In which I am surprised, confused and generally bewildered by something I found on the internet. That’ll teach me.
99designs is a website for ‘crowd-sourcing’ design work. Anyone can post a design brief and name their price, and pretty much anyone else can submit a design for consideration. This process is either entirely respectable or perfectly horrid, depending on your view. Right now the following brief is live on the site, with the client offering the princely sum of $295 for the winning design.
A hotel management company is seeking a game board design for an inter-property competition. The game is to be called “Fill the House.” The game board needs to be a representation of the inside of a hotel. The object of the game is to fill all of the rooms in the hotel. Players advance across the game board by earning stickers to place on each room door and elevator door. Room doors are filled with “$” stickers and “strawberry” stickers. The elevator door is for an “OB3 mascot” sticker. Each floor needs to have 9 room doors and 1 elevator door with a space for the stickers. The hotel needs to have 10 floors. The size of the game board is to be 24"×36" and needs to include a small text box for the game rules. We are seeking something with a classic game board look and feel but are open to your creative ideas as well. [99designs]
Now, when I first read this I thought the client was attempting to commission an entire, ground-up boardgame design, which, given the curious specifics and the price, seemed like madness. A more careful reading revealed that they are, in fact, only looking for a graphic designer to create the game board for a boardgame that, one imagines, they have already created.
It’s still madness, of course; but the reason for highlighting this project is not to poke fun at it — although bizarre details such as the ‘$’ and ‘strawberry’ stickers, and the way in which the brief demands only ‘a small text box for the game rules’ do seem all-too deserving of rather simplistic derision. The real issue with the brief is that it is, at best, merely a poorly realised description of a possible solution, rather than being a meaningful explanation of the problem.
But complaining about the disconnect between how designers understand design, and how everyone else understands design, is old hat. The lesson for me is this: that as much as I am mystified by the process that lead to this brief being written, I must acknowledge — based simply on the fact that the brief exists at all — that whoever wrote it must be just as mystified by what they are asking the designer to actually do with it.
And for the game designer the lesson is more specific: that players will never see a game in the same terms as the designer. Where the designer sees process and balance, order and elegance, mechanics and meaning, the players only see ‘the game’: a single, holistic and essentially unquestioned experience. Expecting more of players — expecting, for example, that they take time to appreciate the skill of the designer, or that they should enjoy the parts rather than the whole — is hubris, and misunderstands the relationship between the designer, the game and its players.
The design brief fails because it doesn’t speak to designers in a way that allows them to meaningfully take part. It should come as no surprise that a game that doesn’t speak to its players on their terms and in a way that allows them to take part is unlikely to do much better.