The Game Design Game

It’s 1997, and we’re sitting around the table – Linda Currie, Alex Meduna, Charles Miles and I – talking about combat just like we have for the previous two days and probably will for the next few. It’s been back and forth like this for weeks now, a move here, a move there, and for all intents and purposes, we might as well be playing a death-match, marathon-session of D&D. From the outside, it wouldn’t look much different.

There are notes all over the place, coffee cups, half-full sodas and a collection of stuff-not-good-for-you ordered from Milano’s Pizzeria. We look tired, and we are, but we’re also having an amazing amount of fun. Somehow, through a wonderful act of longevity, passion and fate, we’re making a new game in the Wizardry series. Wizardry 8, to be precise.

It is truly a defining moment in all our careers, and for me especially. I’ve been with the series since 1982, but never before have I taken such a prominent role as a designer, and never before have I felt such responsibility, such risk and such potential reward.

There is a game to this game we are playing: the game design game. It has all the hallmarks of multiplayer co-op games: choices, shared goals, alliances and a tremendous struggle toward a successful endgame.


I’m not the only designer who feels this way. Peter Molyneux actually considered making a game about making a game. “The whole process of coming up with an idea, pitching it, getting a team together, making the prototype, convincing the team it’s a good idea through to showing it to the press and seeing how many people post on your boards is so much like a game its uncanny,” he told me. Kloonigames went one step further and actually made The Truth About Game Development.

We even have our own version of a leaderboard, except it’s called Peter had better idea. “As for your final score,” he said, “you could multiply the number of copies sold by the average review percentage you receive.”

Sam Lewis, a designer at Cartoon Network who has worked on everything from tabletop games to MMOGs took my metaphor a bit further. “The development process has all of the elements that make a good game – meaningful choices, constantly evolving challenges and an incremental reward cycle. Most importantly, development is like a game, because you do it for fun. You aren’t going to get rich.”

For Mark Nelson at Big Huge Games, the game design game begins and ends before development proper even gets rolling. “I think my favorite part of design is locking myself in a room with two to three other designers and hashing out story, plot, character, whatever. The process of throwing idea after idea at the wall and seeing what sticks is pure fun. And whenever you find that perfect plot point – the one that magically works with all the other elements you’ve already decided you need, that somehow fills a bunch of the unfillable holes, that was hiding there the whole time waiting to be discovered – you’ve just beaten the game.”

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Patricia Pizer, a senior designer at Disney Interactive Studios, prefers to design in a team of two. “Designing at its absolute peak is a one-on-one process. When I look back at my best days as a designer, the bulk are myself and one other designer.” In saying that, however, Patricia remembers one incident where the process of design was trumped by a surreal moment of play. “I must also include the day the [42 Entertainment] team went out to field test the Tombstone Hold’em rules. On the way out to the cemetery, I asked my car-mates, ‘What do you consider too outrageous to do in a cemetery?’ Categorically, lying down on someone’s grave won hands down. Within two hours, I had photos of every one of them lying on graves. That’s good game design!”

Design, like play, always feels most natural and fun when you’re with others. Just as a move in a game influences the next, so too does the designers’ back-and-forth interaction influence the outcome of game design. While it can be played solo or co-op, it can be competitive as all hell, too. I’ve worked on pitches that were literally make or break for landing IPs or funding, and all the while I was acutely aware that I wasn’t the only one furiously figuring out a concept, a pitch and a prototype design. It’s head to head, team vs. team, not unlike the massive guild-vs.-guild battles in MMOGs, and often there’s millions of dollars at stake.

Unfortunately, we have PvP matches, too. The stories are legend, and all game developers have them. Instead of pulling together to make a game, the team pulls itself apart, and the game design game becomes one of politics and manipulation, pitting one group, one person, against another. The .plan flame wars of the 1990s have recently become open, painful letters for all to see.


For some designers the battle isn’t in the public eye, but no less chilling, lasting and personal. I’ve known more than one designer who sat in his office aware that the whole future of the company rested on his shoulders. While every bad game has the potential to shut down a company or a studio, usually it’s not quite so apparent and direct as this: If the publisher gives the project the green light, the company lives. Otherwise, they’re all out of jobs, and it’s Game Over circa 1981. Back then, we had real consequences. If your team fails in Wizardry, your whole group gets lost in the dungeon, period, until someone comes down and gets your sorry, dead ass. The recruiters are at least more expeditious about it.

