At the end of every year, we let the magicthegathering.com staff have a vacation and we run two "Best Of" articles. This is the second. I chose "Resolutions" because each year I choose one "Best Of" for what I think was the best design article of the year and one article that is my personal favorite. Last week was my favorite design column (Kind Acts of Randomness). This week is my personal favorite. As is often the case, my personal favorites are often the most personal columns. This column has a lot more in it than just Magic design.
This article originally ran on January 5, 2009.
What do I mean? As part of my New Year's Resolutions, I've made a conscious decision to bring many of my lessons from Magic design to my life. Being a holistic thinker means that the self-improvement process goes both ways. My life lessons can improve my design and my design lessons can improve my life. For today's column I am going to look at ten design truisms that I have learned and I am going to talk about how I feel these lessons can be adapted to my (and your) every day life. Okay, let's get started.
Design Lesson #1: Look Outside the Box Only After You've Looked Inside ItTeferi's Puzzle Box
Let's begin with a lesson that I frequently talk about in this column. When is it time to break the rules and do something that we haven't ever done before? The answer is when a design calls for it. That is, we should venture outside the box only when the answer cannot be found inside the box. The answer is not – because you can. Many novice designers are attracted by the allure of "different." They want to be the one that paved the brave, new path.
Here's the problem: Doing things for the sake of doing them leads to bad design. First, you make inconsistencies because you create things that don't work the same. Second, you prematurely chew up design space. And third, you create things that aren't grounded with the rest of the design. But if you only break the rules after exhaustingly working within the rules, you prevent each of the above. Inconsistencies are avoided because this system syncs up like-minded mechanics. Design space is better preserved because less of it is being used. The set has better cohesion because each part of the design was walked through the same processes allowing the designer a better understanding of how all the pieces fit together.
What life lesson can I take away from this? Like any creative person, I am constantly pulled toward the unexplored solution. When problem solving, my instinct is to try the thing I've never tried before. While at the right level in the right places, this urge to explore can be healthy, it can often lead me astray when I'm trying to problem-solve. If my goal is to solve a problem, I have to be willing to explore the mundane (but most likely more effective) solutions that have worked for me in the past. Different is quite often not better.
Design Lesson #2: If You Can Do Without It, Do Without It
In many ways game design is a game unto itself. And like the majority of games, Magic design has resource management. When building a block or a set or even a card, the goal of a designer is to accomplish their task using the fewest resources possible. Why is that? Because each added resource brings with it additional issues: complexity, confusion, wordiness, etc. In addition, people are by their nature more drawn to simpler aesthetics. The easiest way to notice this is the tendency at Prereleases for players to not play with the wordier cards. Also, the cards that tend to draw the most attention are the ones that do one focused thing, simply but powerfully.
What this means for design is that we are constantly looking to pull things off of cards. As the design constraint above says, if your design can function without the removed piece then by all means remove it. This truism can be applied at every level of a design from an ability on a card to a mechanic within a block. The trick here is to boil each component down to its essence. A designer has to understand what each piece adds to the puzzle and then remove the excess. This ability to discern the wheat from the chaff is one of the most valuable designs skills that come from experience.
What life lesson can I derive from this design lesson? It's a pretty straightforward one for me. I am constantly attracted to clutter. As the picture of my desk demonstrates, I have a tendency to keep everything under the thought that I don't want to throw away something I might need later. The life lesson here is that I need to learn to discern the wheat from the chaff in my own life. Keeping all the chaff to avoid throwing away any wheat is causing me more problems than the occasional discarded wheat.
Design Lesson #3: If It Doesn't Fit, Don't Force It
The path to hell, they say, is paved with good intentions. The same can be true about bad design. You see, it's easy to get rid of the stinkers in a file, but the good cards aren't so easily removed. This lesson is one of the hardest for designers to learn: that an ill-fitting good card is, in fact, a bad card, at least as far as the current set is concerned. The problem is an easy one to understand. The card in isolation looks great. It probably even plays great. But cards do not exist in isolation.
I can't tell you how many designs spun its wheels for weeks or months because we couldn't bring ourselves to take out some piece that while cool didn't advance the set as a whole. When you are searching hard for good things, it's tough to take something out that you know works. Experience helps you realize that a good card or mechanic in the right spot is a golden thing. Putting it in a subpar spot is merely wasting potential. Remember that Magic is a voracious monster and good design will eventually find an appropriate home.
The life lesson here is a potent one. One of the dangers of a dream job (and make no mistake, I am very thankful to be blessed working where I am) is that I am offered more things I would like to do than I have the time to do them. To make the best choices about what I am going to do, I have to think about what I want out of my job in its entirety. Doing something "really cool" that butts up against everything else I am working towards is a poor choice. Likewise, I have also chosen to prioritize my family. It is important to make sure when I make decisions about work (such as how often I travel) that I keep my larger priorities in mind.
