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Design Language: Designer Derivations

September 10, 2008 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

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.

Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

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Phil OConnor
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Fascinating article, pretty much sums up my experience. I started using my grandfather's gambling dice and little plastic soldiers you could buy at the corner store to create elaborate battles with my brothers. Design is in the blood, thats for sure. When I interview for design positions, I always ask about their childhood design experience. Some people find that strange.....

Rayna Anderson
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great article! I must have missed the previous one, because I'm pretty amazed to discovred that in Myers-Briggs other designers fall into E/INTJ, because that's exactly what I am (with E/I split exactly down the middle).

When I was real little and our parents made us play outside, we made up a tag-like Frogger game, with the sidewalk as the road. Some of us were cars the others were the frogs. I remember playing that pretty frequently:)

When I was a teenager, I drew out maps of an imaginary world of mine, which then grew into maps of countries from that world, which then spawned maps of cities from those countries, even showing residential and retail spaces on those maps.

Tonight I'm going to go home and see if I've still got any of them kicking around somewhere...

Oliver Snyders
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Great article! Really interesting to read about such a diverse list of developers and their design routes.

Mine was Lego and an army of action figures (GI Joe, He-Man, Dino-Riders etc.) taking hours to set up the scenario and then blitzing through it in a few minutes. Just like real games!

Oliver Snyders
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Doh! Design *roots*, but routes also kind of works.

Nick Halme
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Some spaces would have been nice in this article ;)

Funny you should mention the Myers-Briggs test, we did one in my game design class and the majority were INTJ (myself included) with a sprinkling of others.

And now that I look back on it, I was creating Warcraft II maps when I was seven, in fact I started creating maps before I even played the actual game (only because I thought it WAS the game for about an hour, until I noticed something was up).

Maurício Gomes
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Really nice! I am INTJ myself :)

But the best part is that I done my own games too, altough usually "mods" of Monopoly (I loved its board, unfortunally my dog ate it), and other board games, but they all ended being too complex, with noone willing to play with me (I was satiated only when I played Civilization... altough even Civlization do not had some things that I wanted, and I planned a EVEN MORE COMPLEX version of it Oo)

I also made attempts to port eletronic games to real world, several attempts in fact, I made even plataform games Oo I drew the plataforms in a paper, and asked my counsins to show their route with a finger, then I told them how they died :P Since few of them was mature enough (I am the oldest) to understand my puzzles...

Also I became RPG master (and I also ended writing my own RPG system), I changed rules of physical games (sometimes on the middle of the match... not really changing the rules in this case, just using them to the limits for my favor, like saying that to catch someone you need to really CATCH when my oponent just touched me...)

Yes, this is the nature of the designers :) Altough I am near INTP too (in fact J and P with me is ambiguous), and I am also a programmer (altough I learned to program to create my own games on a 286)

Brandon Sheffield
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Nick - it was a formatting error - everything should be dandy now!

Nat Loh
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I made all sorts of game designs when I was young but mainly due to financial reasons, fell out of playing games (sometime into the Genesis era). I'd play an occasional PC game here and there but didn't really design anything new. It wasn't till the Playstation 2 did I really start playing games again and exploring my childhood dream of making games.

Early memories: made games on graph paper my dad would bring home from work, excitebike, loderunner, and a wolfenstein map editor my brother downloaded from a BBS.

Recently, I had my mom mail me a big box of most of my childhood drawings and designs. Fun to see what an 7-10 year old version of me could understand.


Noah Falstein
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Glad people liked it. And the Myers-Briggs thing was pretty interesting, it would be fun to organize a mass testing at GDC and take a look at the correlations between profession and score.

Sean Parton
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A thoroughly entertaining article. Even as a Designer and Dungeon Master myself, I underestimated D&D being such a common factor among designers.

JeanMi Vatfair
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That's true about me also.

