We teamed up with Kill Screen to ask some of our favorite game designers about their craft, their tools, the games they admire most, the things that influence them, and the way they think.
How do you describe game design to people who don’t know what it is — say, when explaining your job at parties?
Ben Esposito: Game design is about creating fake problems and funny constraints for people to solve them.
Kara Stone: I describe it in different ways to different people at different parties. If I say, “I make videogames,” people often try to interrogate me to see if I’m “really a gamer.” If people just don’t understand, I’ll say I make “super artsy games.” If I don’t want to engage or if I want to sound fancy, I’ll say I make “interactive art.”
Jay Tholen: Game design is essentially defining the rules of an interactive world. Many people see it as mysterious and intangible, and often don’t realize that real people craft every facet of the games they enjoy. For the completely uninitiated, I like to describe games as a young medium, similar to cinema a century ago.
Will Dubé: To make a game, you need four things: artists to make the game beautiful, programmers to make the game work, business people to make the game make money, and game designers to make the game fun. Game designers often don’t code or draw. They’re in charge of what the player does in the game — what are the rules of the game and what makes the game fun.
Paloma Dawkins: When I explain my job at parties, I usually tell people that I create alternate dimensions, and mirror universes that reflect our own but are really just my pre-baked dreamscapes that you float through, unnoticed. Then I steal their drink and leave with the band.
David Beck (Divorce! The Game): I once had a rather unpleasant woman at a bar laugh at it as a career choice. But she knew what I was talking about. I think that means gaming isn’t really a mystery to the world anymore.
What are the best 30 seconds of game design ever?
Will Dubé: Super Mario Bros., World 1 Level 1.
Ben Esposito: World 1–1 of Super Mario Bros.
Paloma Dawkins: A well-invested 30 seconds of Psychonauts.
David Beck: The first time you stumble upon a zombie in Resident Evil 1 and awkwardly panic and run back past the door you came in, down a long hallway of doors which you discover — one by one — are all locked, as the shambling corpse slowly advances on you with nowhere to escape. Maybe you had to be 11, but it was the first time I felt a game perfectly captured a film genre and viscerally put you into it.
Jay Tholen: Earthbound, in Onett, the starting area. Meeting Buzz-Buzz was great fun. He was quite possibly the most powerful 5-pixel-wide adorable lil’ bee of all time.
Robin Hunicke (Funomena): When you first go to the trading mode in M.U.L.E. and realize you can sell goods to the house, or other players. For me, this was a mind-blowing experience. Walking the line down as my friend walked up to buy from me, imagining cornering the market on a resource, trying to beat the game and a human player — for me, this flipped a deep, important switch.
Michaël Samyn (Tale of Tales): I think the most impressive and inspiring and moving and smart moment for me must have been the save mechanic in Ico: you go to sleep on the bench with Yorda. Beautiful!
Piotr Iwanicki (SUPERHOT): Seeing any brilliant design for the first time in a single “aha moment” is the closest I can imagine to an answer. First seconds of Doom, the start of Prince of Persia, casting a spell in Dungeon Master, seeing the limitless world of Minecraft, twisting your mind around Triple Town, thinking with Portals. It changes so rapidly year after year!
Nina Freeman: M.A.S.H. — the schoolkid game, not the show.
Chase Pettit (Super Systems Softworks): The first thing that springs to mind is the final test in Portal. I think it’s pretty magical any time you can throw the player into an unfamiliar setting where they’re forced to quickly find a new way to apply the mechanics they’ve learned up to that point. It speaks a lot to how well designed a game is when you can create a situation that makes the mechanics feel instinctual. That moment of player agency, discovery, and for a second feeling like the smartest person on the planet is something that you can’t really get in any other forms of entertainment.
Do you think of game design as similar to other forms of design (industrial, graphic, etc.)?
Douglas Wilson: Making a game is more like being in a band or composing music.
Ben Esposito: It’s a lot like architecture. Games are spaces that contain many possibilities; we can only design the context for interesting things to happen.
Paloma Dawkins: I find game design unlike anything we’ve seen before. The possibilities are endless, but are not as accessible as other forms of design.
Michaël Samyn: The purpose of most design is to make something more accessible. Conventional games thrive on making things more difficult.
