Sacred Realms Podcast: Phantom Hourglass

Sacred Realms is a Zelda retrospective podcast, where hosts Matthew and Lyndon Willoughby discuss the Zelda series as they replay all the games. I’m a frequent guest on the podcast, offering my perspective as both a game designer and a Zelda fan.

Despite not being a game I hold in high esteem – or perhaps because of it – Phantom Hourglass was a fascinating game to analyze and discuss. Over the course of this season of the podcast I discussed my thoughts on what they were trying to achieve, the historical context of 2007, the sea changes happening to the Zelda team, my thoughts on the touch control system, and a lot more.

I also led a bonus episode where I took the group through a mock game design/brainstorming exercise, in the style of ones I have done on the job.

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GamesRadar: 23 game developers explain why Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom will be talked about for years

I was asked to provide a blurb for this GamesRadar piece, which I was more than happy to do! I wrote about how impressed I was at the Zelda team’s success attempt to find ways for players to see consistent and predictable results from physics gameplay.

23 game developers explain why Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom will be talked about for years

They only included part of the blurb I provided. Here’s the full thing:

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Sacred Realms Podcast: Skyward Sword

Sacred Realms is a Zelda retrospective podcast, where hosts Matthew and Lyndon Willoughby discuss the Zelda series as they replay all the games. I’m a frequent guest on the podcast, offering my perspective as both a game designer and a Zelda fan.

I appeared in a couple Skyward Sword episodes, where we delved into topics like dungeon design, and contrasted Skyward Sword with Breath of the Wild.

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Class Prompt: Engaging the senses

In fall 2021 I taught a “World Design” class in Champlain College’s game design program. As part of my work I wrote discussion prompts. I’m expanding some of those prompts into blog posts, like the one below. Because they were meant as prompts for students to discuss, they do not necessarily provide strong conclusions or answer the questions that they pose.

One of the ways to create a sense of place and make environments more memorable is to engage more of the player’s senses. As game creators we don’t always have a lot of avenues to do this! We can’t actually provide smells, for instance. If you’re working on a pen and paper game, as some of you are, you may not have direct access to ANY of the player’s senses, and need to instead evoke them with words.

So some useful angles to look at this from: 

  • We have a lot more than the mere 5 senses that Aristotle identified. Depending on the framework used, we as humans may have up to 55 unique sense receptors. So it’s never as simple as just “engaging the sense of hearing”, or “sight”. This website I found with a quick search has an interesting breakdown.
  • We can evoke sensations in players’ minds through association, memory, or description, which can be prompted in all sorts of ways. 
  • People’s minds process and understand sensory information differently. People with aphantasia may not react as strongly to written description, whereas it may be all that’s ever needed for people with hyperphantasia. People with synesthesia may associate senses in wildly different ways than we expect.  
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What is “World Design”?

I’m teaching a college course, “Advanced Seminar in Game Design: World Design” for Champlain College’s 2021 Fall semester. It’s a class for seniors to propose and execute on a single solo project for their portfolio, loosely based on the course theme. This document was my definition of “World Design”, with many examples.

Overview

The theme of this class is “World Design”, a subset of Game Design. The goal of this document is to explain what that means!

“World Design” is nebulously defined. Some companies have “World Designer” as a job title, but they don’t necessarily describe the same job. I’ve seen it used to describe traditional mission or level design work, designing vast non-linear spaces in open world games, and even the design of systems or UI related to the game world. So we will use a very broad definition in this class.

If Game Design is…

… The act of making choices about how players perceive or interact with a game, with the goal of creating a specific experience for the player(s).

Then World Design is…

…The act of making choices about how players will perceive, interact with, or experience the world of a game, with a particular focus on navigation, traversal, pacing, and narrative.

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Sacred Realms Podcast: Link’s Awakening

Sacred Realms is a Zelda retrospective podcast, where hosts Matthew and Lyndon Willoughly discuss the Zelda series as they replay all the games. I’m a frequent guest on the podcast, offering my perspective as both a game designer who and a Zelda fan.

