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Scribblenauts dev shares lessons learned in making its huge object library

'The expectations of players coming into the game meant that every AI, and many other objects, needed tons of custom exceptions.' Liz England explains how and why designers hand-authored the game's object library.
"One of the hardest problems I've run into in game design is where system should end and hand-authoring should begin."

- Liz England shares her experience working on the Scribblenauts design team.

According to game designer Liz England, there is a major misconception about how the extensive library of summonable objects in Scribblenauts came to be. Taking to Twitter, England offered an inside look at exactly how involved the process of creating and cataloging each of those objects really was.

Scribblenauts armed players with the ability to summon an object by typing a noun into an in-game prompt, but the resulting object wasn’t just cosmetic; each spawned entity had its own properties and situational behaviors. 

England says that, while most people believe Scribblenauts’ “objects were all data driven and relied on inheritances [and] systems", each of the items was actually the result of hand authoring and a ton of crunch. 

On the basic level, England says that there were a few rules that helped speed the creation process along, like top level categories that helped define global traits certain objects would have. But while globally defining objects helped to lay the foundation for how different things would interact with each other, hand authoring had to be done to ensure that exceptions for the many, many outliers were present. 

“For example, all humans were scared of category ‘monsters’ and ate from category ‘food’. This is why the ‘vegetarian” ate ‘hamburgers,’” tweeted England. “But when you look at individual objects, the rules don’t make sense. The cop was a great example of how inheritance in systems failed here.”

“A cop won’t flee from monsters if armed with a gun, right? But if you arm an orphan with a gun, he’d still flee, right? If you put Cthulhu and a donut in the same space, everyone would flee from there. Except the cop should totally go for the donut, right?”

Her full Twitter thread on the process is well worth a read, both for fellow game designers and anyone curious about how a development team solves the age old game design question of “if you glue steak to a lion will it eat itself?”

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