Gamasutra had a chance to talk with a multitude of game developers who play games with, talk about games with, or are just influenced in their thinking thanks to their kids, leading up to this Sunday's Father's Day.
In talking to each of them about how being a father has changed the way they do business and make games, it became clear that proud parents think in completely different ways about the video game development and play process. Here are their stories.
Father to Samantha, 26, Justin, 24, Jason, 22, Jessica, 20, Vanessa, 16, and Nathan, 13
(CEO and Chief Alchemist, Online Alchemy)
I’ve worked in the games industry since 1994: three startups (two acquired, one current), 3DO, and Electronic Arts (Maxis and Origin). Life balance has always been and remains a huge issue. In some ways, working in games has given me more points of contact with my kids, but it’s also made me more aware of what games get made and what I’m willing to make.
Early in the life of my second startup, we were offered a lot of money to make online porn games. We turned it down, even though the company needed the money; that’s not who we were. I would have this turned this down even without my kids, but they do highlight such situations – what am I representing, and how can I help make my industry a less seamy, violent, adolescent-male-fantasy place?
We’re also working on advanced AI for “believable characters.” Having raised several kids, I can tell you that “natural intelligence” is a lot easier to foster than AI. But both my family life and my work have informed each other – I look at my kids’ development in my work, and vice versa.
Finally, I’m pretty deeply rooted in my family, my church, and my community. I think this has helped me avoid some of the more pernicious ego-inflating aspects of working in games, where you can be the celebrated flavor of the month, and then just as quickly yesterday’s news. Aside from just making me a better person, this also helps me weather the ups and downs of working in games with, I hope, a better perspective and more equanimity than I might otherwise have.
We play lots of games. My youngest son and I still enjoy Katamari Damacy together. I try to play Star Wars Battlefront with him, or DDR with my youngest daughter, but both beat me easily. As a family, though, we regularly play a wide variety of non-digital games like Settlers of Catan, Set, San Juan, Civilization, Carcassone, Apples to Apples, and old standbys like Monopoly. And somehow we’ve evolved this tradition where every Christmas, I run a D&D adventure.
Father to Jessica, 20, Danielle, 18, and Michaela, 14
(Director of Design, Bethesda)
Two things they've taught me are, one, I don't always have to win. I can enjoy playing a game with my kids, and let them win or help them win. It's okay. I don't have to go for the kill. Two, they’ve taught me a deeper understanding of the social play that girls enjoy vs. boys. It's not as simple as guns vs. dolls, but there is an aspect of that to it.
My kids love word games, trivia games, and reflex games. Boggle, Scrabble, Cranium, Slap Jack (card game). On the computer they play The Sims (of course), loved Curse of Monkey Island games, and Zoo Tycoon.
Father to Mara, 17
(Game Designer, The Inspiracy)
My daughter Mara has affected my work quite significantly a number of times. I was approached by some people to do a design for a game for Playboy (an earlier version of what became The Mansion) and in talking it over with my wife and daughter, I realized that I just couldn't do the work justice and look them straight in the eye - so I, with some relief, turned down the job. But more profoundly, when I was at Dreamworks Interactive I worked on a game called Chaos Island, an RTS game based on the movie The Lost World, and aimed at 10-12 year-olds.
My daughter was only 7 when I finished the game, but she enjoyed playing around with it and meeting the people who built it. Then a few years later when she was in the right age range, she rediscovered the game on her own and I came home one day to find her several missions in, and excited about asking me how to tackle the next level. I'd previously been energized and elated to imagine abstractly the millions of people that have played games I've worked on - but that experience made me realize (like the old Hollywood cliche), "this time, it's personal."
Having her as a potential audience for my games has made me think hard about a lot of things I used to take for granted, everything from issues of moral implications of the games to just wanting to make it fun - for her. I've read that some authors write their novels with a family member in mind as the audience, and ever since that day I've understood how profoundly that can influence their creative process for the better.
There's also an amusing story of what happened when I carefully let her, at age 10, play Diablo 2 – and the consequences when, unknown to me, she shared it with her best friends, also ten-year-old girls – but that's another tale.
