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Design Language: Designer Derivations

In this fascinating feature, Falstein talks to many developers about their childhood beginnings in design and play to discover commonalities in their career development.

Noah Falstein, Blogger

September 10, 2008

17 Min Read

I've written before about the clustering of personality traits that many game designers share, most recently in the December 2006 issue of Game Developer magazine. In that article, I talked about how two scores on the Myers-Briggs personality test are quite common among game designers (INTJ and ENTJ). But there are many other less esoteric similarities, and one intriguing one is how many designers first began creating and modifying games, long before their professional careers began.

To a great degree, all kids are natural game designers. With make-believe play, children may start with an established game, then often get caught up in the rules of play. "That's not fair, you have to touch me with your hand, jabbing my coat with that stick doesn't count!" But I know from my own experience that some people show their interest in game design in more concrete terms.

When I was about 10 I saw the movie Sink the Bismark, about the dramatic WWII events leading to the destruction of that German battlecruiser. Not long after, I had made a game out of cardboard, marbles, and pennies and was happily playing it with friends and continuing to modify and refine it to keep them interested.

I know from personal conversations that I'm far from unique in this early interest in making games, and so I set out to interview many other game developers about their own experiences. Early on I received this comment from Steve Meretzky of Blue Fang Games:

Your thesis is that lots of game designers started making their own games in their youthful days. I wonder what the percentages would be for non-designer game developers, and for non-developer game players? Otherwise, you're not necessarily showing that game designers are any different in this respect...

Steve is right. But I'm designing -- um, writing -- this article, and there is no one dictating that this must be a scientific study, so I set the rules. In fact, that's the first obvious thing I noticed among designers: an obsession with rules and how to change and improve them (or in some cases, just reject them). Also, a willingness to employ whatever items are at hand and incorporate them into a game. For example Richard Dansky of Red Storm Entertainment says,

I think my game design experience got started in middle school, where I got credit in a class for doing a game of European colonization of the New World. It was horribly inaccurate but reasonably well-balanced, even if I did steal the "hurricane" planchette from the old Bermuda Triangle game as a randomizing factor.

After that, it was mostly hex-based miniature combat games using a spare slab of formica salvaged from when my folks redecorated the kitchen. It was about two feet by four feet and colored sunshine yellow, as I recall, which really didn't lend itself to the sort of carnage I was trying to create in the playspace.

And Mark Terrano of Hidden Path Entertainment also used the "big slab" approach to game boards:

Oh, memory lane -- I just remembered I won an award as a junior in high school for doing an Economics Game for economics class. I did it on plywood with cards and counters -- the teacher was pretty sure I hadn't made it because my excuse when it wasn't there when it was due "It is too big to fit on the bus" -- because it was on a 4' x 4' half sheet of plywood. I don't remember much about the game (lots of chance-style cards) but there was a pretty cool money value economic bit that reflected the player choices in the game. Think Monopoly but with inflation.

The tendency to go low-tech in the absence of a computer was another recurring theme. Sometimes it even was a matter of taking computer game themes and translating them to the analog world, as Tim Gerritsen of Big Rooster did:

I got the bug pretty early, around 8 or 9 at the latest. I would see my friends' stuff either on computer or in boxes and make my own versions since we didn't have our own computer. I remade Ultima I as a board game complete with hand drawn grid maps of villages and the world map.

Dave Grossman of Telltale Games even went low-tech multiplayer before he discovered computers:

I remember making an epic space battle game that used a map about six feet square, with my friends as captains sitting in different rooms of the house so they wouldn't know what was going on aboard the other ships. Great physical workout for the game master, very tedious for everyone else. I suppose it might have evolved into a decent play-by-mail if only we'd lived father apart.

And then when I was maybe thirteen, the first computer game I "worked" on was an improved version of Hunt the Wumpus coded in APL. It provided additional cave maps and let you attack the wumpus with your bare hands if you were desperate.

I still dabble with modding outside the electrical wonderland from time to time. My friend Jesse and I did mashups with games some years back, resulting in both Sparts (a way to play Spades and Hearts simultaneously), and Scrabbage (cribbage meets Scrabble). And also there's Three-Second Chess, a sort of extreme version of speed chess which makes an excellent spectator sport and should probably never be played outside of a bar...

Yes, I suspect that for many in the professional community, game design is as habitual and uncontrollable as wiggling that loose tooth with your tongue.

Dave's account reminded me of several experiences of my own. I also was motivated to improve an existing clunky old-school computer game, in my case a text-based Star Trek game written originally in Fortran. It was played on teletype terminals, which looked like very clunky typewriters. The player input consisted of just typing numbers corresponding to commands, and the output was all text printout on paper as well.

Still, the original Fortran game had several aspects that frustrated me and that had nothing to do with the hardware limitations, so I set out to first reproduce and then improve the game, like Dave, writing in APL. Never very well known, APL (which stood for "A Programming Language") was an incredibly arcane but very powerful language that used a set of Greek letters as well as other made-up symbols. I have to admit that's part of what appealed to me about the language.

