On Game Design with Andrew Mayer

I spoke with Andrew Mayer, Creative Director at Sojo Studios, about game design and creative direction. Andrew’s 20 year career includes working for PF Magic, Cartoon Network, PlayFirst, Mob Science and Sojo Studios, where he recently launched WeTopia for Facebook. In addition to designing games, Andrew is the author of the steam punk series Society of Steam.

EL: So the question I start everybody out with is, what is game design?

AM: Okay. How many more questions do you have? Because, uh, [laughs]

EL: There are eight more.

AM: All right. All right. I think for me, the phrase I always use is “artful frustration.” Game design is about properly placing distance between yourself and the audience.

So, when you work with people who aren’t game people traditionally, they want to start pushing back this relationship between the audience and the game. And simplifying stuff. That’s a good instinct but, ultimately, if you simplify it to where the player can get everything they want whenever they want, there isn’t a game there.

And that’s what game design is really. Artful frustration, by which I mean, you want to make it so that it’s fun and it’s pleasant but not so frustrating that players don’t play the game anymore. And that’s always a good rule of thumb.

For me, I think there are more specifics we can talk about. But I think if you’re looking for the universal solvent of every game, this is it. You can make every game impossibly difficult to play or you can make games like pathetically easy to win. The computer can do either.

So, balancing those two things out and creating a platform on which other behaviors can be layered, that to me is the way I think it works.

EL: Riding that fine line where you’re presenting players challenges that are the right level of complexity, the right level of difficulty to be this emotion that we call fun.

AM: Challenges and opportunities, right? The thing is you can’t just present people with challenges. I think this is what Miyamoto did so well if you look back at the heyday of the Mario 2, the Yoshi’s Island/Mario 3D days. What he got there perfectly was this balance of, “Okay, this is really hard. Yes, this is crazy. But I’m going to get through it and there’s going to be something worthwhile when I get to the other side.”

He was really good at that. He was really good at leaving out the breadcrumb trail to show you that there was something worthwhile that was going to be happening as you were going along.

EL: So, bundling a challenge with an opportunity?

AM: Or holding out the promise of an opportunity beyond the challenge. I think there’s almost an infinite number of ways to do it. But, to let the player know that there is a reason to do this and that it’s worth the effort.

EL: So, what is the role of a game designer?

AM: These days? Follow the metrics. Make the game better.

There’s two phases. There’s the game development phase, which is to create a platform for onboarding users and beginning to understand their play patterns.

Then, once they’re in there the designer’s job is to look at the metrics and figure out a way to optimize those metrics. I mean, that’s probably not what anybody wants to hear because it doesn’t sound very glamorous. But I think for the game design position, that’s a lot of what we’re looking at right. In social.

Classically, it was to be a player advocate. I think we did it well, whether they realized it or not. But I think with the advent of the metric-driven social, it’s become a much more mechanistic job than it used to be. Much more defined.

Not that they’re not worth their weight in gold, because they are. But you can’t be the artist to the degree that you can go in and go, “I’m an advocate for the hardcore gamer.” Like John Romero or Cliffy B, where it’s like, “I am the representative of these people and this is my tribe, and if I do it, they will love me.”

EL: I think that’s a very accurate take at stripping away the romanticism of the job.

AM: Hard won knowledge.

EL: And I do think with game design, there’s more romanticism than any other function within the industry.

AM: And more disillusionment from anybody who gets into it than any other industry in the world.

There’s two phases to being a game designer. There’s really, really wanting to do it. And then there’s wanting to do it after you’ve done it for a while.

Those are two very different things. Because you come into it with this idea that it’s going to be this amazing thing. And then when you find out what it really is, you think “Do I still really want to do it? What am I getting out of it?”

EL: Was there a specific moment where you had that point of reflection in your own career? Where you felt like, “I know what game design is now…

AM: And I’m still going to hit myself in the head with a hammer.”

Yeah, it was early for me. At Twin Dolphin games, I came in as an Associate Producer for the very first game I’m going to work on. And it quickly became apparent that the Producer of the project was locked up in his office playing videogames all day and the engineers were basically on the verge of revolt.

And my job was to do a map, I was supposed to laying tiles on a map that’s ten thousand by ten thousand squares. Well, if you do the math on that’s it’s one hundred million.

I don’t think there’s actually one hundred million seconds in a year. So, even if I was working every second of every day, and laying one per second, assuming that nothing went wrong, it would still have been impossible for the game to ship. And when I went to the producer and told him that, he told me to shut up, basically.

So that was an eye-opener. I think for everybody it’s when you leave the first job, right? Because I think whatever your first job is, you come in with a sense of what you want and what you’re working for. And then you try to achieve that and you realize that it didn’t actually help.

