My Favorite Week: 2018 Edition

GDC is next week! Things are nowhere near as crazy as last year when we were pitching 10 Crowns to at least ten different publishers (which is a subset of the thirty different publishers that I had any level of discussion with for the game). We met with Starbreeze for the first time during the show and signed a deal with them a few months later. Looking forward to sharing more about the game!

This year, I get to just enjoy the show and stockpile some more podcasts. This time, the line-up is Alexis Kennedy, Jon Ingold, Andy Schatz, and Josh Sawyer. I’ve got over a year’s worth of recordings – coming soon, a three-parter with Brian Reynolds! – so look for these episodes in late 2019, I guess.

I am giving a ten-minute talk on baseball’s dropped third-strike rule and creep denial in DOTA. The mini-talk will be part of Richard Rouse’s annual “Rules of the Game” series, which has a pretty impressive lineup this year. Hope to see you there!

Rules of the Game: Five Further Techniques from Rather Clever Designers


Richard Rouse III (Director/Designer/Writer, Paranoid Productions)
Erin Hoffman-John (CEO/Designer, Sense of Wonder)
Soren Johnson (CEO/Design Director, Mohawk Games)
Raph Koster (Designer, Independent)
Josh Sawyer (Director, Obsidian Entertainment)
Stone Librande (Lead Designer, Riot Games)

Location: Room 2010, West Hall
Date: Wednesday, March 21
Time: 5:00pm – 6:00pm
Pass Type: All Access, GDC Conference + Summits, GDC Conference
Topic: Design, Production & Team Management
Format: Session
Vault Recording: Video

How do you make your games work? There’s no sure-fire way to design great games, but over numerous successful projects the best designers develop techniques that help them craft compelling experiences. Returning for GDC 2018, the Rules of the Game session takes five renowned designers and asks them to go into detail about a rule they’ve used in their work. Each speaker has ten minutes to dive into their technique and provide detailed examples about how they have used the rule in past projects, honestly sharing the pluses and minuses including where their rule works well and where it may be less applicable. These are personal rules that you may not always agree with, but they’re guaranteed to provide interesting fodder for your own game design thoughts and help you build your own design rulebook.


Audience members will hear five very specific, practical, unique, and personal game design rules from veteran, respected game designers. Expect to leave with an interesting new set of design principles to try out on your own projects.

Intended Audience

This session is intended for intermediate to advanced game designers who are looking to expand their knowledge of game design craft and learn new ways to tackle challenges.

Playing to Lose: AI and Civilization (GDC 2008)

I gave a talk at GDC 2008 on developing the AI for the Civilization series. I highlighted the difference between “good” AI and “fun” AI and how writing AI for Civ is tricky because it fits somewhere between those two extremes. Unfortunately, the talk was not filmed, and because I always wanted to get it online, I went ahead and reconstructed it from the original audio and slides. If you give it a watch, let me know what you think!

Theme is Not Meaning (GDC 2010)

I gave a talk at GDC 2010 on the interaction of theme and mechanics in games, specifically arguing that a game’s mechanics take priority over its theme when determining the game’s meaning. (The talk was based heavily on these columns written for Game Developer magazine.) Unfortunately, the talk was not filmed, and because I always wanted to get it online, I went ahead and reconstructed it from the original audio and slides. If you give it a watch, let me know what you think!

25 Years of Civilization

The Civilization series is turning 25 this year, and I join Sid Meier, Bruce Shelley, and Brian Reynolds at DICE to discuss the history and design of the franchise. A video of the panel is now available on YouTube.

I also joined Jon Shafer and Rob Zacny on Three Moves Ahead to discuss the Civ series, especially the ones that Jon and I designed:

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:

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.

This Game Kills Fascists

Last night, Frank Lantz posted “Parley”, in which he attempted to clarify, defend, and rework a previously highly-criticized post on Gamasutra, which in turn attempted to clarify, defend, and rework a previously highly-criticized post on TwitLonger. In other words, Frank is is stuck in a cycle that, judging from the first two comment on his post, is not going to end anytime soon.

Reading “Parley” hurt, for a few reasons. First, I think very highly of Frank and his work (indeed, I did a podcast interview with him just last month), so it is tough watching him deal with the anger and heat that his posts generated, which in his words, “made me flinch at how much offense I had caused.” Second, I am very sympathetic to almost everything Frank wrote, including his oft-repeated line that “Everywhere *we* look we see pretend worlds and childish make-believe, imaginary dragons, badly written dialogue and unskippable cutscenes in which angry mannequins gesture awkwardly at each other.” Indeed, I wrote Game Developer articles with titles like “Theme is Not Meaning” and “Should Games Have Stories?” so it’s not very hard to figure out where to place me within the tired and undead narrative-vs-mechanics debate. Finally, it’s very clear that Frank’s pieces are, at their core, an attempt to take back the value of games-as-systems from the group-that-will-not-be-named (or, to use Frank’s words, “philistines”) who like to use it as a blunt instrument:

I don’t want my ideas to provide cover or support to ignorance and aesthetic & cultural conservatism, and I don’t want to be associated with anti-progressive ideas.

