Friday, December 10, 2010

Brief definition of "game designer"

I have been trying to write a description/definition of "game designers" in 50 words or less. This is my latest:

“A game designer conceives the framework for a series of interesting challenges in the form of a ‘game’, devises mechanics (rules), creates or helps create a working prototype, and repetitively and incrementally modifies the design in the light of playtesting until it is a good game for the target audience.”

(Update: I've substituted "design" for "game" because the latter implies that the designer will create/produce the actual changes in the game, which is unlikely to be the case for a video game: someone else will actually make the modification.)

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Game Playing Styles

(This was originally published on, 25 Jan 10. You can click on the post title to go to that version.

Some Game Playing Styles, and How Games Match One Style or Another
Lewis Pulsipher

A big obstacle for beginning game designers is the common assumption that everyone likes the same kinds of games, and plays the same way, that they do. If they love shooters, they think EVERYone loves shooters. If they like strategic games, they assume EVERYone likes them. If they love puzzles, they suppose EVERYone does. They may say they understand the diversity, but emotionally they don’t.

Sometimes the nature of the traditional video game, a kind of interactive puzzle or interactive movie for one person, obscures all the different things games can be. Today I’m going to rely on 50 years of playing games of all kinds to describe several quite different points of view. Since some aspects of these points of view depend heavily on having several human or human-like opponents, many of the examples will be from tabletop games.

The first, of course, is that some people, especially many video gamers, prefer interactive puzzle “games” that have no human/psychological component, while other people strongly prefer games involving two or more people in opposition. In fact, “multiplayer” in the tabletop game hobby doesn’t mean “more than one player”, it means “more than two, and more than two sides”. A two-player game provides some human/psychological interaction, but it’s the more-than-two-sided games where the human element, not the puzzle-like challenges set by the video game designer, becomes paramount.

Classical and Romantic
A second difference that I’ll describe in much more detail has been called the “Classical” vs. the “Romantic”, following philosophers who have discussed this difference in a variety of contexts (e.g., Nietzsche’s Apollonian and Dionysian). A more modern term for the Classical player is “mini-max”, someone who tries to maximize his minimum gain (or minimize maximum loss) in every situation—the “perfect player” of mathematical game theory, if I recall correctly. In game theory terms this player seeks the “strategy that would guarantee the highest minimal expected outcome regardless of the strategy of the opponent.” (Wikipedia)

The Classical player tries to know each game inside-out. He wants to learn the best counter to every move his opponent(s) might make. He takes nothing for granted, paying attention to little details which probably won’t matter but which in certain cases could be important. The Classical player does not avoid taking chances, but he carefully calculates the consequences of his risks. He dislikes unnecessary risks. He prefers a slow but steady certain win to a quick but only probable win. He tries not to be overcautious, however, for fear of becoming predictable. A cliche among football fans is that the best teams win by making fewer mistakes, letting the other team beat itself. So it is with the Classical gamer, who concentrates on eliminating errors rather than on discovering brilliant coups.

The idea of managing risk doesn’t lend itself to single-player video games that have just one solution. In some of these games that involve no chance element (everything is set by the designer), something like game theory calculations of the “perfect strategy” don’t come into play. There is what is called a “saddle point” or dominant strategy, a perfect way to play that will win every time. If you make the right moves in, say, arcade Pac-Man, you will go all the way through all 255 levels every time without a single death, because there is no random element. (See Inside Pac-Man, On the other hand, if the single-player game includes randomness that changes with each play, the player must manage risk, and the game becomes quite Classical. In general, single-player games are going to tend toward the Classical unless the “opposition” approaches a human in complexity.

The Romantic looks for the decisive blow which will cripple his enemy, psychologically if not physically on the playing arena. He wishes to convince his opponent(s) of the inevitability of their defeat; in some cases a player with a still tenable position will resign the game to his Romantic opponent when he has been beaten psychologically. The Romantic is willing to take a dangerous risk in order to disrupt enemy plans and throw the game into a line of play his opponent is unfamiliar with. He looks for opportunities for a big gain, rather than to maximize his minimum gain. A flamboyant, but only probable, win is his goal. He may make mistakes, but he hopes to seize victory rather than wait for the enemy to make mistakes. The Romantic is more likely to try to “get into the head” of his opponent, to divine which strategy the opponent will use and play his own strategy that best counteracts it.

In the standard single player interactive puzzle video game, there is no human opponent to “psyche out” or to fool. Yet some of the more sophisticated modern games are designed to provide a “computer opponent” that behaves in some ways like a human, and clever players figure out ways to take advantage of the programming to “fool” the opponent. When playing a multi-sided game such as Civilization or Warcraft III against several computer opponents you can find ways to “make the opposition look foolish”: in fact, this may be easier than when playing against good human opponents. A political victory in Civilization, in effect persuading the computer players to give up, can be seen as a Romantic goal. Further, real-time games tend toward the Romantic simply because there isn’t time for the Classical player to make careful calculations. Under great time-stress some people will still try to play Classically, it will simply be harder for them to do so effectively.

In the single-player video game with no chance element, the Romantic very likely has no opportunity to “take the path less trodden” in order to fool the computer.

Here’s a simple comparison of these two types of players. The Classical player, in Tic-Tac-Toe, will always play to the center square when playing second if his opponent doesn’t take it—and will always take the center if he moves first. The Romantic may try to fool his opponent into playing badly by making a less-than-optimal play, in order to try for a win rather than accept the otherwise-inevitable draw.

To further generalize, playing against the computer tends to encourage the Classical, playing against people tends to encourage the Romantic. However, when the stress of limited time is introduced, it becomes difficult or impossible to play Classically as you have less and less time to calculate risks.

Many good players depend on intuition rather than study and logic to make good moves, yet the moves can be either Classical or Romantic. A Romantic player can also be a very cerebral or intellectual player who happens to prefer the Romantic style. Nonetheless, the Classical player tends to use logic while the Romantic tends to use intuition. Some people would refer to Classical players with derision as “mathematical” players. It is true that Classical players are concerned with odds and expected losses and saddle points (though this alone doesn’t identify or qualify a person as a Classical player). Nonetheless, Classical players do quite well in non-mathematical games.

Games sometimes tend to favor one playing style over the other. Chess is clearly a Classical game. Single-player video games are often Classical. Poker tends to favor Romantic play, because so much depends on bluffing. Most shooters (the frenetic kind) are Romantic, while stealth shooters tend to be Classical, as far as you can categorize single-player games. A game like two player Street Fighter can be played either way. It seems that the very best players, though, play Street Fighter Romantically, somehow reading their opponent’s intentions and beating them to the punch, the ultimate in playing the opponent rather than playing the game. For more about this see David Sirlin’s book, Playing to Win: Becoming the Champion ( ) (

Diplomacy, though without any overt chance factor, is a good game for both Classical and Romantic players. The negotiations and alliance structures give both types plenty to work with. The Classical player tends to be better at tactics and strategy; he prefers long alliances to continuous free-for-all, for there are too many risks and incalculable factors inherent in a fluid situation. The Romantic tends to prefer the fluid state, and his big weapon is the backstab.

It’s hard to say whether an extreme form of Classical play, in a typical one-player video game, would involve rare resort to reloading a saved game, or would involve frequent saves and attempts at all kinds of different tactics to find out which one is best. I tend to be a Classical player, and I prefer the former, but I’m not going to make the mistake of assuming I’m typical!

While “Minimaxers” are usually Classical players, I have known gamers who apply minimax methods to characters or unit mixes, to more or less tactical concerns, but play the overall game Romantically. “Yomi” is David Sirlin’s term for reading the opponent’s mind; the best Romantic players probably have “Yomi”, but this is not necessarily so, and it’s possible that a Classical player may be able to read opposing intentions but still relies on attaining the minimum maximum gain.

Nonetheless, you’d expect most Classical players to be mimimaxers, and most Romantic players to rely on Yomi.

Reaction to Chaos and Randomness
But this is only one way of looking at game playing styles. The third and last for this article, is to look at a player’s reaction to fluidity and randomness. I’ll call the three points of view:
• the “Planner”,
• the “Adapter” (who tends to represent the middle ground) and
• the “Improviser”

The Planner likes to plan ahead-well ahead. He loves it when things he did long ago in a game come together to give him a big success. He is likely, though not certainly, going to prefer a game where much if not all of the information is always available, e.g. chess. He’s likely to prefer turn-based rather than real-time games. When it’s time for him to make a play, to execute a strategy, he doesn’t want to find that the game has changed drastically owing to a recent move by someone else, or because of the nature of the game itself. The Planner will often be a Classical player as well, though this is not necessary.

The “Improviser” does not like to plan ahead. He wants to react to circumstances at the time he makes his play, and he doesn’t mind at all if circumstances change drastically between one play and the next, or in a short time (in a real-time game). Games with limited information availability aren’t going to bother him, while games with perfect information aren’t likely to be attractive. Such players tend to be Romantic, obviously.

The “Adapter” likes to impose order on chaos, he wants to be able to see ahead a couple moves (or a short while in real-time) and then adapt to them, that is, arrange to “take control” of what’s going on. As you can see, this falls somewhere between the other two.