Father to Seth Richard, 20 months
(Art Director, Firaxis)
My father worked as a salesman all his life to support his family. He was a talented artist, but never did much commercially with it. I know that he was very proud that I was able to make a living while doing something that I loved and I hope to encourage my son to do the same. Beyond that, I'm particularly happy with the games that Firaxis and Cyberlore have made that can be played together by families and that can be enjoyed by people of almost any age.
Hide and Seek, working on Catch
Father to Orion Minton, 2.5
(Partner, Digital Development Management)
Having a child hasn’t changed the way I approach game development. I was already cognizant of not wanting to put material into the world that I felt could be damaging as well as the importance of a work-life balance.
Father to Nathaniel, 9
(Senior Programmer, Locomotive Games)
Since becoming a father, I'm much more vigilant for games that have good playful, creative, and customizability and “personalizability-of-experience” elements to them. "Sandbox" gameplay, too, is good for a hell of a lot of "fun mileage".
I'm less interested in games that are just beat-your-head-against-it-ad-infinitum nightmare challenges, and I'm also less tolerant of games that are slow to be fun, slow to draw you in, or at all fussy/buggy with the controls and general interface. I speak partly from the point of view of finding stuff that he will enjoy playing, but also from my own personal tastes which have changed quite a lot in recent years!
Naturally I'm also always on the lookout for games with good cooperative components. We can get into a bit of competitive play sometimes, too, but preferably it's always in a really light-hearted, non-hardcore way, with moderate amounts of surprising randomness thrown in. Also, games that allow for quick turn-around and replayability are great. "Drop in, play for a half hour, then jump out", etc.
I have also certainly been infected with his "What is this for?", "Why is there so much text?" and "When do I get to do something" sensibilities. :-) We both prefer very much to sort of find our own story in the game world, rather than have reams of non-interactive narrative shoved down our throats.
Now, granted, I do still have my "grown-up games" I keep to myself, with various "Mature" elements and/or really involved, immersive stories that Nathaniel doesn't have the patience for yet. But in general, I find I have a lot less patience for those old "hardcore" genres than I used to. RPGs with too much "numbers grind"; FPSes with too much repetitive combat gameplay; or action/adventure games with too much "you better have grabbed the Magic Flarble Of Ice across the world in the Caverns of Death or you won't be able to get past the Gate To The Swamps of Despair, and you'll never figure out why without reading GameFaqs.com" in them.
Game-development-wise, in general, I just try to keep all of the above in mind, and for the player's benefit, always try to Maximize The Thrills and Minimize The Pain.
Yu-Gi-Oh, various Mario Party and Tony Hawk iterations, Mario Kart (especially Double Dash, where we can play cooperatively together in one car), Super Monkey Ball mini-games, and basketball (real life, casual baskets-shooting and H.O.R.S.E., mostly). Aside from those, there are a lot of fun activities that we enjoy that don't involve "games" per se, but certainly involve play, challenge, and goals (which we've set for ourselves on the fly). And if we ever get our hands on an actual Wii, I expect we'll have some fun with that too! :-)
Father to Ryan, 16
(Director of Creative Development, Firaxis Games)
Being a father has heightened my sense of responsibility as a game designer to make sure the content in the games I make is appropriate for the intended audience. I like to make games that give players the opportunity to do or be something great – ruler of the world, a Pirate Captain, a Railroad Baron, an entrepreneur – and have fun and feel good about themselves while they're playing. Playing games with Ryan has also helped me to see games through fresh eyes which spurs new ideas and keeps me motivated and excited to make new games.
Ryan and I have been playing computer and video games together since he was a little guy. Fortunately, he shares my love of games and being able to play them together throughout his life has been hugely rewarding and has offered us hours upon hours of great bonding time. Right now, we're playing Guitar Hero II which is just an incredible, fun game.
Father to Camille, 6, Elias, 5, Tycho, 5 (twins & born on his birthday no less)
(Senior Game Designer, Sierra Online Games)
How has being a father affected me as a developer? In two ways. First, the usual get-your-$#!7-together way. I got a lot more serious about working towards goals and ambitions. Secondly, observing and participating with their play has been great anecdotal support for my suspicions that the arts are, in essence, about evoking feelings.
We may aspire to create new sensations and emotions in our products, but games have always been about creating feelings, no more, no less. Everything else, competition, uncertainty, challenge, learning, exploration, etc., are means that get confused with ends to our audiences' disadvantage.
