The feature: IdleThumbs’ “Designer Notes” primarily focuses on the professional development of game designers and the nature of their success in the field.
The content: Soren Johnson (Mohawk Games founder) and Adam Saltsman (Finji.co co-founder) reveal the humanity, intelligence, and sometimes persistent confusion behind some of gaming’s most successful titles.
The follow-up: Episodes featuring Uncharted visionary Amy Hennig, Civilization pioneer Sid Meier, and The Stanley Parable‘s inscrutable Davey Wreden scrub away some of the industry’s mystique while highlighting a diversity of talents and approaches (not everyone’s good with coding, art, and/or both, yo). These conversations often brush up against emerging topics concerning gamers; and while the podcast rarely wanders these avenues of questioning, it would be interesting to discuss these issues with designers as gamers themselves.
As a woman, cinemaphile, and veteran in the industry, Hennig offers up a diversity of perspectives. She describes 1977, with its release of the Atari console, Star Wars, and Dungeons and Dragons, as an influential year in developing her interests in gaming. The accessibility of the Atari was instrumental in expanding player immersion while the latter titles were steeped in world building, each leaving a clear impact on Hennig’s aspirations and works. Growing within the young industry, Hennig donned many hats and eventually came to view all contributors to a game as collaborators rather than simply employees or contractors. Although she’s respected and lauded in her field, Hennig’s provocative opinion regarding gaming’s current approach to women paints her early days in the industry as a double-edged sword.
Hennig said she was surprised that female colleagues and fans found the gaming industry hostile to women. For her, gaming and game development had been an opportunity, particularly in light of the sexism she experienced in film school. However, the key factor seems to be a matter of generations. Current conflicts regarding sexism in gaming seem to stem from an impression cultivated in the mid- to late ’90s via marketing and game narratives: the idea that “video games are for boys.” Notably, Hennig was already active in the industry by this time; and, her career developed in a generation more focused on presenting gaming as a viable at all rather than concerned with targeting niche demographics. A comparable question that might truly demonstrate this generational divide is whether gaming was ever personally understood as being solely for children, another popular marketing relic of the ’90s.
Despite the obstacles she encountered in film school, Hennig maintained her passion for cinema and extrapolated it to gaming. Both the Legacy of Kain and Uncharted franchises have been praised for their narratives and worlds. Hennig even describes Uncharted as “an interactive movie,” an opinon many players echo, and a concept that continues to revolutionize the cutscene mechanic. When questioned about the worst game she had ever made, Hennig’s response took a more holistic approach, acknowledging that even the worst game offered opportunities to learn and progress (see Michael Jordan: Chaos in the Windy City for more).
The fluid nature of game development sometimes produces bugs, but Hennig feels the final product is worth more than these incidentals or the risk thereof. One should bear in mind that her perspective doesn’t seem to suggest tossing out QA or not holding developers or publishers accountable for bad games; but, it points out that bugs are often negligible when compared to the final product, especially in the day and age of digital delivery and patching. The spectrum of player response pertaining to bugs in recent games, such as Mass Effect: Andromeda, Red Dead Redemption, and Fallout 4, emphasizes the relevance and insight of Hennig’s perspective.
Civilization‘s Sid Meier hails from a more technical background. As a huge proponent of simulators and 4x strategy games, Meier has much to say about gameplay loops and level design. One of the most salient points from the podcast is that he perceives Civilization to be “compelling,” not necessarily fun; and, this concept might help define the allure of strategy and sim games. Although a game might be tedious, a sensation of achievement, progress, or, in the notorious case of Civ, the imminent prospect of either often compels gamers to continue playing. An interesting question for Meier might be how he feels about the monetization of mechanics primarily designed to exploit such feelings.
Another important concept Meier touches on is defining when and how a game ends. Although “victory conditions” appear more straightforward in sim and 4x games, the majority of the gaming industry still struggles with creating satisfying conclusions. Endings often straddle a line between budget constraints and player engagement. Even sim and 4x games acknowledge player dedication with attempts to offer sandbox or extended gameplay post-victory. Despite his more technical background, Meier’s insights are applicable across the medium; and, his work continues to inspire with Civilization persistently evolving and Pirates clearly influencing core mechanics in games such as Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag and Sea of Thieves.
As a veteran of the modder community, Davey Wreden is a hybrid of technical capability and narrative experimentation. In the podcast, Wreden expresses an interest in creating a “social space for gaming,” initially conceived in the form of a video game bar. Although the bar might not have come to fruition, the concept still seems very integral to his approach to development. Notably, a “social space for gaming” can be understood as not only exclusively gamer-oriented, but rather gaming-enthusiast-oriented; thus, the space is open to gamers, enthusiasts, and professionals across the industry. The concept encourages a dialogue between various perspectives with myriad priorities; and, many of Wreden’s games, playing with developer and player presence, agency, and identities, have been tantalizing proponents of such conversations.
Wreden describes creating a game as erecting “a mental framework that we can build on in the moment you’re playing it.” He designed The Stanley Parable seeking to create an intimate, visceral experience that ideally appealed to everyone in some way, shape, or form; and, despite TSP‘s silliness, it held the hope that the player would achieve a personal revelation of some sort, related to the game or otherwise, as well. Upon the game’s initial release (the full release, not the mod), the variety of revelations regarding the narrative, meta, and the gaming industry at large confirmed at least one objective as wildly successful. The personal nature of the game is less distinguishable, but Wreden describes reviews of TSP as a barometer that reveals a metric of the reviewer, although he’s not certain what that metric is.
Wreden pursues the surprisingly personal facet of games further in The Beginner’s Guide. TBG broaches game development on a significantly personal level, addressing developers’ interpersonal relationships, motivations, and mental health. Wreden discusses a sense of personal and psychological space as a designer/developer. He addresses his own “mental health rebound,” an effort to transition from being emotionally distressed to the other, more positive, end of the spectrum. And, it’s all a subtle reminder that developers are rarely industrialized machines solely designed to crank out games and suck up money, but rather people with typical needs and fluctuating emotional health (that subsequently affects physical health). The gaming industry is a network of individuals communicating ambitions, curiosities, and perspectives; and, as they humanize and give voice to a wide variety of designers, “Designer Notes” is as much a unique proponent of these conversations as Wreden.