Designer Notes #11: Chris Avellone

In this episode, Soren interviews game designer Chris Avellone, who is best known for his work on Fallout 2, Planescape: Torment, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 2, Fallout: New Vegas, and Wasteland 2. He is currently working at inXile Entertainment on Torment: Tides of Numenera. They discuss why he owes his career to publisher desperation, how Torment reflects that players only care about themselves, the mystery of how Black Isle lost the D&D license, and why game writing is overrated.

Games Discussed: The Bard’s Tale series, Etrian Odyssey, Dungeons & Dragons, Fallout, Planescape: Torment, Ultima Underworld, the Icewind Dale series, Van Buren, KOTOR 2, Alpha Protocol, Fallout: New Vegas, Pillars of Eternity


How Board Games Matter

GDC started posted lecture videos a couple months ago, and they recently posted my talk from 2014 on transparency in board game design. Enjoy the mohawk!

I am very late to post these links, but I have also been on a few podcasts since the release of Offworld:

Designer Notes #10: Nina Freeman

In this episode, Adam Saltsman interviews indie game developer Nina Freeman, who is best known for her personal vignette games How Do You Do It?, Freshman Year, and the upcoming Cibele. She is currently working at Fullbright as a level designer on the upcoming game Tacoma. They discuss why all VR games are about sitting in chairs, how a background in poetry influences her work, and how to write about your own personal flaws in a game.

Games Discussed: How Do You Do It?, Cibele, Digital: A Love Story, Gone Home, Dys4ia, MMO’s, Final Fantasy 10

Designer Notes #9: Bruce Shelley

In this episode, Soren interviews veteran game designer Bruce Shelley, who is best known for his work on Railroad Tycoon, Civilization, and the Age of Empires series. He is currently working at Bonus XP on Servo, a new RTS. They discuss what the two Sids have in common, why they took disasters out of Railroad Tycoon, what game got shoved out the door to make way for Civilization, why Ensemble games always look so bright, and why he always does his research in the children’s section.

Games Discussed: Squad Leader, the MERP series, Titan, Civilization (Avalon Hill), 1830, Cosmic Encounter, Acquire, Wooden Ships & Iron Men, F-19 Stealth Fighter, Covert Action, Railroad Tycoon, Pirates!, Empire Deluxe, Civilization, Age of Empires series, Company of Heroes

Designer Notes #8: Daniel Benmergui

In this episode, Adam Saltsman interviews independent game developer Daniel Benmergui, who is best known for experimental story games like Today I Die, I Wish I Were The Moon, and the IGF-winning Storyteller. He is currently working on the Indie Fund-backed puzzle game Ernesto. They discuss why games should not be designed backwards, how to recover from the burden of success, why players have difficulty committing a murder of jealousy in Storyteller, and whether Chris Hecker hates Ernesto.

Games Discussed: Storyteller, Today I Die, I Wish I Were The Moon, Ernesto, Return of the Obra Dinn, Gone Home, Overland, Hundreds, FTL


Designer Notes #7: Brad Muir

In this episode, Soren interviews Brad Muir, who is a designer/programmer at Double Fine. He was a programmer on Psychonauts, the lead designer of Brutal Legend, and the project leader on Iron Brigade. Brad is currently leading the development of Massive Chalice, a tactical strategy game now available on Steam Early Access. They discuss trying to make peace with narrative-based games, why consoles (and not tablets) are the future of MOBAs, what it’s like pitching ideas to publishers, and why Brad worked at Raven for 89 days.

Games Discussed: Spec Ops: The Line, The Walking Dead, Crusader Kings 2, Hunt the Wumpus, The Legend of Zelda, Brutal Legend, Alter Echo, Psychonauts, XCOM, Massive Chalice, Trenched/Iron Brigade

Designer Notes #6: Chelsea Howe

In this episode, Adam Saltsman interviews Chelsea Howe, who is a Creative Director at EA Mobile. She is best known for her work at TinyCo, where she led the design of Family Guy: The Quest for Stuff, and for her community efforts organizing the Queerness and Games Conference, the Global Game Jam in San Francisco, student workshops, and more. They discuss how DAU’s and LTV’s compare to Quarterback Ratings, why F2P games end up as conservative as AAA games, why mobile devs have to pay people to play their games, and if a game is worthwhile if the player isn’t learning something.

Games Discussed: Choice Chamber, Renga, Twitch Plays Pokemon, Candy Crush Saga, Dragon Age series, Family Guy: The Quest for Stuff

The Most Surprising Thing So Far

Offworld Trading Company has been out now for six weeks, and it’s been a fun ride. We’ve seen some great early impressions. We spent three weeks in the top 25 of Steam. We’ve seen popular Let’s Play videos from Northernlion, quill18, Ohmwrecker, and Arumba (although apparently we have to wait until after Early Access to see one from TotalBiscuit). Day[9] spent an entire Friday streaming thirteen games of Offworld to around four thousand viewers. We’ve seen the fans compile extensive strategy guides. We’ve seen players log well over 200 hours of play. I was on the front page of Reddit with an AMA. We’ve seen the metagame go from thinking that Offworld Markets are overpowered, to that Hacker Arrays are overpowered, to them being fairly balanced (with the help of some game updates).

