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Intent Means You Make Choices

By September 30, 2015No Comments

John R. Morgan:

The most admired companies of each age are often associated with a certain core competency. Ford popularized assembly line manufacturing in the 1910s. Toyota kicked off the lean revolution with its Toyota Production System in the postwar years. GE’s enthusiastic adoption of Six Sigma in the ’90s spread the mantra of quality. These capabilities are credited with helping transform the respective industry of each company.

Apple is unquestionably the most admired company in the world today. So what is Apple’s defining capability?

Lest there be any doubt, they told us last summer [in 2013]: Apple is about design.


Putting aside all the trappings associated with them, the big management ideas described above can be whittled down to first principles. The core object of the Lean philosophy is waste. Quality is fundamentally about variability. And design is about intent.

Yes: Design is about intent. It is about choosing.

Many other things should be, can be, or often are in the orbit of design: Observation. Creation. Iteration. Execution. But Morgan is exactly right that none of these are design’s first principle.

But to be clear: Design isn’t about your intention. Some other discipline takes rationale as its first principle. Philosophy, maybe.

Morgan calls out three design evasions: preserving, copying, and delegating. These are ways that designers avoid choosing, and so, avoid designing.

Preserving and copying are two aspects of the same sin. The difference is whether the old idea being uncritically pushed forward comes from the inside or the outside.

We see the problem of regurgitating previous designers’ choices with depressing frequency in game design. Regurgitation is the umbrella problem of the fantasy heartbreaker. It arises when game designers have mastered other peoples’ games without achieving a parallel depth of insight into game design in general, or even into their own creative capabilities. In other words, don’t play your new game with James Ernest unless you want to go home angry.

The delegation evasion isn’t what you think. It’s not pushing the decisions to co-designers, it’s pushing decisions to users — in game design, to gamers — instead of making a design choice yourself. It’s preserving a million options and configurations rather than deciding which one meets your goals. It’s easy to see why the delegation evasion is attractive, but it leads to oatmeal: A food that’s as flamboyantly for no one as it is for everyone.

I’m far from immune to this evasion. I just shipped a game to press with three rules variants, right there in the rulebook. One of them was a necessity based on the nature of this particular game-as-product. Another was an astute playtester suggestion that came too late, procedurally, to be fully integrated into the core gameplay, though the design would be better for more people with this particular variant as a non-optional rule. The last variant should have been left out entirely, because I separately solved the problem it addresses in a better way, it just didn’t occur to me until now.

When I was at Fantasy Flight Games, Christian Petersen hated variant rules. (And probably, he still does.) His objection stemmed more from wanting everyone to be playing the same game, as I recall. But Christian was also not afraid to alienate people by making a decision, so it’s easy to imagine that that motivation was at play, too.

If you want to design, don’t evade. Choose. Design is about intent, so don’t push the choices downstream.