Once again, some games favor one of the three styles or another. Team video games, if the team actually tries to plan and work together, can be for Adapters. Real-time strategy games may attract Adapters, who can plan ahead some, having gained some information about what’s going on. Two multi-sided boardgames that fit the “Adapter” mindset are Vinci and RoboRally. Vinci is a game with perfect information, and with little overt chance, yet you can’t plan far ahead because the rise and fall of empires and selection of new empire capabilities results in great changes on the Europe-like board in a few turns. RoboRally requires players to program movements of their Robot in a violent race through several checkpoints in a bizarrely-dangerous factory. Each player is dealt nine movement cards, and must lay five face down to be executed in order one at a time. You can plan a route, but you won’t always get the cards you need. Chaos sometimes results from player mistakes, yours and mistakes of others.

Civilization (board or video) tends to be a game for the Planner. Card games tend to be for the Improvisers, though some can favor the Adapter. Poker is a game for Improvisers, except that there can be long-term bluffing plans that are characteristic of a Planner.

Diplomacy could attract Planners, Adapters, or Improvisers, depending on how it’s played.

In Tetris, if you’re just reacting to each shape as it appears, you’re playing as an Improvisor; if you’re trying to calculate which shapes will go well, so that you’ll know where to put one when it shows up, you’re playing more as an Adaptor. Because of the time stress and uncertainty about what will appear soon, it’s hard to play Tetris as a Planner.

Because arcade Pac-Man is ultimately predictable, a Planner may have been the first to notice the patterns and find ways to take advantage of them. Insofar as video games tend to conceal a lot of information, they’re not fruitful ground for a Planner, rather encouraging Improvisation.

Platformers reward short-range planning of the kind common amongst Adaptors. Some RTS games (the ones that are short on time-stress and long on strategy) are good for Adaptors. Survival Horror games with limited ammunition available are good for Adaptors. But something like Left4Dead, with practically unlimited ammo and a Director that increases the challenge as necessary, fits an Improviser point of view.

Depending on circumstances, a Planner or Adaptor should be a good leader in a team deathmatch or capture the flag using maps that are well-known.

Race games can favor any type depending on how much information is known to players when the race begins.

Role of Chance
People might tend to assume that these playing styles are closely related to the role of chance in the game. But it’s not a matter of “how many dice rolls”. Some chance can be managed. Tabletop or video Dungeons and Dragons, on the face of it, is full of dice rolls or equivalent, but a player can do his best to minimize the number of times he must rely on dice to save his bacon, or he can “go with the flow” and rely on the dice.

If there are few dice rolls or equivalent, and some are very important while many are not, then chance is very hard to manage. Randomness is largely unmanageable chance. The Planner doesn’t like randomness, while the Improvisor won’t mind at all. Adapters like some fluidity as a result of what other players do, but don’t much like randomness. Classical players tend to hate randomness, while Romantics may welcome it.

In general, games that provide difficulty by requiring quick reactions tend to favor the Improvisor style and make Planning difficult. You don’t have time to plan a lot in Halo or Combat Arms; you can in the “stealth” shooters such as many Red Storm games like Rainbow Six. Real-time games tend to be better for Improvisors, turn-based games for Planners. Games with most information hidden from the players make Improvising much easier than Planning, hence the AAA video games that usually use “fog of war” (hidden information, even the map is hidden to begin with) tend to be games for Improvisors more than Planners.

In other words, “traditional” one-player video games tend to favor the Improvisor rather than the Planner. But this will gradually change over time: as the market for video games continues to expand, many new players will dislike being time-challenged, they’ll want to relax while they play their games, they’ll want to play a little bit (one turn) at a time. The trend is already obvious in casual games.

These are only three spectra of game-playing styles, out of many. For example, I know someone whose main pleasure in playing games is in helping someone else win! I suspect this is such a tiny minority view that designers need not worry about it—though cooperative games have become quite popular this year--but it helps illustrate how many different “favorite ways to play” exist among game players.

(Parts of this were originally published in Dragon magazine, September 1982, and in revised form in The Games Journal, February 2005, and revised again on GameCareerGuide, 26 November 2009.)

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


Branding is becoming very important in the world (or at least, the US). There's the classic experiment where young kids were given two sets of fast food to evaluate. One was marked McDonalds, the other not. The food was identical, but the kids significantly favored the branded food. And a famous pinball machine designer said that you just couldn't succeed without a tie-in to some IP or other... We see many, many sequels in the video game world, but that is partly because sequels have ready-made brands.

Even in playtesting, I'm finding that it's become harder to persuade people to play a game they've never heard of or seen, even when I've taken the time to make the prototype fairly attractive. This is at a monthly meeting that I've attended, off-and-on, for many years; but the people keep changing over time, with the trend away from old-time strategy gamers and toward Euro types.

The exception is where I'm a well-known quantity, as at NC State, where the people have played many of my games and know they're worthwhile. Someone said "you're the brand" when I mentioned this, and I suppose that's true. Perhaps, in the first case, if I sat with a couple of my published games beside me that would help. Then again, I'm just not an arm-twister.

Another difference between the two is that at NC State there are few new games coming into the club and not a great number of old ones, whereas at the monthly meeting people bring lots of games, including lots of new ones, and there's a big games library as well. (There's also a big age difference; the average age at the monthly meeting is around 40, at NC State around 20.)

Monday, November 22, 2010

An unsual game seen at MACE: Ex Illis

The most unusual game I saw at MACE is called ex illis. It is a miniatures game played on a 4x4 square grid with units of several troops and occasional individuals. It's supposed to reflect some non-historical 13th century European situation, but is obviously fantastical. The striking part, however, is that can only be played in conjunction with software that tracks many of the complexities of the game system. The software is free but you can't use a unit until you "activate" it, so the software alone doesn't let you do anything. The software doesn't show the map with actual units, but otherwise it shows graphics of the units and their movement as you move them and attack. You can look up their level of help but the information about their exact offense of capabilities doesn't appear to be accessible. The company's website ( emphasizes the possibility that units can become more powerful, gaining levels and other capabilities, as you play more games. The unpainted miniatures themselves are plastic, and I'd say they're very expensive but people used it typical miniatures prices may have a different view. A single huge monster is $55. Eight priests or eight warriors are $30. Four cavalry are $35.

There is no ruleset that I could see, it's all in the software. I watched several games being played, and have to say that it appears there is even less tactics to the game than I see in most miniatures games (and I don't see that there's much in typical miniatures). I guess this game will appeal more to miniatures than to battle fans, because there appears to be not much in the battles; of course I'd say the same thing about Warhammer fantasy.

A pitch-man talking about Ex Illis: For $70 you get a lot of hobby, you gotta paint all those miniatues and..." That's a problem, not a recommendation. Painting minis is not my hobby.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

MACE convention

MACE (Mid-Atlantic Convention Expo), proclaiming itself "the largest gaming convention in the Carolinas", met for the 14th year on November 12-14 in High Point, NC. I was at MACE only on Saturday.

MACE is an offshoot of science fiction and fantasy conventions. There are lots of SF/F conventions, often with comics and costuming and lots of other things including games thrown in. I haven't been to one of those conventions since the world science fiction convention that was in Washington DC about 35 years ago. I have a friend who attends many conventions of this kind, and he finds most of them are not very interesting from a game point of view. He has the same to say about his experience in the past with MACE. But he is interested in boardgames and non-collectible card games, and offshoots like HeroClix. He has played D&D for more than 20 years but isn't interested in playing some other RPG.

Not surprisingly, SF/F convention gameplaying emphasizes individual role-playing, as this is the kind of tabletop gaming that most emphasizes story. MACE follows that tradition. Although it was possible to see several board games going on at any particular time, and although there were miniatures games and some CCG's, most of the gameplaying was role-playing. I think a lot of the people came to try role-playing games that they don't have the opportunity to play at home. I talked for a bit with the owner of the convention, Jeff Smith, and he emphasized how much he likes to introduce people to new games and get them out of their ruts. The convention does that well, and people were obviously having a good time which is what counts.

He's tried tournaments, but they don't get much interest. He has never been to a game convention that derives from game traditions, such as PrezCon, WBC, Origins, or GenCon. Two of those are entirely board and noncollectible card games, and the others are much less heavily role-playing.

The small vendor room also reflected the ancestry of the convention, as there were lots of nongame items such as clothing, and the only well-established game publisher was Hero Games, which specializes in RPG's.

In the middle of the day Saturday there was a "chat with the pros panel," which the convention does each year. At a convention where most of the people are relatively local-I drove 104 miles each way which is probably one of the longer trips-I wouldn't expect there to be many people who are interested in the professional side of game production, and so it proved to be. I think they were four spectators and eight pros, all in the RPG business except for me. But it was a lively two-hour discussion, and I learned a lot because I haven't been involved in role-playing gaming for quite some time.

I don't know what the convention attendance was but it appeared to be several hundred.

I had volunteered to talk later the same way I do at WBC and Origins and there was one pro (me) talking to one person who was interested in role-playing game design. Which was alright because I had to think about what to write in my game design book to say how role-playing game design differs from other kinds of tabletop game design. It does show the nature of the convention which was a lot of people wanting to play games and most of them being role-playing games.

