What Makes a Good Game Designer?

I’m between jobs right now, looking for the right fit. Consequently I’ve been taking a few design tests. On the last test I took there was a section devoted to game design philosophy. Questions like,  “What is game design?” or “Where does design fit in a game development pipeline?” so on and so forth. One of my favorites was, “What makes a good game designer?” Now there are some obvious answers here: some knowledge of other disciplines, the ability to problem solve, the ability to communicate effectively, etc. However, in my opinion one thing is often overlooked: experience.

“Oh that’s obvious Martin!” you say dismissively. But I’m not talking about 5+ years of industry experience and two shipped titles. Trust me I’ve met people with more industry experience than that who didn’t have enough life experience to identify with the outsourcers from Germany that they had to work with on a deliverable. Life experience is crucial, and has nothing to do with brainstorming, understanding best practices, or sitting behind a desk writing documentation. What I’m talking about is having done “things and stuff.” Having connected with people from other cultures, having lived abroad, having tried to navigate a waterfront cave system; that sort of thing.

A while back I watched a video called Humans Need Not Apply. If you haven’t watched this film you probably should. This short talks extensively about how humans are being replaced in the workforce. Much like the emergence of the automobile put horses out of work, humans are being replaced at a rapid pace by new technology. It gets pretty scary talking about how low-skill, white -collar workers, and professionals are all in danger of being replaced by machines (of one sort or another). Yes, even doctors. At one point in the film the narrator says “Perhaps you are un-phased because you’re a special creative snowflake.” He then goes on to say that human creativity is no big deal and bots can be taught to replicate it. The narrator gives the example of Emily Howell, a bot that composes music. But, Emily is no Mozart. I didn’t hear anything that actually “moved” me while listening to its music.

My point is that, to spite what the video claims, there are human emotions, experiences, an essential human condition which you must relate to in order to produce truly compelling creative work. If programmers used machine learning to try and create a Shakespeare bot, feeding it everything from how to construct prose in iambic pentameter, to what makes for a good plot line, to knowledge of every cultural nuance of the world of Elizabethan England; I still don’t think the bot would come up with anything as compelling as Othello or even All’s Well That Ends Well (my least favorite work by old Will Shakes). If we created a game design bot and told it to design an unique puzzle game using optical illusions, what do you think the chances are that it would come up with something as beautiful and with as much mystique as Monument Valley?

Did you ever watch Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG)? If you haven’t, then for this reference you just need to know that there is a major protagonist named Data (seriously do you live under a rock), an Android, basically a sophisticated robot that appears human. One of the reoccurring themes of the show concerns Data’s efforts to become “more human.”  Data was created without emotions, and while he is superior to humans in many ways (like strength and his ability to do complex math in his head) he can never really be one with the species he was designed to emulate because of this lack. Often Data’s search to understand humanity takes the form of creative endeavors like painting or acting. While he might give an adequate performance of Ebenezer Scrooge ultimately it is derivative, stemming from his studies of  “every known acting master.” Data admits that he does not “effectively convey the fear called for in the story.” It is pointed out to him that he has never known fear, but he should be able to approximate it as an acute observer of human behavior. Data criticizes this idea because it isn’t an appropriate basis for an effective performance. Data says he is a proponent of method acting, a technique where actors, in themselves, cultivate the thoughts and feelings of their characters. The idea of Data as a method actor is oxymoronic.

A computer, even one that emulates emotions, does not understand emotions or have experiences and associated personal interpretations that makes a person’s creative endeavors unique while still compelling to others. For this reason I believe that, as creatives, game designers should have as much life experience as possible. Understanding the exhilaration one feels on the half pipe at a snow park will make you better able to design an enjoyable snowboarding game or even a racing game. But it goes beyond this. Life experience will make you better at working with others. If you’ve never spent time with Chinese or Indians then you probably know little of their cultures. When you have to work with people from these countries you may find it hard to communicate. Try referencing Alice in Wonderland and watch the blank looks propagate. Within any culture there are things we take for granted that “everybody knows.” We reinforce this belief through media. An American produced television show will typically depict the US as the center of the world, the same for British TV. Have you ever watched anime? What country is the world’s hub of culture, trade, and diplomatic clout in those shows? Japan. By immersing yourself in other cultures you become better able to understand people, not just your people.

