Game Design, by Academia

One of the most frustrating problems that I’ve faced this new year at the University of Michigan has been a new class centered around game development. I joined this class hoping to be able to flex my muscles a bit with my previous experience in taking a video

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game idea from start to finish, and I didn’t feel guilty about taking a class I should already have a knack for, as this particular game-development section is part of a course that is required for graduation–A win-win, as the class should hopefully be pretty simple to complete, while at the same time I’ll get a few new ideas about game design under my belt in an academic (rather than article-based) setting.


However, the class so far has been a near-disaster. After switching late into the class (I didn’t know it existed until the term had started), I wasn’t allowed to make up any work, and the lectures so far as I’ve seen are centered around very poor ideas on game design and development. My opinions are certainly skewed due to the fact that I’m independent and plan to stay that way, but many of the ideas they’ve brought up are certainly applicable to the industry at large and, I believe, definitely worth avoiding in nearly all cases.


One development “tip” that was given to us was that we should always try to start making a game by writing the user documentation. As it was told to us in lecture, this is a critical part of game development, and the user documentation is a valued resource to players. This is certainly universally considered an out-of-touch point–as a gamer and developer, I’ve never written nor read user documentation (such as a game manual) without it being a frustrating and annoying experience. Sometimes this is necessary for a game, and I’m sure players have opened up the game manual that comes with most physical discs at some point; however, the only reason that the player had to open up that manual is because the game’s design failed them. Games are an interactive experience; teaching the player how to interact is a critical part of that, and as games are a form of entertainment, that teaching must also be presented in an entertaining way. User documentation is not entertaining. This is.


Another development “tip” given to us was on what our main menus should contain. The lecturer quickly came up with a set of nine items that are necessary for most games, including the title, start, help, customizations, quit, instructions, highscores, etc. He recommended five buttons for the main menu itself, along with submenus as necessary to cover all of these aspects. This idea is almost offensive to me, as I can’t say I’m completely alone when I say that I hate menus. They clutter the screen, they are often hard to navigate, and they pull the player out of the experience. They’re a necessary piece of management in a lot of games, and they have their place, but I feel that it is very important that menu usage is minimized as much as it possibly can. To say that your main menu needs five buttons to be adequate is not just absurd: it’s also lazy. Making your main screen clear and easy to use is something that isn’t easy to do and will require effort, but it’s important. My latest release, Quietus II, has a very simple main screen; your only choice is to press <enter> to continue. Controls are briefly listed on the next page after the intro (not my proudest setup for displaying controls, but at least it’s readily available and easy to see), and you can play. The player can literally press <enter> three times in a row to continue the next level from their last save, and my main menu only has one button. Praepoch is similar–the player presses any button at the main screen, and the game starts. It’s not confusing, and controls are taught in-game. I think that this is design that should be perpetuated. Few people are going to tell you your menu is awesome but, like a field-goal kicker, your only job is to not disappoint.


The last game design opinion dished out in lecture was the first one I heard, and it was the most aggravating. The lecturer (this time different from the above two) told us about how the designer’s portrayal of a game’s storyline is pivotal. The designer must outline how the player plays the game in a puppeteer-like fashion. The designer knows best how to unveil the storyline in a game and provide the best experience for all players. The lecturer went on to say that he’s heard of players who play games like World of Warcraft and Diablo III talking about how they crafted their own experience via PvP and exploration, but that he thinks that that approach in design is invalid, and the storylined approach is the superior method for taking a player through a game. This comment left me aghast, as it really seemed as if he was looking at games like they are books–books are restricted to linear storylines and carefully-crafted plots, which are awesome and can also make for good games, but they don’t utilize games’ most important ally: it’s interactivity. Linear storylines crafted by designers don’t let you interact with the storyline. Some games branch out a bit by letting players move through dialogue with options, but this is just a non-linear adaptation, making it an even more custom experience. Custom experiences are the future of games, in my opinion, and the movement of the industry seems to very strongly reflect that. From indie games like Minecraft, where a newly introduced player faces little to no direction but builds their own interesting story full of zombies, caves, and mining, to triple-A titles like Skyrim, where some of the most fun you’ll have is in procedural, unscripted events throughout the game. A game’s storyline should give it a bar-minimum for complexity and entertainment, but a truly good game should allow for far more than that in how players build their own experience. I almost didn’t even finish the main quest-line in Skyrim, because I was so busy taking out bandits and killing procedurally-generated dragons to care. To think that those experiences are worthless is a major misunderstanding.


