Designers’ Little Helpers

Game designers are some of the industry’s best customers. We buy lots of games, because we have to. It’s for research, for professional development. Stop looking at me like that – I’m serious!


As designers, we play games differently than most gamers. Our job description is, more or less, to make our own games fun. That means developing a solid understanding of what “fun” is, where it comes from and how it’s generated. When we pick up a controller, we aren’t just playing – we’re analyzing, we’re dissecting, we’re learning. We’ll even seek out games that we don’t like to figure out why other people like them. We want to see the systems behind the game, because it helps us to make better games ourselves.

Unfortunately, being a game designer usually makes you worse at enjoying games in your spare time. When your career hinges on your ability to understand games, you get good at recognizing the underlying patterns in the gameplay. By the time you completely and deeply understand the gameplay, the game itself becomes boring. Designer Raph Koster, in his book A Theory of Fun for Game Design, calls this “designeritis”: We buy lots of games, then play them for about 15 minutes each, at which point we say “OK, now I see why this game is getting such good reviews” and move on. We’re some of the industry’s best customers, but some of the worst hardcore fans. We simply don’t stick with most games long enough to really appreciate them as gamers.

Except that sometimes, we do.

In my case, it’s the Final Fantasy series. I admit to being a shameless Square Enix fanboy. I’m sure that someday when I’m in a retirement home and Final Fantasy XXXIV comes out, I’ll be first in line to pre-order it. Never mind that I’ll only play the game once, because I don’t have the patience to go through a hundred-hour RPG a second time. Never mind that I’m fully aware that the games are a series of interminable cut scenes punctuated by repetitive contests of abstract algebra. Never mind that I’ve understood the gameplay patterns of RPGs for most of my life, so I’m not learning anything new by playing yet another one.

My design skills should be kicking in to the point where the whole genre no longer interests me. So why don’t I move on? For some reason, I love these games, even though I shouldn’t. They are my guilty pleasure as a game designer.

I’m not alone. In talking with other designers, I’ve found that most of us have at least one game, genre or series that we play obsessively. My friend and colleague Brenda Brathwaite goes back to Civilization Revolution when she has some spare time to herself, even though she has already put so many hours in that she should probably be designing the sequel. Coray Seifert, a designer at THQ’s Kaos Studios, admits to being a Civilization IV junkie. And I see quite a few game designers beating my Bejeweled Blitz score on Facebook each week (you know who you are), suggesting that they’re putting too much time into that for their own good. I wondered, what is so special about some games in particular that allows them to hold the interest of game designers, the most discriminating of gamers? Or, coming at it from the other end, what is it about game designers that attracts them to certain games?

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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.”


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.

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.

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