The usual kids' PC online fare (PBS, Nick, etc.) is popular, but, lately Lego Star Wars has taken over the house. The first LSW we have for the original Xbox, and, by accident, they erased my save. For weeks afterwards, they diligently applied themselves to the task of unlocking everything back up "for Dad." Lately I've been considering how much fun it might be to play MMOs again.
Father to Audrey, 4
(Lead Artist, Monolith Productions)
Audrey can’t play anything I am working on here at Lith, so I have started to do things like make small XNA apps that she can do fun things with, like when she types a letter it spawns a particle system with that letter, and has a recording of her saying that letter or number. As she grows older, I find myself wanting to work with her a bunch more on stuff. And I feel myself being drawn to the job ads from casual game companies. :)
The only game she will pick up and play on her own is Nintendogs. We play a ton of stuff together though. Lately, its Mario Kart on the DS. Also we play "Photoshop" where I will navigate the UI. “Daddy, I want the Butterfly brush with orange and green,” and she uses the Wacom to make the pretty pictures.
Father to Logan, 24 months, and Senera, due anytime now
It's related to the "not working so many hours" theme, but I found that the birth of my son really transformed how I spend my time and what my desires are, without me really resenting it or feeling like I was "losing my personal time".
Everything on my internal priorities list was re-sorted for me, and a lot of things get put into perspective. As a result, the kind of games I find myself wanting to play are those that are a lot more instant gratification and/or those that can be played in bite-sized chunks. That's led my interests into things like casual gaming, handheld gaming, and somewhat counter-intuitively, MMO's (though not the classic grind-it-out model).
On the side of social responsibility, when I was at Firaxis, we always made "family-friendly" games. Sid's a devoted parent himself and has always taken the role of a responsible game developer very seriously, but I don't think I really appreciated that until I became a father. In a lot of respects, it's so much harder to take the high road and still be a big commercial success.
Despite the fact that I was practically born with an Atari controller in my hand and was enthralled with games throughout my entire childhood, my first loves were tactile toys (Legos, action figures, trucks, etc) and in playing outside and being active. I'm really wary of my children getting *too* mesmerized by electronic and video games at the earliest age (although the TV's already got him under his spell), so we don't do a whole lot of video gaming as a family yet. In a couple of months, I think my son might be ready for Guitar Hero, though. He already loves music, jumping around, and showing off!
Father to Willem, 4
(Game Designer, Between gigs)
It's definitely made me more sensitive to the moral values of a game and especially the game's protagonist. This was really brought home to me when making Ultimate Spider-Man when it was decided that it would be funny to have Venom eat the "balloon kid" from Spider-Man 2.
The balloon kid was a city event where a small child loses his balloons and Spider-Man catches them. It wasn't particularly popular, so part of the Venom tutorial was to have you suck this child into your body, and then spit him out onto the sidewalk where he lay curled up and quivering. I didn't find it particularly funny. I lobbied to have it removed, but it ended up in the shipped game, and I've never seen it mentioned for good or ill anywhere, so perhaps I overreacted.
I also look at the stability of possible jobs as a bigger factor than I used too. This is just the reality of having someone dependent on you. Garage startups are a lot scarier when you have a little fellow to keep supplied with action figures and dress-up costumes, (oh, and food and shelter, I guess).
We played through Teen Titans mostly together. The best recent co-op game we played was Legos Star Wars. We also played Zelda Twilight Princess, taking turns until it got too hard for him.
Father to Anna, 5, Emma, 3, and a baby on the way
(Rockstar San Diego)
I understand what kids think is fun :-). It is sometimes not the game or the gameplay, just the time you spend with them. They love to have a reference to a movie. They play lots of movie related games like Shrek or others for themselves. They already know the characters.
I found a balanced way to work lots of hours with my wife and family. During the week, I do not spend much time with the kids, but on the weekend, I usually spend several hours. I work currently more than I did 10 years ago, but with a better balance. Usually, I work a bit at home in the morning (up to one hour), kiss the kids goodbye or prepare their lunch, and then I go to work from 9:30 am to 8:15 pm, arriving at home at 8:30 pm. I work like this permanently, and it is much better than having crunch times for me. I do not work so often in the company on Saturdays anymore but it happens occasionally and I can feel it the week after.