Robin Hunicke: All design requires that you think of the user: what they want from the experience, and how their unique input to the use case is valuable or meaningful. But with games, you have to anticipate these things and then create multiple variations with which to respond. Games are alive in ways that a chair can never be.
What’s the biggest thing players just don’t understand about game mechanics?
Michaël Samyn: That game mechanics are not necessary for enjoyment. That, in fact, game mechanics distract from the joy and insight that interacting with virtual projects can bring. That players are addicted to being busy because they are afraid of death, and of life.
Paloma Dawkins: Nothing. The player knows everything. They know your game better than you do. Do it right the first time, then live with it.
David O’Reilly: If the speedrun community has proven anything it’s that players understand game mechanics better than the people that create them.
Saleem Dabbous: Money and time factor into the decision-making process for the game you’re playing. I notice folks — and I’m totally guilty of this, too — wondering why a mechanic is the way it is in a game, without realizing that the designer had already thought of the alternatives and they had to balance that decision against the time and budget that they had.
Joe Russ: Mechanics aren’t the defining aspect of a game experience. They’re tools to help elicit emotional reactions.
Nina Freeman: Game mechanics aren’t always math-based (e.g., counting points), nor can they always measure a player’s “success.” Sometimes, game mechanics are more focused on conveying something more abstract, like an emotion. Mechanics can do all sorts of things — anything a designer can dream up, really.
Robin Hunicke: Game mechanics are religion. They are physics. They are biology. The world a game designer creates by outlining rules, and systems that respond to those rules — it’s uniquely whole and logical to itself. When you respond to prompts in a game, and act within its implementation of gravity, momentum, light and shadow, you’re experiencing a world that has been created to convey a message. Mechanics are meaning. Meaning is message. You are what you do when you play a game.
Deep down in your heart of hearts, which are you more partial to: simplicity or complexity?
Ben Esposito: Simplicity. If something moves in an interesting way, that’s enough. My current favorite mobile game is called Pancake — you hold one button to flip a physically simulated pancake. It’s great.
Paloma Dawkins: Simple complexity, organized complexity. It’s easy to achieve and very satisfying. Just look at a leaf — it achieves a staggering level of complexity using the simplest means.
Jay Tholen: In terms of game design itself, I’m a minimalist. In terms of aesthetics, I’m a maximalist. I’m not happy until both the sound and color spectrums are packed with every frequency and hue imaginable. At the same time.
Robin Hunicke: I’m all about complexity of meaning within systems that are simplistic in control. The easier it is to perform multiple endings, the better. The more I can do by pressing one button, the better. I want to explore systems with near-infinite outcomes, but I want the interface of those systems to be elegant, rationalized, pure.
Chase Pettit: Simplicity. Cutting the fat from your game and distilling it down to a few extremely refined mechanics is hard, but it makes it far easier for players to connect with your game and enjoy it.
David Beck: I think the best barbecue ribs involve at least fourteen different ingredients, spiced to just the right balance. And, in truth, barbecue is just game design for your tongue.
Should you design for yourself, or should you design for your audience?
Kara Stone: I don’t know what anyone should do. I lean towards designing for myself, so I try to have a lot of playtesters. I once put out a game with zero playtesting by people who are not me, but I wouldn’t recommend that to others.
Michaël Samyn: You should design for your lover.
Ben Esposito: Audience. Games have a significant usability component. It’s important to consider a range of motor and cognitive ability. Aesthetically, I’m a lost cause. My taste is so messed up! I like bad things. My compromise is I usually design with a specific person in mind.
Paloma Dawkins: I am me, you are me, I am you, you are you. I just make shit for myself. Sometimes I make things for kids — you have to think a little more when doing that. Like not swearing. You’re also designing for who they will become.
Jay Tholen: I design to bring joy to other people, but I also don’t listen to many suggestions from them.
Saleem Dabbous: For yourself at first, and then a mix of yourself and who your audience becomes. If you’re not designing for yourself, your motivations don’t interest me as an artist and as a player.
Will Dubé: Depends who’s paying the bills.
Who do you consider at the top of your field, and why?
Paloma Dawkins: I don’t really know. I tend to walk backwards, so I don’t know what’s coming — I just know what I’ve passed. Hopefully the person at the top of my field is a sweetie.
Joe Russ: The people behind Journey and Rayman Legends.
Kara Stone: Anna Anthropy. She makes incredible, innovative, reflective games, and writes and contributes so much to thinking about games in non-normative ways.
