There is another reason some designers get stuck on a game: professional appreciation. Meretzky replays The Fool's Errand every five years or so, "even though it's essentially a story-based puzzle game that would seem to have no replay value," he says. "I guess I just find it to be such an elegant game design, delightfully different from anything before or since, with a unique art style, and a meta-puzzle (the "Sun's Map") which, the first time I solved it, was probably the most fun I've ever had in front of a computer." And Kain has this to say about Out of this World: "Playing it now is a bit like studying a piece of modern art. Sometimes I don't get it at all, other times I think it's brilliant. Sometimes I can defend its design decisions, other times I rail against them. But I can always go back to it and reinterpret it whenever I please."
John Romero combines all of these reasons in the games that he keeps playing: Doom 1 and 2, Quake 1 and 3 and Ghost Recon. The Doom games and the first Quake are unsurprising - he made them, after all. Quake 3 is "just a very solid deathmatch game," as is Ghost Recon: "I just love the environment, the suspense, the huge amount of multiplayer options and, mostly, the fact that this is the game where enemy camouflage works absolutely the best. It's really scary. You can be staring at a tree moving slightly in the breeze and not notice an enemy walking straight toward you as you're watching it - that's how good the camo is. So, I love the suspense and fear aspect as well as the sniping gameplay which is a huge win for me. I love sniping."
Romero hints at one final reason game designers pay attention to a particular game: a personal interest. Romero enjoys FPSs, so it's not surprising that his favorite games show an appreciation of what is possible within that genre. Costikyan mentions this as well: Civilization, Europa Universalis and Rise of the West are all connected to history, and Costikyan is a history buff. However, for all the FPSs and historical wargames that have ever been made, only a few make Romero's and Costikyan's respective lists; they (and presumably other designers with special interests) certainly have discriminating taste.
At the end of the day, our favorite games seem to be as diverse as we are. I suspect if I questioned another 20 designers the list would grow even more. Is there a common link? It seems that each game offers something that, for one particular designer, never gets old. Perhaps for designers, interacting with the patterns in games is a lot like interacting with other human beings. Some we may dislike, even if we find it in ourselves to appreciate the differences. With others, we enjoy their company and make an effort to work with them. But every once in a while, we fall in love, and we can spend forever with them and still find more to discover.
Ian Schreiber is a game programmer, game designer and professor. He occasionally mouths off about teaching game design on his blog.