Game design is an endeavor that becomes more fun and more effective with a team, yet good collaborative environments seem relatively rare. That’s unfortunate. I think approaching design as a team sport can have a big positive impact on design quality.
Our company has one of the largest dedicated game design/development departments in the business. A chunk of them sit in an open cube area called ‘The Pit.’ These cubes don’t have walls, and in the center of the area is an open gaming space. Designers move freely between their workstations and the center tables. Frequently someone will call out “Anyone available to help try out this new build?” Usually several people will step up. The company culture rewards open debate, argument, and brainstorming. People feel comfortable being open with their thoughts, and aren’t afraid of being pilloried for dumb ideas. I believe this culture of collaboration is extremely powerful and very rare in game design and other creative fields.
I have a particularly addictive personality when it comes to computer games. When the Infocom games like Zork first came out, I spent hours on my Commodore 64 plugging away at them to solve their mindless mysteries. I was addicted to several of the Ultima series and even a few of the early primitive online RPGs like Nethack and Angband. When the MMORPG rage started, I was addicted to Ultima Online, then Everquest, then Dark Age of Camelot, then World of Warcraft. However, I have an unusual on/off switch for these games. I can be playing the game nonstop for weeks, and then suddenly quit and never play the particular game again. If I could figure out why I stop cold turkey on these games, I could probably get some decent work as a consultant on MMO projects, but I really don’t know the answer.
One of the big crazes these days is Facebook games. I personally have never been sucked into Facebook, although I did really enjoy the South Park episode that spoofed both Facebook and Tron. I check Facebook mostly to see what people are up to. When I used to work at Wizards, there was a gossip network and if you were within earshot of Mark Rosewater (head Magic designer and former writer for some sitcom I’ll remember later), you were occasionally kept up to date of various goings-on at your company, other companies, and picked up tidbits on what former employees were doing every now and then. Sadly, Mark has been rendered obsolete by modern technology in this area (although it will take many, many years for computers to replace his design skills.)
Fancy cars, late night parties, gold necklaces. Who doesn’t want that life? However, you have your mind set on becoming a game designer. No worries. There is still hope.
There are several paths to stardom available. The first is to develop an amazingly innovative game and get lucky enough to have someone see it that has enough faith and resources to run with it. If you set out on this path, be advised that it can take many years and your chance of success is fairly small. A more realistic path, but much less glamorous, is to work your way up in the industry. But before I go into that, let me enlighten you on what the final prize looks like.
Most readers of this column have played Dungeons and Dragons at some point and are familiar with the various publications. One of my old favorites was a book called Deities and Demigods. A Demigod is basically a god for a very small group of followers without a whole lot in the way of real powers. In the field of game design, the term sometimes thrown around is demi-famous. I heard the term first from a discussion by Monte Cook, a noted RPG professional, but the term probably goes back before that. It basically describes a person who is famous in a very limited circle, but generally unknown outside of that circle. Gary Gygax and Sid Meier would probably be good examples. Telling if someone is in this category is fairly easy.
Even though I argue a lot, I am not really known as being a talkative person. I mostly work alone these days, so I don’t have the pleasure of the back and forth conversations that you get when you work in a game design group. I miss some of the old epic arguments I used to have with Robert Gutschera and Mark Rosewater back at WOTC, although their memories may be more in line with the title of this column. The one area that I don’t miss conversation, however, is when I am playing games. That brings us to the subject of table talk.
There are some games where table talk is unavoidable. If you are playing Diplomacy and you don’t talk up a storm, you will probably lose badly. Even some of the older classic games like Risk have a fair number of politics and table talk about who should be attacking who and why none of the other players should bother with you since you are obviously a terrible player and an insignificant threat, despite the fact that you somehow managed to take over half the board, presumably by luck.
I often get told that I am a bit of a loner. I hear this every so often from my friends. I would probably hear it more often if I had more friends I guess, or maybe not. It is a conundrum that keeps me up for a few extra seconds every night. At various times it can be an advantage. In game design there are several approaches that companies use when developing new games. Each of the styles has its weaknesses and strengths, and not all styles work for all designers.
Whether these styles come into play often depends on the method the company uses to acquire new games. There are a lot of game designers in the field, although many of them are now huddled around something called Facebook. Because there are a lot of designers, many larger companies use a submission process, where they basically let the designers play in their various sandboxes and make their creations and then look them over when the designers bring the finished or “sufficiently finished to prove concept” games to their doors. Since larger companies usually have a proven track record of bringing these to market and several have proven track records for success, there is generally an abundance of submissions going for a smaller number of spots, and the really successful ones often have more submissions than they want to receive.