go on to say “Songs are not designed, paintings are not designed, poems are not designed.”, I cannot help but object. They ARE designed. Sure, sometimes in an iterative, fail-and-refine design methodology is used, but that’s still design. The creator has a goal in mind and sets out to achieve it with a plan, even if that plan and goal is entirely internalized and ineffable.

    “Game design, from this perspective, is not so much the application of rules and guidelines as it is an unruly collision of divine inspiration, hard work, and good taste.”

    There is no such thing as divine inspiration. Inspiration is a sub-conscious, neurological process but it is by no means divine. This notion robs us of the chance to analyze where our inspirations come from, and how our subconscious designs things. As I said before, just because a design’s decision making cannot be articulated doesn’t mean it wasn’t done. It just means the designer can’t tell you how they did it.

    Monday, April 27, 2015 at 5:41 pm | Permalink
  14. Keyvan Acosta wrote:

    I find it ok if every once in a while we come to some consensus on some standards about that which we love, and we subsequently preach with them. The real love; however, comes in learning to love what is created when those rules are broken, by others and by us too. That spirit and practice has use.

    Monday, April 27, 2015 at 5:45 pm | Permalink
  15. I kind of agree with Chris Wagner, though perhaps not as wordily. “Boss battles suck?” “Jumping puzzles suck”? I’d love to know where these axioms came from, exactly, but there are more counterexamples for both than you can shake an Amiibo at.

    If games are contradicting your axioms, I don’t think it means you should give up the entire idea of design. It doesn’t mean you need to embrace “humility”. It may just mean that you need to rethink your axioms.

    (Which, let’s be honest, you should have done on that “jumping puzzle” thing when Sands of Time came out.)

    It might even mean that you need to get the heck away from axiomatic deduction in the first place, and start building up a few inductive hypotheses instead. You don’t need to be a bit humbler as a designer, but maybe a bit humbler as an academic, teacher, and theorist.

    Instead of saying “MOBA design is terrible”–if not in so many words–start working out a few testable hypotheses on why it isn’t. It objectively, provably isn’t, or people wouldn’t play it, as you say. Ditch the axiom, build a hypothesis, test the hypothesis, and be an academic.

    Monday, April 27, 2015 at 5:59 pm | Permalink
  16. Frank Lantz wrote:

    @Tom Betts (& Harold)

    “‘But songs are not designed, paintings are not designed, poems are not designed.’

    I don’t think this statement holds true at all, in any of the mediums listed. To me its a bit of a dangerous statement saying ‘what is’ and ‘what is not’ design and art.”

    This statement isn’t so much about what these activities *are*, it’s just about how we talk about them. (I know that the process of composing music, painting paintings, and writing poems is very much like the process of designing something, this is, in fact, the main point I’m making.) I’m just saying we don’t typically *call* these processes design.

    Obviously, what we call things doesn’t matter *that* much. And I’m not advocating some radical rejection of the word “design”. I’m just noting that it has these subtle implications, and I’m just trying to pay attention to what these implications suggest and question them a little bit.

    Monday, April 27, 2015 at 6:38 pm | Permalink
  17. Alan Au wrote:

    I think there’s this great temptation to use “design” to describe the process of figuring out what makes a game fun by analyzing individual game mechanics. That’s a bit like trying to understand why a car is fun to drive by examining its individual parts.

    Monday, April 27, 2015 at 6:45 pm | Permalink
  18. Frank Lantz wrote:


    “Some wrong assumptions leading to wrong conclusions.”

    Here’s my conclusion, as stated in the piece:

    ‘…we are overconfident about our ability to predict and explain the qualities that make great games.’

    Do you really think that’s so wrong? It doesn’t seem all that controversial or confrontational to me.

    Monday, April 27, 2015 at 6:48 pm | Permalink
  19. Frank Lantz wrote:


    “All writers need to know the rules of grammar, even if they choose to break them all.”

    I am not advocating wholesale rejection of rules or frameworks or suggesting we abandon the word “design”. I’m just suggesting a little more skepticism about our rules and frameworks and taking a brief sidelong squint at the word “design”, that’s all.

    Monday, April 27, 2015 at 7:04 pm | Permalink
  20. Frank Lantz wrote:


    “Finally, I think the title of this article is way too strong. You’re not “against design”, at all.”

