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This is the blog of a first time game designer trying to figure out what the heck he's doing.

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A Theater Kid in with the Engineers

Updated: Jan 19, 2023



This one is going to get me in trouble, though I'm not sure with whom.


The world of game design is ensconced with numbers. When you start playing at game dynamics, you fall into a pool of psychographics, mechanical balancing, and multi-tab spreadsheets that could rival the bistromathmatics in Hitchhiker’s Guide. So, when I consider this particular pocket of the universe and how I fit into it, I start to wonder how many people who are writing rulebooks have also been the kind of people who took over a booth at Perkins past midnight to have pie, ill-advised coffee, and over zealous renditions of Gilbert and Sullivan, after an opening night. You know, theater kids.


There’s something about game design that feels like it stems directly from engineering. We talk about divergent systems, managing incentives, and balanced abilities. It reeks of an engineer's hands, making sure all the angles meet and support each other at each joint. I mean, there’s a reason why people with degrees in game theory generally have another one in statistics, or mathematics, or know who to throw Python against the wall with a flick of their wrists.


And before I lay anything else on the table, let me flat out say, I am one hundred percent jealous of the people who can rock out code or blueprints like Angus Young can knock out a riff. I mean, I can make Excel do some silly things, and I can make Powerpoint do even sillier things, but what I’ve seen the greenest coder do in the span of about fifteen minutes makes me feel like an complete luddite, pawing at my keyboard with haggard fists and mumbled prayers. I become Saleri watching Mozart simply eject brilliance from the dimple in his hipbone as he sashays away.


Which is why this particular theater kid gets pretty nervous when people start digging into the details of his design. I start trying to describe card distribution, and I end up picturing a drop of sweat slowly growing on my temple. If you looked close enough, the words ``Imposter Syndrome” would be dancing in that bead of Damocles in the Spongebob Squarepants font. I mean I try to keep up with the details of mechanical design, and I can land the phrase “ludonarrative dissonance” in a conversation with something that resembles grace when viewed at a distance, but I know I’m still just that breathless giddy kid pouring his third cup of coffee past midnight in a booth with the Nurse, Benvolio, and an utterly spent Mercutio who’s barely moved in an hour except to blow a couple bubbles in his ginger ale.

And I wonder how many of us there are out there. Because as structured as it is, so much of game design feels like theater to me.


My set is the neoprene mat on the table, and the props are so many Chekov’s meeples ready to be put in play. The script is the rulebook which certainly gives a shape to the show, but everyone knows people are going to improv a line here or there.


And that’s really the rub, because it’s not the set or the script that makes the show. It’s the performance. No one talks about the stage directions after seeing a play. They talk about how a performer bolting up to the lip of the stage made them sit upright. They don’t talk about how certain words were played off each other in the script. They talk about the rhythm and heat someone gave those words that made them resonate.


When people tell the story of a game on Monday, they don’t regurgitate the rules. They describe a real moment they had with their friends.


It’s not the script, it’s the performance that matters.


Which makes this whole design thing so damn weird. I’m directing a show I don’t get to cast, and I’ll never get to see. All I can do is give people enough room to play.


As much as we heap love on Shakespere, what matters is not “what light through yonder window breaks.” It’s the look Leo gives Claire. A look that makes him Romeo, and makes her Juliet. That’s what you remember, and no one can write that.


No one can write a perfect game night either. A designer can only set the scene, and give you your cue. After that we all just sit in the back of the theater…and hope.


I’m just saying this whole gaming thing, it’s a weird art form.


I’m also saying that I would like to find some people who want to go to Perkins after a particularly intense game of Rising Sun for coffee and pie.


And then possibly sing Rent, sarcastically at first, and then getting way too into it.


In accordance with the ancient traditions.


Check out our new game, The Last Summit.


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