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.