Many designers began with paper and other non-electronic means before moving on to computers. For example, James Everett of Sidhe Interactive wrote:

Lego and paper designs for NES, then Genesis, games were my earliest pokes at game design. The most elaborate I remember was a 2D fighter called Warriors of the Worlds or something similar that was Street Fighter-ish with a dozen characters, each with backstory, move sets, and a stage with hazards. I think that was around grade 4 or 5. I wish I still had the notebook that filled, but my Mom tossed it out during a cleaning binge a couple of years ago.

I wrote a bunch of choose your own adventure type games in BASIC in junior high school and started editing maps in Duke 3D for us to play on a local computer training center's LAN. Then I got stuck when trying to make maps for the Quake engine based games as my home computer took forever to compile them and it would slow to a crawl, so when Mom or Dad tried to use it they'd think it was broken and reboot the machine. But I made more progress with the original Unreal when I managed to scrape together my own computer out of spare parts from the computer shop I was working at.

But James brings up a point that plagued me and many others -- most of those early designs were lost or discarded, often many years ago. I ran across some counters from a very elaborate board game I made when I was 16, very much like a paper version of the Game Boy/Nintendo DS series Advance Wars.

I have cardboard cutouts of tanks, planes, ships, oil wells, uranium mines, and hundreds of little fuel and ammunition markers, but not even a photograph of the huge cardboard map I made, that was just too big for me to grab when my parents finally sold off the house I grew up in. It's a good lesson for budding developers to archive their materials -- a lesson that Josh Jay of Epic Games somehow knew instinctively, standing out as one of the few who held onto his early game efforts:

My early board games really weren't anything other than multilevel sets with spaces drawn on them and monsters drawn onto pieces that could be placed into the level to chase the player around. Gameplay rarely consisted of die roll races to beat the monsters out of the map, and I had more fun making the 3D sets than writing the rules.

In the third grade I made a rambling set of cardboard tubes and boxy rooms based on The Bernstein Bears and the Spooky Old Tree (one of my favorite books as a kid). I built the trunk that the bears crawl through, the stair case that the alligator bites in half, and the rest of the path that they run through to escape the tree (including the suit of armor that drops the axe in their path). I remember going crazy trying to get the path of the physical model to conform to what I saw in the illustrations and felt frustrated having to fudge it.

After a while, I got tired of making 3D cardboard sets and really got into writing the rules after getting hooked on the Choose Your Own Adventure and Pick-A-Path books and started writing my own with super simplistic fighting rules. I never finished a single one but I started about four or five different story games.

It wasn't long afterward that I discovered the D&D rule books at the public library in the fifth grade and got really super obsessed with that. I found that crossword puzzles made really neat dungeon maps. I started "porting" over my story game fighting rules into a more nonlinear game where players could wander all through the halls of the crossword puzzle and I told encounter stories through hand-painted acrylic and colored pencil comic strips.

I never finished any of those either (great preparation for the game industry) because then I discovered Zork and the earlier graphical Infocom games.

And Josh provided this intro to some pictures he preserved from his early work:

So... this is Raid on Castle Dracula. It was a fighting game comic book inspired by the Pick-A-Path/Fighting Fantasy game books. I had the first seven pages that lead up to the first fight but god knows where the rest of it went. I had never messed with acrylic paint before , but I was pretty sure it would mix well with watercolors, rubber cement, color pencils, and Sharpie (it really doesn't.)

Josh's creativity as an artist and designer was clearly in evidence from a young age!

Finally, there was one very consistent influence and theme on the early work of nearly everyone: Dungeons & Dragons. Not surprisingly, many of the people I corresponded with had been big fans of the game, and often had been drawn into design through it.

There were several factors at work here: the accessibility of the game, with very wide distribution and a low starting price (particularly compared to buying a computer!), a pathway to move from player to Dungeon Master (DM) using established modules and rules, to designer creating your own dungeons and rules, and plenty of pathways from there on toother RPG's including so many computer-based variants.

Tom Henderson of Rockstar New England tells a story of bridging the gap from 1970's era board/war games to D&D:

I can still remember seeing a wargame in the store for the first time. I was 12 years old, and I saw a bunch of Avalon Hill games. I got super excited and got my parents to buy me some for Christmas. It was France 1940, 1914, and Wilderness Survival. I still have France 1940. Later I saw an ad for a new magazine called Strategy & Tactics that had a game in every issue! I started getting S&T and found out that they sold blank counters. I started making up my own games, although I can't really remember much about them.

It was ads in S&T that exposed me to roleplaying -- ads for Chainmail and Empire of the Petal Throne. I liked the idea a lot. Finding other people to play with wasn't so easy. When the D&D craze really hit it became easier though. and I usually DMed, making elaborate missions. D&D for me was supplanted later by Runequest, and latter I added Champions and all sorts of other RPGs.

