The best way to learn is by doing. The problem is: how to structure this activity? Areas like music have a well-established learning path and effective techniques, thanks to a long history of training. But game design, being in comparison such a new activity, can’t tap on this kind of established knowledge.
Academic research says that one of the best ways to acquire and improve new skills is through deliberate practice1 (this is the research where the wrong interpretation of the 10,000-hour rule to expertise originally came from). Purposeful practice is characterized by:
To develop a skill, we need a tight well-defined learning loop. This loop needs a specific goal outside of our comfort zone, a feedback mechanism, and a conscious effort to produce high-level mental representations of the whole thing.
I applied those concepts to game design. The specific goal, the deliverable, is to get as close as possible to a finished game. It’s too easy to get lost in grand ideas inside of our heads; we all have a gap between our imagined, idealized results, and accomplished pieces. Because of that, I set up the goal, not on intermediate deliverables but finished games. Every time I fail to achieve this goal, I get feedback on how to close that gap.
Because of social media, it’s normal to see highly polished “in development” games from other people. Those tend to tip the scale of how a game should look like when under development. They lead to mental representations focused not on how the gameplay—its mechanics—work, but on how it looks.
A tight one-week development loop also helps in this regard, because it puts pressure on the game being playable and fun at the end of a week, and not just looking good for screenshots. The mental representation created can then be more focused on the core, the meat, of the game: the experience it generates and the mechanics that sustain that experience.
Publishing the results is the last piece of the puzzle; it seals the contract of what I defined to do and establish new lanes of feedback loop.
Ericsson and Pool. Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise (2016). ↩︎