I am a professional game designer. Somebody pays me to do it; I don’t need to work another day job, I don’t scribble notes for my next Kickstarter as a creative outlet, I have a full workshop and supplies at my disposal paid for on the company’s dime rather than mine. I have an excuse to play and read about board games while I’m on the clock at work.
I’m incredibly lucky in this. My wife reminds me all the time, and rightly so. I get to do something I love, to a degree that many, many people don’t and maybe never will. Sometimes I forget this. I happen to have had what many people would consider a “dream job” long enough that it’s become normalized, not quite “just a day job” but something that’s a basic, foundational part of my day-to-day routine. I don’t really think about it beyond knowing that it’s what I do.
If you’re ever going to have any work/life balance, every job eventually becomes, at least partially, internally normalized; “just part of who I am”. It’s not unthinkable to forget about the uniqueness of the role you play. Even when you know you’re good at what you do — that you deserve and have earned your place in that role — it’s possible to look at other people in similar roles and wonder if you stack up.
New opportunities are scary, even when you know you’ve got a 20-pound bag full of qualifications. That is a near-universal truth.
Hello, internet world. I’m going to trust you with a something personal. Right now I’m working on broadening my horizons. It’s not really a secret, even within my current job, that I have an interest in exploring new kinds of projects with new kinds of collaborators and teammates. I want to surround myself with other game designers with ideas and visions I haven’t had the chance to learn from yet.
In sports, this would be a lot like going into free agency, particularly if you’re aware you’re not necessarily J.D. Martinez or LeBron James. Even within the narrow “dream job” world of professional game designers, I’m no Eric Lang, Alan R. Moon, or Freidemann Friese. In baseball terms, I’m a veteran utility player with a solid on-base percentage (OBP). I am the moneyball player, one of the guys in the Oakland Athletics (A’s) 2002 lineup. For most of those guys, they each knew they had strong proven value, but after their time in Oakland they went into free-agency situations still knowing that any team they joined likely already had more known superstars than the one they were leaving.
For me, this is the knowledge that any team I eventually join already has people with years of experience navigating their particular terrain.
There’s some irony in my sense of intimidation; as I’ve said, I know I’m good and I want those new surroundings to learn from. I’ve also spent the last year or so working in a department where my projects have largely been solo ventures, and I want to get back into the realm of collaborative design. It’s at the very top of what I want from a job in game design. Well, that and a commute less than the 90-minute one I have now. Seattle traffic blows.
I like tossing ideas around with other designers. I love debates rooted in design philosophy and theory. I like sometimes stepping back from the weight of needing to initiate a concept from scratch and instead being one of the guys who helps paddle someone else’s canoe. (I still love you, Nick Offerman.)
Knowing those other designers have had more time to develop and practice the theories relevant to their particular projects is still heady stuff to walk into. Striking the balance between being respectful and humble enough to let them guide you into their process and walking through the door confidently from day one is far from a no-brainer. It’s something that, when I stop and let myself think about, is pretty daunting. And I know I have what it takes to do what they do, because I do it every day, and have done it for years.
“Dream jobs” are tricky that way.
Pro athletes have dream jobs. Millions of people want to play for the Lakers or the Seahawks or the Red Sox or Real Madrid, but only a tiny handful of people ever actually will. I am absolutely certain that with very few exceptions, every single one of those pro athletes facing free agency does so with a nervous twinge when they think about re-acclimating and adjusting to match the pre-existing chemistry of a new team.
I don’t need to worry about not being J.D. Martinez. I need to remember that in the world of professional game design, the things I value most are found in teams built like the 2002 Oakland A’s.
Less about my own journey and goals. More about today’s lead: game designers and the 2002 Oakland A’s.
To say that the Oakland A’s did it with no “stars” is misleading. The story Aaron Sorkin and Brad Pitt told in Moneyball was a functional retelling of a pretty amazing modern-era sports story, but it left a few details out. Moneyball glorifies (justifiably) the value of a team built to be a team above all else.
