There's a saying that good game design is like holding a carrot on a stick in front of the players. This came from the idea of dealing with mules, an infamously stubborn creature. When pushed and shoved, yanked and tugged, mules refuse to go where they're told. However, by tying a carrot to some string and hanging it from a stick in front of the mule's face, the mule will walk straight toward it, of its own accord. That way the mule driver gets the mule to go exactly where he wants to go, and the mule thinks that he's the one going where he wants.
In many ways, players are a lot like mules, and game designers are the drivers. You create this experience for the players to see, but you have to make them see it. The more you try to force the player to go somewhere and see what you want them to see, the more they resist it. But by manipulating the world around them, letting them decide where to go, you can dangle carrots in front of them, and they will naturally see what you want and believe it was by their own choice.
Clearly, the metaphor of the carrot on a stick didn't mean for the carrot to be literally impaled on a stick. However, just like I take a skewed, offbeat interpretation of the phrase "carrot on a stick," I try to take an offbeat approach to game design. I don't think that there are any patterns or formulas for what makes a game fun. However, I do think it all starts with good design.
No matter what I'm working on, be it code, level creation, a piece of art, or a story, I start from the top and work my way down to the details. I strongly believe the only way to consistently create a solid implementation, a well-rounded product, or a powerful experience is to start with a clear and solid design. Only by considering the parts that create the whole and the whole itself can you create something that could be called a masterpiece. A good designer must be able to see both the forest, as well as the trees.
- Zachary Francks