If you never try to have life experiences. If you aren’t adventurous and tend to eat the same few meals you’re comfortable with, never tried yoga, never visited a foreign country, watch only reality television, and have never spent a night camping in the middle of a forest (sans RV), then you are missing out. You don’t have to do those things, exactly, but without life experience, ultimately, you aren’t much better than a creative computer program. All your knowledge and understanding of humanity is mostly theoretical or stems from a very narrow perception of the world. In the end we are designing for other people. The person who designs for themselves is lost, tending not to make great games. The more life experience you have the better you will be at understanding the needs and motivations of those you are designing for. While books on Game Design are great, I’d prefer to work with the designer who has never cracked one but who has spent three months working on a shipping vessel in the Atlantic. But, that’s just how I feel.

Another Blog

Until recently I was not allowed to post to my blog by a very strict contract with Shiver Entertainment. However that has all changed recently.

I am going to pick up writing here again, however I have been asked to write for another blog called I’m a Social Gamer. The content will primarily be about newly released or geolocked mobile games. You can checkout my first post about Smashland.

My Favorite iPad Game: Crimson Steam Pirates

I didn’t grow up playing D&D, and while I am familiar with all the concepts and a huge fan of RPGs I only recently got into it. My roommate Ross loves Paizo Pathfinder and I am now participating in two campaigns. One is being DMed by Ross every couple weeks at our place, and the other I am playing online with his friends using a site called Roll20. The online game is set in a semi steam punk universe where we are privateers (basically pirates). The problem is the interface for navigating ships in this game is just terrible as it is governed by the world interface that Roll20 provides. For example: you can’t turn 10 degrees to starboard in a turn, you have to turn increments of 45 degrees or nothing, and all areas within the attack envelope of your cannons are equally effective. Roll20 has a lot to offer but it sadly lacks in naval strategy. After last Thursday’s Game I decided to show Ross my favorite game on iPad so he could see what I would love to have available to us in our D&D game (not that this will ever happen). I meant for him to play it for a few minutes, he stole my iPad for three hours.


Crimson Steam Pirates (CSP) is set in a steam punk universe and is full of over the top characters, campy dialog and a fun story line which you can sink your teeth into or totally ignore as you will. There are no cut-scenes forced on you, and it’s always easy to figure out your objectives without having to read a lot. Still, it has a rich story and universe established so don’t think any of this description is meant as a put down. What I’m saying is that the game is a lot of fun, if story and characters are your thing they are there, if not then there is still a lot to love.

CSP is a turn based naval strategy game (though there are some dirigibles as well). As you may have guessed, one thing that makes the game so strong is the interface. Checkout this screen cap from my iPad:


The guest can see how far their ship will move along a path by dragging the ghost image around with their finger. By moving it further or closer to the ship’s current position the guest can adjust their momentum, one can use different abilities as well to accelerate the ship. When selecting the ship the guest can see the area of effectiveness of the attack envelopes, the range of the weapons and the effectiveness of overlapping envelopes. There are also a variety of abilities that can be selected each turn by touching the wheel. The best part is that these abilities are afforded by the crew members manning the ship. It adds a layer of complexity to the strategy. The guest has to think not only about what abilities they want aboard their ship, but how that crew will work together when they get into a boarding action, and how expendable certain crew members are.


For example: one can’t go loosing Tesla, he’s crucial, so they don’t put him aboard their weak little scout vessel, or maybe they do, with two engineers so they can constantly repair it and this gives them the ability to quickly strike all over the place with their Tesla gun. But, you wouldn’t want to run that vessel up along a large command ship and board her since the scout’s entire crew is going to have too weak a combat rating to let you take the other boat or win much treasure.


It’s awesome design and the levels are also well thought out and scale beautifully. As the game scales up it becomes quite challenging, so you are often getting a great sense of fiero (epic win satisfaction), there is certainly the fun you get from the story they put out there and the wonderful sense of adventure it creates, and (whether or not it’s true) it makes you feel like you are becoming an awesome strategist and sea captain. It’s not really a social game, but then I’m not a huge socializer (though I hang with my CSS crew and play some Civ with my friends, and hey I’m really getting into this D&D thin). I could go on for some time about this, but don’t take my word for it, check it out for yourself on the app store, the first third of the game is free, I’ll wager you buy the rest.