These points really irked me, and hearing these out of the mouths of more than one professor really made me question what they can do for me in terms of game development. Not to mention being told that “I’m not the audience for this class,” when the vast majority of students in the game development-focused class are going into other majors, while I’m going into game development.

Note: just want to make it clear that the class is not a game design class; it’s an introductory game development course. However, it was the statements given on game design in the class that frustrate me, and I still think that they are ill-informed and badly supported ideas even if the class is based around development rather than design.

Posted in Uncategorized · 25 Comments


  1. st33d says:

    I’ve recently released a series of games that have no instructions, no tutorial and almost no interface or menu. Everything is inferred by the design of the game. (Nitrome’s icon games.)

    They all did very well critically. And I think it was mostly down to the “zero cruft” design rules I used to make them with.

    Your tutor is a moron.

    • Connor says:

      Those are awesome! I love minimalistic game design approaches like that. It really clears out all the clutter of stuff you don’t want to deal with as a player.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Awful class. Get the hell away before you got brainwashed; it will take too much mental energy to separate the right and the wrong.

  3. Tekyuinajar says:

    I’ve bumped into similar, though less interesting issues in education. Every time I vent my pain someone inevitably pipes up with “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.”

    While amusing for a few seconds the first 3-4 times, the swirling nightmare of knowing you have to step back into a classroom that radiates confusion, misery and a general detachment from practical use in the “real world” becomes difficult to bear. Like politics, the games industry’s greatest challenge to innovation and moving forward is shaking off the last irate dregs of the previous generation allowing fresh eyes to find ways to achieve new things. A lot of that needs to begin with teachers like this that force you into a rigid box of thought as though they don’t trust you to imagine something greater or more complicated.

    Hang in there. If you successfully survive the class and don’t burn down the building, you can come back later to rub in your instructor’s face what a wild success your ideas are. Or write a ten to twenty volume series with the title “Why my instructor was WAY wrong”, or develop some deviously fiendish means of spite that his closed-minded methods could not have foreseen.

    I don’t know if this helps, but this here Megaman rant has an interesting message on the methods of teaching within a game. And some dirty words.

    • Connor says:

      First of all, that youtube link is AWESOME. I’ve seen it before, and I almost linked to it in this post–it covers some excellent tenants in game design, in my opinion. As for the class, I’m still keeping my ears open, because I know that parts of it will actually be important and useful, but I really felt I had to highlight some other comments that seemed quite out-of-touch. What I mostly fear is that some other future developer takes the “rigid structure” of the class and walls themselves in with it!

  4. Three Pipe Problem says:

    Ah… a young buck discovers that a college degree is worth only the paper that is printed on. You have a few years to find a few good books and smart people, though. I suggest you do it.

    • Connor says:

      Oh man, you’re basically describing my feelings since the start of this semester, in full! I am keeping my eyes open for other possible developers… I’d love to get a partner for game development out of college.

  5. Taylor Anderson says:

    You should drop out of the class if you can. I know it’s a little late at this point, but I think one of the most important things you can get out of university is learning a LOT of new stuff really quickly, and this game design stuff looks like its actively trying to un-teach the most fundamental aspects of making a good game.

    • Connor says:

      It is a bit late (which really sucks) and it’s also for a course that I have to take at some point 🙁 I wouldn’t continue taking it if there was a better option, though, for sure.

  6. Thomas says:

    I have had a similar experience, I was looking to take the only “Game Design” class from my university, but upon looking at the previous years website/assignments I realized what the class was. It was essentially just “how to program stuff that might be needed in a game”, ie: Basic AI, Basic physics & how to use Unity. In reality it was not about design in the slightest, although I guess I should have expected this as it was listed as a 4th year Computer Science course :S, looks like I will be sticking to reading articles etc. like you.