I remember watching one such designer working on a live-or-die proposal. As I grabbed a cup of coffee, I asked him, “Can I help you with anything?” He told me no, and said he’d be all right. He looked like a man walking toward his executioner, and ultimately, his proposal was the last the company would write. I remember feeling then much like I feel now. He was driving off a cliff. No pressure, buddy, just keep pressing the gas.

When Wizardry 8 hit that same cliff, thank goodness for all of us, it soared, and the feeling we got when people not only liked it but awarded it was something not all designers get a chance to feel. It’s better than the endgame of any game I’ve ever played. Better than Risk, better than Settlers, better than the first time I beat Civilization or the last time I beat Ratchet & Clank.

It’s a good thing, too, because most designers can’t really play the games they make. Bruce Nesmith, a designer at Bethesda, is one of them. “I suspect this is true throughout the industry,” he told me. “Once I’ve made a game, there is no joy in playing it. Or at least the joy is a shadow of what I get from playing someone else’s game. Part of enjoying a game is discovery and surprise. Having made the game, there is none of that. Mastery is another principle pleasure of gaming. After testing it for several hundred hours, I’ve mastered the whole damn thing.”


For Ian Bogost, a designer at Persuasive Games, design or play, it’s all fun of different degrees. “I feel like everything is a game – this idea of finding the processes in things and trying to understand how they work and taking advantage of them. So maybe it’s not that surprising to me to find game design like a game.” At the same time, Bogost isn’t sure which he likes more, playing them or making them. “That’s maybe because the latter is work with deadlines and budgets and stress. It’s still play of course, if we understand play as the exploration of constraints. … Budgets and the like are just constraints.” But budgets aren’t nearly as much fun.

Morgan Jaffit, a designer at Pandemic Studios, focuses on the player experience, but not just in the obvious way a designer would. Rather, Jaffit extends the process of design to designing the design experience.

After all, says Jaffit, “design and leadership are very similar skill sets, and by utilizing the same set of skills you’d use to create a great player experience, you can develop a great experience for the people making a game.” He’s not just saying it. He’s implementing it, too. “I’ve been taking this to heart over the last year,” he told me. “The seed of the concept came from Steve Jackson in one of Harvey [Smith’s] GDC roundtables. He suggested that the Valve model for getting a new ability – show it being used, give it to the player and require its use to overcome a challenge while having no pressure, use ability in light pressure, then expect mastery – would work equally well with teaching people new skills in a work environment. From there, it became really clear to me that the same sets of skills we use to make games would help make things enjoyable for the team – and vice versa. Concepts from leadership then bridge easily across to development. If people don’t know what they need to do and why it’s important, they won’t be happy, regardless of other factors like great office environment, pay, etc. If they don’t know what to do and why, all the shiny in the world goes by the wayside.”

The same ideas might not fly elsewhere, though. The powers that be aren’t always hip to try new things, particularly when it involves making work more like a game. “I’m fortunate in that I can focus almost exclusively on making sure making this game is a great experience for the team,” Jaffit added. “The people directly above us are very supportive of what we’re doing, in concept and in execution, and are right behind us. Not to say that we haven’t earned those resources, to briefly move to an RTS metaphor.”


But is design really group play? Does player experience translate to design experience? Does it really work that way? I am reminded of a quote from my favorite book, Steinbeck’s East of Eden: “Nothing was ever created by two men. There are no good collaborations, whether in art, in music, in poetry, in mathematics, in philosophy. Once the miracle of creation has taken place, the group can build and extend it, but the group never invents anything. The preciousness lies in the lonely mind of a man.” Maybe Steinbeck is right. But once the gem of an idea is out there on the table, it is quickly transformed beyond its initial vision into something moving, dynamic and playable. Others poke it, rip it and add to it. Sometimes, maybe even many times, it is transformed well beyond its initial vision and is no longer even recognizable as a child of the idea. I have often said that the difference between a junior and a senior designer is this: The junior designer completes her design, proud, pleased and confident in the work. The senior designer does the same, but immediately goes in search of another designer to find the critical design flaw she knows is there but can’t see. It takes two or more to make design good.

Group play is a requirement of design, a delight of design, whether it comes in seconds after creation or in the weeks and months to follow. Maybe that’s what Steinbeck meant when he suggested that it happened in the “lonely mind of a man.” The loneliest I have ever been was when I was alone with my idea without another designer, programmer or artist to make it real.

Brenda Brathwaite is a contract game designer and professor of game design at the Savannah College of Art and Design. She has been in the game industry since 1981 and has shipped 22 commercial titles. She is an avid player of games and is currently spending an absurd amount of time studying them.

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