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A beginner's guide to design and concept

D3T's head of design Hal Sandbach shares key tips for conceptualization and design, as well as what to look for in a designer

From maps to mechanics and even lighting, so many subtle aspects of game design can impact the player's end experience. The challenge for development studios is to finetune each of these elements for educational, exercise or experimental purposes -- in line with the game's overall aesthetics.

As a co-development studio delivering purely work-for-hire video game development services to AAA clients, the goal of D3T is to design, develop and deliver technology to benefit the industry as part of the Keywords Studios group. Here, we'll look at key tips for conceptualization and design that can help add value to games and interactive experiences.

What's the ideal designer skillset?

You can list a whole swathe of universities that do game design. A lot of graduates will have a good understanding of current development software and Scrum methodology -- even if they haven't yet used these tools in their full glory. I would expect the ideal candidate to also have some understanding of real-time technology such as Unreal Engine and Unity. That's the given skillset, as it were.

What truly sets young designers apart is their hunger to learn, and it doesn't have to be about gaming

What truly sets young designers apart is their hunger to learn and it doesn't even have to be about the world of gaming. It could be knowledge of weather patterns, the solar system, the political system of Canada or another piece of trivia entirely. If someone demonstrates unique interests, then they'll be able to bring much more varied influences into their work -- purely because they have this wide basis of knowledge they can draw upon.

A focus on mainstream pop culture like the Marvel cinematic universe or Star Wars is great, but it's what players expect. Being able to demonstrate a much broader understanding and awareness of world events and how humans think will add depth to whatever project you're working on.

That's what will spark the players' longer-term interest. That's what we look for when recruiting at D3T. I want game designers who can tell me weird and wonderful facts about the world, which are not necessarily game-related. It's important to find people with the right mindset, even if they might not yet have all the skills needed as a game designer. We can help teach skills, but it's hard to change a person.

As a work-for-hire studio, D3T worked on Mafia II: Definitive Edition with 2K

Where do the best creative ideas come from?

I'm a massive fan of brainstorming and lateral thinking techniques -- but I steer away from just having designers or programmers involved in these sessions.

At D3T, we like to bring in lots of different departments to the planning process, tapping someone from finance or IT to take part alongside the core creative team. Why? Because if you're trying to generate fresh ideas, it's important to involve a wide variety of people, all with different experiences and backgrounds.

It's important to involve a wide variety of people, all with different experiences and backgrounds

You need these different ways of thinking, different perspectives, for ideas to ping off each other and spark innovation. And lots of post-it notes as well!

The main takeaway is this -- don't rely solely on your own judgement. There used to be this artistic notion that a single person comes up with the entire concept behind a hit AAA title and carries production, but that's just not how game development's been done for a long time now.

We not only communicate within the team, but also with the client, prospective clients, students and fellow designers at trade shows -- who all might have valuable input to share.

How do you keep designers aligned and a project on track?

Communication is crucial for designers -- you have to sell the idea of what a game could be, and how exactly new mechanics can add value to the experience.

One of the better known titles that D3T has worked on is Shenmue I and II, resurrecting the game from its original source code written more than 20 years ago. We had to strike a balance between staying true to the original game and making it accessible for people who had not played it before. You really have to make sure that all designers are aware of, and work in line with, this delicate direction.

The priority with Shenmue I and II was to design a game that truly immersed players in the story and touch people on a much deeper level, delivering this classic franchise to new platforms and new audiences.

Our clients are (very rightly) protective of their own IPs, so we want to treat them with the respect they deserve.

One of the better known titles that D3T has worked on is Shenmue I and II

How do you create a stand-out, memorable game experience?

You need to build an emotional connection between players and the game. That's where all the most iconic, memorable moments in gaming come from.

Speaking with our head of engineering Phil Owen the other day -- he loves all the Dark Souls style games -- we discussed a newly popular mechanic in which familiarity with a weapon makes it more effective. It's a fantastic idea, and demonstrates that developers have thought deeply about how to present the player with meaningful choices and reward their dedication.

Players develop a more meaningful connection to a game if they can better feel their impact on that world

As games become more and more powerful, I think having this kind of influence on the environment and objects is important. Players develop a more meaningful connection to a game if they can better feel their impact on that world, rippling out around the avatar in even the most subtle of ways.

That awareness of how the player acts in the world, and in turn, how the world reacts to the player is really important.

How can a game designer improve and train their skills?

Take a mechanic apart and explain how it works. D3T designers are often asked to mentally reverse engineer a mechanic of a game that they're familiar with.

If you can demonstrate why a mechanic is made, rather than the end result, it shows you have a designer's mindset.

Are there any trends or technology that designers should be aware of?

Unreal Engine is the technology for designers to keep an eye on at the moment, especially after their recent tech demo on the PS5.

Real-time renderers can help us achieve levels of detail and interactivity that just weren't possible before. A lot of our work at D3T tends to use Unreal Engine these days, though we also use Unity.

Then of course there's Maya and 3ds Max software, and even Photoshop, which really helps to formulate and illustrate ideas visually.

Hal Sandbach is head of design at D3T, the co-development studio delivering work-for-hire services to AAA video games clients, as part of Keywords Studios.