Moving Forward with Web

After paper prototype testing I’ve decided to move forward with Web (I’m going to come up with a better working title soon). Given the complexity of testing with paper prototypes it has become apparent to me that this is a game best suited for digital. This revelation isn’t really anything of the sort, but one must make sure about these things. The problem is the complexity of the web. If the player is encoding nodes with hidden pieces (see previous post) early game there has to be a way to reference these nodes. Numbering systems get super complex, and using a card with a check-box for every node makes it so the board cannot be dynamically generated with each game. However, making the game digital affords the power to not only create a more dynamic board generation system (which scales complexity and size based on the number of guests), but also allows for a simple interface where a node only offers a selection when it is scrolled over.

In fact the digital version will solve many problems including: game experience time for multiple players (by posting to a server players can play over days rather than sitting at a table for hours), the visualization of large amounts of units (you can see units represented by symbols with numbers at a macro level or as individuals when zoomed in), providing a history of play, and maintaining the integrity of the rules. I’m sure all sorts of problems will arise of course, but that  mean more things we can solve, it’s the nature of the beast and how we learn.

For the next iteration I want to experiment with simultaneous turns versus alternating turns, and orders of operations to unit actions. I’m also working on theming (we are talking about constructing the web with ropes, maybe theming the units as pirates, but also exploring other possibilities like a futuristic universe). I’m developing with my good friend and past co-worker Emmanuel Eytan, and we will be making the first version for mobile (iOS and possibly Android). I’ll let you know when we are ready for Alpha testing.

Teaching Video Game Design

I spent the last nine weeks teaching video game design for Galileo Learning. It’s a summer camp in the bay area; sort of like summer school in that there are classes and kids have a major they attend. Each week I taught a class of around 16 kids either an introduction to video game design and development or an advanced course where we built on what was learned in the first class.

Given that I had five days each week I had to focus on rapid prototyping. I taught the kids the basics of designing a game, how every game has some sort of a story, and tried to instill the important of visual and auditory elements when establishing a themes and styles. The hardest things to teach were scope and the importance of testing. Really, all I could do was get them to prioritize features, and develop until they ran out of time. Isn’t that what tends to happen in the professional world as well, at least to a certain extent? As for testing, they would usually test, but whether they would make changes was another matter. An eleven year old told by ten different people that his level is too hard will sometimes say defensively, “I like it this way.”

I broke my class up into strike teams of three to four, and after the tutorials on the use of the Multimedia Fusion 2, Gimp, and Audacity, plus all our talks about gamed design; they had about two days to develop their games. I often got generic platformers, with a bunch of enemies on paths set to the default speed, these launch objects at the player when they are in a zone and there were generally a number of pits where one could fall to one’s death. However this was not always the case. The most interesting games tried to push the boundaries of what they knew they could do with the program. They would try to learn new things while developing, or focus very heavily of elegant design and good art. Sometimes they were buggy, or just unfinished. But, it always impressed me what my kids could prototype in such a short time. I wanted to share a few of these here.


Gingerbread Runaway

Gingerbread Runaway is a really awesome game. One of the students on this team got sick after the first day and this ended up being created by a team of only two. However, Austin was one of the best collaborators I had in all my classes, the kids did some truly awesome original art, and they really tried to experiment with programming in MMF2.

Controls: Arrow Keys and Shift to Jump



Sewer Escape

The team that created Sewer Escape really seemed to understand scaling difficulty. The explanatory text is funny in a way that only kids can be.

Controls: Arrow Keys




Katfish is a fun little maze game that makes good use of balancing life and hazards. Kids often felt the need to make their games punishing, but this team understood that their game could be enjoyable if it was simply well designed and themed.

Controls: Arrow Keys



Monkey Runnner

Monkey Runner uses a cross hair to control where the player can launch bananas toward. They also created moving, crumbling, and tar platforms. This team was the first to use parallax. While there are some bugs in this game I am fond of it because it really pushed the limits.

