Victoria Googasian's Interview Questions
By Andrew Looney

12/15/5



Victoria is a high school student doing a research paper on board games. She needed a professional in the field to interview, and having recently granted a student interview about my activism, it seemed only fitting that I respond to an interview about my actual job. Again, I figured my readers would be interested in my responses too, so I'm posting the questions and my answers here.


1. How did you first become interested in games?

I've been into games ever since I was a kid. I think Sorry! was the first game I got into, and from there I worked my way up through Mousetrap and Monopoly to Risk and Chess and of course all the games you can play with regular cards. Then computers came along and I got into text adventures and video games, and I started playing a lot of Hearts with my buddies. Then I got into role-playing games and then live role-playing games and that's when I first started getting involved with creating them rather than just being a player.

2. What does your work with games involve?

As the Creative Director for the fledgling game company I helped start, I actually get to think up ideas for new games. But the reality is, that's not what I spend most of my time doing. Thinking up a new game is the easy part. What's much harder is getting the rules to actually work and be fun, but even that isn't what really takes up most of my time. It takes much longer to create the art and develop the final materials for a new game, not to mention working with printers to get things manufactured, assembling game parts into complete games, promoting the game to stores and customers, setting up booths at conventions, writing ad copy, taking photos of the game for catalogs, building webpages about the game, and so forth and so on etc etc etc.

I invented our biggest hit in just one day, but the work of promoting it is still taking up lots of my time!

3. What makes a game good?

A good game offers the player the right mix of luck and skill, of random events and strategic choices, a solid framework of complete (but not too complex) rules, with a compelling theme, attractive equipment, plenty of player interaction, a structure that leads to a dramatic conclusion, and a clear victory condition at the end.

Of course, opinions will vary as to what the "right mix" of these elements really is... some players like games with very little luck, while others prefer games that are mostly about luck. I think the trick is to inject enough luck into the system that when you lose you can feel like you just had bad luck, but are also driven enough by skill that when you win, you can feel like it was your skill at the game that led to your victory.

I also believe a good game is one in which you feel like you still have a chance of winning until at or very near the end of the game. When a player realizes before the game is even half over that they stand no chance of winning, why should they want to keep playing?

For more thoughts on this, I direct your attention to an essay I wrote about my 11 Game Design Principles.

4. What is the best part about working with games?

Of course it's great just having a job where playing games is part of your job. But for me, the best part of being a game designer is knowing that I'm bringing fun and happiness into people's lives, all over the world. When a group of people are playing a game like Fluxx and everyone is laughing and having a good time, I've added more fun to the universe. Certainly, that group might have had just as much fun doing something else, but they also just as likely might have sat around being bored or doing something less fun. The point is, I created that fun. It's an unbelievable rush thinking that somewhere, at this moment, people are playing one of my games and having a good time because of it.

For more thoughts on this, I again direct you to an essay I wrote, this one called Fluxx Love Stories.

5. What role do you think games play in society?

I think there's something very basic and primal about the need to play, and about the drive to compete at contests of skill. The basic act of play -- of playing at being someone else in some other situation -- is something we start doing as children and never really tire of. Games are just more structured and competition-oriented forms of play, which is why we say we "play" games.

Competition itself is also a primal instinct: Is not the survival of the fittest the original contest of wills?

Games satisfy both of these primal urges, which I think is why they loom so large in our culture. Games are everywhere, and encompass everything from the games we make and sell to professional sports, and even include elections, international feats of strength like the Space Race, and the nightly battle for who gets the last piece of dessert.

6. Can you think of an example of a board game reflecting the culture it was created in?

Certainly. I think there are many examples. There's Monopoly, which came out during the Great Depression and became a big hit because it was all about having and spending a lot of money at a time when everybody was broke. Then there's Nuclear War, a card game about wiping out humanity with nuclear weapons, a game that came out in the early 60s and totally reflects the cold war era's atomic worries. More recently there was a game called Burn Rate which was about the dot com culture, in which players run fledgling internet startup companies, with the goal being to stay in business longer than anyone else. I think most games probably reflect the culture they were created in, at least to some extent.

7. What do you think the future is for traditional games?

I think the future is bright! Games bring people together and encourage both mental stimulation and social interaction better than most other forms of entertainment. A good game, bought once and played many times, is also a more cost-effective form of entertainment than most others. Of course, there are always more entertainment choices competing for society's attention, and traditional games are a niche compared with video games and even casino gaming in today's world. But great though online gaming may be, there'll never be a substitute for sitting around a table with your friends and playing with physical, aesthetically-pleasing game pieces. And as the popularity of table-top gaming in Germany has shown, it has the potential to become much more popular here than it currently is. Trends such as promoting individual designers, like book authors, are helping to establish better markets for new games. So I think it's a good place to be doing business right now.

8. Do you have a favorite board game?

My favorite games are the ones I've created myself. But setting those aside, my favorite board game is Binary Homeworlds, which is an Icehouse game designed by my life-long friend John Cooper. My favorite card game is Texas Hold'em, which I prefer to play with Icehouse pyramids rather than poker chips (a version we call Martian Hold'em). So even when I try to set my bias aside, my answers are still biased!