I've been inspired by what I've heard at the convention about game distribution to go back to working on my Aetherships game. It's fantasy ships in outer space, kind of like SpellJammer. I originally devised it in 2003 but didn't write the rules in detail and didn't test it. Now I'm going to make it a standalone game with two parts, one a tactical ship to ship/fleet to fleet game, the other a game with boarding actions and individual characters using a very simple RPG system I devised for another game that has sat gathering dust.

If that goes far enough, I may go back to MACE next year to look for playtesters. Otherwise, there doesn't seem to be anything to really hold my interest. I don't follow RPGs any more, and don't usually play; and certainly don't have any interest in trying new ones.

I'm going to list game conventions here in case anyone is adjusted in trying one of the more prominent ones. I'm going to include the distance from my place which is a bit north of Fayetteville, NC.

MACE--100 miles, High Point, mid-November, 3 days, 400? people.

PrezCon--250 miles, Charlottesville Virginia, late February, 4 days, 500 people. This convention is all about boardgames and noncollectible card games, and is organized in tournaments with plaques as prizes. It is a convention for people who want to play their favorite games many times. My friend who didn't find much at MACE played nineteen games of Roborally at the last PrezCon!

WBC (World Boardgaming Championships) -- 450 miles, Lancaster Pennsylvania, early August (beautiful weather), six days, 1500 people. This is the granddaddy of PrezCon. As with PrezCon, you rarely see anyone playing see CCG's or miniatures or RPG's. (There's a huge miniatures convention, Historicon, at the same place a week or two before.)

Origins-- 500 miles, Columbus Ohio, late June/early July, four or five days, more than 10,000 people. This is a much more diverse convention (there's even an art show) and does not have tournaments. It is the main awards and famous guests convention for boardgames and noncollectible card games.

GenCon-- 660 miles, Indianapolis Indiana, early-mid August, four or five days, nearly 30,000 people. GenCon having originated from Dungeons & Dragons, RPG's are much more prominent here, but there are also comic fans and Cosplay (costume) fans and movie fans, and it's more like a SF/F convention that the preceding three game conventions. There are some tournaments, but usually not ones that extend over several days as at WBC or PrezCon. The exhibit hall is awesomely enormous, with "booth babes" yet (no, the others aren't big enough for that expense). Unfortunately, next year GenCon is scheduled at the same time as WBC, just as it was this year.

There are lots of local/regional game conventions on this side of the country that I don't attend, and some larger conventions west of the Mississippi. But if I were to name the major hobby board and non-collectible card game conventions in the US, GenCon, Origins, and WBC would be the only three I would name.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Education: what are the major differences in focus between various kinds of game curricula?

This originally appeared (with the title "Game Curricula: Differences in Focus" on GameCareerGuide 4 Aug 09. You can click the title of this post to go there.

Education: what are the major differences in focus
between various kinds of game curricula?
Lewis Pulsipher

There seems to be a lot of confusion–some of it deliberate, unfortunately–about several categories of academic programs devoted to games. I’m going to try to describe the differences between “game studies,” “game development/production,” and “game design.”

Game Studies
In “game studies” you are not creating games or even ideas or frameworks for games. You are studying and analyzing games and game players the way psychologists study people or biologists study plants and animals. You want to know such things as why people play games, what “fun” is, what are the fundamental elements of games, what role story plays in games; you may spend a lot of time and effort defining just what a game is–and never come to a conclusion all can agree on! Another aspect of game studies can be evaluating the effect of game playing on the players (for example, with educational games and simulations). The person studying games may not be a lifelong avid game player, though I’d think that many are. Someone in game studies, when playing or watching a game, is more likely to think about how it works, to analyze it, to consider how it affects the players, than he is to be concerned about how enjoyable it is to play (though that IS part of the analysis). The principle “deliverables” of game studies students–what they actually make or do--are long academic papers about games.

Sometimes the study of games is called “ludology”, and as with any other academic discipline, there are doctoral dissertations and formal journals and conferences devoted to the study of games.

Game studies people PONDER; game developers and game designers DO. As with many academic disciplines, then, game studies can ultimately illuminate how games can be improved, but its effects on game creation are indirect and distant rather than direct. If you want to actually make games, “game studies” is not where you want to be.

Game Development
In video game development, your concern is how to create the entire game, to get from the image of the game originally residing in the mind of the designer(s)–the initial game design–to a working video game. (A better term would be video game production or video game creation.) The great part of the production time and money is devoted to programming and art, with lesser amounts spent on game design.

A school teaching game development, then, may concentrate on one of the aspects, or may try to cover the three major ones, design, programming, and art.

In contrast, in the non-electronic game world, game development plays a fairly small part in the creation of a game, because there is no programming, no sound, and so forth. The art is simple, and there is rarely much of it. A published non-electronic game is 80-95% the work of the designer, whereas a AAA list video game is perhaps 25% the work of the design team (such games are designed by committee, in effect if not formally).

A video game developer who is not a designer, when playing or watching a game, is likely to think about how it how it was made, what software tools were used, how long it took, how many people were involved. But developers usually love to play games, as well.

The “deliverables” of game development students, depending on their concentration, will be 3D models, animation, artwork, pieces of game programs, mods, fully-realized simple video games (no one has the time to make a AAA list style game in school).

Game Design
This brings us to game design. The game designer is the person who conceives the framework and structure of a game, who writes the rules or the game design document for the game, who decides how to modify the prototype many times until, ideally, the game is good enough to be manufactured. Game design is a combination of conception, communication, and dogged continuous improvement, via playtesting. The initial ideas don’t count for much, and anyone who thinks he can get an idea and someone else will do the real work is in “cloud-cuckoo land”.

In video games constant communication is very important, as other people actually make the game and get it to work. The designer has to describe his game in great detail so that those people can make it. (In the non-electronic world, the designer makes the entire game, except for the actual production artwork. Communication with playtesters and publishers is still important.) In many cases, AAA list video games are actually designed by committee, involving several official “designers” but also every person on the production team. Everyone wants to contribute to how the game works, and the designer must carefully accommodate (and take advantage of the brain power of) all those folks.

A video game designer, when playing or watching a game, is likely to think about player interaction, challenges, what makes the game worth playing.

The “deliverables” of game design students, are completed non-electronic games, completed levels for existing games, completed game mods, game design documents (for games not yet made), and (in conjunction with game development students) completed simple video games.

Confusing or Misleading Labeling
You may be able to see why game designers are rarely hired straight out of school. Experience counts for a lot, and of all people on a production team the designers are most able to completely foul up a game. In most cases, the designer begins as a tester or programmer in the industry, or as a level designer.

Because there are relatively few jobs for graduates as designers, many game schools devote little instruction time to game design, and not much to level design (which is a subset of game design). Unfortunately, “game design” sounds much cooler than “game production” or “game development”. The big problem, then, for those wanting to attend game-related curricula is that schools often accidentally or deliberately mislabel what they do, most often labeling as “game design” a curriculum that is all about programming or art.

For example, I encountered a university recently that teaches 3D modeling, with a couple game-design-related classes. Yet they call it “game design” and claim that 3D modeling will lead to a game design job once you’re in the industry. I cannot think of a single game designer who started as a 3D modeler (I'm sure there must be some). Designers tend to be former programmers or people who started in QA and other ancillary parts of game production, not in art. (This particular school is in England, the problem is not confined to the United States.)

Similarly, there are schools that say they teach “game development”, but in practice focus almost entirely on game studies or on programming. The latter is especially confusing. A “developer”, in the computer world, is someone who creates software, whereas a “game developer” is someone who creates games whether by programming, art, design, sound, or other means. This is why “game creator” would be a better term, to avoid the confusion with programming.

So what is it, really?
So how do you as a prospective student tell what’s really happening? First, find descriptions of the required classes. Often this will be enough. If most of the required classes involve programming, it doesn’t matter whether the school calls it “game design”, it’s about programming. If most of the required classes are art/3D courses, it’s not game design, it’s game art. If most of the classes involve studying and analyzing games rather than designing, programming, and doing art for games, then it’s game studies, not game development.

If the descriptions aren’t enough–and sometimes descriptions don’t match reality–then you’ll have to try to talk to a current student. Talking with the instructors may help, too, but this depends on how much the instructors are responsible for the mislabeling of the curriculum!

Finally, find out what the background of the instructors is. Have they made games? Look at their resumes and their Web portfolios (they have one, no?). (Few “game studies” people have actual experience of making commercial games.) If teaching game design, have they had games published commercially?

Few schools actually teach game design on its own, without a lot of associated game production classes. In my part of the country, the only one I know of is Savannah College of Art and Design.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Playing at being godlike

Last night at the NC State tabletop gamers meeting, a large group was playing a "game" called "Dawn of Worlds". (Google the title with quotation marks for the PDF.) I put game in quotation marks because it's actually a cooperative--or mostly cooperative--way for a group of people to create a world for a role-playing game. The brief rules provide guidelines for using power points to create terrain, create races and cities, create godlike avatars and armies, and use catastrophes and other methods to reshape the land and the people. This is all very free form, in the end there's probably one person who is the main guide and settles disputes.

Eight people played for more than three hours and did not finish. Some who had played before said it was fun. Most of what happened was cooperative, but a couple guys held all their points for most of the game and then created mayhem. (The game provides extra power points for players who use their points regularly, probably because this storage and mayhem tactic had been used more than once.)