I can feel Frank’s frustration that he is arguing with the people with whom he agrees while he is ignored by the people with whom he disagrees.

And yet…

There is a Miguel Sicart quote in Frank’s piece which jumps out and slaps me in the face:

For proceduralists, games have meanings that are prior to the act of playing the game, and somewhat determine the meaning of the game; there is an essence to any game, and that essence is to be found in the rules. In words of The Dialectic of Enlightenment: “For enlightenment is as totalitarian as any system […] for enlightenment the process is always decided from the start” (Adorno and Horkheimer, 2010, p. 24). Much like Enlightenment, then, proceduralism is a determinist, perhaps even totalitarian approach to play; an approach that defines the action prior to its existence, and denies the importance of anything that was not determined before the act of play, in the system design of the game. [source]

I feel these words in my bones because I live them every day as a designer. In games, the worlds player inhabit are, by definition, limited, arbitrary, and artificial. The rules become the air the players breath, the water they drink, and the food they eat. For example, the brilliant Papers Please! created player empathy for an immigration officer – an immigration officer working for an oppressive, dystopian government, no less – by putting morally gray choices within the context of the character’s need to just do his job so that his family can eat and just stay warm.

I have always found the endless public debate on the theoretical dangers of video game violence to be endlessly bemusing because it misses the true danger of video games by a mile. Video game are dangerous, but not because they might inspire players to imitate the well-armed protagonists in absurd, fictional situations. Saying that what makes video games dangerous is that they might make the player violent is a bit like saying that what makes Mein Kampf dangerous is that the reader might write a terrible autobiography. A game’s ruleset is dangerous because, in Sicart’s words, it “defines the action prior to its existence, and denies the importance of anything that was not determined before the act of play, in the system design of the game.”

In other words, games make us all fascists and communists; anarchists and tycoons; kleptocrats and ascetics, so we better hope that games are not as powerful as we once dreamed they might be.

And yet…

What makes our totalitarian game rules so slippery is that often the dynamics that emerge from these rules are actually at odds with the beliefs of their creators. For example, Will Wright, an atheist, began making Spore as a game about evolution but somehow eventually shipped a game about intelligent design. Monopoly started life as The Landlord’s Game, a board game meant to teach about the evils of capitalist landlords, who unfortunately ended up being a lot of fun to play. In his 2014 GDC talk on The Novelist, Kent Hudson described a poignant moment of crisis in the game’s development when he realized that the game’s rules had evolved into something that said the exact opposite of his own beliefs about marriage and parenthood. Basically, the death-of-the-author folks should have put down their Proust and gone down to the basement to see what video games their kids were playing.

In college, my dream was to make games about history, that made the past real in ways books never could. Thus, I started my career with my absolute dream job when I joined Firaxis to work on Civ 3. Five years later, when I shipped Civ 4, my old dream was dead (although, to be fair, a new one had started). Civilization was supposed to be a game about history but – despite my best efforts – many of the lessons it taught were somehow the opposite of what I actually believed: that revolutionary change could be controlled, that the orientation of a society flowed directly from its leader, that history was a story of continual, upward progress, and that “upward progress” could even be defined.

Games slip away from their designers because water finds a crack. The problem, so to speak, is the players, who quickly understand games far better than their designers ever could. Players are endlessly inventive, reworking forgotten chinks in the rules into dominant strategies, turning an AI’s predictable patterns against itself, and modding games into something almost unrecognizable to the original creators.

If games are about anything, they are about the futile effort of designers to create totalitarian worlds while players gleefully slip through their fingers.

And yet…

I am still hard at work, trying to build new cages for players to break. My new game, Offworld Trading Company, is set on Mars, but it is not about Mars. It is an economic game, but considering my understanding of economics can be summed up as “buy for a dollar, sell for two,” I can’t really claim the game is about economics. Instead, the game is about understanding that there is never one right choice, that success depends on seeing the world clearly, without prejudice, and then adapting. Indeed, I gave a similar reason back in 2007 to the question of why I made Civ 4:

I personally despise ideologies because they inevitably lead to a belief that there is one set of solutions to the world’s problems. One set of solutions means all other options are heretical, which means they must be controlled. Ideologues put ideas above people, which is the beginning of terror and oppression. People are more important than ideas.

Of course, discouraging rigid thinking is not the only reason I make games, but it is the best answer I can give to [the] question. If I ever get to release my dream strategy game, this idea will be clearly be at the center of the design.