If you want to get picky, Sorkin left out the fact that Oakland’s pitching staff was a group of guys who were really good, and pitching is probably the least “team performance” process in the sport. One good pitcher sets the tone of the entire game, limiting the average number of runs any opposing team can score in a single game and setting a threshold for the number of runs their own team needs to score to win that game. The pitcher does that with a single arm and the help of a well-versed catcher. After that, there are seven other players on the field who have virtually no bearing on whether the hitters the pitcher is facing make contact with the ball. The real Beane knew this, and that’s the part the movie glosses over.
For my purposes today, I will too. Mostly.
Baseball is a strange mix of personal and team performances, and Billy Beane demonstrated that handily in building his team. If you know the movie, you know most of the story. Beane was the General Manager of a team that was hemorrhaging whatever A-list hitting talent they had into organizations that could pay more, and had little budget for new headline “mashers” (guys who are exciting to watch because they hit the ball really, really hard. Like, inhumanly hard.). He realized that the math of the game proved that the mashers weren’t actually the guys that won games though; it was the process of consistently getting a lot of players on base that produced slightly better-than-average runs per inning than most other teams.
Let me clarify for the non-baseball readers I may have brought in today; “masher” is not a technical baseball term or position. It’s an archetypal kind of player, someone whose performance as a hitter is not directly tied to their role on the field. I’ll use the term quite a bit in the next few paragraphs, so it’s worth getting that all cleared up now.
Mashers typically come up to the plate to hit every two to three innings, and need players ahead of them to be on base in order for the big hits to be most effective. An opposing team’s pitchers can often stifle that sort of strategy by pitching around the masher, giving them intentional walks and limiting the hitter’s production to only a single base instead of a potential four. This is especially transparent when the masher doesn’t have another ultra-threatening hitter right behind them in the batting order, since the prospect of an extra runner on the bases (the walked masher) when a weaker hitter comes up is less scary to the pitcher than the prospect of seeing that masher let it fly.
The moneyball strategy is, primarily, to forget about putting a dedicated masher in the order. One masher necessitates further threats, as well as players who can reliably get on base in front of the masher. Moneyball argues that by just having more of the reliable singles and doubles hitters, the home run hitters aren’t necessary, and your lineup gives opposing pitchers fewer opportunities to pitch around tricky situations. When you get three guys on base with little, un-flashy, productive hits, the opposing pitcher is put with their back against a wall. They absolutely need to induce outs if they’re going to prevent runs; there’s no allowance for error on them at that point. Pitchers make mistakes and get fatigued though, which means that, ultimately, the team that slowly grinds guys onto the bases faster than they make outs will be able to score more runs than a team that relies on a few huge hitters.
My experience is that game design works the same way.
Most games begin with a single idea, often from a single person. I suppose we can look at that idea and person as the equivalent of a pitcher in baseball. Fitting, because the first thing the originator does when they bring the idea to a team, a publisher, or backers on Kickstarter is to pitch it.
Apart from that, much of game design is a team effort, and a really good game has more to benefit from having many well-rounded contributors than it would gain from having a single genius on a metaphorical island.
Consider the stages of making a game: inception, concept, initial design, development, playtesting, cyclical iterations, production, publishing, sales and marketing, distribution…
Yes, there are games, even some incredible ones, that have, visibly, a very small number of superstars that carried multiple phases all alone. Cephalofair is a very bare-bones, hyper-efficient operation. Stonemaier Games is another. The era of Kickstarter has allowed more of these studios to exist, but the really successful ones — the “quit your old day job because game design is your new one” ones — are few and far between. They’re the exception to the rule. Most in-it-for-the-long-run studios and publishers run with very deep support staffs that cover a lot of bases through being consistent short-hit, high-OBP team players. Although, in the context of this article, “covering a lot of bases” might be a mixed metaphor.
One person can conceive the idea for a game. I’ve invented several games that way myself. Conversely, the inception of a game might just as readily come from a group discussion, where the primary kernel of that idea would never have happened with multiple people discussing a different concept from the one that ultimately arose. I have a list of games I’ve worked on elsewhere in my blog archives; see if you can figure out which ones I came up with “alone” at my own workstation, and which ones came from a bunch of people around a lunch or conference table.