Controls: WASD, Mouse to Aim, Left Click to throw Bananas, Space Bar to Jump



Cat Kingdom Wars

Cat Kingdom Wars is a tower defense game that never quite came entirely together. The first level is closest to the finished experience they intended. You can place towers by clicking the buttons and then drag them around with the mouse. The last level has waves of invading mice. The art was all original. To spite over-scoping heavily I have included the game here because it is again another example of a team going above and beyond in their efforts.



Food Fight

Food Fight is a game much like angry birds. Physics is hard to do in MMF2 and I was super proud of this team for even trying. They never quite got the obstacles to interact right but they created a basic game template that would have allowed them to make a bunch of new levels if they had had time.

Controls: Drag with the Mouse, Spacebar to Launch



Future Jump

It was awesome watching the Future Jump team come together. Originally they couldn’t agree on anything and the team was divided into two camps. However, after I explained both groups’ ideas were way over-scoped, and we had a talk about how ideas are much like disposable cups, they came together whole heartedly over a third idea. It’s not completely finished but the core experience is and they really understood the concept of explaining the underlying concept of a game in a short cut scene (even if theirs is extremely short).

Controls: Up arrow key to jump forward, Left and Right arrow keys to jump between walls.

New Interfaces in Radiology

I’ve said before that I consider myself a generalist. I don’t limit my design ideas to games. So, today I would like to talk about Radiology.

During my last semester at Carnegie Mellon I was fortunate enough to get my hands on a zSpace. I ended up attending zCon 2013 and seeing all the cool things people are doing with the zSpace technology. One company, echopixel, is using it to create an interface for viewing 3D representations of Radiological scans like CTs. This may surprise you, but this is an area I happen to know a great deal about.

Now don’t get me wrong, I like zSpace, and if you are reading this David (or anyone else from zSpace) please don’t take offense, but I’m not convinced it is the way to go with this technology. I’ve read the articles, like: Virtual Holography, The Next Step in Radiology Imaging?, and A tipping point for visualization-driven knowledge. I’m just not convinced this interface is going to be the right fit or provide the usability that doctors need for the industry. And neither are doctors I’ve talked to, it will take a lot of peer reviewed papers before this tech will get adopted. The papers aside, there are a few issues I see right off the bat:

  1. As far as I know zSpace is not an FDA approved monitor. FDA approved monitors cost a lot of money (like $10,000 a pop) and I don’t know how they will convert it over to that.
  2. Using that wand all the time is going to be a problem since doctors need to have that hand free to a certain extent to dictate cases while they are reading them.
  3. This is the big one. You can only wear those glasses for so long. I found that after about two hours of use I was done for the day. Your eyes get tired and it can cause headaches.

I propose another, perhaps cheaper and simpler way to use similar software technology the echopixel has created (which I do think is awesome), but with different less invasive and labor-intensive hardware. Couple a FDA approved monitor with a Soft Kinetic.

The soft kinetic is a really awesome machine like the Kinect and has the ability to do gesture recognition as well, if not better than, the Leap Motion. One could track the position of the head to create the 3D perception, and then use gestural control to manipulate the position of the 3D imaging being observed.

Don’t believe that good perceptual 3D can be achieved without stereo glasses or a 3D screen? Well, I know it can. But don’t take my word for it, you can start by looking at the work of Johnny Lee if you like. But I worked on a project with Brad Buchanan at Carnegie Mellon where we made this very technology work with a Kinect. That was before Kinect had near mode, and the Soft Kinetic has better technology on-board than the Kinect.

This is obviously just a concept, not a perfect solution yet, there are problems to be solved. A big one would be, how to make sure the head tracking stayed with the primary physician if someone else dropped by. But, it seems like a more user friendly solution to me. I envision a future where doctors lean back in front of their screens casually waving their hands at 3D representations of breast MRs, no glasses required.

Trimming Down the One Page Design Doc

I have been working on trying to cut down the design of Web. Obviously features will need to be cut, but as a first step I really wanted to see if I could streamline the overview design doc into something significantly more digestible. It is clear from the amount of text of the previous docs that this design is simply too complex, and while the obvious solution is to break it down to its component parts, there had to be some way, at the highest level, that I could summarize it more nicely. In doing this simplification I realized that this game really isn’t right for table top. It will probably make a good browser based board game (ironically), but there are five components which I left out of/solved with the new design summary which were cluttering up the original board or making things too complicated. However, some of these components are still in the game, they just don’t need to be addressed in the design doc as they become back end systems (or too specific for the overview).