I started to play simple games a lot with my kids. Last Sunday, I played 3D Minigolf and the new free, side-scrolling shooter on Xbox Arcade :-). Before that, I played Super Mario DS, Mario Kart DS and Finding Nemo. We quite often play Marble Blast.
I love it to see my daughter playing with me and laughing with her. My younger daughter now also starts to pick up this stuff. I just bought 2 additional controllers for the 360, so that we have four now. All the time playing games is not a competitive activity as it is for a lot of us. It is more a social activity. She wants my game character to hug her game character etc. If something is funny, we do it several times, or we look at things for a long time. It is fascinating how they explore a game world.
Father to Rebecca, 3, with another due anytime now.
(Technical Director, Treyarch)
There are obvious lifestyle issues with children. We moved so I could crunch and be near them more often. Work hours are changed, etc. The Spider-Man games are fairly safe for children to watch. I've never had any serious issues with working on them, although our approach to controller complexity makes it very hard for young people to pick them up.
Having a child does affect which games I'm willing to play around and with them, and it's always interesting which games my daughter likes. EVE Online is "the ship game", which is okay. World of Warcraft is the "scary monster game" and is absolutely not okay. This weekend, I was watching a trailer for Half-Life 2, Episode 2, with the dune buggy and some of the tripods in it. My daughter stopped to watch, dubbed them "the red car" and "the big spiders", and wanted to see more of them. Well, I couldn't actually play HL2 and start running around with people shooting at me, me shooting at them, etc.
Luckily, I had a copy of Garry's mod installed and could drive the dune buggy around there. I was thinking later of the best way to let her see the tripods and realized I could probably rig up a test level and somehow set the tripods to friendly so that they wouldn't attack the player (i.e. my daughter).
The first game Rebecca ever played was Donkey Konga at around 15 months or so, mindlessly beating on the drums but very excited about it. It's interesting to note that in DK you can't fail during a song, and you get graded afterwards. Nice for kids to be able to screw around.
She has eagerly watched me play Guitar Hero, often getting out the controller and asking me to play her favorite songs, etc. Her first *real* playing experience has been with Nintendogs and Animal Crossing. She surprised me with the latter by showing that she had memorized the locations of all of the things of interest to her in the museum (spiders, hammerhead shark), and could easily navigate, with no prior experience, out of the museum and to the coffee shop to see "Brewster, the pigeon."
She even knows how to go up the stairs in the house and put the character to bed. Maybe I'm underestimating my kid, but I was impressed. The stylus has really simplified input systems and lowered the barrier of entry for children playing games.
Father to Xavier, 6, and Xander, 3
(Programmer, Ensemble Studios)
As far as my actual game development goes, Ensemble has always been a very kid-friendly developer, so I'm not sure a lot has changed directly there. One thing that irks me as a game developer is when I see a complex puzzle section where a specific new skill has to be mastered in a totally blocking fashion, and mastering that skill requires reading or other skills that don't match the age of the other skills in the game. That will just stop my boys cold, and they will quickly lose interest. Now a game that is generally about puzzle solving (Eets, Mario v Donkey Kong, etc.) can get away with this since they can master the new skills gradually.
Also, educational games where failure is more amusing than success (like making a silly noise, crazy animation, etc.) frustrate me, just because that seems like a poorly thought out decision. Fortunately, a lot of educational games get this right, as well.
Games that support simultaneous, two-player co-op, where the second player cannot negatively impact the first no matter how badly they play, are great for siblings.
Some games are definitely timeless. Xavier picked up Super Mario 64 at age 3 and was beating the first boss. He had that castle memorized!
Harmonix' music games were a tremendous resource to my wife and I when our oldest child was just a baby. He would resist sleep by any means possible, but he would happily snuggle down and watch us play Frequency until he zoned out and eventually fell asleep. Normally saying your game puts people to sleep isn't a compliment, but in this case it certainly was! Nothing else would keep him so absorbed.
As father-game-developer, I'm not as worried about my boys playing my games as others are. System Shock and System Shock 2 are something that I hope when they are older they can enjoy and appreciate. I'm more concerned that they won't work on modern hardware by the time they are old enough to play though.
Right now we're playing Spider-Man 3 together (mostly in the sense of me playing and the boys in rapt attention). Some games we actually played through together: Marvel Ultimate Alliance and Lego Star Wars 2. Having so many games support co-op these days is a fantastic thing.