9. Do you have any words of advice for someone interested in a similar career?

The short answer is: Forget it. Seeking to a become a professional Game Inventor is like planning for a career in Lottery Winning, or deciding you want to be an astronaut. Be realistic: there just aren't enough opportunities in the field for any but a very lucky few. You will need a real career.

The long answer is: Make sure you have a good day job, and plan for game design to always be a hobby... but there are a few things you can do to improve your odds of winning the career lottery.

Obviously, I'm living proof that it can be done. But I was lucky, and I first spent more than a decade working in a standard career before becoming a full-time game-maker. And I made a heck of a lot more money as a computer programmer than I do at the moment in my current position.

The point is, you will need a Day Job. Just as actors trying to "break into the business" frequently make their livings waiting tables, you too will need a real source of income that pays the rent and puts food on the table. You may even find that you need income from other sources, so that you can invest it in self-publishing your own works. For many who pursue game design, it becomes only an expensive hobby, instead of the much-dreamed of path to fortune.
All that said, designing games is a great hobby, and you never know, you might just get lucky and strike gold. It's like trying to plan for a career as a rock star. It's a long shot, but there are a few things you can do to improve your odds. You can study music, and learn to play an instrument, and you can start a band with your friends, and practice in the garage, you can promote yourself and your band everywhere you can, taking gigs for nothing as you get started, all the while hoping that you'll have that special magic that makes those few who succeed gain attention while so many others give up the band and get real jobs someday. And maybe you'll release a hit record! Who knows? It can and does happen.

OK, so how does one improve the odds of becoming a successful game designer?

1.) Play Lots of Games. To learn how to create games, you must first know how to play games. Play them everywhere and anywhere you can. Play to enjoy the experience and understand how the game works, and don't get hung up on winning or losing. Obviously, it's good to have a competitive spirit, but it's the game itself, not the winner, that you want to focus on. Practice being a good sport and a fun person to play games with, so that you'll have many opportunities and friends with whom to play. Join or create a regular gaming group so you have play time regularly scheduled, and carry a deck of cards (or an Icehouse set!) with you everywhere you go, so that you can pull out a game whenever the going gets boring.

2.) Play Lots of Different games. Don't waste your time becoming a chess master. It's possible to spend a whole lifetime pursuing and enjoying the fine points of just one really good game, but that won't teach you much about creating new ones. It's much better for you to be playing a new game every week than to keep on playing the same old favorites again and again. Much as you may love them, you can't afford to spend too much of your time continuing to play a game you already know.

3.) Learn to Think Outside the Box. It may sound cliché but you should do whatever you can to cultivate your abilities to see things in new ways, from new angles and different perspectives, to question tradition and challenge conventional thinking, in order to best offer the world what it most desires: that which is truly new.

4.) Study Computer Programming. I may be biased, since this was my original job, and unfortunately it's no longer the lucrative field it was when I joined up, but I still believe computer programming is one of the best skills you can develop that will be useful for you in creating games. First, like I said, you'll need something you can do that will pay the rent. Secondly, if you have any interest in creating computer games, knowing how to program a computer will make a big difference. Thirdly, even if your interest is in tabletop games, the discipline of programming hones many of the same skills you will need, as there are many parallels between developing a set of game rules and debugging a piece of software.

5.) Study Lots of Other Stuff, Too. You want to be a knowledge sponge. You want to learn as much about everything as you can... since games can be about anything, you never know what subject it might be useful to be an expert on. I've always been interested in history, and in time travel stories, and those interests really paid off when I started working on Chrononauts. Definitely choose a foreign language to learn, and start now if you haven't yet. Learn a couple of languages if you can, but you might want to consider choosing German, since parlor games are bigger in Germany than anywhere in the world. (That's not why I chose to learn German, but I'm glad now that I did!) Other good subjects to consider studying are Business Management (since you may end up running the business you have to start in order to get your game published), Graphic Art Design (since games need to look cool) and English (since your rules and marketing text needs to be wrote out all good like with no misteaks).

6.) Get a Part-Time Job at Your Local Neighborhood Game Store. I've never done this, but it seems like a good idea to me. If you really want to get into the game business, you'll do well to learn as much as you can about it, and nowhere is better suited for such learning than at a game store. Assuming there's a nice game store in your town, start going there often and see if you can get a part-time job. Offer to work for free (think Rock-Group-Accepting-Unpaid-Gigs) and cheerfully perform undesirable tasks, so that they'll like you and let you hang around even if they can't afford to pay you. Then soak up everything you can learn. It might eventually become a way for you to get a steady paycheck even if designing games isn't.

7.) Read. Start by reading my aforementioned Principles of Game Design, some of which will echo what I've said here. But don't stop there, search the net for other articles about what works in game design and what doesn't. Then get the Game Inventor's Guidebook, and read that, and read anything else you can find on this subject. When you aren't playing games, spend time reading about them. And don't watch TV! The TV will teach you nothing useful about games. Just turn it off!

Well, I think that's plenty for now. Good luck with your paper!

Andy

-- Andrew Looney
www.wunderland.com/Andy