Obsessive compulsive designer?

Obsessive compulsive designer?

By Billy Thomson

June 3rd 2009 at 1:10PM

The best approach to game design?

Some of the guys I work with think I have a minor strain of OCD. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not constantly scrubbing away at my hands under boiling water or anything, but if I’m honest they probably have a point.

I can be a little obsessive at times and, if it is in fact a mild form of OCD, it definitely takes a more benign form.

Take my constant desire for symmetry in level design, my need to create task lists and tick them off when complete, my constant nagging insistence on consistency, my endless nitpicking about pretty much anything I’m presented with, my inability to go out wearing creased clothes and my weird lining things up problem, that I won’t bore you with. All of which can cause my workmates to want to scream in frustration or point and laugh.

For this month’s column I’ll briefly talk about each of my little habits - and more specifically how I think they can have both a positive and negative effect on my work as a designer, and how I believe every good game designer must have a little bit of an obsessive compulsive disorder deep down in them somewhere.

Symmetrically Inclined
I’ve always loved symmetry in architecture, which made creating well-balanced multiplayer levels nice and simple for me: I didn’t constantly feel the need to shake things up from base to base, and everyone knows the best levels tend to be mirror images, so I was made for the job.

The problem hit me when I had to branch out and do location designs focused on multiple approaches – I had to reign in my love for symmetry and go off-piste, which I have to admit I was struggling with. Thankfully I managed to hire an incredibly talented level designer who did a fantastic job on Crackdown.

Sometimes you just need to accept defeat and bring in the right man for the job.

Ticking the Boxes
I think everyone loves ticking off completed tasks on a list. It makes you feel like you’re doing something worthwhile, making progress, achieving something. Which is why the Xbox 360’s Achievements and Gamerpoints feature was a dream come true for me.

The need to create a list of minor tasks for players to complete with Gamerpoints as a reward may have felt like a chore to some designers, but it was a joy for me. Creating all the cool little off the wall Achievements was great fun on Crackdown, and it’s something that I hope I can do in every game I make from this point forward. I just need to make sure I don’t alienate the gaming public with too many hidden orb-type Achievements.

Consistency is Crucial
Inconsistency quite simply eats away at me. As you’ll learn I have many pet hates, but inconsistency has to be in my top one. It really drives me nuts!

I like games that are consistent through the entire product: game controls, UI design, box art, marketing material, merchandise, even fonts if I can get away with it. To be fair, very few games get this right, although the GTA franchise is a great example of how this can be done very, very well.

I’ve personally never managed to work on a game that’s nailed this yet, but I’m certainly doing my best to tick that box on my list.

NitPicking Nightmare
This one drives my work mates mad, but I also think it makes me far more effective at my job. It doesn’t make me a better designer, but just stops me from settling for something that I don’t think is up to scratch. I’ll keep fighting for a new feature or improvement while others grow weary of the endless arguments and compromise or leave it alone entirely, while I only seem to get more frustrated and determined to get my way.

While I believe this single-minded approach can be of massive benefit, it can also be an issue if taken too far. Too many games never see the light of day because the vision holder simply won’t compromise, leading to schedule slippage which can ultimately get a game cancelled. So while it’s one of my most effective quirks, I occasionally need a level headed producer to tell me to stop being an idiot and leave it alone. (You know who you are.)

Okay, so there are clearly no revolutionary design theories here, but I do think that most of us game designers likely have our own minor forms of OCD that manifest in different ways. Whether or not they make us better designers is all down to how far we let them off the leash.