Father to Katharine, 4, Lukas, 1, and another boy on the way
(Lead Designer, Artist, Gearbox Software)
I turn off the console when my daughter is around, but there have been times where she has caught the tail end of a game session.
It is interesting to see it through her eyes, because she quickly breaks down the game to its simplest elements - who is the bad guy, who is the good guy, what do they want, where are they going, etc. Answering those kinds of questions can be quite refreshing.
Once she saw me playing Shadow of the Colossus, and I was having difficulty finding the colossus. She went off and came back five minutes later with a hand drawn map (rolled up, of course) that pointed to the monster. I have that one on my wall.
As for work hours; thank God for VPN. I get to keep normal hours, and once the kids and wife are asleep the latest build is ready for me to work on.
Cinderella’s Ballroom and Barbie Online. Woohoo!
Father to Taryn Elisabeth Oltyan, 7 months
(Production Coordinator, 1st Playable Productions)
There is definitely a push to be able to create something that my daughter can play, but I picked a company that would provide me with that opportunity before she arrived. The larger impact it had on my outlook on games is the awareness level of what is out there for kids and the types of toys available.
The abundance of "Give to child so child will be quiet" toys was somewhat startling to me. I was hoping to find more "Fun activity to do with your child" toys. This has pushed my wife and my own skills as a game designer as we learn what is fun and interactive for a 6 month old. I think our industry is missing out on the segment of gamers who want something they can play with their children.
Right now our favorite game is "Make a tower of blocks, and then grab one, and watch it fall!" Great fun, did well on cell phones too. "Stick your finger in baby's mouth while she makes silly noises" is also a big winner for all ages. And "Making Fart Noises".
Jason Della Rocca
Father of Gabriel, 4, Eva, 2 (pictured)
(Executive Director, IGDA)
Since I don't design games, it doesn't affect me from that perspective. Rather, it does allow me to better appreciate approaches to design, and the language of interactivity. Interactivity and procedural thinking is a new form a literacy that is being embedded in our youth, and I can see directly how this is affecting my son Gabriel (Eva is still a bit too young, though she does like the grab the game pad away from us).
Also, I am frustrated by the lack of fun games for young children to play (beyond the usual Math Blaster and Dora games). I'm encouraged by Ben Sawyer's new "First Game" initiative to create engaging games for parents to play with their young children to a) just have fun, but b) "teach" them the language of games and interactivity.
We actually don't play many video games (given the lack of choice), but we have enjoyed Viva Pinata and games based on movies like Cars and Open Season. We spend much more time playing board games like Reiner Knizia's excellent Samurai, but with simplified rules), card games (like Magic, but again, with simplified rules) and lots of freeform play involving sofa pillows, kitchen pots and running around the house.
Rob Pardo (pictured)
Father to Logan, 2, and Sydney, 7
(Vice President of Game Design, Blizzard Entertainment)
Playing games with my daughter is great because it really allows me to see what is fundamentally fun about game mechanics. For example, when she was only 5 years old, she would just jump off buildings over and over and collect lots of different outfits for her character.
I generally have more of an "achiever" mentality whenI play games, and playing with my daughter really helps give me a more rounded perspective towards games.
Currently we are playing World of Warcraft (she is a level 54 warlock) and we are also playing some Wii games like Super Paper Mario (we just finished Zelda Twilight Princess).
Father to Helena, 12, Beck, 10, Roland, 4
(Executive Director, Big Rooster)
I was pretty seriously goal-driven before I had kids, and having kids allowed me to relax and have more fun while working on those goals. I got into the simple joys of just exploring and building for building's sake. It reminded me of how much fun there is in just simply exploring the world around you - and seeing how adjusting a little thing here or a little thing there can change the whole nature of something you are doing. It also opened up a whole new range of interests for me creatively as I was exposed to what my kids find interesting, funny and cool, and that has definitely impacted my approach to design.
One thing that also affected me was the fact that my kids can't play the games I'm working on and that really bothered me. My kids were far too young for Rune, and there's no way I was going to let them play Prey. Honestly, it was one of the factors that led to my leaving Human Head. I realized the only way I was ever going to be able to have my kids play the games I was working on was for them to become adults, and I simply didn't want to wait that long.