    Guilty as charged.

    Monday, April 27, 2015 at 7:06 pm | Permalink
  21. Frank Lantz wrote:


    “Your personal axioms are flawed, and as a result your entire understanding of game design is flawed.”

    Thanks for the comment!

    Monday, April 27, 2015 at 7:13 pm | Permalink
  22. When asked for a quick response, I say that being a good designer is like being a good writer. You can be good, but mainly you need to be relatively unique and in demand. You need an audience.

    I also write a lot of code. When I am writing good code it is deeply analogous to writing music (or a story). We can create templates that mimic effective musical styles, but it takes someone like Mozart to come along and push those boundaries to ‘break’ our established box of inferences.

    The “game design” principles we study are a group of contextual rules and templates that try to capture, generally way after the fact, a reasonable idea of what made a successful game (or terrible, more likely). Note that I do not use the word ‘fun’. That is not necessarily the main objective.

    “Game Design” is a framework. A baseline. A visualization reference. A springboard of knowledge areas that should serve as the bare minimum. A path to other areas of knowledge. A tool to expand your own biased viewpoint. It is not the destination.

    I warn not to learn “game design” too much to avoid conforming to the restrictive mold it presents. You don’t want to drink the orange juice too much and only learn what good orange juice is.

    It is better to learn everything else you possibly can. Play all the games that interest you. Read books. Expose yourself to variety. Break your own boundaries. Learn the technical math and sciences, too, to back your ideas up with systems of rules. Heck, take a game theory course. Develop an artistic hobby, too.

    Once you have all that under way, you can quickly infer the ‘rules’ of game design by designing one ‘throwaway’ game per day on paper. Your best critic is your future self – a week or two later. Get your first thousand bad designs out of the way quickly.

    Discuss with other people if you want, but be aware most people will be terrible and harsh critics in your first stages. They will beat your fragile ego down. You want it beaten, but not out of existence. Unless you really are not cut out to be a “game designer” and need to hear that, but that’s like saying someone isn’t cut out to be an artist. There’s always a place if you can find it.

    I have met too many “game designers” that, conversely, have a formula, design something once, and stick to it forever, letting their projects crash and burn around them.

    I suspect they tend to have just come from “game design” courses and have studied little else. The kind of people who have no other skills or interests. No thank you. Now, if they’d like to sit and make levels, that’s something else. We still call it ‘game design’ but it’s a formality to make them feel better (and hopefully grow into the reality of the field).

    To design well is to be flexible and draw from every mote of your knowledge to refine and correct your ideas.

    Of course… there are people who wake up one day, find themselves in power, and think it suddenly has made them game designers. But that’s more a study on how management can efficiently destroy a game design. ;)

    Monday, April 27, 2015 at 7:26 pm | Permalink
  23. Frank Lantz wrote:


    ” ‘Boss battles suck?’ ‘Jumping puzzles suck’? I’d love to know where these axioms came from ”

    Ask Jim Rossignol, he’s a big shot professional game critic and hip tastemaker and confirms this sentiment.

    But seriously, boss battles/jumping puzzles are just examples of the *kind* of heuristics game designers often have. You’ve never met game designers with similar rules of thumb, whatever they’re about? You’ve never encountered a game that seemed to contradict most of your heuristics about “good design” and was nonetheless awesome?

    Maybe you are able to perfectly, seamlessly update your design axioms on an ongoing basis and never encounter any cognitive friction or doubts about your ability to completely explain and predict what makes games good.

    If so, congratulations! You have no need to take my advice to be a bit more skeptical about this ability.

    “I don’t think it means you should give up the entire idea of design.”

    I never said you should.

    “Ditch the axiom, build a hypothesis, test the hypothesis, and be an academic.”

    Sounds gross, I think I’ll pass.

    Monday, April 27, 2015 at 7:31 pm | Permalink
  24. Tom wrote:

    Design is about tradeoffs between player experiences.

    LoL and CS make a number of tradeoffs (the abstract cons of which you point out) to amplify long-term learning/mastery in the game, which ultimately is extremely engaging and causes these games to be appealing for a long period of time for many gamers.