The purpose of the original creators of the "game" was to enable a group of people to create a common fantasy world so that everyone would understand what it was like and what its history was. This would be easier than each person creating their own world that the others would not be familiar with.

Me being me, I was trying to think how this could be integrated into a board game something like Populous, the original gods game by Peter Molyneux from back in DOS days. The young participants in Dawn of Worlds had never heard of Populous, but I have for years had the notion of creating a boardgame something like the video game.

Dawn of Worlds, created by a considerable group of fantasy gamers, has been around since 2005 but I had never heard of it.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Go it alone games

One of my recently devised prototypes is a nameless game ("Colonial Scramble", maybe) that I think of as my gateway card wargame. Roughly speaking it's set around 1890, a time when the great European powers were still grabbing colonies in Africa. With five players, the most successful players are likely to work together, it's not a game where you can "go it alone". Yet some of the players are accustomed to typical board and card games of today, which are designed to enable you to go it alone even when there are four or more players.

And now that I think of it I suspect that many modern games, certainly Eurostyle games, are designed to let people go it alone and still succeed. Even the nature of role-playing games reflects this one way or the other. If you try to go it alone in first or second edition D&D, you are probably going to die, later if not sooner. Then third edition came along, designed to let each player be a one-man army that could succeed on his or her own.

A general comment about Gen X versus millennials (Gen Y) is that Gen Xers like to go it alone while millennials prefer to share and work together. In my experience the serious Eurostyle players are much higher proportion of Gen X while the role-playing gamers include a much higher proportion of millennials. Perhaps that's reflected in fourth edition D&D which is returned to being a game in which you must cooperate or your party is likely to fail.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

The curse of Brit-like games: play balance

After a partial session of Arthuria on Thursday, I am reminded once again how bloody difficult it is to get balanced sides in a Britannia-like game. On the basis of one playing, many people will say that Britannia itself is unbalanced--then pick any one of the colors to be one that has a big advantage or disadvantage--but we know from statistics that it is in fact quite well-balanced. Part of that is a result of what I call the invisible hand, the way the four players interact to keep someone from running away with the victory, and the way experienced players know what they need to do. You can bet that even those players when they first played the game did not know whether it made sense to attack Caledonians early in the game or whether the Welsh should fight tooth and nail rather than submit, and so on. (And some groups come up with different answers to those questions.) Playtesting a new game, there's none of that experience base to draw on. But given the length of games of this type it is pretty hard to get people together to play again and again, at least for me where I live.

My original sides in Britannia were slightly different than the ones published. And despite several occasions when I've tried to find another set of four with the current forces in points that would be balanced, I have not found any that are satisfactory. The game has to be tweaked to fit the sides.

For some of my prototype games I think I've got pretty good sides; for others it seems like every time there's a playtest, something's lopsided. The trick is not to overreact. Arthuria was originally designed to have players draft their nations. But I quickly decided you can have players doing that when they have no idea of how the game's going to go, which is why I'm trying to figure out a set of sides. *Shakes head*.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Game design can be hard work because thinking can be hard work

In high school, the teacher is expected to think for you, to package everything in small digestible bits that can be memorized for multiple-choice tests. For the most part, you are trained, not educated, taught to memorize how to do something, rather than understand how to do something, or to memorize facts instead of understanding how systems work. Problem-solving is not part of that package, for sure.

High schoolers become accustomed to the thinking part of their brain being in first gear, or park, rather than in top gear. “Idle”.

Game design is all about critical thinking; one well-known “indie” video game designer says it’s 99% critical thinking, though I won’t go quite that far. The teacher cannot think for you, in game design, you have to think for yourself. And thinking is undoubtedly hard.

Too many people think they can get an idea and someone else will do the work–work which involves a great deal of thinking. Too many think they can easily make a game “just like such-and-such but better”, having no idea how hard it is to make really good games (it’s easy to make poor ones). When they’re posed the problem of making a game that isn’t “just like such-and-such”, they are floored.

Further, game design is about problem-solving. In general, a prototype game is broken. The game designer must figure out ways to fix it, and then ways to make it even better even though it works, because lots of games that work aren’t really very good. These are all problem-solving exercises.

If the initial conception is fundamentally good, then there’s a lot of work to be done to get a good (or better) game out of it. If the initial conception is poor, then it will be difficult if not impossible to get a decent game out of it, and that will require abandoning some of the original conception. Even if the initial conception is “wonderful”, there are thousands of ways to mess it up.

Yes, there are hard jobs that are nonetheless rewarding and even fun. Dave Duncan, a well-known science fiction and fantasy novelist, didn’t start publishing novels until he was laid off from Canadian oil fields at over 50 years old. After 33 novels, he said writing (which is largely thinking) was still hard work.

Sometimes, designing games is hard work because thinking is hard work.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Social "games" as simple puzzles

Farmville and similar social "games" are in fact very simple continuing puzzles. Contrast this with real games and with the typical traditional single-player "interactive puzzle".

Let's face it, puzzles are more popular than games. Crossword puzzles, physical puzzles, jigsaw puzzles. The venerable "Games" magazine is more about puzzles than games, and if you look in the "Games" section of a bookdstore, you're more likely to find books of puzzles than books about games.

Why? Well, one reason may be that you can work with a puzzle a little, then go do something else, then come back. You can't do that with a real game (until recently with mail and email games) because there's a group of people right there, right now. And puzzles have very simple rules, so simple that many people would say a puzzle has no rules. People don't like to be bothered with rules (hence the popularity of video "games"). But I think the main reason why puzzles are more popular than games is, no one can beat you in a puzzle. You might feel a bit like a loser if you can't solve the puzzle, but that depends on the person; still, no one beats you--you cannot "lose", you can only give up.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Rumination about free-to-play games

If so many social games and other free-to-play games depend on voluntary expenditure of funds by the players, will we see over time that players become more resistant to such expenditures, the way people have become more and more indifferent to advertising? (Yes, advertising still works; but it requires a higher volume/greater frequency to be effective, I believe.)

Friday, October 01, 2010

Individual customization

Customization seems to be very attractive to young people who play video games. Perhaps they feel more of a need to express their individuality than someone of my generation (baby boomer) might feel.

Does this desire for customization spill over into the ranks of tabletop game players? And if so, how can we accommodate the desire? Role-playing games can do it, of course, through multiple classes, character attribute numbers, feats, skills, and the like; but how do we do it in board or card games?

Last Night I was talking to college age gamers about creating characters in Paranoia and other role-playing games. Evidently it takes a long time to generate a Paranoia character. And I said that's a barrier to entry, if someone takes a long time to create the character they're less likely to play. Well, they don't see it that way. They talk about character generation in someone's variant of Harn to where you could actually die during character generation. And apparently character generation in normal Harn can take an hour or more. So there's lots of lots of dice rolling to generate things from tables.

Now I remember back in the early days of D&D, we would sometimes do strange things like "roll a sword"--roll on the magic sword tables and see what we came up with. It was a fun way to do something with D&D when we couldn't play. But this hours long character generation, and the possibility of ending up with something that's pretty junky, I just don't get. I guess it's a generational thing. I note that in fourth edition D&D there is a character generation method that doesn't use dice, and no dice-generated character is allowed in the official RPGA events. (By the way, as far as I know I was one of the first people, if not the first, to have a no-dice character generation method published.)

Getting back to the board and card games, it is impractical to have a long customization built into a game because then the game will take too long. About as close as I come is having cards to represent a variety of different characters or groups that can be played in some of my card games. And of course in historical game, in effect which side you play (if the game is asymmetric) provides a small modicum of customization.

(Another day, further thoughts)

Why is customization so important to young video game players? I read two video game magazines regularly, plus a lot on the Web, and I have had many video game design students. The importance of customization is often mentioned by all of these sources. This can range from the purely cosmetic (customization of appearance) to functional (customizing weapons, or merely having lots of weapons to choose from).

I can understand functional customization because it may give you an advantage in the game. I don't understand cosmetic customization. That may be because I'm not visually oriented, or because I'm a veteran gamer and veterans tend to pay attention to what lets them succeed in the game, not what it looks like.

But why the interest in cosmetic customization? Have young people become oppressed by the sameness of modern civilization? Do they feel so helpless in real life that they need a means of self-expression in their games? Is this desire to "look different" related to the constant monitoring that seems to be the norm for kids nowadays (helicopter parents)? Is it just an expression of something else?

I have no idea.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Interesting quotes?

I read the following quote and then tried to find an analog for video games: “In a G-rated film, the hero gets the girl, in an R-rated film, the villain gets the girl, and in an X-rated film, everybody gets the girl.” - Michael Douglas

Here's the best I've been able to come up with: "In an E rated game, no one bleeds, in a T rated game the bad guys and bystanders bleed a little, in an M rated game, everyone bleeds a lot."

Monday, September 27, 2010


I am struck by the difference between the video game industry and tabletop game industry with respect to game "post-mortems". A postmortem examining what went right and what went wrong in the production of a video game is very common. I don't recall ever seeing something called a post-mortem for tabletop game, and rarely see anything like one.