Piotr Iwanicki: Daniel Cook from Spry Fox. His work in casual games is absolutely inspiring to me: Triple Town, Leap Day. His games always feel like they’re made from scratch, without a recognisable core taken from other games. It’s masterful game design. Huge respect.
Jay Tholen: Anyone who finishes their first big project. Because it’s hard, and they’re untainted by the world!
Douglas Wilson: Zach Gage. In my opinion he’s the world’s sharpest designer of smartphone games (and prolific too).
Ben Esposito: Brendon Chung. Economical designer, top notch storyteller, funny, accessible.
Robin Hunicke: I’m a huge fan of creators like Will Wright, Sid Meier, and Chris Crawford, because they light the way for systems designers like Notch, Lucas Pope, Michael Brough, and Jason Roher. I love designers like Team Ico, Matsuura Masaya, Jenova Chen, and Tale of Tales because they show us how games can explore new themes, emotions, and ways of interacting, even when the mechanics are familiar.
Michaël Samyn: I don’t like thinking in terms of fields. So I’d say Pergolesi and Botticelli and Duras and Godard. I deeply admire them.
Chase Pettit: As a programmer myself, I have to put John Carmack at the top of that list. His technical innovation in the 90s dramatically changed the way games both look and play, and, over twenty years later, his current work in VR has the potential to drive yet another big shift in gaming.
Nina Freeman: I really admire the work of Cardboard Computer. They make games that are influenced by poetry, theatre, and literature.
David Beck: Jason Morningstar, for really rethinking how to formally define a character in a tabletop RPG. In his game Fiasco, it’s almost like a sandbox of negative space, where the shape of the character is solely and entirely defined by their relationship to the others at the table. It’s fast and brilliant and sidesteps one of the big problems of the traditional RPG party — a bunch of lone wolves with cool and totally disconnected backstories meeting up at a tavern. And his system can be applied as a meta-system to any tabletop RPG, not just his own. I’d love to see a creative attempt to implement it in a digital co-operative game.
What are the essential tools of your trade?
Piotr Iwanicki: Programming skills are the most important tool. Aspiring designers often want to do just the conceptual work, but the truth is that lots of design happens during execution. You cannot be a game designer without knowing how to execute your design.
Douglas Wilson: Alcohol and friends.
Ben Esposito: Nothing fancy! Notebook, Post-its, Google Docs.
Paloma Dawkins: TVPaint for drawing my animations, After Effects, Unity 3D, Blender, Photoshop, my beloved Cintiq Companion.
Robin Hunicke: Pen, paper, oral and written communication. Spreadsheets for organizing tasks and features, whiteboards for sketching up random ideas in meetings. Laptop and tablet for pushing ideas into digital documents, gmail and google docs for sharing with others. Toys as well: physical objects that represent players, world environments, game objects and so on help us act out scenarios we want to see in-game. Videos (with sound) for communicating about audio feedback and, of course, the body, with which we simulate silly walks, voices, and actions for the characters we imagine.
Jay Tholen: Pens, notebooks, and crayons for planning. ASEPRITE for art, Ableton for music, and all kinds of programs for actually pulling it all together. Dropsy uses Unity, but I’m quite personally invested in Clickteam Fusion.
Chase Pettit: The ubiquity of game engines like Unity, GameMaker, and Unreal speaks for itself. They allow for quick and easy prototyping of ideas but are also robust and powerful enough to provide a foundation for building a full final product.
David Beck: Pen, paper, and friends with an inordinate amount of trust that the next hour you’re subjecting them to isn’t going to suck.
How does the hardware or platform you’re designing for change your design? Does your work conform to its container, or do you find the right container for your work?
Saleem Dabbous: The game should always feel like it was natively created for whatever input the platform provides. If it feels tacked on, players will notice.
Robin Hunicke: Platform dictates control interface. If it’s a console, we know you will have a multi-button controller, wand or joystick, driving wheel, or flight panel. PC or Mac? Mouse or touchpad, and so many keys! The best designs conform to that control interface, working with it to create a unique experience.
Douglas Wilson: I mean, listen, I’m the guy known for his absurd PlayStation Move installations. I’m more interested in designing in spite of hardware/platforms, not “for” them. I always try to maintain an antagonistic relationship with technology.
