Stupid is Smart

Naive design is what a 14 year old video gamer does when you ask him what kind of game he would want to play. He doesn’t know anything about design theory or analysis. He doesn’t understand game balance, player training, system performance. For him, everything in the game is real.

I don’t recommend doing naive design alone. But it’s an awesome part of a designer’s toolbox for two reasons.

First, it’s an awesome way of coming up with new ideas. Dwarf Fortress is a great example. The interface is so incomprehensible that reading the online wiki is an absolute necessity. I’ve read the Adams brothers’ changelog and as far as I can tell, there’s almost no design thought process at all. And the final product is impenetrable, totally unbalanced, downright mean. This is a game whose slogan is, “Losing is fun!”

Dwarf Fortress, aka Headache Inducing Graphics

Dwarf Fortress also has some of the most unique and compelling dynamics of any game I’ve ever played. Dwarves track a stupidly large number of “thoughts”, all of which affect their mood and behaviour. They’ve each got a thousand variables, skill levels, relationships. There are a hundred resources, all acquired in different ways, many of which are impossible to find. These mechanics are laughably information-heavy. There’s way too much to keep track of. But some of the dynamics which arise from this soup of variables are heartwarmingly (and heartbreakingly) lifelike. This is all unique to DF. None of this could have been developed by a trained designer.

Besides brainstorming, there’s another reason why naive design is useful.  It’s also a great sanity check on a finished design.

Naive design means taking on the viewpoint of the majority of our players. Gamers don’t care about design theory. As I wrote in my Scaffolding and Masonry article, they break games into a totally different set of conceptual pieces than us. Many analytically valid designs seem rather uninteresting from the naive viewpoint. Designers should all try just forgetting all our design theory now and then and seeing if what we’re making really makes sense to random people on the street. They’re the people we’re selling to, after all.

So, step back every now and then and suppress the analytical mind. Sometimes, stupid is smart.