Design Lesson #4: Everything Affects Everything
When I first started doing Magic design, I was very focused on the individual cards. My thought process was that if I made each card as good as it could be and put them together, I'd end up with a cool set. In fact, for the first pass at the Tempest card file (my first time as both a designer and a lead designer; not the kind of thing we do anymore), I did just that. As I started working with the file, I began to understand my mistake. Cards have value in context. A card in one set can mean something entirely different than the same card in a different set. For example, take Razortooth Rats (a black 2/1 creature with fear). In Weatherlight, they were one of the best creatures to draft. In Mirrodin, they were just filler (a.k.a. cards that you play because you don't have a better choice). Why? Because in the first set only about one fifteenth of the creatures could block them and in the second over one half could.
The more design I've done, the more I have seen first hand that Magic design is about the interaction between the cards more so than it's about the cards themselves. Players are looking less for good cards than they are for cards that are good with their deck. What this means to designers is that we have to be very conscious of how we design each card to allow it to interact the best it can with the cards around it. The cornerstone of this lesson is that all parts of a card become relevant. Even something that started as innocuous flavor, the creature type, has become a crucial mechanical component of the card.
The life lesson here is that things are more interconnected than they seem at first. Items that affect one part of your life, really affect all aspects of your life. This means when making decisions, I have to be holistic in my thinking. How do work decisions affect my health? How do recreational decisions about affect my family? How do personal decisions affect my designs? I have to remember it's all connected.
Design Lesson #5: Pay Attention to Feedback
How do you become great at something? There's a theory (from a book called Outliers: The Story of Success) that greatness takes one thing: 10,000 hours of practice with strong, consistent feedback. I think the practice part of it is pretty straightforward. Want to become one of the best guitar player in the world? Well then, play a lot of guitar. It's the second part that I find intriguing. While practice is fundamental, to become truly great you also need feedback. This is something design has learned long ago.
I talk a lot about how design's job is to make the game fun. To do our job correctly, we have to make all of you want to play. To complicate the matter, players play for a variety of reasons and find radically different things fun. No matter how well we become in thinking like different segments of our audience, we're never going to be at good at knowing what you like and don't like than you will. That's why I am constantly encouraging readers in this column to write in. The feedback you provide is essential. In fact, I think one of my greatest assets as a designer is the fact that I have this column and the feedback stream it creates. With that feedback combined with my 10,000+ hours, I feel I have grown tremendously as a designer.
The life lesson here is understanding the value of feedback in all walks of life. If you are doing something for some else's benefit, take the time to talk to that person. As I look at my own personal life, I find that I am often guilty of assuming what someone wants rather than asking them. The answers you seek are out there if you are patient enough and humble enough to listen. (Yes, you heard it here, I'm publicly admitting I could be more humble.)
Design Lesson #6: Listen to the Uninvested
Part of any design process is playtesting. If you're designing cars, at some point you have to take them out on the road. The same is true for games. There's just so much you can learn from theorizing. In the end, the true test of if something is working is how well it plays. But there is a second important component to playtesting: not every playtester gives you the results you need. The biggest trap is what's known as an invested playtester. These are people who are motivated for you to succeed. They could simply be your friends who wish the best for your game (this is a huge issue when you're designing a new game) or they could be your co-workers (aka R&D) who often know too much to see the new cards with a fresh eye.
Since we're talking about Magic design let me talk a bit about the second camp. Often in design our mechanics go through stages. If a mechanic or a card isn't quite clicking, but is working well enough to salvage, we'll keep trying tweaks of it to see if we can improve it. Here's the problem this leads to. It's hard to have fresh eyes for a mechanic that you've watched evolve. For this reason, we make a concerted effort to bring new people in at all stages. Sometimes this is an R&D person that hasn't been involved in the project yet (and remember that design teams are only four or five people traditionally). Sometimes this is finding Magic players in other sections of the company. The reason I particularly like grabbing opinions from outside of R&D is that they are the least invested. If they don't enjoy something they are more likely to simply say that they don't. They aren't trying to "make it work." They are just saying how they feel about it. This kind of input is very valuable.
The life lesson from this one is obvious yet it isn't something people often do. When you have a problem, try talking to someone completely disengaged from it, someone who doesn't even know the people involved (okay, other than you). Often the answer is obvious, if you have the vantage point to see it. This is the basic principle that makes therapists and advice columnists so useful.
Design Lesson #7: Give Yourself Time
Design, by its nature in a corporate world, is very deadline centric. In fact, one of the first questions I always ask when leading a design team is "When is it due?" This creates a mindset that the clock is constantly ticking and thus there is an impetus to always be working. Here's the problem: Creativity doesn't really function on a clock. For most people, rushing does not help creativity. For me personally, I find the opposite to be true. I am at my most creative when I'm not rushing.
To explain this let me quickly recap my take on what creativity is. (For the full-blown explanation you can read my creativity column, Connect the Dots.) I believe creativity is the ability to link things that are not commonly linked—to find connections that others do not readily see. I do believe that there is brute creativity where you just think hard to find connections, but that kind of creativity doesn't help get the kind of nuance that most designs call for. For this more subtle kind of creativity, I feel as if the subject matter has to slowly stew. You need to dump all the material in your head and allow the time to let your brain slowly find the connections it needs.