I discoevered video through platformers. I was 10 and I can remember of drawing and painting whole platformers levels of my own, even designing playable characters and monsters, little challenges, ...

At 14 I was reading many branching narrative books (from Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone). So I decided to start writing my own, along with a world and its story.

Then I started to play Magic: the Gathering and it absorbed all my creativity for some years :-)

Glad to be in a design position right now.

Phil OConnor
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PS: ISTP with even split in I and E

Tony Dormanesh
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Darn, I wish I had seen the article before. Being a DM for many years most definetly gave me the tools needed to become a game designer. Cool to see how wide spread it is.

I used to modify the rules of games like Risk. (I remember some paratrooper rules.)

One of my great accomplishments was an additional map for the Aliens boardgame, called The Hallway of Death. It was such a death trap no one has ever beat it, but everyone had fun trying and we kept records of who got the farthest. People who played that map talk about it to this day. The defining feature was a narrow bridge that had to be crossed. So many marines were killed by aliens on that bridge that it was dubbed "The Buffet Line", because it was like the aliens were at an all you can eat buffet. lol. My first lesson on game balance maybe?

Mark Brendan
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How interesting. I rate as INTJ on the Myers-Briggs scale too, which I always thought was quite a rare type (about 1% of the population), but seemingly typical if you’re a game designer. I designed my first game at the age of 12, which was D&D (no really, it's kind of true)—I’d played it, never got the chance to go back to that particular group, and had to wait at least 6 months until Xmas to get my own copy. So in the interim I made up my own rules based on what I vaguely remembered, filling in the memory blanks and the mysteries of the GM with my own rules. Nowadays I try to avoid me too design where possible though ;-P

Finn Haverkamp
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Nice article. The games I can remember making off the top of my head were in middle school. Back when we were into DBZ, my brother and I designed a real fighting game, so to speak, where we actually fought DBZ style on our front lawn. There were rules to all of the madness too, though I dont remember them.

We also made a really fricken cool turn based game about Pokemon, back when waking up at 6:00 am to watch it was the highlight of the day. We played on a big cement slab next to our house. I remember we had various colored chalk circles on the cement that you moved between, gaining stat bonuses depending on your elemental type. It was wicked fun.

Another game I can remember is this sock war game we played on our trampoline based on Blitz Ball from Final Fantasy X, because we watched our older brother play through the whole thing. I think our game was called Trio. It was also turn based, I think. You had to jump in different styles and hit certain body parts of the other players.

The last game I can think of was this awesome copy-cat style game my brother and I made when we were 8 or so. It was called Sue You. One of us would launch a soccer ball at our outdoor shed wall, next to which was stacked a bunch of junk. Then we would sue the other player for however much we wanted, 20 grand, to perform the exact same kick. It was awesome.

Matthew Bozarth
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This guy has written quite a few articles on Myers Briggs and temperaments and how it relates to gameplay and design.

Randy Vazquez
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Very fun Read. I can imagine everyone thinking back to the days of old.

I must say that Lego's and creating epic battles with them started my hunger for designing games. Started with base lego models, created from imagination then assigning stats to each type of weapon I wanted, all based off a d6 system, and then had a level system for pilots of the machines so freinds could level up their pilots and reincarnate..... /disgresses into memory lane.

Thanks again for the fun read, great article.

Anne Toole
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I am borderline with the M-B tests and once got two different answers on two different tests on one day. I suspect, however, that I am INTP.

As for designing games, I started in elementary school. I remember my sister and I made a sort of live action game called Spy involving little fabric balls which were actually microchips. I remember very carefully handwriting the rules. We also created a board game called Desperate Measures. The board was laid out like a city and players were allowed to steal.

I didn't run D&D growing up since no one wanted to play, so I made my sister DM, then my friends when she was away. She liked drawing the PCs' and NPCs' pictures the most, and of course now she's an artist.

I do think the design-a-game instinct is strong for everyone, though. Everyone has house rules for Monopoly, for example.