However, the most surprising thing about Offworld so far, at least to me, is how my wife has taken to the game. My wife had, before last month, never played a real-time strategy game or even a tycoon game. Indeed, Leyla had never played any PC games at all besides Civ4, which she obviously tried just because I made it. Civ is, of course, turn-based, so it’s the type of game that a non-gamer can enjoy easily. Offworld, on the other hand, is real-time, intensely competitive, fast-paced, and fairly intimidating for new players. Nonetheless, after first seeing the game, she just kept playing and playing and playing. Soon, I would notice that Leyla was playing when I was away from the house. Then, she started asking each night if, you know, we could play some more Offworld. Furthermore, she got bored pretty quickly with single-player and even team-based comp stomps and began to play online multiplayer. Even more amazing, she got pretty good at it! I’ve attached her multiplayer stats below, and she has been winning roughly 1-in-6 of her games, which means she is doing better than average considering we almost always play 6- or 8-player free-for-all games like this one or this one (which have only one winner).


I should also add that in most of the games Leyla has won, she was using a trackpad; because she is not a PC gamer, she is usually playing the game from the couch without a mouse, which – needless to say – is not the typical setup for competitive RTS play! (I have begun training her how to use a mouse and WASD.) Also of note, we released Offworld 40 days ago today, which means that, with a total of 162 games played, she is averaging FOUR multiplayer games PER DAY. Here is one of the games she won that was saved on my Twitch channel:

On top of all this, Leyla is taking an active role in popularizing the game; for example, she helped setup a multiplayer match with quill18 and Arumba – which she almost won! She also started streaming the game and has developed connections throughout the Offworld multiplayer community. She discovered who the best players are (such as Zultar and Pbhead) and opened dialogues with them to help balance the game and improve the experience with our first few updates. From talking with them, she came up with the idea to start a Twitch tournament for Offworld, both to crown the best 1v1 player and to spread the game via streaming (registration is open until Thursday). Remember, Leyla had almost never played PCs game at all before six weeks ago, so to call these development unexpected is an understatement. I’m both proud of her and overjoyed that she found Offworld so much fun.

UPDATE: Two days after this post, Leyla beat an all-star groups of players, including Zultar, Pbhead, and SMG, during the Mohawk Games weekly stream. The video is up on YouTube:

Designer Notes #5: Daniel Cook

In this episode, Soren interviews Daniel Cook, who is the Chief Creative Officer at Spry Fox. He is best known for his design work on games such as Triple Town, Realm of the Mad God, and Steambirds as well as for his writing on game design at They discuss the joy of making tile sets, why Lost Garden was originally an anonymous blog, whether Triple Town should be free-to-play, and why we wish we had been neighbors.

Games Discussed: The Faery Tale Adventure, Tyrian, The Circle, 1 vs. 100, Steambirds, Triple Town, Realm of the Mad God, Road Not Taken

My Favorite Week: 2015 Edition

Next week is GDC, and it’s going to be my craziest one yet, which is saying something. I’m doing a bunch of interviews about the release of Offworld. I’ll be trying to catch up with all the people in the industry I only get to see once a year. I’m going to be doing five new Designer Notes podcasts, with Bruce Shelley, Chris Avellone, Jamie Cheng, Nels Anderson, and George Fan. Finally, I am on a panel late Thursday afternoon on Early Access games, with which I now have direct experience. Hope to see you all there!

A Thousand Voices: Open Game Development

Soren Johnson  |  Founder, Mohawk Games
Chris Avellone  |  Creative Director, Obsidian Entertainment
Jamie Cheng  |  Founder, Kei Entertainment
Adrian Goya  |  Co-Founder, Squad
Colin Campbell  |  Senior Reporter, Polygon
Location:  Room 306, South Hall
Date:  Thursday, March 5
Time:  5:30pm – 6:30pm
Format: Session
Track: Programming


With the advent of Kickstarter and Early Access, many teams are now developing their games in the open, providing beta, alpha, and even prototype builds to any player willing to buy in early. In this panel, four game developers who have direct experience with open development will share their experiences with this method.How often should the players be updated to the current version? How best to communicate changes and new features to players? How does the team filter the waves of online feedback? What happens when players express displeasure over a change? How important is it to remind players about what is still missing from the game? How do the project leads ensure that feedback from the players is heard and valued while making sure that the developers can still do their jobs? Once a game has been publicly available for so long, how to ensure that the actual release is still an important event?


Open development is a powerful tool for making better games, by breaking teams out of the feedback vacuum that leads to wasted time and misguided features. Developers don’t have to release games while holding their breath anymore.

Intended Audience

Anyone interested in how open development could improve their own games would benefit from the hard-won experience of these four panelists.