GDC 09: Gordon Walton’s “10 Things Great Designers Exhibit”

YOU’D THINK BY NOW THAT GDC would be properly prepared for Gordon Walton sessions. One of the elder statesmen of game design, Walton is now at Bioware Austin working on the new Star Wars: The Old Republic MMO, and took time out of his schedule to give a talk entitled “10 Things Great Designers Exhibit.” The room was quickly packed beyond capacity before the session even started, with attendees lining up against the walls and sitting anywhere they could find space for the fast-paced chat, as Walton blazed through what he considered common elements among the good designers he’d worked with over the years.

10. A Passion for Games. Walton was of two minds on this category. While he felt passion was huge and he’d always hire someone with passion over someone without, he thought most people gave it a little too much weight. In fact, he categorized someone with a lot of passion and little else as “the world’s most dangerous type of person – highly motivated but totally incompetent! Your potential for damage is infinite!”

9. Breadth and Depth of Knowledge.  Here, Walton emphasized breadth over depth – many of successful designers tend to know a little about a lot of things. This is important because, as Walton put it, most innovation is synthesis of existing knowledge – the more you know, the better chance you have at finding innovative ways to combine it. “Knowledge,” in Walton’s terms, covered many things: game knowledge, platform knowledge, and knowledge outside of games as well.

8. Problem Solving and Analytical Skills. Can you deconstruct complex problems? Do you have good logic skills?  A big part of problem solving is having the right approach, without falling into the trap of overanalyzing it or coming up with a needlessly complex solution. “A lot of games is about ‘good enough’” Walton said.

7. Flexibility. A major part of game design, Walton said, is being able to adapt to constant constraints, whether they’re business or player-related. You never know when your publisher might require something new from a game, or your player testing might reveal important changes that need to be made. Any good game can be sunk by a designer who refuses to deviate from his original plan.

6. KISS. Instead of “Keep it Simple, Stupid,” Walton’s use of this stood for “Keep It Super Simple.” Don’t overcomplicate!

5. Player Empathy. Can you distance yourself from the product and see it from the player’s viewpoint? It’s easy to settle on one view of the game, but as Walton said, “your audience is not you, and your audience is not uniform.” Different players will see different things, and a good designer needs to be able to understand varying player mental models.

4. Continuous Learning. A huge part of creation is knowledge integration. The more you know, the more you can draw on to integrate. Walton asked the designers on hand (there were many in the crowd) if they managed to read at least one book a month, and recommended they do so.

3. Teamwork. With the exception of the smallest casual or mobile games, almost all videogame development today is done by teams of 2 to 200 people. You simply need to be able to work with other team members and remember that it’s important that the team succeeds, not you.

2. Positive Mental Attitude. Walton joked that it’s more than possible for the curmudgeonly and grumpy to get great work done, but …. who wants to be around them? Enthusiasm and a can-do attitude is infectious, while the opposite can actually be a detriment to the whole team, no matter how talented the individual.

1. Clear Communication. Design, said Walton, IS communication. Clarity of communication drives the fastest implementation of ideas and the most effective iteration.

Walton wrapped up the talk talking about where he saw design heading in the future. The two main trends, he thought, were split between designers with specialized skills handling big games, and designers with a wider variety of skills managing smaller games. This was followed by a somewhat (unintentionally) comical Q&A session where two aspiring designers showed a complete inability to communicate a question in under 60 seconds, and then the room-clearing question “don’t you think you sort of need to be a bit of an asshole to be designer?”  Sometimes it’s pretty easy to see why some people give the talks and others are in the crowd.