  1. There is no longer a need for board pieces. The web is generated randomly. This also gives an opportunity to have way cooler theming more easily.
  2. There is no longer a need to have numbered nodes as players should just be able to select the location of the nodes they want to hide their special pieces on.
  3. Score cup and keeping score: this can all be managed by the program.
  4. Making it a video game solves the problem of piece clutter. With so many little pieces at different locations things can get cramped. But, with a video game a single icon with a multiplier on it can indicate the number of units of a type at a location.
  5. I removed negotiation. It was a nice idea but it would have made games way too long, and while negotiation might be fun in a table top environment it would be hard to implement and limited in a video game. I would like to return to the idea of negotiation as a main mechanic at a later date in another game.

I’m still not too happy with the amount of text I have for the hidden pieces but overall it is looking much better and more digestible. I don’t look at it anymore and think, ‘Man, that’s overwhelming.’ Now I can make supplemental docs that explain the finer points of play to go along with this general overview:


I will continue to do paper testing, work on the documentation, and see where this goes.

What’s in a name?

R.I.P. Iain M Banks, you will be sorely missed. – 6/9/13

I recently changed the name of my blog again. I had changed it to “The Designer of Games” as a tribute to one of my favorite authors, Iain M Banks, who wrote “The Player of Games” and recently announced he was retiring after finding out he has advanced terminal cancer. His book had a profound effect on me, and helped me to make the decision to go back to grad school to pursue my love of game design. However, it was brought to my attention recently that my blog title came off as “slightly arrogant.” After giving it some thought, I decided that assessment was generous. So, to spite the sentimental value I placed on the name, I decided to change it.

So, why wormholes? Well recently I was asked in an interview, “If you could have any super power what would it be?” I’ve thought about it a lot in the past but never really came up with something I was happy with. But, sitting there, something just clicked. I would want the ability to create and manipulate wormholes of all types. I mean it seems perfect to me. This would give one the ability to travel anywhere in the universe, travel in time, and even allow one to get creative and defend one’s self in battle (against the enemies that would eventually crop up). Think of the endless exploration you could do.

Won’t end up like these guys though (lost AND canceled), their power’s weren’t super:


I think this response is very telling about me. Sure, it speaks to what a sci-fi geek I am. But, you’ll note that I don’t want to be invincible, invisible, or something of that sort. My life up until now has been about seeking knowledge and being creative, and I think that this “super power” would just be an extension of that. Of course it does occur to me that if I had a second super power wish I should ask for invincibility since exploring the universe through wormholes is going to be hard without all sorts of sophisticated gadgetry and protection. But, I figure it wouldn’t be too hard to raise the money once I demonstrated my unique abilities. Given how telling it was, it seemed like a suitable new name for my blog.

Initial Designs for Web

I was walking home with my roommate Ross a few days ago and he asked me, “If you were going to put a project on Kickstarter, what would you do?” My first thought was that I would get a team together and start making an RPG. I have some outlines, and  art for one I’ve been thinking about for several years now. But, then I thought, ‘Don’t be dense, start small.’ By the time we got home I had the beginnings of a board game in my head. I don’t know if this would be what I would put on Kickstarter, but it certainly is a good exercise for me right now.

I have been interested in a number of concepts that I think would make interesting elements in a strategy board game:

  1. A game with almost no random chance, but which had a fun way of randomly introducing an element one per game in the middle of play that could conceivably change the way the game was headed or being played (perhaps giving a player who was in a weak position an opportunity to get back to a position of strength).
  2. Dynamic terrain that gives opportunities to play with a variety of styles and still achieve victory. Maybe a player uses large formations of units, maybe small groups they spread out like a net. However played if they are creative and cunning there is an opportunity for a player to succeed.
  3. I really like the idea of hidden pieces that players can reveal at any time.
  4. Finally, I wanted to explore the possibilities for negotiations in game and wanted to keep it as open ended as possible.