Why the difference? Is it because for tabletop games you keep testing it until you've got it right? Whereas in video games usually constrained by a deadline and almost never have enough time to "get it right". But that doesn't prevent us from producing a lot of weak and sometimes just plain awful tabletop games. Maybe the difference in production budgets has a lot more to do with it. Publishing a small or even medium-sized tabletop game is a matter of five or low six figures of dollars. Only Hasbro or a collectible card game publisher is likely to spend as much as $1 million to produce a tabletop game. Well-known video games now cost in the tens of millions. When that much money is being spent, a postmortem can save a lot of money on the next game. Further, video games are usually the work of a group of people, whereas the design of a tabletop game is usually the work of one person with the assistance of playtesters, and the entire production only involves a few artists and perhaps an editor as well.

It is likely that the major topic for a postmortem of a tabletop game would be production errors or ways that the publisher change the game for better or worse. Designers would say, usually worse.

In fact, I suppose this reflects the difference that the video game industry manufactures complicated software, while the tabletop industry manufactures (mostly) simple games.

Sunday, September 26, 2010


I have much-belatedly begun to read George R. R. Martin's Song of Fire and Ice series.

You know the novelist has succeeded in his craft when the characters take on a life of their own in the mind of the reader, as though they were real people, the reader thinking about how a character might react in a particular situation (not in the book(s), perhaps imagining conversations with the character, certainly imagining what might happen next in the book(s), and so forth.

Is there any equivalent to that, in games, other than in (perhaps) a heavily story-driven game? I can't think of one.

(A few days later)
I thought of an answer at least where strategy games are concerned. If the player, when he isn't playing the game, spends time thinking about strategies, what he can do, what his opponents can do, playing the game in his mind, then that's more or less the equivalent of what I was talking about above.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

What are we looking for when playing a (tabletop) game we have designed?

The past several days, despite a bout of flu when it’s still 90+ degrees highs outside, I have been playing for the first time a World War II naval development of my science fiction game Doomstar, which in turn descends ultimately from Stratego/l’Attaque. It uses a hexagonal board rather than squares, pieces can ordinarily move two hexes (or more) in a straight line, fighters and bombers can take advantage of aircraft carriers and islands to change direction and move further, pieces have variable strength, and in other ways it’s really not a lot like traditional Stratego.

I’ve asked myself what I’m looking for as I play the game solo. The answer is I’m looking for interesting decisions, lots of them. If the game has interesting decisions to make, then maybe it will be an interesting and enjoyable game for others. In this respect I’m kind of old-fashioned, as most of the games I design are strategy games.

But this led me to ask myself, what other kinds of things might one be looking for in early plays of the game?

How about “telling an interesting story”? Keeping in mind that history is a story, this may be what the simulation wargame designers are looking for, and part of what I look for in historical games like Britannia. But I was thinking more of the people who play games to enjoy the stories. This is particularly true of role-playing games, and of a great many video games. I personally don’t play games to be told a story any more than I play games to learn history, yet I know there are people who play games to learn history or to be told stories.

How about “lots of laughs” as another thing that the designer might look for? This would be particularly true for party games, and for many family games.

“Opportunities to mess with/screw your friends” is another objective. There’s a whole category of “screwage” games where this is very important.

How about “opportunities to manipulate or convince the other players of something”, which might be close to the hearts of Diplomacy players and negotiators in general. But even poker involves subtle forms of manipulation.

“Opportunities to learn” would be important for “serious” games.

“Personal involvement in the story” is a hallmark of many role-playing games. This is quite different from being told a story, which is what I was referring to earlier, this is being involved in the story that you as the players write. RPG’s can go either way. The referee can use the RPG as a way to tell a story, or the referee can set up situations in the RPG so that players can write their own stories, in effect.

“A sense of mystery” might be something else one could look for in a game. This could be an exploration game, it could be a deduction game, or it could be a detective/investigative game. Many puzzle-like games will include mystery.

Some video game designers make games to engender particular emotions, or to fulfill certain kinds of dreams. They would then be looking for something quite specific. This is much more difficult to do in tabletop games, other than RPGs. (RPGs are the bridge between the tabletop and modern video games.)

I’m sure there’s much more to be said about this.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

4th Edition D&D

Recently I went to a local game shop to recruit playtesters and play in a Pathfinder game. But that game wasn’t coming together, and I had a chance to play a form of 4th edition D&D with ready-made characters. So I decided to try it. This was part of Red Box Day, and we were playing an adventure that was only available to be run that day through official channels, Sun Peak Temple or something like that.

I bought the 4th edition rules not long after they came out, and as I read them I saw that it was a game that encourages cooperation, quite the opposite of any of the 3.x editions of D&D. It’s just about impossible to have a super soldier character the way you can in three.x. There are no one-man armies. In that respect it’s a return to 1st edition. Mechanically it has very little in common with previous versions of D&D, to the point that I have said it may be a good game, but it’s not D&D. My experience of playing confirmed that. While our party of six did not have a warlord, which is one of the types that most encourages cooperation, five of the six players were relatively cooperative.

The sixth was a 16-year-old (“nearly 17" he said, birthday three months hence) who played the game as though it was 3rd edition, that is, looking for every advantage he could get, trying for head shots (which don’t exist in 4th edition), trying to do ridiculous actions, constantly talking to the referee over the other players (my only criticism of the referee as if he didn’t stop that), and not caring a bit whether he was screwing up the enjoyment for the rest of us. Very “Me” generation. Not long into the adventure he pushed one of our prisoners into a burning tree when no one else was looking except another prisoner, and then tried to pretend he hadn’t done it, evidently believing that Good equals stupid. (At this point the referee confirmed that he had become evil.) We probably should have killed him then but we were softhearted. At another juncture, just after we spied through a big set of doors and had seen much opposition, and were trying to decide what to do about it, he charged down the corridor and opened another set of double doors thus releasing a large quantity of undead.

Which only proves that the mechanics of a role-playing game cannot really force somebody to behave in a certain manner.

In other respects the game is somewhat like World of Warcraft, lots of levels that people can go up quickly, lots and lots of options–three Players Handbooks so far, each with lots of character classes–but the fundamental essence of the game is cooperation which is exactly what I want in a role-playing game.

But only time will tell whether I try it anymore. I have gone back to reading the first Players Handbook at least.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Visual artists are rarely game designers--why?

A couple years ago I ran across an English university that advertised a video game design degree, but I quickly discovered that only one or two of the classes were in game design, and the rest in art and 3-D modeling. The school claimed that this was a program that would lead to game design opportunities. My reaction was, first, I can't think of anybody who comes from the art side to be a game designer although I'm sure there must be some, and second, that "game design" is a "sexy" term that some schools use even though they're not intending to teach game design. I have often seen that. And a later reaction was (in a Rodney Dangerfield voice), "game design don't get no respect" as a separate set of skills.

Recently, I was thinking about why so few game designers seem to come from the art side. I suppose there must be some, but most come from either programming or from writing or producing or working in other miscellaneous functions such as QA, in other words neither from art nor programming.

And I realized that game design is largely left brained rather than right brained, more akin to programming than to art. Game design is about critical thinking and about problem solving. In a very large sense game design is a game in itself, a strategic game, not a "haha" game or a beer and pretzels game or an interactive puzzle. Yes there is creativity involved, but it is mostly a creativity related to problem solving where people are a big component of the "problem", not a creativity related to art. Now I'm not saying that games are not art, don't get me wrong, because I think it's clear that they are art, even though the players don't care.

Having said that, one might suppose that some of the games that are the sole design of the designer(s), that become very successful, for example Pictionary or Blokus, may derive more from an art mentality than the successful games that are designed by people who design lots of games. Maybe.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Brief review: Paid to Play

Paid to Play by Keith A. Meyers. Self-published through iUniverse, Inc. 2008. 89 pages 9" by 6" (yes, a very small book). About $20 as I recall,click the article title for the link. Also, there is another book of the same name, except different subtitle, about video games. Don't get confused.

As the subtitle indicates, this book is not about how to design a game but about the process that game design is a part of what you start with ideas and end up with a published game, whether license to a publisher or self published.

The author has worked in the game industry for more than 20 years sometimes for publishers, sometimes for retailers, now for himself as a designer. I first encountered him through a newsletter he used to publish for game inventors.

That word “inventors” is important because he talks primarily about the toy and game industry (where designers are often called inventors) than about the hobby game industry. In particular the games that he talks about are very simple, and that may be why he feels he can wait until the game is essentially set before he writes the rules. My experience with hobby games is that I’m writing the rules earlier and earlier in the process as I go along.

The books I am writing are almost entirely about the process of game design itself and don’t say much about marketing, and this little book would be a good complement. Another important observation is that it’s about tabletop games and toys, not about electronic/video games and toys. There are very few books written typically about tabletop industry.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Observations about puzzles and games

A friend is designing a post-apocalyptic game. After a game club session (there are references to games played during that session) I sent him this advice:

Something to recognize as a big difference between some games and other games, is the fundamental nature of the game, is it a game or is it a puzzle? A puzzle is something that you can solve, and once you’ve solved it then there is not much point in continuing to play. That’s obvious with formal puzzles, but it’s also the case with many Eurostyle games, especially the ones that are more or less multiplayer solitaire. Theoretically, chess is solvable but it’s just too complicated for humans or even at this point computers to figure out. Computers often play well because they use brute force to check all the possibilities and pick the one that’s most likely to come out well in the long run. Brute force is not really solving the puzzle, it’s just trying all the possibilities, it’s trial and error. But if, once you have solved the problem through trial and error, you can reproduce that solution again and again without further trial, then you have effectively solved the puzzle.