The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening is quite special to me, and I specifically requested one of these episodes- the Face Shrine! This is the most pivotal moment in the game, where it becomes clear that this isn’t a simple castaway story. I talk about why this moment is so important to the game as a whole, and to me as a player, and we also discuss the design of the Face Shrine dungeon.

They also invited me to join them for Level 7, Eagle’s Tower, one of the most interesting dungeons. It’s the only dungeon that features vertical play, and the only one that drastically changes the state of the dungeon after solving a particular puzzle.

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Sacred Realms Podcast: Ocarina of Time

Sacred Realms is a Zelda retrospective podcast, where hosts Matthew and Lyndon Willoughly discuss the Zelda series as they replay all the games. I’m a frequent guest on the podcast, offering my perspective as both a game designer who and a Zelda fan.

My first guest appearance was to talk about the Water Temple, Ocarina of Time‘s most infamous dungeon. In the main episode we discussed the lead-up to the temple, and the experience of playing through the temple more generally. We also recorded a subscribers only Bonus Episode, where I helped break down Temple’s design in more detail.

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Design Docs: IC Character Case Studies

I recently posted a challenge to game designers to share more of their documentation, so academia had more examples to learn from. And then I posted an Outline of Game Documentation, with some high level descriptions of different types of game design documents. Time for me to share some!

Previously I shared a bunch of character specs from Infinite Crisis. These were finalized spec documents, representing the end point of a long iterative design process before production on the character began in earnest. This time let’s look at some of the documents that I wrote as part of that design process.

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Design Docs: IC Tooltips

I recently posted a challenge to game designers to share more of their documentation, so academia had more examples to learn from. And then I posted an Outline of Game Documentation, with some high level descriptions of different types of game design documents. Time for me to share some!

From 2012-2014 I worked on a DC Comics MOBA called Infinite Crisis. I was one of the Champion Designers: our team was responsible for designing the character abilities and overall balance. I ended up as the tooltip guru: I cared a lot about their conventions and the way we used language and keywords. I have a small collection of documents related to this work!

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Design Docs: IC Character Specs

I recently posted a challenge to game designers to share more of their documentation, so academia had more examples to learn from. And then I posted an Outline of Game Documentation, with some high level descriptions of different types of game design documents. Time for me to share some!

From 2012-2014 I worked on a DC Comics MOBA called Infinite Crisis. I was one of the Champion Designers: our team was responsible for designing the character abilities and overall balance. Generally, a given character would be owned by a single designer from start to finish, and over months of design iteration (which I’ll cover in another post), we’d eventually reach a state where we were confident in the design we were going to make. At that point the designer would write their first draft of the complete “Character Spec” document.

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Common Game Design Documents

In a recent twitter thread, I posted a general challenge to professional game designers to share more of their game design documentation. The goal: give academia more examples to learn from. I’d better put my money where my mouth is!

But first, I wanted to share some general thoughts about project documentation, and examples of common documentation archetypes.

The Monolithic Game Design Document (GDD)

When I was in school my professors spent a lot of time teaching how to write formal game design documents (GDDs), stressing their importance. These were single monolithic documents that supposedly captured every detail of a game’s design. In theory the entire team would read the GDD, refer to it often, and trust it to have any answer they might need. They would set and communicate both creative and art direction!

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Class Prompt: Enforcing Content Conventions

In spring 2020 I taught a Technical Game Design class in Champlain College’s game design program. As part of my work I wrote discussion prompts. I’m expanding some of those prompts into blog posts, like the one below. The full set can be found here. Because they were meant as prompts for students to discuss, they do not necessarily provide strong conclusions or answer the questions that they pose.

As game designers, you’re used to thinking about games as systems of rules. You may know rules as things that are enforced by game systems via constraints and affordances: a game is hard-coded to allow this action, but not that action. Voilà, a possibility space is defined!

But many rules are NOT enforced by code or systems, and are instead conventions, patterns, or best practices that the developers stick to when building content. Let’s look at some examples.

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