Everyday Developer

Everyday Developer
Designers' Little Helpers

Ian Schreiber | 15 Dec 2009 12:12
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Steve Meretzky, the lead designer of a number of classic Infocom text adventures, names Age of Empires II as one of his favorite games for its "near infinite amount of replayability." This turned out to be a common theme: For people who create patterns for a living, games with infinite patterns are particularly attractive.

Greg Costikyan lists a number of disparate games that he keeps going back to: Civilization, Europa Universalis, Rise of the West (a freeware implementation of Jim Dunnigan's boardgame Empires of the Middle Ages) and, of all things, FreeCell. Costikyan explains the common link: "Either because of random elements or system complexity, they play differently every time."

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Dan Cook (who prefers to be known as Danc) keeps coming back to NetHack for similar reasons. "Most games I can play for 5 minutes, identify the basic loop and then I can merrily drop the game, knowing that the next 20 hours is more of the same," he says. "NetHack is not like this. It has accumulated so many layered, complex systems that interact with one another in emergent ways. Unpredictable, bizarre, once in a lifetime things happen on a regular basis. The edge cases have edge cases and some crazed programmer created an entire world within each hidden valley. Want to play the game as a farming sim? Go ahead. How about as a pacifist? Totally possible." Of course, you'd expect any game that has been in open-source development for 20 years to have as much depth.

If complexity and depth appeal to designers, then it's no surprise many gravitate toward games that rely on human interaction to provide their replay value. Olivier Lejade, founder of French indie studio Mekensleep, cites poker and Werewolf as his games of choice. "They are all analog, social games because that's where the human expression bandwidth is the widest and that's what makes me come back," he says. Danc, admitting that this is far more crass, cites the drinking game known as President (and a host of other names) for similar reasons: "The fascination comes from what the rules bring out in the people who play. When someone is stuck on the bottom of society due to miserable change or lack of skill, how do they react? When someone gains absolute power, how do they treat others? ... It is an endlessly fascinating laboratory for exploring real power structures with real people."

Some designers like games with short play times. Meretzky plays Peggle and Word Mojo and even played Ms. Pac-Man on his Sega Genesis before it died. In his words, "they're just good, mindless time wasters." And Alex Kain, a designer at Venan Entertainment, replays Out of this World. "Part of the reason I still come back is because I spent so long trying to master it, that now I can blast through the game in 20 minutes without losing a single life," he says. If some people can watch their favorite two-hour movie again and again, playing a 20-minute game seems downright time-efficient.

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