Empire of the Petal Throne happened to be my introduction to paper roleplaying games. Released just shortly after Dungeons & Dragons, it was set in the incredibly detailed world of Tekumel, invented by Professor M.A.R. Barker. His world and the strange, non-Tolkien sort of creatures in it was fascinating to me, and the fantasy world aspect of the early paper RPGs also attracted the attention of others.

For instance, David Navarro of Recoil Games was captivated more by the elaborate worlds of role playing games:

Generally speaking, although I've been aware of and admired the beauty of elegant game rules since I was very young, what got me into game design wasn't really rule-building but world-building. Even my D&D campaigns were relatively short on traps and enemies and long on lore, exploration and incidental detail.

And Jordan Thomas of 2K Marin also echoed that starting with RPGs did not necessarily lead to a fascination with rules, but in his case with the storytelling aspects of the genre:

By about 13 I had become hooked on Sierra adventure games and Gold Box RPGs on the PC. This, I am convinced, transmitted a bone-deep narratology infection into me which I still accidentally spit up all over otherwise harmonious systems of play, and have to scuttle away in shame.

Still learning how to get excited about rules for their own sake, honestly; I never come at it from that angle. I also started running story-heavy D&D games at around this time. Super Monty Hall stuff, where I sort of instinctively understood core fantasy, but not the rewards of the ludic journey at all.

Brian Upton of SCEA speaks of the solitary aspects of being hooked on game design early on:

I definitely started early. I was fascinated by board games a child and if I couldn't get someone to play with me (a fairly often occurrence) I would sit around and reread the rules and imagine different strategies. I started playing D & D when I was 12 and I spent hours drawing maps and creating my own adventures.

Stieg Hedlund of Turpitude followed a similar path, and hit D&D at the same age as Brian:

I was extremely into board games (Risk, Sorry, Parcheesi), card games (War, Pinochle, Hearts, and some crazy foreign stuff, some of which I don't remember the names of but which definitely included Mille Bornes) from a very young age, and was always thinking about how these games worked, strategies. I won a lot, though a lot of that had to do with luck more than skill. We did get Pong when it came out and I remember playing that a lot as well.

I also got very deeply into Tolkien at this time, having read the LoTR series years before, but digging further into the Silmarillion and the Appendices, which launched me, as they did for so many, into dabbling in linguistics and conlangery (though I'll note that I'd been working with simple ciphers for years before this).

I got the boxed set of Dungeons & Dragons when I was 12, and that was a real defining moment. I quickly started exploring scenario creation, then rule variants, balancing, and issues like that. This led to my doing this professionally by the age of 16.

Is it any surprise that the designer of Diablo and Diablo II wasa D&D fan? And I'm sure at this point many Diablo players migrate over to paper RPG too. If like me, the term "conlangery" is new to you, it means the art of constructing languages -- like Tolkien's Elvish and Dwarvish, or artificial languages like Esperanto or Loglan. Stieg continues:

It was a kick working with the Wizards of the Coast guys on the Diablo D&D stuff many years later. And very interesting that a lot of the direction for the Fourth Edition comes from CRPGs, particularly WoW, for which the Diablo series is pretty foundational -- the students have become the masters.

And yet not everyone found it easy to get into D&D. Sheri Graner Ray of Saber Dance Studios speaks of how even that sometimes took a lot of determination:

So I came to games much later than ya'll did. I grew up in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. It's not the end of the world, but you can sure see it from there. Unfortunately, it was (and still is) one of the most socially and economically depressed regions of the country.

Because of that, the Valley had no comic shops, no game shops, not even any book shops to speak of... nothing. Didn't have a McDonalds until I was in high school and the nearest Chinese restaurant was a four hour drive north to San Antonio. It wasn't until 1980 that I even heard of a game called Dungeons & Dragons... and then only by way of an article in Parade magazine about the "evils" of that game.

Having just read Lord of the Rings, I had to find out more about D&D. No one I knew had ever heard of it, so in 1981 I put an ad in the student paper of the local community college I was attending trying to find someone to teach me to play. (Can you imagine? A 19-year-old girl LOOKING for someone to teach her to play PnP games?? LOL!)

So ultimately, even if there is no single set path all budding game designers follow, I think it is clear that if you have a fascination with the mechanics and rules of existing games -- particularly Dungeons & Dragons -- combined with a dedication to tinker and change those games or create new ones by whatever means and media possible are a strong sign that a career in game design may be in your future.

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About the Author(s)

Noah Falstein


Noah Falstein became a professional game developer in 1980 and has worked on a wide range of games, from the arcade hit Sinistar to upcoming games like The Legend of Kay and Space Station Sim. One of the first ten employees at companies including LucasArts, 3DO, and Dreamworks Interactive, now Falstein heads The Inspiracy, as a freelance designer and producer for both entertainment titles and training/educational software. He was the first elected chairman of the CGDA and writes the design column for Game Developer magazine. Contact information for Noah is available at his website, http://www.theinspiracy.com.

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