I don’t know if my games can really kill fascists, but if Woody Guthrie thought his songs could do so, I don’t see why we can’t aspire to the same goal.

Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Not Me?

I created one of those new-fangled Steam curator pages. Here are my comments:

Atom Zombie Smasher – A well-scoped RTS that keeps everything important and nothing else. The bizarro atmosphere helps too.

Brothers – A beautiful experience, and few game narratives integrate their actual game mechanics into the story so well.

Crusader Kings 2 – Requires an upfront commitment, but no historical game has ever made PEOPLE so important.

Frozen Synapse – Because turns can be submitted in any order, this game is ideal for asynchronous play.

FTL – A perfectly paced game, of just the right length to enable consequence (by being short enough) and progression (by being long enough).

Magicka – A hilarious game, especially in multiplayer. Wonderful joy of discovery if the player stays away from walkthroughs.

Mark of the Ninja – A masterpiece in transparency. Exposing the details of a stealth game (as well as limiting it to 2D) creates amazing intentional play.

Papers, Please – Games have immense powers of empathy, and no game does a better job of creating unexpected empathy.

Spelunky – A monument to the ability of video games to create new worlds from scratch; the last game this amazing was Seven Cities of Gold (for its time).

Steel Storm: Burning Retribution – Simply feels great to play; this game gets every little detail of twitch right.

Swords and Soldiers – 2D? 3D? How about a 1D RTS? This game is a lesson in how simplification leaves room for greater engagement with the actual game mechanics.

Thief Gold – Did you know the original Thief is on Steam? Well, the original Thief is on Steam.

Thirty Flights of Loving – Apparently, this game was made by the same guy who made Atom Zombie Smasher. I assume that’s impossible, however, as nobody can be that versatile.

Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon – Get a few friends together, team up on Terrorist Hunt, thank me later.

Unity of Command – Remarkably accessible for a wargame. The supply mechanic creates an important perspective on the battles.

On the Vault

I was very pleased to hear that the GDC folks posted my 2014 talk for free on the Vault, so everyone can watch it now. I was actually quite surprised during the talk that my content only lasted 40 minutes – I had well over 100 slides, and the presentation was a much expanded version of my 15-minute mini-talk from PRACTICE. The downside is that I incorrectly thought that I wouldn’t have the time to address games that run counter to transparency, including dynamic ones such as Europa Universalis or Out of the Park. The upside is that plenty of people brought up this omission in the Q&A, and I did the best I could on the spot to clarify the value of transparency for different types of games. (I’d point to my answer to Randy Smith – who helped design Thief‘s arrow grammar! – at the 49:00 mark.)

Basically, games like EU are so complex that it’s almost impossible for them to have a transparent rule system because the explanations would probably have to be done as algorithms. Nonetheless, for dynamic, rules-driven games, transparency is still a goal to reach towards; in Crusader Kings 2, the characters’ attitudes towards the player character are broken down in explicit detail (“Long Reign: +8, Liege is Just: +10, Desires Duchy of Ostlandet: -20”) to open a window into a very complicated algorithm. For Civ 4, we similarly exposed the diplomatic AI by detailing all the factors that determine a specific ruler’s attitude towards the player, which increased player comfort significantly. I mentioned that system in the talk, but what I failed to mention is that the designers of Civ 5 tried to move back to a more opaque system by hiding these numerical values but had to patch it back in because players felt too lost dealing with the AI. Ultimately, transparency is a specific game design aesthetic that may not right for all games, especially ones which value mystery, discovery, and perhaps even player frustration, but if a game is meant to be dynamic and replayable, then transparency is a very important goal.

A Study in Transparency

GDC is around the corner and, for the first time since 2010, I’m going to be giving an actual talk instead of just doing a panel. As followers of this blog know, I am a big fan of tabletop games and am very interested in how they overlap with digital games. My talk will be about why transparency defines board games and how that matters to video game developers. (Here is a link to my slides, which are still under construction.) Furthermore, I was on The Game Design Round Table recently talking about transparency in game design, as seen in both physical and digital games.

Here is the info on my talk. Hope to see many of you in San Francisco!

A Study in Transparency: How Board Games Matter

Soren Johnson, Founder, Mohawk Games
Location: Room 3007, West Hall
Date: Thursday, March 20
Time: 2:30pm-3:30pm
What defines a board game? If a video game is described as being “like a board game,” what does that mean exactly? Judging by the recent success of video games inspired by mobile ports of tabletop games, the defining trait of board games is not, in fact, their actual physical components. Instead, the key factor is the transparency necessitated by the physical design. This transparency fosters many positive traits, including deep engagement, player comfort and meaningful choice. This talk will go into extensive detail on how transparency works for successful tabletop games and what lessons apply to the design of digital games.