I don’t want to sound like an old industry guy here. There weren’t college courses on game design when I started out and I’ve been noticing a “trend” in designers lately and I wonder if it's coming from these courses? The trend is the notion of game systems and formulas being set in stone and to me it's making games feel generic and overplayed.
Certainly game systems are required for cohesive and easily understood game mechanics but they shouldn’t get in the way of game narrative and logic. As an example let me pose a hostage situation. The player must get to the hostage and release them. A consistent game system might say that during the hostage activity the victim is released and runs away to be despawned. But what if the narrative says the next hostage is a soldier? Would the player expect him to also run away and despawn too? No, they would expect him to grab a weapon and fight with you. So perhaps this gets approved and we change the entire game hostage mechanic to say a hostage when released picks up a weapon and fights. But then perhaps later the hostage is civilians. Would the player expect them to pick up a gun and fight? No, you’d want them to flee to safety. Core game systems are fine to have in place but they need to be flexible enough to work with the narrative and realization of the game. Which seems more fun, all the hostages doing the same action or some picking up arms and joining the fight while others ran?
Another example is level design layout formulas. I’ve been a part of studios that when I started handed me large documents on how they do game space layouts. I do generally refuse to look at them. To me if you want your studio to continue to rehash the same layouts and game play over and over by all means dictate the formula of a what you consider good layouts. I however prefer to look at the space and think, “On this plot of land how would real people build? Why is this building here? What was this used for?” Of course you need to make stipulations that create more enjoyable combat and game play but start with what is real. Don’t have a game that stuffs a farm theme into a layout formula, then a saw mill into a layout formula, etc. The game will inevitably feel like a bunch of similar spaces with different themes.
I’ve had really great feedback at studios which had a formulaic approach to their layouts. They would say, “Your layouts feel so organic.” Which is because they break the formula and let the terrain of the space dictate how the structures should be placed rather than a layout formula.
A number of conversations with young designers lead me to think they are being fed a list of what someone considers design fundamentals. Design rules and systems are certainly needed but design is not black and white. You really need to be willing to move in and around them to keep your designs fresh and flexible. Don’t let the rules hold back a better design.