    I think you are trying to apply fairly pure design aesthetics to these games, when design is only pure at the starting point, and never at the finishing point. But, the result may be strong in terms of curated desired player experience at the finishing point, which is what you are encountering in LoL and CS.

    Monday, April 27, 2015 at 8:59 pm | Permalink
  25. It certainly doesn’t need to be “gross”, Frank. Nor does it really need to be so formal; it’s just useful to look at this things from an inductive point of view.

    I don’t think you should have axioms. I do think you should be aware of the theories that inform your arguments and assumptions, because everybody has them, whether they’re aware or not. Call them heuristics, call them hypotheses, call them “fundamental principles”: we all still have them.

    I just think you should be ready to change them. If a game contradicts your theory, evolve the theory. If MOBAs contradict what you see as “good game design”, don’t discard the notion of good design, just re-examine how you define those terms.

    Maybe steep learning curves have their place. Maybe baroque, idiosyncratic rulesets have their place. Maybe carefully-created jumping puzzles have their place. That’s great! You can have a grand old time figuring out how, and figuring out why. That’s why many people BECOME academics: to figure stuff out! It’s not gross. It’s fun!

    When they do, when they generate and demonstrate those theories, other people don’t have to start from the ground up. they don’t have to rely on “hip tastemakers” with unbelievably questionable assumptions (Or, in the case of Rossignol and “no-boss”/”no-jumping”, comically wrong assumptions.)

    They know that the fundamental principles they were taught are reliable, proven things, instead of taste-driven ephemera. They know that the craft is moving forward, instead of moving in circles. They know that they’re standing on solid ground.

    And, yeah, I think that’s worth something.

    Monday, April 27, 2015 at 10:36 pm | Permalink
  26. Jon wrote:

    (linking to someone else’s response)

    I feel really weird writing this because >I have so much respect for Frank Lantz and I get that his piece is almost more about describing a sense of something, it’s impressionistic, not laying out a literal argument. That said, here I’m going to treat it as a literal argument so I can unpick that, and so I can articulate some thoughts I have about the value of design.

    Monday, April 27, 2015 at 10:40 pm | Permalink
  27. “There is a point of no return. That point must be reached” (Kafka). Go, go, go!

    Monday, April 27, 2015 at 10:55 pm | Permalink
  28. This article appears to reflect sort of a Hypatia moment :) Please read and decide for yourself.

    “Of all the changes of language a traveler in distant lands must face, none equals that which awaits him in the city of Hypatia, because the change regards no words, but things. I entered Hypatia one morning, a magnolia garden was reflected in blue lagoons, I walked among the hedges, sure I would discover young and beautiful ladies bathing; but at the bottom of the water, crabs were biting the eyes of the suicides, stones tied around their necks, their hair green with seaweed.

    I felt cheated and I decided to demand justice of the sultan. I climbed the porphyry steps of the palace with the highest domes, I crossed six tiled courtyards with fountains. The central hall was barred by iron gatings: convicts with black chains on their feet were hauling upon basalt blocks from a quarry that opened to underground.

    I could only question the philosophers. I entered the great library, I became almost lost among shelves collapsing under the vellum bindings, I followed the alphabetical order of vanished alphabets, up and down halls, stairs, bridges. In the most remote papyrus cabinet, in a cloud of smoke, the dazed eyes of an adolescent appeared to me, as he lay on the mat, his lips glued to an opium pipe.

    “Where is the sage?”

    The smoker pointed out of the window. It was a garden with children’s games: ninepins, a swing, a top. The philosopher was seated on the lawn. He said “Signs form a language, but not the one you think you know.”

    I realized I had to free myself from the images which in the past had announced to me the things I sought: only then woould I succeed in understanding the language of Hypatia.

    Now I have to hear the neighning of horses and the cracking of whips and I am seized with amourous trepidation: in Hypatia you have to go to the stables and riding rings to see the beautiful women who mount the saddle, thighs naked, greaves on their calves, and soon as a young foreigner approaches, they fling him on the piles of hay or sawdust and press their firm nipples againts him.

    And when my spirit wants no stimulus or nourishment save music, I know it is to be sought in the cemeteries: the musicians hide in the tombs; from grave to grave flute trills, harp chords answer one another.