I started in on designing this game, which I have given the working title of Web, by deciding to try to do one page design docs. Because Ross works at Maxis and socializes with that group I have had some recent opportunities to meet and speak with Stone Librande. After being impressed by a board game we played at a party and some documentation I saw from Sim City, I started familiarizing myself with his work on one page design docs. I also attended his GDC talk, where he talked about many of the lessons he learned from trying to design a game with all the complexities of Sim City using one page design docs throughout the process. I have been really impressed with this process and have been trying to work this way with my recent design projects. Getting things onto one page and presenting them in an aesthetically pleasing way forces you to organize your ideas well. You get a real clear indication that your documentation might be too dense by just looking at the layout of your doc. I have found myself doing way more iterations of my one page docs than I have ever done on a written doc. And, to be honest I’m still not happy with them. But either I need to start using a bigger page (right now I’m using 8.5 x 11), or (more likely) I have a long way to go. I feel I’m getting better but I am nowhere near where I want to be yet. It is clear that this is a skill that takes time to cultivate and Stone has said this numerous times. I am posting my docs for Web (which might be better named Net, but I really need to find something that doesn’t actually remind me of the internet) below and you can click on the images to see them enlarged. I think though that I will be breaking at least two of these down even further and trying to make better use of the negative space across all of them. But, this is the first draft of the Web documentation (no theming yet really). Feedback is welcome:

Edit: There is too much text, the text has too go which means this system is too complex for the medium, which is obvious just from initial paper playtesting, and from the fact the text exists.





I have built a board and ordered pieces. Once I get a chance to playtest I’ll post some results and we’ll see how the game changes. Right now, untested, I’m thinking I will have to choose 2 of my core design goals to focus on and cut the rest, but we’ll see how it goes.

As an added bonus for getting this far in the post I am linking you directly to Stone’s printable Garbage Flow Stickers. I think it would make him happy to know people were out there sticking them in random places, it would sure make me happy.



The Designer as Generalist

I recently attended a luncheon during GDC thrown by Crystal Dynamics, and one of the designers from Crystal D said something that struck a chord with me. She said that a designer has to do a lot of living, just like a professional writer. Because you have to know about a lot of things, understand many different ways of thinking, to design well. This might seem really self-evident to many, it does to me. But, to some this is somehow not intuitive.

I think it goes to something Jason Vandenberghe mentioned during his GDC talk (Applying the 5 Domains of Play: Acting like Players) and that is this concept of “design empathy”. Now, he was talking about understanding different player types, and why they play so that you could have a better understanding of how to effectively design for them. However, I mean this in a broader sense, I mean understanding people and what motivates them. Life learning, learning in general adds to your understanding of people. Jesse Shell, in his second class of Game Design every semester, talks about how design is at it’s core intuitive. You think something might be fun, then you build it and see if it is, then improve on it until you run out of time or money. But, to get that honed intuition; to have good design empathy from the word “go” I think you need two things. One is life experience, and the other is general knowledge.

As a designer I have always been working to improve on my general knowledge and abilities. I have learned Maya and Max, I’ve learned to do some scripting in LUA, XML, Javascript, and even a little C#. I’ve made tools for Unity and character art for game prototypes. But, how much of that can I show? The answer is, pretty much none of it. Not because it isn’t good. Some of it is, some of it isn’t (for example I won’t claim to be more than a dilettante when it comes to programming).  I can’t show it because it confuses people. If I fill my portfolio with examples of icon packs, UI/UX wireframes and documentation, 3D character models and animation, VFX tools, and web applications people start asking, “What does he do?” Well, I’m a designer, isn’t it obvious? No, the designer needs to understand all the disciplines and embrace them, but he can’t BE them. If he shows that he is them to any degree he starts muddying the waters.

I seek to be a generalist; that is what I am and what I will continue to try to be. Because, I’m convinced that, the greater my breadth becomes, the greater my design depth becomes. I think this is the best thing you can be as a designer. It allows you to work more easily with others because you know what their disciplines require, and it allows for greater design empathy. It’s the modern equivalent of trying to become a Renaissance Man. But, I won’t go posting my environment art in my design portfolio any time soon. But, if you want to see some of my art, you can follow the link above to my art portfolio.