Ben Esposito: Always conform. I try to design for the interfaces people use on a daily basis — that’s why a lot of my work has revolved around touch screens recently.
Joe Russ: I like working within the confines of containers and systems. It gives you some basic boundaries to work with and allows you to focus on the cool things you can do to break or bend the container.
Jay Tholen: We’ve chosen a very simple controller (a mouse) with only one button (left click) and I’ve found that it’s quite freeing.
Paloma Dawkins: The more I understand the vast variety of behaviors available to me in my programs, the easier it gets to replicate the phenomenon I see and the movements I want. They inform each other.
Michaël Samyn: Present day technology is far too slow, rigid, and primitive for what I want to make or how I want to make it. So, yes, I am a complete slave to hardware, software, platforms, and containers. The choice for any of these is primarily motivated by the people who use them. The entire point of making games for me is to create accessible art.
Nina Freeman: I don’t let myself be limited by technology — the game comes first, the technology can be bent to conform to my idea.
David Beck: I think it’s important to prototype designs that cannot yet be realized with today’s resources, it’s how you push the edge. Or at the very least be ready for it when it hits.
Kara Stone: The platform totally informs the design. The two are so integrated they can’t be cleanly separated. Sometimes, I find inspiration from a medium or hardware. Other times, I find a platform that suits the story.
Piotr Iwanicki: It’s the process of negotiation. You work with your tools but also the tools work with you. You have to accept it and allow the tools to shape your work instead of trying too hard to go against the grain.
Simon Flesser: I really enjoy designing how players interact with the game, so I tend to want to design for a specific input device. Then you have natural limitations, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I’d argue that it is harder to design without limits.
What’s the most important game mechanic of the past 10 years?
Michaël Samyn: One of the most satisfying mechanics for me was petting the creature in Black & White 1.
Kara Stone: Probably the non-mechanics of David O’Reilly’s Mountain.
Robin Hunicke: Sharing your own creation. Sim City and The Sims both really excelled at motivating fans to share their worlds, tell stories about them, and evangelize the play experience by example.
Will Dubé: Free-to-play monetization is definitely the one that has impacted our industry the most.
Joe Russ: Auto-save.
Simon Flesser: I think mechanics that sprung out of devices with new input types, like Wii or the DS, have made a huge impact on the world of games.
Chase Pettit: I think the move to regenerating health and other forms of minimizing or reducing risk and negative consequences has been the biggest shift in the past decade. There’s certainly plenty of room to debate whether or not that’s actually been beneficial to games, and I think the recent popularity of more challenging games like Spelunky and Dark Souls make the case that at the very least there’s room for alternative approaches to difficulty.
David Beck: Massively single-player online games, if only because they point to unexplored creative territory for integrating personal narrative and communal actions. There are a lot of interesting ways to play with the fact that you can’t be sure who’s “real” in our online worlds. And it’s even affecting competitive multiplayer — look at the “Assasinate” mode in Assassin’s Creed IV as an example.
Nina Freeman: Probably whatever games kids are making up at recess.
How does your office or workplace change your work?
Paloma Dawkins: Drastically! I hate working indoors, sitting, and being alone — I can’t do all three together. It’s impossible for my brain to be stimulated enough. I came to realize that I work in order to have a better life. If I want a better life, I just need to enjoy my work, my process, my days, the flowers on my desk, the sun, my friends, the music, the lighting. The more I enjoy contributing to my better life, the better my work.
Douglas Wilson: “I still endorse Peter Schjeldahl’s advice on how to become an artist: ‘You move to a city. You hang out in bars. You form a gang, turn it into a scene, and turn that into a movement.’” — Dave Hickey
Will Dubé: We’re located in District 3, Concordia University’s incubator for startups. This means we’re surrounded by dynamic entrepreneurs who defy anyone who says something can’t be done. It’s really motivating.
Ben Esposito: Working at Glitch City around a bunch of other designers has made me prototype and test my bad ideas constantly.
Nina Freeman: I like to surround myself with cute stuff while I work. I’m not sure if it affects my process, but that’s how I’ve always kept my desk.
Michaël Samyn: I work at home in an old European city. During the weekend, the city becomes very quiet. And I find it difficult to get any work done. And I thank the Lord for the invention of Christianity.
