Build Better Game Products By Asking Why Not What

Build Better Game Products By Asking Why Not What

Note: Much of the thinking in this article has evolved from my practice of the thoughts and theories described by Simon Sinek in his excellent book Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action.

When talking about our projects we often start with “what” we are making: What the gameplay is, what it looks like, what the story is and what other games are similar. However, I believe discovering, iterating and communicating why you are making something is much more powerful. 

A “why”, compared to a “what”, is easier to critique, it is easier to communicate, it is easier to understand, it provides a bigger picture and provides a big motivational impact for teams.

Let’s start with some examples of product “whats”:

  • Hearthstone: A collectible card game.
  • League of Legends: A team-based multiplayer RTS.
  • Half-Life: A FPS.

Here are the “whys” of the above “whats”:

  • Hearthstone wants to make Magic: the Gathering accessible.
  • League of Legends wants to create a digital team sport.
  • Half-Life wants to create deep narrative inside of an FPS.

The whys tell us so much more than the whats. We can understand the product more deeply because we understand intent and not just actions. This increased understanding can provide enormous benefits to the development of a games products.

The Benefits of Why

There are two key benefits of a solid why: Context and purpose.

Context

Having a solid why (and also “hows”, which I’ll get to later) instantly gives us context for lots of decisions. We know what we want to achieve and so we can better understand if what we plan to do is likely to move us towards that goal.

If the why (and hows) are communicated well then this context exists for others as well, meaning that coherent decision making can exist outside of a single product owner more frequently. The end result is more empowered staff and a more focused product.

Purpose

A why also gives yourself and your team a non-financial purpose (part of Dan Pink’s motivation trifecta “autonomy, mastery, purpose”). A well communicated why motivates stake holders behind hopes and beliefs, which is much more effective than just a product description.

For example, a way to communicate Hearthstone in a way that would emphasis purpose might be something like: “Magic is an amazingly deep game that people dedicate their lives to mastering, yet it’s overly complex to learn, expensive and slow. We want make the experience of Magic available to everyone.”

Here we now have an exciting reason to want to create Hearthstone: Hearthstone isn’t about making money, but giving players an incredible experience that they wouldn’t otherwise have. Yet a why and what in isolation may not be a complete and practical definition of a product, for that we also need a “how”.

Below a Why Are Hows (or Design Pillars)

I first discovered “design pillars” as part of the greenlight process at SEGA and in essence they act as the key “hows” of a product. Pillars fill the gap between why we want to make something and what we’re going to make.

For example design pillars for Hearthstone could be:

  • Familiarity: Provide a world that feels both familiar to Warcraft fans and friendly to new Blizzard players.
  • Simplicity: Where a mechanic can be simplified (or removed) without significantly damaging the depth of gameplay it should.
  • Time: Where possible we should reduce the time investment required, both to learn the game and compete.
  • Free: The game should always be free for someone to play, but allow those who want to spend to do so deeply.

Pillars define both where to focus and the decision framework to solve common issues. These pillars would not only allow Hearthstone to cut large complex rulesets, such as priority and the stack in Magic, in order to simplify but dictate it.

Conclusion

A well defined why (and additional hows) will lead to a much more cohesive product, where the team better understand and are better focused. I believe this is true not only of a game but also of other physical and digital products. Indeed mission statements, core beliefs, company values and the like are other names for whys and hows of companies.

Of course just defining why and how (as well as what) isn’t enough. These statements need to be tested, critiqued, shaped, owned, sold and bought. And for that you need the involvement of all stake holders, be they on or off the team, and for yourself to be willing to rethink and redefine as your product grows.