Ascension appears to be a game that may be solvable. [Ascension is a new Dominion-style game that claims to have all the fun of a CCG in one box. But it looked pretty dull to me, because there was almost no player interaction.]

In a game as opposed to a puzzle, there is no set solution and much of that is because you have human opposition. Even the best video games, which rely on the computer to provide an equivalent of human opposition, more or less fail to achieve that goal. People play against the computer, and then they go online and play against other people and find out that the people are much tougher opponents. But the traditional video game is actually a solvable puzzle rather than an attempt to provide a computer opponent. There are exceptions like WarCraft III and Civilization, which are essentially designed to be multiplayer games, and that’s multiplayer in the sense of multiple sides, not just lots of people on two different sides.

Defenders of the Realm is a kind of puzzle but in this case you have players collectively trying to solve the puzzle, which “collectivity” is something that’s very attractive to the Millennial generation. Instead of a computer providing the opposition, the draw of the cards provides the opposition. In effect the cards take the place of the computer program.

Many Eurostyle games are actually puzzles. And that is probably one reason why people don’t play them very many times (with exceptions, of course) before they move on to something else, they’ve figured out the puzzle and they are done. A game that cannot be solved by people, such as chess, or Britannia, is one that people can play 500 times and still enjoy, because the major interest in the game is figuring out the other players and how to outdo the other players. In a Euro game the purpose is rarely to figure out the other players and outdo the other players.

Another way to put this is, in puzzle-style Euro and video games players “play the system”; in “real” games the players “play the other players,” though they have to be good at the system as well.

So for your post-apocalyptic game, do you want it to be a puzzle or do you want it to be a game? What you described to me was a form of puzzle, not a game, because there was so little interaction with the other players. And I’d say that’s the key to the differentiation between a puzzle and a game, how much interaction is there with other human beings? Or with something that’s attempting to mimic a human being (a computer).


Friday, September 03, 2010

"Industry Hopefuls: Prepare Intelligently"

This originally appeared on GameCareerGuide on 7 July 09. You can click on the article title for the GCG version. I'm posting my original text. While it was written with video games in mind, much of it applies to tabletop games as well.

Hundreds of thousands of young people want to be part of the game industry. Yet relatively few succeed. There are many reasons for that, but the most common one is, those people don’t prepare themselves properly or adequately.

I’m not here to tell you what to do, I’m here to make you aware of possible consequences of your choice of actions, based on my experience with aspiring game creation students. Some of what I have to say is indisputable fact, some is my take on “how the world works” and cannot be proved with available statistics or references. You decide what it’s worth.

While this is written primarily for people who want to “break into” the video game industry, especially as level/game designers, video game teachers ought to read it as well.

When you’re trying to attain a goal, you need to determine your intermediate goals: the things you need to know, the attitudes you need, what people expect of you. Here are three sets of three intermediate goals that ought to be important to you:

Three things you should want for yourself, for the good of your long-term future:
• Prepare yourself so that you can obtain non-game industry jobs as well
• If you’re going to a college or university—a good idea in most cases--get a real, and useful, degree
• When you learn game design, learn game design, not game production

Let's add the three things the video game industry wants from “new blood”:
• Ability to work in teams
• Ability to think critically (“critical thinking”)
• Understanding of the pipeline process

Finally there are three things every employer wants from you:
• Good written communication skills
• Good oral communication skills
• Ability to work in a team (yes, that again)

Finally, the tenth item, which may be the most important: develop a productive orientation.

I’m going to concentrate on the first three items and the last, as they’re the most specific to what you decide to do with your life in connection with video games. Let’s be as organized here as I hope you’ll be in your quest, and take these ten needs in order.

Three things you should want for yourself, for the good of your life:

1. Prepare yourself so that you can find non-game industry jobs as well

Ask yourself, are you certain this is what you want to do for the rest of your life, to work in the video game industry? Even if you say “yes”, I say, you can’t know that. On average, people stay in the game industry five or six years and then move on: why are you so different? Individuals tend to move through several careers, not just one. Heck, a great many people change their minds in college about what they want to do, before they get into the industry they thought they wanted.

So you need to plan for the possibility that you’ll move on to something else. This means you’ve got to learn skills that apply to other fields, and just as important, you have to have a degree that will help you get jobs in all those fields where degrees count for a great deal.

As many people have observed, you don’t need a degree to work in the game industry, yet degrees tend to open doors even there. Unlike most industries now, where a degree is virtually a necessity, game studios care what you can do, now what degree you have. If you teach yourself programming (as Tim Sweeney, founder of Epic, did), and can do the work, you can be hired. Yet a degree is quite desirable if you choose to move outside the game industry.

Widely-applicable skills
If you want to be a programmer, concentrate on learning programming, not just game programming. C++ is most commonly used in games and in general use, along with some C# and Java. Some university programming curricula now concentrate on Java, but Java is rarely used for games except on cell phones.

The ideal would be to find a “computer science” program (which is close to, but not the same as, computer programming) that offers a minor or concentration in game programming, as at NC State University in Raleigh, NC.

This means a four-year college is more likely for you than a two-year school, but remember that in most states you can start at a community/junior college and do better when you transfer to a university than if you started there. The important thing is to make sure you know which of your classes will transfer to the university, and which may not. My state (North Carolina) has this formally organized between the community college system and the state university system, others may be different.

A two-year programming degree is good if you attend the right school. Yet outside the game industry, people with four-year degrees are much more likely to get programming jobs.

A BFA (Bachelor of Fine Arts) is a recognized route for artists. Sometimes this is associated with, or primarily, a “design” curriculum (artistic design, not game design). Once again, a program that has a game-related concentration may be the most marketable approach. (An example is at NC State—no, I am not associated with that school!)

Yet art is primarily a matter of good practice. Artists draw, draw, and draw some more—and draw a variety, not the same thing (such as anime characters) over and over. If you don’t love to draw, if you don’t do it regularly, are you really interested in a job where you do art all day? If you love to draw, you may choose a two-year school and then, if you’re good enough, try to market yourself to the game industry.

Game Designer
If you want to be a game designer, there’s no direct “real-world” analog for it. History, psychology, physics, math, there are all kinds of degrees held by well-known designers.

School Reputation and Quality
As Jill Duffy pointed out in “Does my School Suck” (, the reputation of your school is unlikely to matter to potential employers in the game industry. Game companies want to know what you can DO, not what school you went to.

However, in the long run the reputation of your school may matter to you. That long run comes if you decide to leave the game industry and go into older, more established fields. A college-accredited degree from a well-known school is going to get much more respect than, say, an online degree from one of the new schools that specialize in such things. And a game-specialized trade school degree may not count for anything at all (see below).

Remember also that school “ranking”, the kind of thing you see in magazines and journals, is probably based on either the opinion of the writer (which may be quite accurate, of course) or on the quantity of research done by the school’s faculty. That’s research, not teaching results or success of graduates. Research is easy to measure.

School quality is very important, but even harder to determine. Two schools can offer classes with identical descriptions, but provide two very different experiences. This depends on intent, on the skill of the instructors, on the administration, on the students, and so forth. This is such a large subject that it will have to be covered in a separate article.

Many people like to say, “college is what you make of it”. To some extent that’s true, but if you choose an unsuitable college, it will be as though you have one arm (and maybe one leg) tied behind your back.

2. If you’re going to a college or university—a good idea in most cases--get a real, and useful, degree

Accreditation. You can buy “degrees” from European schools with prestigious-sounding names, but what are they worth? Accreditation is what determines whether a degree is taken seriously by others.

A degree is useful only insofar as it is properly accredited. This is an obscure subject to the average student, but very important in the long run. I recall talking about accreditation with a game design and art student at SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design), which is accredited as a college, unlike many art schools. Had she been concerned about it? No, but fortunately her mother was, and so she’ll earn a “college” degree rather than a “trade school” degree.

So what is college accreditation? Regional accreditation looks at the educational institution (college or K12) as a whole, not at the game-related curriculum specifically. A school must meet standards in finance, health, faculty credentials, facilities, administrative processes, and more to achieve accreditation. There are six regional accrediting agencies responsible for accrediting institutions of higher education within their regional boundaries—look for one of these when you visit a college’s Web site:
• Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools - MSA
• New England Association of Schools and Colleges
• Northwest Association of Schools and Colleges - NASC
• North Central Association of Colleges and Schools - NCA
• Southern Association of Colleges and Schools -SACS
• Western Association of Schools and Colleges

These are private groups in this country that “accredit” schools, both K12 schools and colleges. Accreditation is voluntary, but the accrediting bodies wield a great deal of influence. See for the US government’s financial-aid-related take on accreditation. Chea ( provides a private umbrella view of accreditation.

