Designing is not Writing

The skill of game design is not the same as the skill of game writing. However, these two skills get compressed together for two reasons:

  • Writing is how we communicate design to people we aren’t talking with in the moment
  • Companies pay for the end result of a design: written execution. (And often by the word)

However, we need to recognize that these are different skills in order to understand the strengths and weaknesses of you and the people you work with. So let’s unpack them:

Design is…

  • Crafting mechanical beats
  • Creating functional game currencies and economies
  • Watching player reactions and tuning the in-play language
  • Creating various options that are compelling to choose and to use
  • Making series of non-optimal choices, tension points, and other elements that get people engaged in the game
  • Noting down best practices, advice, etc. gained from playing and discussing the game

…and so on.

Writing is…

  • Clearly explaining rules, options, advice, best practices, etc.
  • Conveying a sense of confidence to the reader
  • Organizing thoughts in ways the reader needs for firm understanding
  • Injecting strong, engaging language to inspire the reader to want the game’s promised experience

…and so on.

(This is also the difference between development and editing in RPGland: developing is effectively editing and verifying design and high-level book organization; editing is lower-level book organization, line editing, etc.)

This is important not just because some people have strengths in one and deficient in the other, but also because very few people are good at both simultaneously. That’s why design-writing should be separate from making revisions prior to submitting a draft to the developer or editor. To do this is to engage the two different skills at different phases, and that lends strength to the end result.

– Ryan


3 Responses to Designing is not Writing

  1. Does this mean that choosing the right word for the right rules element goes smack in the middle?

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Language is part of design and mechanics.

      Certainly, though, design gets refined during writing, not unlike how I illustrate in this older post.

      But the point stands: language is mechanics. It is design. (And I frequently seem to work with people who don’t understand this very basic game design concept, so I probably need to harp on it more.)

      – Ryan

  2. Andy says:

    So very true! I’ve noticed that as I work my way through drafts, it tends to follow a progression. I start with a draft of “throwing down the concepts of the game”, and then keep going back through it, hammering it into a cohesive outline for a game. Then I start working on making it easier to understand.