  7. Sean Hogan says:

    Definitely frustrating. I think it’s strange, the ways game design has popped into academia. I still stand by the idea that *CURRENTLY*, academia can do a good job figuring out how games use interactivity to express ideas and the like – schools are good at that.

    But when it comes to preaching about game design? Unless the lecturer has shipped games of their own, there’s absolutely no place in telling someone what you should or shouldn’t do.

    Certainly no one would hire someone who just theorizes and analyzes art to teach developing artists how to paint! Analogies like that can be found in a lot of places. I just think that issues like your class are a product of games being very young, and it being hard to draw the line between theory/analysis, and actual technique of creation.


    • Connor says:

      I don’t know exactly whether or not they’ve shipped games, but I think they are looking too much into what is done in large games today and picking out some of the unimportant bits, then stressing them as important.

  8. Yeah… I know where you’re coming from on this one. There were several times in games classes and lectures that I really questioned what they were talking about, and whether it was actually useful information or not was always sitting in the back of my head.

    That being said, I am hugely disenchanted with education (especially for game development). Luckily, I got to a point where I could be autonomous; they let me work on “suteF” instead of writing half-assed game design docs and herding other students into doing any work at all. Discussions about best practices got shoveled out quickly, too, after I called them out.

    If I were you, I’d speak with your instructor(s). If they’re worth their salt, they’ll realize they are mistaken about their bullshit assumptions (they’d also better be open to discussing it; it’s likely that they’re not familiar with this stuff at all).

    What I can say though, is that I got a lot of great connections with other very motivated game developers from my classes (all of whom I actually work full-time with now, strangely enough). I know you can find the other guys worth working with; they’re looking for you, too! 🙂

    • Connor says:

      Man, I really wish my classes would let me just do my own games. Right now I’m fighting a battle against my university… I have to do schoolwork, but I just want to make my games instead. I asked my instructor if I could work alone in AS3, since I’m much better at it and could make a much higher-quality game with it, but instead he said “no” to all of it and finished with that last quote in my post about me “not being the audience for this class.” It was really disheartening. So far I’ve received zero interest in my game stuff from professors, even though I’ve brought it up to a couple of them.

      I really hope I can meet some developers. I’m looking to find someone to work with professionally, possibly after college 🙂

  9. Kyle Lady says:

    Having taken said class 3 years ago, I agree that you are probably not the target audience for the class, and it really sucks that you’re now stuck in the class, and having been in similar situations in other classes, I empathize with you.

    My experience is that this class is geared toward people interested in game dev, but don’t know the nuts and bolts of making things work before exploring better experiences and cool UIs and more independent thought. This class is essentially structured similar to 280 (Programming and Data Structures for non-umich peeps): you have one project to learn how to make the UI do things in 2D, one project to learn how to do 3D, and one larger project to independently choose and learn several other tools, such as multiplayer, networking, AI, optimization, XNA, balancing, scripting, and so on. You’re building a toolbox. It’s like making a crappy web page by coding HTML by hand before going and learning about SEO, Web UI/UX, and so on.

    494 is not actually about game design. It is strictly game development (tools and workflow). I would argue that you can’t really stuff both into one class and do a good job of it. It’s a bummer that we don’t have a real game design class.

    Also, once you get past the Zenilib lecture(s), the rest of the lectures are optional anyway. Except Sid. Go see Sid. Hang tight for the first two projects and color within the lines. Once the constraints are lifted for the final project, go forth and be awesome.

    • Kyle Lady says:

      Oops, I read your blog as being about EECS 494, which has some similar problems. Engin 100, though? That is really a color-in-the-lines class.

      • Connor says:

        Yeah someone else online thought it was 494 as well! I know it’s definitely about coloring in the lines, but it was just frustrating having them even making game design commentary when it’s feels so incorrect. I can understand teaching how to program a game nuts-and-bolts-wise, but if they’re going to bring design into it, I think their opinions should be a bit better-formed.

        I’m a bit afraid of 494, though, after hearing this! I hope it will be fun, because I do plan on taking that class for my “senior project” thing.

  10. Paul Reece says:

    Dude, you are so smart. Woah.