    True, also in Hypatia the day will come when my only desire will be to leave. I know I must not go down to the harbor then, but climb the citadel’s highest pinnacle and wait for a ship to go by up there. But will it ever go by? There is no language without deceit.”

    (Italo Calvino, İnvisible Cities, Cities and Signs 4: Hypatia)

    Monday, April 27, 2015 at 11:28 pm | Permalink
  29. I wrote up a larger response to this article, available here:

    Tuesday, April 28, 2015 at 4:05 am | Permalink
  30. jason wrote:

    I see. He spends his day over analyzing games and ended up being a theoretician.

    He talks about games and came to incorrect conclusions in his small circle of friends and fellow “game designers”.

    Sophists should not be allowed to teach philosophy. They think knowing the concepts and stuying philosphy makes them philosophers.

    Tuesday, April 28, 2015 at 3:30 pm | Permalink
  31. Paul Eres wrote:

    i agree with the article but i’d like to add another example to league of legends and shadow of the colossus: jrpgs, games like final fantasy 6 and 7, chrono trigger, dragon quest, etc.

    those games all violate what game designers believe to be true. they are often repetitive, involving fighting the same battle over and over (grinding for xp and levels). they are mostly long stories told linearly. they involve very little strategy, the optimal strategy is easy to figure out, and many players play them by strictly following a guide or walkthrough rather than thinking too hard. they are games that someone can play in their sleep. and yet they were enormously popular and viewed positively by their players

    game designers often explain away these anomolies by saying ‘well, people are stupid, they should NOT enjoy games like chrono trigger, even though they do’. but if a theory can’t explain a phenomenon — why people love chrono trigger — isn’t it the theory that’s the stupid one, not the players?

    Tuesday, April 28, 2015 at 4:29 pm | Permalink
  32. Tuba wrote:

    I think that part of being a good designer is being good at identifying when an “accident” is something good. Many great game features started as bugs that the developer thought made the game more fun. A bad developer could just ignore it and fix the bug.

    Tuesday, April 28, 2015 at 5:07 pm | Permalink
  33. ildon wrote:

    I generally disagree with the majority of this article, and mostly agree with Chris Wagar’s reply, but just wanted to make one clarification: In Quake 3 you spawn with 125 health which ticks down to 100 over time, which is another balancing that makes the railgun “ok” (although most competitive mods and later Quake Live did further weaken it because the more skilled a player is the more powerful it becomes).

    Wednesday, April 29, 2015 at 1:52 am | Permalink
  34. Frank Lantz wrote:


    Excellent example.

    Wednesday, April 29, 2015 at 6:00 am | Permalink
  35. Vontre wrote:

    These axioms are so utterly bizarre I’m not even sure where they would come from. o_O

    Wednesday, April 29, 2015 at 7:14 am | Permalink
  36. @ildon Got me. I forgot you spawned with 125. Maybe I was thinking of CPMA

    Anyway, Frank, I know we’re on the same side, I’m challenging you to do a better job of it. This argument isn’t particularly coherent, and seems to contradict itself in its examples. Keith Burgun preempted me in saying we shouldn’t romanticize the unknown or “unknowable”, which is what a lot of the attitude of this article seems to be pandering to (even though I know you think this is something that can be known). It’s not pragmatic. It’s not the type of person I took you for.

    As for Paul, I’d say they’re looking for a different type of entertainment than necessarily good gameplay, because JRPGs could be designed a lot more interestingly within the same genre. Additionally the ruleset in question might not be the same. If popularity and sales are the only metrics, then it’s probably not only the merits of the game itself that are selling it, but a lot of things around it or other media contents within the product besides just the game. A lot of people like stories, stories can frequently sell a product even if they harm the game’s user experience by locking the user’s inputs out. (see Ocarina of Time, Twilight Princess). If your goal is to sell or be popular, game design isn’t necessarily the only thing you need to consider. Sometimes though it’s enough, see Demon’s Souls, which got dragged out of china because a few importers saw the merit of a game that sold below already poor sales expectations that was perceived by the creators as more or less a dead end shovelware game that was handed off to Miyazaki because if he ruined it then it was already a lost cause.