Concepting is a stage that comes just behind the inception. It’s the process of determining exactly what kind of game the idea is best expressed as. This can be done by a single person, but examining all the options and determining the ideal one is generally faster and more thorough with several veteran designers kicking those options around together. I would personally rather have the right concept to fit an idea arise from another designer in my team than the wrong one emerge when I’m working on it alone.
Initial Design is the process of fleshing out that concept with mechanics, either original or reimplemented from other games in a new way that fits the themes or goals of the new game. It typically includes creating a prototype so that the design can be workshopped and tested in a practical space. Almost by definition, the workshopping and testing of any competitive game require a collaborative mindset, as the designer or designers are creating an experience meant to be an experience for multiple players at once. One person sitting in all of the players’ seats at once will never accurately approximate multiple players seeing different aspects of the game, and considering those different views is critical to good game design.
Development uses a completely different set of skills than designing; one tends to be more intuitive, the other is more analytical. It’s possible to have a single person tackle both processes, but that increases the chances of blind spots and retention of “precious” designs that an separate developer would objectively question. Thorough development benefits significantly from having a different team member (or members) than the one (or ones) who’ve been focused on the design.
Playtesting for every rich game (with the possible exceptions of games meant for cooperative or solo play) is functionally impossible without multiple team members. The team for this stage will need multiple well-heeled players with broad experience in gaming. Usually this is the part that benefits most from a really large list of team members and participants, and it’s the part that most closely resembles the theory behind moneyball. The most valuable playtesting results are the ones that provide enough data to properly see consistent patterns emerge under different circumstances, and that means you need a lot of data. Gathering lot of data means you need a broad team.
It’s also useful within the playtesting cycle to have multiple people observing the players. As much as you want the players to find and stress-test the mechanics and processes of the game, you want the observers to catch significant moments and variance in the way the game is being played by the testers. Different observers will see different aspects of the players’ responses and recommend improvements to the game accordingly.
Cyclical iteration is all about crunching the numbers after each round of playtesting to optimize any incremental changes being made to the design. It requires the designers and developers to quickly and efficiently balance their contributions into a cohesive new prototype or set of rules. The collaborative process of iteration is probably the single phase that most resembles the moneyball philosophy; changing a lot of things at once in one huge jump in the game’s design is a far riskier proposition than relying on a consistent, longer sequence of smaller clusters of adjustments.
Production is all about dialing in the physical components, from materials and ergonomics to artwork and styling. While it’s usually important to have a single shot-caller to tie all of the physical elements together, visual design for complex games can quickly become a team effort. Visual content is time-consuming, and the workload for something with a lot of visual content can keep a designer or artist under pressure for a while. Understanding materials is a whole other sphere of knowledge that comes into play, and without solid execution can ruin the end user’s gameplay experience. Production is often a headache best shared in a divide-and-conquer manner rather than one person trying to hulk through it by themselves.
Publishing, sales and marketing, and distribution are components of game design that generally occupy a different kind of head space than the prior stages, but they’re not entirely unrelated. Knowing the best business practices that will go into getting the game to the intended audience, or the current interest trends and preferences of that audience, can help inform key decisions all the way back to the initial concept phase. These last parts are generally outside of my own range of experience in the overall process, so I can’t speak directly too much to them. I can say that, as someone who’s worked on games without needing to do the publishing/marketing/distribution lifting myself, I feel I’ve been able to put in more focused work on any or all of the prior pieces’ teams.
Moneyball. A broad team with multiple experienced players, all capable of keeping the line moving at a regular pace. Fewer superstars whose absence would cripple the strategy. The notion of valuing consistency over flash, with a welcome allowance for flash to happen.
Is there risk of too many cooks? Absolutely. That’s a problem for team managers to handle. But if you’re in it for the long haul, you need to know you can keep the pressure on the competition longer than they can rely on big, explosive moments.
I want to play on a moneyball team. I want to know that I don’t need to outperform another team player to show my value, or outperform completely different team all alone. I understand how all of the pieces fit together, and I’m in it to support all of them with the knowledge that they collectively help shore up my own weak spots. My skills and experience aren’t those of Martinez, James, Lang, Moon, or Friese, but they’ll add to the sum total and keep those averages up where they need to be in order for the team to rack up wins.
24 wins in a row in 2002. The A’s were a team that knew how to get it done.