And then you start to have a very different attitude when you go to your second job. And you say, okay, well, I’m not going to do that again. I’m going to advocate for something I believe in within the context of the company that I’m working for.

Does that make sense? Does that sound true to you?

EL: It makes perfect sense.

AM: We all come in a little naïve, right? We all come out of that first gig a little scarred, and then we make some decisions based on that.

EL: What is the biggest challenge you face as a Creative Director?

AM: I think, for me right now, it’s working in genres that I’m not either familiar with or excited about. And trying to figure out how to generate excitement. And also figuring out how to layer game dynamics.

And I’ll tell you what it is. It’s every assumption must be questioned. It used to be that you could make some solid assumptions and now, with the metrics, every assumption must be questioned. So it feels a little bit like the ground is shifting underneath your feet all the time. And that can be disconcerting. Anything can go wrong. It may all go wrong.

The other thing I would say that is disconcerting for someone like me who’s been doing it for a long time, is it used to be that you would get information and you would try to deconstruct that information and figure out why something was happening.

These days, if you see a figure, “Oh, if I do this, I’ll get five percent more users.” Or one percent more users, two percent more users, right?

EL: Yeah, five percent would be gang busters.

AM: Right. So, it’s like, “Okay why is that working? Doesn’t matter. Just do more of it.” You don’t need to deconstruct the assumption necessarily, you just work it until it stops working and then you go work something else.

So that’s a little different than where it used to be that you needed to understand why. When there was this bigger picture that you were building. You don’t always get to build the bigger picture.

EL: Right. What is different between being a game designer than being a creative director? How are the two roles different?

AM: Because I’m responsible for the vision and the overall direction of the project, and for that bigger picture. So the creative director, at least in my experience, is responsible for the premise and the vision. What are we making and where is it going and why are we going there? And also asking “How are we going to get there?” Especially for new ideas.

The game designer’s job is to actually break it down and make the experience. How is this going to work? I’d say my job is more, what are we going to do? And why? And the designer’s job is more, how are we going to do it?

EL: Talking about all the different factors in the equation, you’ve mentioned investors, CEO, engineers, metrics, marketing, audience.

AM: Artists.

EL: Artists, right? And even QA. How much of the job of defining the vision is creating a vision? And how much of it is working with other people to get buy in on a vision.

AM: Ten percent the former and 90 percent of the latter. It’s collaborative. There’s no way around it. What I learned early on is you get to have one good idea per game, whether you’re a designer or a creative director or whatever.

And then the goal is to shepherd that one good idea as far as you can, and try to keep that good idea held together for as long as you can until the game ships. You have one good idea and then everything else is going to change around that good idea. And if that good idea survives, you’ve done your job.

I think with social, it’s just “What is the premise of the game? What are we making? What is the thing?” Everything else swims around that and changes. And changes after launch now, too, which is amazing.

EL: When you look at your role what excites you most about being a creative director?

AM: To me, it’s the integration of the real world and the digital world. So what we’re doing with the real world integration for the game that we’re working on now [at Sojo Studios] is we have these real world causes and integrating real cause into the game is really, really exciting. So, there’s a lot of secret sauce there that I think that we’re learning about. And things that we’re doing that nobody else is doing.

So that’s really exciting to me; the walls between the real world and the virtual world are starting to crumble. And, when you see with the iPad and touch devices, these kind of things… we’re repainting the world in a digital palate. And I think that’s going to have major impact on the way that we play. I was a little worried that computers were going to become pads. But I think that we’re going to go beyond that so quickly, to where there’s going to be no effective difference between the device and the computer.

We’re about to infect the world with digital technology in a really fundamental way. Just like we wove the structure of electricity and running water, and all that stuff into our lives through the wires and stuff we put everywhere. We’re about to digitize the world.

EL: On the converse side, what frustrates you about most about being a creative director?

AM: I think a lot of it is just the purity of the compromise, right? It’s that everything has to be filtered through metrics. There’s no being right, and the experiments are limited. I’m only allowed to experiment to the degree that I can express it as a sense of metrics. So that’s frustrating. Especially because it’s harder to bullshit. It’s harder to be like Don Draper “I’ve been doing this for 20 years, I know what I’m doing.”

You can get away with some of that. But you damn well better have checked your numbers and be right before you try and do it.

EL: Yeah. I think as you career goes on, you learn being right isn’t important. Or, if you can let go of being right as being important and instead be someone who fosters open conversation.

AM: I totally agree with that. And it is good when it works. The problem is. . .

EL: It’s very hard.

AM: It’s very, very hard to be that open all the time. And it’s very hard to be that patient all the time. Because sometimes you just want things to get done.

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2 thoughts on “On Game Design with Andrew Mayer

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