    Wednesday, April 29, 2015 at 7:15 am | Permalink
  37. Paul Eres wrote:

    @chris – i think that’s possible, but don’t you think game design theory should at least *attempt* to explain why people love games like chrono trigger, without explaining it away by saying it’s other factors besides gameplay? or marketing? i mean if you bring in other factors, you can explain away any counter-example: i could equally say that demon’s souls is popular *despite* its gameplay, not because of it, and chrono trigger is popular *because* of its gameplay, and that has equal evidence to your claim

    anyway, i can think of many ways that game design can explain the popularity of chrono trigger if you change its assumptions

    for instance, you could say that there’s a range of player skill, and for some people, games that pose little to no challenge, but which have a slow, gradual success over time just for showing up, appeal to that audience. “idle games” like cookie clicker and clicker heroes are another example of that type of thing. those games don’t have stories, and they don’t have challenge, you basically do nothing but sit there and wait and buy upgrades occasionally, but they are enormously entertaining to those who play them

    i mean, sometimes people just want to relax, they want something that is interactive, but where the decisions are almost automatic, and involve minimal effort or skill. that doesn’t mean that they want no interaction and no skill, just a bare minimum level of it, similar to the game of “war” in cards (“i declare war”) which has almost zero interaction, but not zero, because there’s some hidden interaction in how exactly you place the cards when returning them to the deck. another way to put this is: sometimes people prefer intensive exercise, sometimes they prefer a walk in the park. but a walk in the park still involves some minimal effort (like chrono trigger)

    i think that game design theory could account for ct’s popularity simply by recognizing the human need for rest and relaxation, the need for meditative reptition, and the need for a low, but non-zero, degree of challenge

    Wednesday, April 29, 2015 at 1:52 pm | Permalink
  38. Aaron Isaksen wrote:

    Hi Frank — Great article! As you know, I think a lot about how to use computers to search for interesting games. The “Frisbee-bird” variant of “Flappy Bird” that my algorithm discovered is a good example; it was very much found by happy accident by some optimization function and a bunch of random numbers. So I guess “search” is another verb we could use to replace “design”.

    Wednesday, April 29, 2015 at 6:22 pm | Permalink
  39. Frank Lantz wrote:


    Love it.

    Thursday, April 30, 2015 at 2:29 am | Permalink
  40. Frank Lantz wrote:


    See my response to Burgun here:

    Maybe this will help clarify some of the aspects of my post that still bother you.

    Thursday, April 30, 2015 at 2:34 am | Permalink
  41. Murray wrote:

    Loved it! Thanks Frank.

    Monday, May 11, 2015 at 7:01 am | Permalink
  42. Jay Blanc wrote:

    “But songs are not designed, paintings are not designed, poems are not designed.”

    I’m sorry, but I’m going to be over here laughing at that statement.

    You seem to have discovered something that the rest of the creative world has known about called “Improvisation”. And yes, it exists, and can produce interesting and fun stuff.

    But improvised songs don’t get to the top of the charts, and the most famous poems were carefully calculated. Design exists in creative works, Improvisation is the exception not the norm.

    Wednesday, May 27, 2015 at 8:22 am | Permalink
  43. Frank Lantz wrote:

    OK, I would have thought this was obvious but I guess not.

    When I say songs/paintings/poems are “not designed” I’m referring to the fact that we don’t typically use the word “design” to describe how songs (etc) are made.

    I’m aware of that songs (etc) are often produced within a rational, structured problem-solving process that resembles what we mean by the word “design”. In fact, that’s exactly my point. The fact that we don’t use the word “design” for these processes communicates something about our attitude towards them, and I’m suggesting we should have a little bit more of that attitude towards games.

    The idea that a normal person could make the mistake you are implying here, of not knowing that poems are constructed by people carefully choosing words and considering their effects, is just bizarre.

    Sunday, June 7, 2015 at 9:27 am | Permalink
  44. Joseph wrote:

    Actually, I’d say that to many people, the idea that poets – and even more so painters, songwriters, actors – work according to any rules at all might be a bit shocking. This is the idea behind ‘genius’ – that Bob Dylan is just different from you and me, he thinks in a radically different manner, and creates in an almost divine manner.

    Thursday, June 18, 2015 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

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