One thing you notice if you pay attention to critical indie game designer circles is: jesus christ these people play a lot of D&D. I mean, even the ones who have a critique D&D or hate the company or say they're permanently emotionally scarred by it or whatever. Last time I was in a game store the counter guy said Fate was what everyone should play instead of D&D--that isn't what the co-founder of Fate thinks because what he's playing in the pandemic is D&D. People like D&D. They like Vampire. They even liked Shadowrun. They play games that they are sure they can do better than.
Here's what I think: everybody needs to stop pretending they know how games work. We don't. You know what Gary Gygax did? He made a game with no dungeons, based on a wargame, it was ok, and then Dave Arneson added dungeons and messed with it and both of them were probably influenced by Braunsteins--which, like, the guy who made that didn't have any idea that it was a whole pandora's box to go, in the middle of a wargame, "Yeah, sure, you can drop leaflets on the island to try to start a revolution, that's part of war I guess"--and then somehow this combination produced the game that makes people want to play games or make games or never shut up about games.
And then--none of them ever made anything that good ever again. Lejendary Adventures anyone?
In the '90s, Vampire: The Masquerade came out and completely changed the industry--Call of Cthulhu was already out, Chill 2nd Ed was already out--also a game with slick art about modern horror, and yet neither were a patch on Vampire. And then there was Werewolf and a series of other games which were fine, sure, but that were exactly as less-popular-than-vampire as the monsters they were named after were.
And then the people involved never made anything that popular ever again.
I could go on: Sandy Petersen on Call of Cthulhu, Pondsmith with Cyberpunk, any number of indie darlings, this industry is littered with not just one-hit wonders but also Clever Game Theorists who never produce anything that catches on.
I think there's a reason for this: nobody really fucking knows what makes games work.
So that's where the title of this post comes in. Engineering is about what humans make--you understand a principle, you understand the physics behind a simple machine, you build bigger and bigger machines based on these understood things. Nearly everyone in the industry talks about games this way--as built bit by bit from knowable parts that they can explain to you.
But it's not like that--making a game involves spinning a metastatic cotton candy web of fictions and then making the rules key off every part of those fictions (often in chaotic ways you didn't expect to have to do when designing the project) and it becomes much less like building a car and more like when a novelist tells you the characters start telling them what they have to do next.
A game isn't a machine you build--it's an animal that you find living next to the mouth of a volcano and you didn't know anything could live there and then you study it.
Engineering is starting with nothing and creating something, biology is starting with something and going ok what the fuck?
People have real trouble with the idea that some beardy paternalistic Christian '70s insurance guy is smarter than them and so they think game design can't be that hard. Well it is, but not for the reason they think--they're not trying to compete with the people who made D&D because the people who made D&D are right next to them on the ground watching their creation stomp around Tokyo smashing buildings breathing fire and they don't know why either.
A successful game is like a platypus. You're probably doing less useful game design when you point out all the things about D&D or another mainstream game that shouldn't work (It's poison! It's got an electromagnetic beak!) than when you're trying to figure out why it does work anyway despite all the other competitors that don't.
Just as, on paper, a bunch of random electrochemical reactions should not have resulted in self-replicating cells which should not have resulted in a tyrannosaurus which in turn should not have eventually evolved into a cornish game hen, no adult should be so attached to sitting around a table playing pretend with way more paper and accoutrements than necessary with no audience for four hours. That shouldn't work.
Like biology, game design must be understood as the study of the workings of things that should not work.
This requires a humbleness in the face of unknowing which is wholly uncharacteristic of nerds. It requires a letting-go of the comforting nerdwords of predictive science like "will" and "should" and "always". It also requires knowing (this is very difficult) that all the things you know you got right weren't necessarily the important thing.