Lisa’s Favorite Areas of Design

A game design student asks “Do you have a favorite area/subject of game design?”

In the past I’d probably be quick to respond “all areas all the time all the knowledge omnomnomnom!” But after doing this for around 5 years, I have to admit I’ve developed my preferences. Or perhaps I’ve just developed a way to articulate my preferences.

For background, Insomniac doesn’t really have explicit designer specializations. Like we don’t “level designer” and “systems designer” as job titles, we just have “designers” and people gravitate towards their strengths. As such, I’ve gotten to do lots of different kinds of design in my work – levels, systems, combat, etc.

My favorite thing to do in design is tune feedback, especially the sort that is instructional and meant to teach and convey how a mechanic is working. As a result, I love working on parts of games that need to teach the player something new, and attempting to figure out how much I can implicitly teach through careful feedback. Plus, it’s just fun to take a mechanic from “purely functional” to “a joy to engage in in its own right” by finding the right layers of feedback. I think a lot of it is tied in to the psychology of player motivation, which delights me.

Combat design is another area that I love, because I have a lot of fun constructing scenarios of challenge and unleashing the player among them, then guiding and nudging this way and that to help ensure someone is going to be appropriately challenged while still feeling very clever about how they approach the setup. I’ve learned a lot about combat design from people like Joel Goodsell and Drew Murray at Insomniac, and their knowledge is so vast that I just find learning it to be fascinating and fun.

I have  a strange relationship with level design. I’m told I have skills in this area, but my process for level design is so convoluted and stressful that it’s often exhausting for me to do. I dunno, maybe everyone approaches level design like this. The “Lisa Brown Method of Level Design” is probably enough to warrant its own post, or at least its own response, so I’ll save that for later. To summarize, the fact that I can produce well-designed levels baffles me, and I think that it’s entirely the work of subconscious-Lisa.

Systems design is an area in which I’d like to improve, especially in the realm of designing things like progression. My biggest challenge here is I do not yet have the intuition for the math. Or at least, not to the degree that I’d like. Fortunately I have people like Mike Birkhead to spontaneously swoop down and give me systems design homework on the fly and coach me through. He can just look at a list of numbers and intuit the feel of the progression. I still have to draw out the curves to feel them.

Lastly, and this is more from a hobbyist angle, I love designing for unusual input. Any time I see someone do something weird or clever with the interface to get the player action from the real world into the game I get super excited, and I love the wackier sort of installation stuff you see at Indiecade and the like. It’s the sort of thing that doesn’t necessarily have a broad audience reach, but I just love the design challenges that come along with strange inputs. For example, I have a side project where you play a game using a tiny EEG strapped to your head and a low cost eye tracker. It’s a sort of gardening game. Mind gardening.

Anyway, there you have it!