Gamasutra: The Art & Business of Making Gamesspacer
Design Language: Designer Derivations
View All     RSS
October 25, 2014
arrowPress Releases
October 25, 2014
PR Newswire
View All

If you enjoy reading this site, you might also want to check out these UBM Tech sites:

Design Language: Designer Derivations

September 10, 2008 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

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.

Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

Related Jobs

Digital Extremes
Digital Extremes — LONDON, Ontario, Canada

University of Central Florida, School of Visual Arts and Design
University of Central Florida, School of Visual Arts and Design — Orlando, Florida, United States

Assistant Professor in Digital Media (Game Design)
The College of New Jersey
The College of New Jersey — Ewing, New Jersey, United States

Assistant Professor - Interactive Multi Media - Tenure Track
Bohemia Interactive Simulations
Bohemia Interactive Simulations — Prague, Czech Republic

Game Designer


Phil OConnor
profile image
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
profile image
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
profile image
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
profile image
Doh! Design *roots*, but routes also kind of works.

Nick Halme
profile image
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
profile image
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
profile image
Nick - it was a formatting error - everything should be dandy now!

Nat Loh
profile image
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
profile image
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
profile image
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
profile image
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
profile image
PS: ISTP with even split in I and E

Tony Dormanesh
profile image
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
profile image
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
profile image
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
profile image

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

Randy Vazquez
profile image
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
profile image
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.