Like Sandre Chen, I believe that everyone would benefit from a multidisciplinary approach to game design. Though Chen’s essay focuses on the application of traditional design disciplines to similar aspects found in video games (cinematography to visual elements, etc.), it made me think: What could other disciplines teach us about game design, even across different modalities? It turns out that there are many similarities between visual design and game design, and that the spirit of successful visual design is found in elegant and refined games.
The main thing to note is that
Both games and visual designs use hierarchies to aid the user in exploring the space.
Some definitions are in order, just to be crystal-clear:
- By user I mean “viewer” or “reader” in visual design, and “player” in game design. These are the people who seek information from the product we are designing.
- By the space I mean “2D visual space” in visual design, and “strategy space” in game design.
hierarchies is a word that warrants a more extensive explanation. One central tenet of visual design is that important information should be more noticeable and easier to read. If you took all the elements on a well-designed page and ordered them from most eye-catching to least eye-catching, you should end up with a list of elements ordered by descending importance to the viewer. The big, bold headline at the top of the page should tell the viewer what the document is about, while the gory details of the topic reside in unremarkable paragraphs that the reader will only get to if they are interested in the headline.
The equivalent of the visual hierarchy in game design is the “skill hierarchy,” or the ordering of skills that you expect the player to learn while playing. Because learning new skills and making interesting decisions with those skills is what makes games fun, guiding the player to a state where they are frequently learning new things about the game space is a goal that most games (excluding those that are designed to not be fun) should pursue. Having an effective skill hierarchy in your game can aid in this. As pointed out by Brenda Brathwaite, having a skill in the skill hierarchy that is out of place or too difficult can lead to frustration on the player’s behalf.
The skills outlined in this hierarchy should be of various difficulties, but, as in visual design, the more advanced skills will hopefully be buried in the “paragraphs” of the game. Likewise, the “headlines” of the game will contain the main mechanic, which should be instantly spottable and easy to understand. (Some games even let the player know about the main mechanic in the menu, like the original Katamari Damacy).
In both game design and visual design, giving the user information without a clear hierarchy is hopelessly inefficient. Imagine a version of Super Mario 64 where the player was told how to triple-jump before they were told how to move! Because triple-jumping is an advanced skill, the player is not introduced to it until they have already mastered core mechanics like movement (and single jumping).
In Part 2 I’ll discuss some methods used by visual designers to construct a visual hierarchy, and how analogues of these methods can be applied to support a game’s skill hierarchy.