Game Designers Aren’t Wizards

In my experience, the fans who most acrimoniously disagree with certain game designers are also those who attribute the greatest skills and talents to those designers. How does that work?

It’s an extension of the persistent notion among fans of any media that their favorite creators are magicians. Not literally in the sense that they cast magic spells or pull rabbits out of hats, but rather that they have a preternatural ability to create—that they need only sit down before keyboard or easel and instantly whip out perfection.

There are, admittedly, a rare few who seem to possess the skills and talent to get it right the first time, without deliberation or error. But that sort of mastery takes years—decades!—of constant practice, and even then, I suspect few are truly that expert. For example, we view Mozart as a gifted prodigy for composing his first works at the age of five and gaining employment at the Salzburg court at the age of 17. But his abilities didn’t come from nowhere; he spent his youth in musical tutelage and practice, and he wrote dozens of compositions before his court debut. And his works did not appear fully formed—he outlined each piece through drafts and musical fragments before putting them together in their final form.

Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do?

Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.

Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?

Hemingway: Getting the words right.

— Ernest Hemingway, “The Art of Fiction,” The Paris Review Interview, 1956

Game designers are, by and large, amateurs working on games in our spare time. Freelancers squeeze in a few hours a week on various projects in between our full time, non-gaming jobs with which we pay the bills, and our other leisure activities—like actually playing the games we love. Despite this, we do our best to revise and refine the material we plan to publish until it’s the best that it can be. But there are limits to this process that readers ought to recognize.

In the most egregious example, I’ve seen people complaining that playtest material for Exalted 3e contains problematic elements—broken rules, overpowered combos, etc. Well, duh? The whole point of playtesting is to find problems in the rules. If they were already perfect, we wouldn’t need to playtest them.

“But I spotted an error just by looking at the rules,” you say. “The designers should also have spotted it even without playtesting, so they’re idiots.” Unfortunately, not all humans think alike or spot the same things. That’s a perfectly normal part of the writing process.

I’m a professional proofreader and copy editor. It’s part of my job to spot mistakes in people’s writing. I’ve edited copy written by professional authors and journalists. And I don’t think I’ve ever seen a single document longer than a few paragraphs that didn’t have at least one error in it—even from experienced authors who’ve been in the business for decades longer than I have, including some authors who are also copy editors or proofreaders. Similarly, no matter how often I fine-tune my writing, editors always find errors in my work. That doesn’t mean I suck; it means I’m a writer, that’s all.

When a game designer sends out a broken rule or overpowered combo for playtesting, that doesn’t mean the designer sucks. It means that they’re a game designer, that’s all. Look at Steve Jackson’s OGRE, one of the tightest little sci-fi board games of all time. It’s currently viewed as a classic. It also had stat changes between the first and second printing because the “G.E.V.” hovercraft unit proved to be overpowered with its published stats.

There’s also the issue of some designers not being the smoothest intermediaries for their companies. Sadly, the pen-and-paper gaming industry is run on a shoestring budget, which means there’s no cash for dedicated public relations specialists. So it’s either designers untrained in PR interacting with the fans, or dead air. And the Exalted community has certainly dealt with the latter before, when 1e lead developer Geoff Grabowski completely stopped communicating with fans after the vicious reception met by the original Lunars splatbook.

The time we spend talking online about games is time we don’t spend writing those games. We talk to you guys because we really want to share the cool stuff we’re working on. So while it’s cool to politely point out that we’re saying something that comes across as dumb or offensive, please don’t lash out in anger over disagreements; we’re doing the best we can with a very limited time budget.

And then there’s blog posts. If a designer is really excited about a topic, he or she might put a lot of time and energy into brainstorming, researching, writing, and editing a post. But aside from the vanishingly few designers who work on games full-time, we don’t get paid for blogging. So we squeeze in a few paragraphs here and there, and we try to do a good job of making our posts coherent and useful, but hours spent on researching and revising blog posts are hours we’re not spending on the games we’re trying to publish.

Game designers aren’t wizards. We can’t wave our magic wands to turn out perfect material. It takes blood, sweat, and tears to produce quality work, and many of us are already sweated out from our day jobs. Posting online is a third job—essentially a second unpaid job—and it has the lowest priority, as without either of the first two, there’ll be no game to comment on.

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3 comments

  1. So, I’ve played Forbidden Desert several times with various groups. Today, while playing it with two other people who’d never played it before, I finally found out why the Meteorologist job is in the game and we also won for the first time ever. And we didn’t have to sweat really hard either.

    People think differently. Games work differently when you have different people (and different numbers of people) playing the game.

    So, yeah. I gotta agree with Eric here. I haven’t seen the leaked rules, but if there weren’t things that needed tweaking, they wouldn’t be in playtest, so, relax.

    1. >I haven’t seen the leaked rules,

      Just go onto /tg/ and look for the Exalted General. They’ll probably be in the OP.

      > but if there weren’t things that needed tweaking, they wouldn’t be in playtest, so, relax.

      Yeah. Speaking of which, though: hey, Eric, looking through the leaked playtest rules, it isn’t clear whether non-Excellency die adder charms (e.g. Harmonious Presence Meditation or the umpteen charms that give non-charm dice or successes) give bonuses to relevant static values (e.g. Harmonious Presence Meditation and Resolve/Guile). You might want to fix that before the final version, if you haven’t already done so.

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