It’s important to understand that there are different kinds of accreditation. Not every school that offers a degree is accredited, and a trade school accreditation is very different from a college accreditation. Accreditation matters when you see a job that “requires bachelor’s degree”, because this usually means “bachelor’s degree from a college accredited school”, not from a school like “Coastal California University”. The latter is “approved” by the state of California, but has no accreditation worth speaking of. Consequently, you can get a Ph.D. there, but to knowledgeable people it isn’t worth a thing (see and ) The name of the school means nothing. Any school can call itself a “university” with state approval, if that. Coastal California “University” is, once again, an example.

Specialized trade schools such as DigiPen and Full Sail are trade-school accredited. A degree from a trade school only counts in the trade it covers: it is not a “real” degree for many other purposes. (This depends on the potential employer’s standards, of course.)

A trade school degree definitely limits you in pursuing further education. Examples: SCAD offers a master’s degree in game design, and NC State has a masters in fine arts. In the world of colleges and universities, you cannot work on a master’s degree until you have a recognized (college accredited) bachelor’s degree, just as you cannot work on a bachelor’s degree until you have a recognized high school diploma or GED. Not surprisingly, then, I’m told by Professors Brenda Brathwaite and Tim Buie from the respective schools that students with degrees from trade schools cannot be accepted to those masters degree programs because they do not have properly accredited bachelors degrees. Period.

Is this “fair”? I’m not going to address the question, because reality is what counts, and those with a trade school degree cannot attain a college-accredited master’s degree—unless they go back to college first. You can’t say “but, but”. That’s the way it is. (Some trade schools now offer master’s degrees—but they’re not college-accredited, of course.)

Notice, I don’t say you’ll get a better education from a college-accredited school than from a trade school. Insofar as trade schools specialize, and prefer practitioners, they may offer more than most broad-based institutions. If you’re sure you’re going to work in the game field all your life, why not a trade school? But are you sure?

Make sure you get the facts. Predatory, fraudulent practices in education are not unusual, especially from private for-profit schools. The ridiculous ads suggesting that you can get a job in the game industry and play games all day are examples. See for one.

See for a news report about a for-profit college being sued for fraud. (This school does have a game related department, though it was not mentioned in this newscast.) Every experienced educator has encountered at least one student who thinks everything will be handed to him on a platter, and that student will be a failure regardless of what school he or she attends. You never know, in lawsuits such as this, how much is student self-delusion and how much deception by the school. The point is not about this particular school, it is about the predatory and deceptive practices that most definitely occur in 21st century education, and your duty to yourself to be wary.

Costs of school
We might also note that trade schools are rarely state-supported; hence, as with all private schools, they are much more expensive than state schools. For-profit schools are yet more expensive. Further, community/junior colleges are vastly less expensive than four-year schools. Roughly speaking, one year at a state school for a resident of the state, including room and board, runs around $11,000-$15,000 not counting books and incidental fees. (State-supported schools are usually much more expensive to students from out-of-state, than to state residents.)

My advice is to never consider attending a for-profit college.

Online “education”
Schools that claim that an online education is the equivalent of a seated-class education are blowing smoke (part of the proverbial “smoke and mirrors”). Given current technological limitations, online classes are generally the equivalent of teaching yourself from books. The interaction that gamers crave is very limited in an online class. An MIT spokesperson put it this way several years ago:

An MIT education happens in the classroom, by interacting with
other students and with faculty, not by reading some Web pages or
downloading some materials, or even watching a . . . lecture.

The major result of an online degree program is a piece of paper, not an education. For game industry purposes, the piece of paper is relatively unimportant. What you need is an education, however you get it. If you’re going to mostly teach yourself, why bother with the obstacles and expense of going to school? In other words, why bother with an online degree? If you just need a stimulus to study, by all means try online classes. But save a lot of money and take continuing education (non-degree) online classes, such as those offered through many colleges by Ed2Go (Ed2Go doesn’t offer directly—check your local community/junior college).

When I was an employer, I strongly discounted online degrees insofar as I had no idea who actually did the work. Most online schools and teachers simply ignore the possibility of cheating, though there are exceptions.

Finally, there are many "degree mills" in the online world, including some that are college accredited--the accreditation people know how much money online education is worth, and money governs education in 21st century America, so many of the standards applied to seated classes are ignored as soon as a class is called “distance”. At a degree mill you pay your money and you do a bit and you get a degree, but it's not good education.

See for an example of the ridiculous advertising sometimes associated with online programs.

3. When you learn game design, learn game design, not game production

Many game creation schools perpetuate the confusion between game design and game production. They call their curriculum “game design”, but no one on staff has a clue about game design, and what they actually teach is programming and (perhaps) art. In large part this is because the instructors don’t understand what game design actually is (never having successfully created a good, complete game). In this context, game design suffers from a lack of respect. "Oh, that's just kids' stuff, anyone can do/teach that." But would you choose someone who does not play an instrument to teach musical composition? Wouldn't you want the teacher to be a composer? Would you let someone who doesn't sculpt teach sculpture, or someone who doesn't paint teach painting? Then why would you have someone who not only doesn't design games, but has not been a lifelong gamer, teach game design? Yet it happens all over the country.

Fundamentally, there’s a misunderstanding that you can learn to be a game designer by memorizing facts and discussing theories and analyzing games. Game design is a hands-on occupation, and learning it should be hands-on, from start to finish, not just halfway through (until you have an electronic prototype).

As an example, at one college the second-in-sequence “Game Design” class, taught by non-designers, requires student groups to produce five video games (using Gamemaker, a fine simple tool) in a 16 week semester. Students struggle in that short time to produce an electronic prototype, usually getting it to work a day before it’s due. Students learn only the outer layer of the onion of game design, and that poorly. Hardly any “game design” is involved, and because students must go on to the next game, they miss out on the most vital part of game design, iteratively and incrementally testing and modifying the game prototype to make it worthwhile. Further, whoever is doing the programming ends up doing most of the work, and the general impression of the students is that working in groups “sucks.” It is a low-quality game production class, not a game design class.

Similarly, if you’re learning game design on your own, don’t get bogged down learning game production. It’s widely known among designers that you much more efficiently learn game design if you start with non-electronic games (see "Pulling the Plug: In Defense of Non-Digital Teaching and Learning" If you try to make electronic games, you’ll spend your time struggling to produce a working prototype instead of learning how to design games.

(Having said this, remember that hardly anyone is hired as a game designer, or even a level designer, right out of school. You probably need to have other skills that can get you a job in the industry. Time spent learning game production isn’t wasted, it just isn’t learning game design.)

[[This might be a good place to divide the article into two parts.]]

Now let's add the three things the video game industry wants from “new blood” such as school graduates:

4. Ability to work in teams

Before 1990, video games tended to be created by one person. Now, with very few exceptions, such games are created by teams, from half a dozen people for a casual game to more than a hundred for a AAA list game. The really big games are “designed” by committee, with contributions from everyone; the designer tends to be a person who gets everyone to work together and keep the original “vision” of the game in mind, rather than someone who comes up with all the ideas and solutions for changes and improvements.

If it’s a relatively small video game, and the designer has a strong personality, he will have a stronger influence on the game result than otherwise.

See Jill Duffy’s discussion of teamwork at, including the comments.

Students tend to dread working in groups in a classroom setting, and it’s certainly true that if everyone in the group isn’t on the same page, the result is unlikely to be good.

Student groups DO tend to make awful teams, because of lack of commitment: students aren’t always serious about their “work”, and they cannot get fired (at least, not until it’s too late for the team to succeed).

Voluntary groups are more likely to be successful, but if everyone isn’t being paid, and isn’t ultimately in jeopardy of being fired, there still can be a lack of long-term commitment.

Yet even in a game studio, some of the people you work with will be less than “stellar”. Yes, you will work with some outstanding people, but you can’t rely on that to get you through. You have to learn to work with “average” people. Yet this is no different than what anyone experiences in other industries, or in team sports. We all have heard that the team with the best teamwork, not the most talented players, usually wins. And we’ve all heard of star players who score a lot, but whose teams suffer for it.

On the other hand, one of the most bogus phrases heard in a typical businessplace is “he’s not a team player”, because it often means, “he won’t do what I want him to”, or “he won’t do some of my work”, or “I don’t like him”. Often the person making the accusation is the one who isn’t the team player. You have to learn to navigate through sometimes-choppy waters.

The key to any team is a “collegial” point of view, that the members care primarily about the success of the team, not about individual accolades or rewards.

The leaders who work most effectively, it seems to me, never say "I." And that's not because they have trained themselves not to say "I." They don't think "I." They think "we"; they think "team." They understand their job to be to make the team function. They accept responsibility and don't sidestep it, but "we" gets the credit. This is what creates trust, what enables you to get the task done. --Peter Drucker

5. Ability to think critically (“critical thinking”)

Critical thinking is a slippery idea, and Wikipedia will do as well as any other definition:

“Critical thinking consists of mental processes of discernment, analysis and evaluation. It includes possible processes of reflecting upon a tangible or intangible item in order to form a solid judgment that reconciles scientific evidence with common sense.”

“Critical thinking has its basis in intellectual criteria that go beyond subject-matter divisions and which include: clarity, credibility, accuracy, precision, relevance, depth, breadth, logic, significance and fairness.”

