Game Design In The Kitchen

Original Author: Christian Arca

This post is inspired by Swery’s (www.twitter.com/swery65) GDC talk “Design Is In The Coffee” which was a very insightful talk and inspired me beyond belief. For that Swery, I thank you.

Cooking is one of my favorite hobbies. Recently, I’ve been doing a lot more of it. In the past, I have gone on “cooking streaks” where I would cook non-stop for a week and a half and then hit a wall. But this current streak has lasted a little over two months. One of the most surprising discoveries but also a blatantly obvious discovery is that I have gotten better. A lot better. Granted, I’ve always fancied myself as being able to execute delicious meals but this is different now. What I’m cooking now isn’t based on making a slight change to a recipe I found. It’s based on experience, flavor profiles, and trial and error. As I thought about this the other day while experimenting with a new frittata recipe I had realized I had found game design in the kitchen.

A lot of these lessons are basic but if there’s anything I’ve learned over the past couple of years is that sometimes it’s the most basic things which escape us. Here are the game design lessons I have learned in the kitchen and would like to share with you.

Work With The Best Product

When you’re cooking, working with fresh, top grade product is essential. The flavors that you will get from cooking market fresh wild salmon are not the same you would get from cooking with canned salmon. If you want the very best dish you’ll use the very best ingredients. Quite simple.

Similarly in game design, you work with the best game mechanics. They are your ingredients. You don’t just throw any cards, dice, action points, and bidding together with the hopes of producing a good game. You choose a card mechanic, analyze it, make sure it’s the best card mechanic you can use and if it isn’t you refine it so that it is the best. Just like one sour ingredient can ruin a dish, a game mechanic that isn’t the best in it’s natural form can ruin a game. Take for example mini-games which require monotonous repetition of a quick-time event. These mechanics eat nothing but corn and hormone injections and while they do without a doubt do the trick, they are not the best product. Whereas a mini-game which is a resource management simulation which ties into the very core of the progression and flow of the main storyline. Well that’s grass fed, thoroughly massaged, Kobe beef baby.

Cook What You Know

Although I might have wanted to cook a venison, cherry, cocoa nib, eucalyptus dish when I first started cooking I knew that the attempt would be futile. I’d lack the knowledge in technique, execution, and who knows what else (I still lack the knowledge to even come close to making this dish) to even attempt it. So I started with what I already knew. Seared citrus scallops, broiled chicken with mango salsa, things I had cooked before and was comfortable with. Rather than having a sad looking inedible dish, I had tasty enjoyable looking dishes.

You can’t expect to go from having zero experience with first-person-shooter level design and create one of the most polished FPS levels anyone has ever seen. You have to work up to it. So you start with what you know about FPS levels and you work your way from there. The level is at first small and might only feature a giant open area with spawn points that are equal distances apart, but it’s a level and you can play in it, dissect it, and decide what you’d like to improve on. It’s not a complex massive level which you can’t pick apart much like the venison dish I’d love to make. Or, maybe you are a great RPG designer and are great with skill trees but want to make an FPS. So you apply what you know about RPGs and skill trees and introduce them to a first person shooter which is an RPG done in the first person view where a majority of the weapons are projectile based RPG spells or attacks. By designing what you know, you can set yourself up for small, incremental improvements.

Re-invent The Traditional

Everyone loves a traditional Reuben sandwich or taco. It’s delicious and has been enjoyed by many for quite some time. Working with traditional dishes lets us experiment and perhaps create a deconstructed Reuben sandwich which tastes just as good as a traditional one but allows us to explore different techniques and makes it more playful. Maybe you’re curious about fusing flavors together so you try a duck confit taco for a french Mexican twist. Once again, it’s all about playing off traditional dishes to make something new and exciting.

In game design we see this all the time but often enough we don’t go back to the original traditional game mechanic. Rather than saying lets take a look at how Bejeweled Blitz adapted the match three game mechanic the question should be how can I adapt the match three game mechanic into something new and interesting? Bejweled Blitz is just one example but there are many others. Spy Party, at heart is Guess Who which in it’s simplest form is a hint based guessing game. Thinking about the traditional mechanics which successful games are built upon allow for an objective look at the mechanic without restricting ourselves by only thinking about the mechanic within the context of the game.

Experiment With Your “Flavor” Profiles

Once you’re able to execute traditional dishes and understand what products need to be combined to form a composed dish, you start understanding how these products work together and how they create a flavor profile. With this basic knowledge, you can start experimenting and compose dishes from ingredients which result in more complex flavor profiles. Experimenting with how to combine ingredients to create new savory, sweet, or bitter flavor profiles (or for the more ambitious – experimenting by combining flavor profiles) is when you start to explore new territory and come across a successful new dish.

A game’s flavor profile is much more about “feel” but could also perhaps be classified as genre. Regardless, by taking the tried and tested game mechanics which one has executed flawlessly time and time again and combining with other game mechanics which would work well together to create a great flavor profile is the next step. Perhaps you decide to pair an FPS with action points, or maybe you’d like to use the match-three mechanic to progress through a skill tree. By understanding the mechanics on their own, we better know how to pair them with other game mechanics which we might have not thought would be fun when combined. There are interesting flavor profiles for games to be made.

Make More

The most obvious thing I found out about cooking is the more I did it the better I got at it. Knife skills, flavor profiling, temperature control, consistency, texture, all the elements which encompass cooking all greatly improved. I’m not going to let this cooking streak end.

Much like my cooking, I need to design more. In fact – I don’t think any of us can say that we design enough. With that said – we must make more. Board games, card games, office games, trivia games, any games – we need to make more. Maybe we’re stuck on a 2 year project or maybe we’re on a 3-month development cycle. Whatever our situation is, we must find the time to make more games. By making more games we’ll become better designers – or hope to at least.

I’ve shared what I found in my kitchen – now it’s time for you to share what you make in your kitchen. Maybe we’ll find ourselves competing in an Iron Game Designer or Top Game Designer in the future but until then, we’ll have to do with sharing amongst ourselves and creating amazing games.

Special thanks to Merci (@merci), Robin (@robinyang), and David CZ (@czarneckid) for their comments, time, effort and love they contributed to this post.