Note that this doesn't take away the deadlines. The trick here is to build into the schedule the thinking time needed to reach the slower but more potent connections. Time is as much a tool as any other resource in a design. You have to plan ahead to make proper use of it.
The life lesson stemming from this design lesson is also a simple one. Time is an important resource that cannot be neglected. People are so time crunched these days that they expect things to just happen because that's all the time they have. The mind and emotions don't work that way. If you need time to adjust to something new or to deal with change, you have to provide yourself with the time to do that. Not doing such is probably the biggest time waster of all.
Design Lesson #8: Mistakes Are Valuable
This lesson was worthy of its own design seminar (and will probably be the topic of its own column one of these days), but as it's one of the most important design lessons, I've decided to include it here. Mistakes are a crucial part of the design process (and I would argue just about any creative and/or artistic process). Why? Because mistakes are the most valuable teaching tools available. Success does much good, but it seldom instructs.
To understand, let's take a look at what happens when each occurs. When you are successful, the most you can learn is that something you did worked. Often, you don't even know what exactly that thing is. To recreate the success you tend to repeat whatever you did in the first place. You are encouraged to stop experimenting. In fact, the nature of success is that it demands repetition. Mistakes, on the other hand, force change. They force introspection. They make you figure out what caused the problem. Mistakes inspire action.
The second important part of understating the value of mistakes is allowing you to see them in a less negative state. Failure is never easy emotionally, but if you understand the value mistakes bring you can approach them on a more positive foot. Also, the structure of design is that you will encounter far more mistakes than you will successes. It's the nature of the beast. For every design success you create you will probably go through at least ten failures. If you cannot see mistakes as a crucial part of the process, you are unlikely to make your way through it.
The life lesson is that mistakes have just as much value in your personal life. They tend to have a higher emotional toll so it might be harder to be as objective. Nonetheless, you need to accept that mistakes are a natural part of life and that they lead to something good. They instruct you so that you will eventually find the things you need. Just remember to take the time to learn from your mistakes, for if you do not, you are destined to repeat them. (You know the whole "those who do not study history are forced to repeat it" line.)
Design Lesson #9: Nothing Is Set in Stone
This is another very simple design lesson that is surprisingly overlooked. Just because you make a decision during a design process does not mean that you can't go back on it. Yes, sometimes that will mean a lot of extra work, but the alternative to is try and save something that fundamentally doesn't do what's needed. The hardest part about doing this is overcoming your own pride. As I explained above, designs are fraught with mistakes. Sometimes that mistake was making a call that didn't work. Stubbornness has a place in design but not when it gets in the way of progress.
The secondary importance of this lesson is that once you are willing to undo decisions it frees you up to make them. There are few things more paralyzing in the creative process than the fear that you're going to screw up the thing you're trying so hard to make. This fear often keeps people from making decisions that need to be made. Designers must be bold and take chances. Just remember that a commitment to an idea is not irreversible.
The life lesson parallels pretty cleanly. It's okay to admit you made a mistake in the past and try to undo what you've done. Don't allow one mistake to keep begetting more. Note that I'm not saying to just throw in the towel when things get rough. Rather I'm talking about how it's important for people to take a critical eye to their own decisions. People make mistakes. Acknowledging your own mistakes is one of the most important paths to improving yourself.
Design Lesson #10: Don't Fight Human Nature
This is one of my favorite design lessons, evident by the fact that I talk about it all the time in my column. It seemed only appropriate to end with it. I always talk about how you have to understand your audience to do your best design work. Well, guess what, your audience is human. That means there is a lot of value in understanding humans. When a designer fights human nature, it will always be the designer that loses. (Okay, okay—almost always. Pioneers do exist.) An example from Magic: my large set design that received the greatest resistance was Odyssey. The non-Spikes (that is the people that weren't enthralled by the backwardness of the resource management) simply didn't want to do the things the set asked them to do. Throwing away all the cards in their hand, for instance, wasn't fun. As we're in the job of fun, I was setting myself up for failure.
The trick to this lesson is that the same force that can kill design can also enliven it. Make your design plug into some basic element of human nature and then you have thousands of years of evolution working for you instead of against you. Some of the best designs I've ever seen find basic human foibles and work with them. In fact, one of my favorite components of the design of "Live" (the 2009 fall expansion) is a mechanic that rewards players for doing something they want to do.
The life lesson is simple to understand but a bit harder to execute. People act like people. Don't expect them not to. When your plans require someone to act out of character, you are most likely setting yourself up for failure. For those of you who read my article on my dating foibles (Topical Blend #1: To Err Is Human) you know that much of my early failure in dating came from me banking on unreasonable expectations. If you find yourself constantly failing with other people, stop looking at them and start looking at yourself. What are you doing? Answer that question and you begin to solve a lot of your problems.
Life Imitating Art
Hopefully my article has given you a few things to chew on both inside and outside of design. I wish you all the best for 2009.
Join me next week when I jump into the nitty gritty.
Until then, may you have the strength to look inward.