Bit of a lengthy one today, but it's important, so hopefully we can find some answers.
My background in games design comes from working in serious games, that typically being games for health, education and awareness. A job would usually start by having a brief, this could be a game to teach people X, or make people aware of Y, or something much more vague. From this starting point, a thousand different games could be designed that can potentially answer the question you need it to, but clearly understanding the core question that the client has asked is the key to a successful project, not the end product itself.
At university I studied illustration and graphic design. Not strictly game related, but I often answered the brief with a game, not necessarily a video game but a game of some sort, something for people to interact with and have input on. It seemed to me a medium that was always maleable to whatever question I wanted to answer, the interaction between the viewer and the product much more meaningful than with any image or video that I could produce. The briefs that we were given were often very vague, much more so than the client work that I undertake now, but that initial question that they posed allowed me to get that question that I fed from for my work.
I did well at university, graduating with 1st class honours, and have managed to do well so far in my career as a games designer in serious games, going forward to where I am now with my own studio, and a place on a technology incubator in Birmingham.
Part of the reason that I started Jamo Games was to give time to my own projects, as well as independence on client work, but recently I have found that the client work has been much more fulfilling, so much so that people have commented that I get more excited when talking about client projects than I do about my self initiated work, which is in conflict with my own interests. It's been concerning me lately, and I have been wondering why it is the case. I think I have the answer, and it is because I was lacking a question.
This should not be confused with lack of ideas or designs, I could quite happily sit down and design and develop games which some people would enjoy, I have already been doing so. Lacking a question is more to do with why you are making this exact game, why these specific mechanics, than what the mechanics are. It may well not be the case for anyone else so far as I know, but for me to feel fulfilled with a project, I have to answer the question, even if I end up with a well made, enjoyable final product.
The question seems to be the most important and for me, challenging, part of game design. The mechanics, scene and style all fall into place eventually to answer the question as well as you can, and without it you are just making. That isn't to say that there is anything wrong with making, quite the opposite, it is the only way to hone your craft, but the important thing to note about the question is that it doesn't matter what the game genre is, or what the mechanics are, that is your interpretation.
Taking the client brief "make people aware of Y" as an example question, it does not infer any kind of mechanic or setting. "Try to make a platform game with flight elements" however may be a question, but not the kind we are looking for. You will encounter these design questions during development, but it doesn't give you the why for the project. I have no doubt that cracking this, finding your question, will lead to stronger, more intelligent projects, and is a much better starting point than trying to advance or put a twist onto older, existing game designs.
The question then for me, is where to find it. The question could be found from anything, and the answer can be bent to fit your studios preferences, skills and platforms, but what is it that you use for your question? Do you use one, or if not, do you think you should? I am sure that once I can crack this essential part of design, my game design will improve vastly, and with it I will be much happier with my work.