Kara Stone: I mostly work at home surrounded by plants, burning incense, spending a lot of time away from my computer lying on the ground thinking. Not feeling forced to sit in front of a screen and having my hippie surroundings makes the process and the outcome a little more serene, personal, thoughtful.
Piotr Iwanicki: Having the whole team in one office helps a lot and we’re still learning how to set things up properly. It’s basically a design challenge and you use the same approach as game design: you start with the initial idea, then observe what works, then make adjustments according to that.
David Beck: Environmental psychologists figured out a while ago that changing someone’s surroundings altered their behavior a lot quicker than a reclining sofa and free word association. It’s huge in game design as well — just listen to the guys at Valve describe the iterative changes they made to any given level of Portal before players “got it.”
David O’Reilly: Friend, if you conduct game development out of a Taco Bell, well, I don’t need to tell you how that’s gonna turn out.
What non-game art influences you the most?
Jay Tholen: Music has an enormous influence on me. An embarrassing high school prog-rock phase awakened a hunger for incredibly dorky music deep within me, and it hasn’t subsided. I’m a part-time tinkerer with archaic keyboards and synthesizers and fuzz pedals and delays and stuff.
Douglas Wilson: Steve Reich, Alice Coltrane, Billie Holiday, Stereolab, Stars of the Lid, Boards of Canada, J.S. Bach, DJ Shadow, Hildegard von Bingen, Underworld, Underground Resistance, Tangerine Dream, Abdullah Ibrahim, Cocteau Twins, Dilla.
Paloma Dawkins: I love music. Dan Deacon was huge for me, and the Montreal music scene is a lot of fun. I am super into experimental comics, the surreal landscapes of Yuichi Yokoyama, and the drawings of Bastien Vivès. David O’Reilly’s short films inspired me to be an animator. Vienna succession, conceptual art from the 60's.
Joe Russ: Film and television.
Robin Hunicke: I’m incredibly influenced by fine art and sculpture. The works of Mary Blair, Georgia O’Keeffe, Lee Bontecou, Anish Kapoor, and Gabriel Orozco have been very influential to one of my projects (Luna). I am also very moved by music and film. I’m a huge fan of Akira Kurosawa, Hayao Miyazaki, Yuri Norstein and Andrei Tarkovsky. Musical influences are almost too numerous to mention, but I love hip-hop, electronic music, experimental jazz, and anything very wall-of-sound noisy.
Michaël Samyn: In terms of aspiration, religious paintings from the Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque eras. In terms of inspiration, probably modern literature and poetry.
Nina Freeman: 70s and 80s American poetry.
Kara Stone: Lately, feminist performance art has been a big inspiration. Carolee Schneemann, Yoko Ono, Adriana Disman. Thinking about interactivity with bodies and public spaces. Traditional crafting like weaving, embroidery, cross-stitching and their connected history to digital technology has been a huge influence as well.
Piotr Iwanicki: You take something from everything you see: posters, advertisements, music videos, animated gifs, memes, funny stuff on your Facebook page, movies (obviously), architecture, interactive art of all sorts. A huge inspiration for SUPERHOT at the very start was experimental theatre — the idea of not telling the player things directly, but “showing” them through minimal means.
Chase Pettit: We draw a lot from film and TV. The aesthetic and tonal inspirations are probably the most obvious thing to take away from them. But you can also learn a lot from paying attention to things like camera techniques and use of audio cues.
David Beck: Movies. I’m a video store kid. The immersive atmosphere and storytelling capability are closest to what preceded this medium.
A partial index of games discussed in this article:
Assassin’s Creed IV, barbecue ribs, Black & White, Dark Souls, Doom, Drift Stage, Dropsy, Dungeon Master, EarthBound, Fairweather Fortunes, Fiasco, Final Fantasy VII, Gardenarium, How Do You Do It?, Ico, Jenny LeClue, Johann Sebastian Joust, Jotun, Journey, Leap Day, Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Limbo, Luna, M.A.S.H., Minecraft, Mountain, M.U.L.E., Pancake, Portal, Prince of Persia, Psychonauts, Rayman Legends, recess, Resident Evil, Sim City, The Sims, Skipping Stones, Spelunky, Sunset, Super Mario Bros., Superhot, Triple Town, Wario Ware, Year Walk.
for more, visit Kickstarter’s Happening or killscreendaily.com
Ready to launch your own project? Get started here.