Don't get me wrong, I have no issues at all working on an adult- themed or rated game, but I also wanted to make a game that my kids could play. None of my partners had kids (one partner had a kid just a very short few weeks before I left the company), so there was no impetus at all to do anything but adult fare. It wasn't fair for me to keep cajoling my partners on this point, so I decided that if it was going to happen, I'd have to do it myself.
Ironically, my daughter was the model for the creepy little girl in Prey. She's nothing like that, of course, in real life. She knows that she is in the game, but she's not seen her character other than as a static model. She's just too young. She agreed to do it, but all she knows is that she is a villain in the game.
My kids like games, and we do play together. My older kids absolutely love Age of Mythology, Civilization IV and Galactic Civilizations II, which they found on their own. I don't know why they gravitate to that, as I didn't push them in that direction (we have a ton of games at our house in all genres), but they did.
My youngest likes watching me play games that he probably shouldn't be watching, but he loves Rayman Raving Rabids on the Wii. My older kids are going to play World of Warcraft with me over the summer (under my supervision, as I will be playing online with them at the same time), and my son and I are working on game designs together, both video games and table top games.
We all play board and miniature games galore, including AT-43, Warhammer and Warhammer 40K, Battletech, Talisman, Ticket To Ride, and we're geeking out all together this year and going to GenCon as a family.
Father to Brandon, 14, Haley, 12 and Lacey, 7
(Senior Programmer, Hothead Games)
It's not so much changed how I've worked on games, but what games I work on. For example, when I was at Radical, I was asked to go work with the team making Scarface. I actually declined that offer because it wasn't a game that I'd want my kids playing. Having my kids be able to play the games that I make is a huge part of my decision process now as to what I'd work on for games.
Guitar Hero II for the 360 and PS2. My son kicks my ass so hard it's not funny. Just this past long weekend we played co-operative GH II, and he used a plain old 360 controller, while I used the guitar controller. He still beat me on just about every song we played. Nowadays, it's my daughter that I can beat at Guitar Hero II (just barely). But she whups me good in DDR for the PS2.
Halo co-op. We do this a lot, just because it's a great bonding experience. I've got a lot of good memories of him actually showing me some special moves with the original Halo.
Actually, one of the things that we do together a lot is *watch* each other play games. I think that goes way back to when he was a lot younger, and he'd watch me play games he just didn't have the manual dexterity to play. Now, it's more like I'll watch him play games like Crackdown or S.T.A.L.K.E.R., and I'll give him suggestions on what to do, or catch things that he's missed.
My daughters don't play a lot of games. My youngest just doesn't care about them at all. My eldest daughter is only into 'active' games like DDR and Guitar Hero. However, we will do more traditional games like Uno and Blitz every now and again.
Father to Lauren, 9, Gavin, 7, Nathan, 3, and Ian, 1
(Chief Technology Officer and Co-Founder, Obsidian Entertainment)
I think having children has made me more open to playing games that I might not have ever considered playing in the past. Sometimes, I will just pick up one of the Game Boys lying around and play whatever happens to be plugged into it, and I'm often surprised at how much fun some of those games can be (or just how bad I think they are, yet my kids still seem to enjoy them).
It's also really interesting to watch my kids play console games on our TV and see what is intuitive to them and what they get stuck on. There is a lot you can learn about accessibility and game design by watching kids play games and paying attention to which games they keep wanting to go back to and which ones they give up on quickly.
It can sometimes be a little frustrating making games that are not appropriate for my kids to play. My oldest son is at the age where he is really getting into games and thinks that what his daddy does at work is cool, but unfortunately, the games I work on are inappropriate and often too complicated or text-heavy for him and his friends to play. I imagine it must be very satisfying for the parents out there that get to work on games that they can enjoy playing with their kids.
Games have become a nice way to spend time together as a family, and my oldest son’s obsession with games has provided a common interest and created a bond that might not otherwise exist between us. Our family has been playing a lot of multiplayer Guitar Hero 2 lately.
I recently taught my son how to play chess and backgammon, so we have been playing those together both on the Game Boy and with traditional sets. And it's been pretty common for us all to sit down for a couple of quick games of Pirates Dice (the Disney-fied 4-player liars dice) after dinner before reading a story and sending the kids off to bed.