Design of the Times

This summer, Game Developer magazine shipped its last issue, yet another casualty of the journalism’s transition to digital. Since 2008, I had been writing a bi- or tri-monthly design column entitled Design of the Times, so the end of the magazine marks the end of that column as well. My blog earned me the initial opportunity; I posted about “8 Things Not To Do” as a game designer, which attracted the attention of editor-in-chief Brandon Sheffield, who was looking for a new design columnist who would focus more on the details and mechanics of game design. I didn’t feel equipped to produce 1,600 words every month, so I contacted my favorite game design blogger, Damion Schubert, to see if he would alternate months with me. (Damion gets credit for the name, by the way.) Eventually, we added a third columnist, Jason VandenBerghe, who probably wishes he had gotten a few more columns in before the end.

I enjoyed having a gig that forced me to put my thoughts down on paper on a set schedule. As random ideas floated through my head, I would saves the most interesting ones in a Google doc (which I may as well make public now), so that I would have a big backlog of column topics. After picking one, I would ruminate on it for a month or so until I had enough material for a full column, which is much more preparation than a typical blog post receives. I also tried to write columns that felt as much like journalism as they did like opinions, which meant doing research, quoting sources, and interviewing developers. For example, I talked to Days of Wonder CEO Eric Hautemont for my column on digital board games. Ultimately, I wanted to get out of my own head as much as possible.

My column essentially killed this blog as my writing energy focused on producing one piece of high quality every other month. Fortunately, Brandon agreed to let me repost my column online, so that my blog did not entirely disappear. (Damion’s blog, in fact, did die and only returned after the magazine disappeared.) I, too, am now returning to blogging although I am curious how relevant blogs are in the age of Twitter and Tumblr, not to mention Polygon and Gamasutra. (My post on stories and games garnered only two comments here but got 88 on Gamasutra.) I am not sure if I have the discipline to produce long-form pieces as with my old column, but I don’t think short-form posts have much value anymore. Fortunately, my career is undergoing an enormous transition, so I am at least going to have a lot to discuss.

In sum, I produced 25 columns, totaling about 40,000 words, which is almost as long as a standard size non-fiction book. My earlier columns focused mostly on very concrete, nuts-and-bolts topics and can be read almost like chapters in a game design textbook:

I also spent three separate columns struggling with the emergence of the free-to-play model as I saw it as the dominant design challenge of our time – indeed, in 2008, I predicted that the ultimate result of free-to-play would be “that the line between game business and game design has blurred.”

An important turning point came with a two-part series entitled “Theme is Not Meaning” on how a game’s theme and mechanics are related and how they can easily undermine each other if a designer is not careful. The article was well-received and eventually became a highly-rated GDC lecture. I transitioned to higher-level topics that were less easy to categorize. I wrote back-to-back columns entitled “Start Making Sense” and “Stop Making Sense.” I talked about how players inevitably ruin games for themselves in “Water Finds a Crack.” I wrote that “To be a game designer is to be wrong” in “Taking Feedback.” I asked (but didn’t answer) the question “Should Games Have Stories?” I finished my run with a column on “When Choice is Bad.”

I want to thank my editors, Brandon Sheffield and Patrick Miller, for trusting me with the column over its five year run. Looking back, I see much that I could have done better – I still can’t write a concluding paragraph to save my life, and I also wrote my share of filler columns when pressed for time. I’d like to thank the readers for taking the time to engage with my work, and I hope they continue to follow my current thoughts and projects here at my blog.

2 thoughts on “Design of the Times

  1. Great to hear you’ll be posting more here!

    I think blogs are at the forefront of great content–the other, newer services are useful for sharing and surfacing interesting stories and ideas, but I think for publishing something of substance, it’s hard to beat the blog. As this becomes the central place for your new content rather than a place months-old stuff gets posted, I’m sure things in the comments will pick up!

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