  11. jv says:

    That’s a bummer about your class… it seems like your professor is very tied to “traditional” methods of video game design, which is funny because video game design has only existed for ~40 years. Still, you’ve got the ability to pick up on his mistakes and recognize them instead of merely accepting them as fact – which is great 🙂

    It’s funny; I recently graduated from the game design & development courses at Michigan State, and it’s interesting to hear about UoM’s program (I didn’t know there was one). Our lectures were hit and miss, but some of the ones involved guest speakers from local companies – including a local indie team and large Michigan game companies – and they were able to relate real-world experiences that I learned a lot from. The others were a bit weak, involving doing stuff like giving presentations on the history of a genre (bleh). But the game-making experiences more than made up for that.

    The best part of these courses is actually making games and learning to work with teams, and I hope you get to do some of that, and maybe meet some like-minded developers as well!

    • Connor says:

      I’ve heard a bit about Michigan State’s program as well–Adventure Club Games is an indie studio over there, and I’ve met with them (and I’ll be hanging out with them when I go to Meaningful Play this year in Lansing). I’m definitely looking forward to getting some team stuff in with these classes, although it’s a bit hard because I have a background in programming, and so far very few people are any good… Hopefully I’ll find some talented people though 🙂

      • jv says:

        Adventure Club is a great bunch of guys! They’ve come in and talked to our class a bunch, and we’ve hung out and done jams together.

        I hope you meet some cool people in your classes, and if you want there’s tons of cool people up at MSU to make games with too 😛 Good luck!

        • Connor says:

          That’s awesome that you know those guys! I will be going up there in a couple weeks, so maybe I’ll meet some cool people 🙂

  12. Tom Sennett says:

    I took a Game Design class at Penn State that was a total waste of time. I didn’t mind that much since I pretty much considered all of my classes a waste of time, but this was the one where I felt like I could (should) have been teaching it.

    My instructor was a really nice, intelligent guy, but he only had experience with games from an academic standpoint. The curriculum was built around Jesse Schell’s book The Art of Game Design, which I found to be a load of crap.

    The academic approach to games is either too arbitrary or too superficial. Somebody makes up some rules about how you should design a game and you’re supposed to just take their word for it, or they point to some existing successful games and tell you to copy that.

    I don’t think this stuff is going to get any better until we have a generation of successful indie game makers grow up and go into teaching. Anybody teaching now cut their teeth making AAA stuff, which engenders all kinds of awful habits and fills your head with superfluous bullshit like how to manage a team, meet deadlines, deliver a design pitch, etc. None of that has to do with real game design.

    So yeah, for now just plod through this class, get your grade, get out and keep making awesome stuff. Academia doesn’t know how to teach what we do yet, but with a little luck and help from people like us one day they will.

    • Connor says:

      I think the fact that most of the people my professors are teaching to are programmers heading into AAA jobs, if they do game development at all. That makes the design principles relatively unimportant, because that won’t be their job. But like you said, managing a team and meeting deadlines will be, so they seem to stress that more than they should. Game design itself is almost entirely independent of all that.

  13. Alec S. says:

    I studied game development at USC, and while it was lacking in many things, it seemed to be one of the better programs on the subject (at least compared to stories like this one about other places). The two best things about it were that A) You were pretty much told right away that the best way to learn game design is to design games (The beginning game development course was pretty much entirely about making paper prototypes) and B) That the field of game academia is still young and fledgling, so most of the teachers spoke from a position of “We certainly don’t know everything, but here’s some interesting avenues of thought on games”. Probably the best outcome of this was that I learned how to develop games on my own or in a small team and was introduced to the independent game community.

    What I found lacking where a lot of the specifics on aspects of design. The overarching philosophy is that the center of games are the mechanics, around which you build the aesthetics, and between these you have the player experience. What’s left out are things like level design, enemy design and game-feel. It’s like an art course that deals with form, but not color theory, perspective or texture.

    But, again, the field of Game Academia is still young, and there’s a fairly limited amount of accepted texts on the subject of game design. I think I learned some useful lessons and was exposed to interesting viewpoints studying game design at university, but there was a lot left over that I had to figure out for myself.