So “critical” here is in the sense of inquisitive and evaluative, not in a negative sense of criticizing someone. Much of game creation, and especially of the iterative process of incrementally improving a game to make it worth publishing, requires strong critical thinking. The process of testing and modifying a game is much akin to the scientific method, controlled experimentation, hypothetical solutions, incremental results.

The game designer needs to have his brain in gear all the time. When playing games, he should be thinking about what works, what doesn’t, and why. He must keep his mind open to ideas at all times. He must think about how to improve his game even when (if) he enjoys playing it. The game can always be improved, we just come to a time when the improvement we can get isn’t worth the time it will take (the law of diminishing marginal returns).

“Fanboys” (or girls) will never make good game designers, as they typically praise a game or genre uncritically. Self-criticism is especially important. If you can’t recognize that your favorite mechanic just doesn’t fit, or just isn’t needed, then you won’t design good games. Self-indulgence is “verboten”.

6. Understanding of the pipeline process

The “pipeline process” is the stages a video game passes through on the way to completion. Books have been written about this (e.g.,

This does vary some from company to company, but is fundamentally the same. It’s hard to truly understand these stages unless you make games and complete them. That means, make small games, because you won’t have the manpower or variety of skills needed to make and complete big ones. (Will your little group produce more than 100 man-years and millions of dollars of professional effort? Certainly not.) Any game that takes a small fraction of a semester may not teach you enough about the process, because there cannot be much detail to it, while any that you think will take more than a year is far too big.

There are three things every employer wants from you:

7. Good written communication skills

Everyone in industry needs these skills for making pitches and proposals, understanding contracts, dealing with email and everyday announcements, and the like.

Most video games must be made by a team, not an individual. The game designer must communicate in writing and orally everything about his game, in a manner that enables the artists and programmers to reproduce it. This is much harder to do than you might at first think.

Non-electronic game designers can make the prototypes and write the rules themselves, but still must communicate well with playtesters to improve the game. Moreover, since the rules are not enforced by computer, it’s especially important to write rules that are clear, concise, understandable.

8. Good oral communication skills

You need to be able to speak clearly, whether informally or in presentations. You’ll have to help your supervisor understand why something will or will not work, help the game designer understand how the game might be improved, help the potential funding people understand why your game concept is worth the expense. Everyone, but especially game designers, make oral “pitches” in the video game industry.

A class that makes you speak formally in front of a group of people is a Good Thing, not something to be avoided.

(Pedantry for the day: “verbal” means “with words”, so applies to both writing and oral communication. It is not a substitute for “oral”.)

9. Ability to work in a team

Yes, that again. It’s true for all industries, though especially in the video game industry where big teams create the big games.

10. Develop a productive orientation

I recall one student, 27 years old, who said after a three-day break from classes that he’d played games for forty hours during that break. That may be fun, but it won’t help you get where you want to go—in a practical sense, it’s a waste of time! I encounter far too many people who think that playing games is a path into the game industry.

Making games is quite different from playing games. Yes, you need to know games, you need to be enthusiastic about games, but playing games that others have devised is productive only in limited ways, especially if you play four hours a day. I’ve known way too many students who define their self-worth through game playing; unfortunately, in the real world game playing, unless you’re good enough to make a living at tournaments, counts for nothing. Make no mistake, the game industry is part of the real world, however extraordinary it may appear to be.

To be an adult, someone who can be a good employee, you must be responsible and productive. When you’re learning your skills, your responsibility is to yourself, to do what needs to be done. And that is to be productive. If you want to design, you need to make games, not play games (unless you made it), not talk about games, not analyze games, but to make games.

Whether it’s a non-electronic game (the best way to learn), or a level, or a mod, or a game you make with a simple engine like Gamemaker, you must make games. Don’t be disappointed that you can’t make a AAA list kind of game that requires 150 man-years of effort; make a small game that is nonetheless a good game.

If you’re interested in art, then draw by hand, draw on the computer, learn 3D modeling programs, and so forth—and use your art to help make games. If you want to be a programmer, then write programs, study programming, experiment with game engines, join with others to make games.

Build a portfolio so that, when a chance comes to get a job, you’re ready with proof of your best work.

Make something, don’t just talk about making something. If you do that, and you have some talent, everything else will fall into place, sooner or later.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Student illusions about being a game designer

This originally appeared on GameCareerGuide 7 May 09. You can click on the article title to reach the published version.

Here is a list of illusions and delusions of beginning game development (especially game design) students, with a brief description of WHY it isn’t so.

Briefly, what this list amounts to is, “grow up and recognize what life is like, kid”. Wildly unrealistic expectations are usually a characteristic of immature people. Yes, you can dream, but dreams require a lot of work to fulfill.

* They'll design a game and someone else will do all the work.
* It's all creativity instead of work.
Game design can be fun, it can be creative, but it’s also work. Thinking is work, writing clear descriptions of what you’ve thought is work, figuring out the results of testing and how to improve the game is work. The great inventor Thomas Edison is supposed to have said that success is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration, which certainly applies here.

* Ideas will just come to them, floating in out of the ether--and that one idea is all they need
Quality of ideas–of the best ones--tends to be proportional to QUANTITY. You need lots of ideas to get some decent ones. And in the end, it’s the execution of an idea that is most important.

* AAA list games can be produced easily
These games are the results of many man-years of work, and of budgets running to $20 million and beyond. A student group of any size, even if they have as much talent as successful professional game developers, would take thousands of semesters to produce a AAA list game.

* They'll play games all day in the job.
* It matters that they're expert game players
Even game magazine editors cannot play all day. Playing games is important, but that’s not something you’ll do much on the job. Game playing expertise is virtually irrelevant.

*They’ll be able to design what they want
This is not the way it works in the industry, where design is very collaborative, even on smaller “casual” games. Even the most successful designers, such as Sid Meier, sometimes must satisfy publishers who are funding their efforts. Typically, you’ll be told to work on a particular design problem, and won’t be able to do your own thing.

* They're going to have a big effect on a AAA game soon after getting a job
One industry veteran who works on small games said he isn’t excited at the thought of working on a huge game, such as Madden football, and then being able to say he had something to do with how the football flies! The bigger the game, the smaller your part in it. When the game involves more than a hundred man-years of effort, your work for even a year amounts to less than one percent of the whole.

* Getting a degree is going to get them a job.
* They can do just what's in the curriculum, and without any additional effort, they will have 100% of what it takes to succeed.
A degree differentiates you from the thousands who want to work in the industry but haven’t taken the time to do much about it. Still, students have to show what they can do, the degree alone doesn't count for much yet. That means students need to be as fanatical about preparing themselves for a game industry job as they’re fanatical about playing video games. There are dozens of times as many industry wannabes as there are jobs available. Only those who prepare themselves fully will get the jobs.

* If they just make a game that includes all the currently-popular elements (a market-driven game), theirs will be instantly popular.
No, this usually leads to a soul-less, unsuccessful game.

* They're going to be able to assemble a development team without salaries and get things done on schedule with the promise of royalties once the game goes commercial. (Though at least this happens every once in a while.)
Even where developers are well-paid full-time employees, games usually fall behind schedule. Start-up companies with good funding often fail. These folks are as dedicated and fanatical as you. What makes you different? You may succeed if you do the right things, but this is rarely an avenue into the game industry.

* They'll start their career working in the position they want to achieve in the long run.
As with most industries, you have to “pay your dues” to get where you want to go. There’s also a “pyramid effect” here, the most desirable jobs are near the top of the pyramid where there are fewer jobs, the less desirable ones are near the bottom where there are many more jobs.

* Think the college curriculum is an extension of high school and act as such.
A good college is nothing like a typical high school. Most high schools are now training institutions, and not even good at that. You memorize what you need to regurgitate on the End of Class test, and that’s about it. College is (or should be) an educational institution, you need to understand why things work as they do so that you can cope with something you haven’t encountered or solved before.

Moreover, you are responsible for your education in college–you are an adult. No one will hold your hand constantly. You have an opportunity to learn a lot, but YOU must do it.

* They will only work on hard core games,
The hard core is a relatively small part of the market, and the most demanding part. It’s easy to underestimate the number of casual game players. Any very successful game must appeal to the casual players. Most video games are not designed for the hard core.

* Work will always be fun and they will always enjoy playing the game they create at the end.
Work will often be fun. If they play the game enough, they’ll get sick of it. In fact, by the end of the production process, they’re quite likely to be sick and tired of “screwing around with that game”. But they’ll enjoy seeing it for sale.

* They will never make a game that gets canceled.
The preponderance of games that are started are canceled before they’re finished. An important quality of success in the industry is recognizing when a game “isn’t clicking”. But games are often canceled for reasons other than quality, such as funding, loss of employees, corporate takeovers or other business failures, and changes in the market.

* Testing is only about playing games.
Testing is serious work; you have to write up results, contribute to bug databases, etc. If you test one game long enough, you’ll come to dislike the game no matter how good it is.

* They can sneer at and ignore non-AAA titles as though there was something wrong with them and they'd never need to work on such a thing
Given the increasing budgets for AAA titles, the majority of people working on games are not working on AAA games. The studios working on AAA games have few entry-level positions–why risk a lot of money on inexperienced people? Do the math.

* It will be Easy. There’s always an Easy Button, isn’t there?
No. If you want an easy job, look for something else. If you want a fun job, look here.