Computerless Video Game Design


A few months ago, my eight-year old goddaughter came to me asking if I would teach her how to make video games. She didn’t know C++, of course, nor were her Maya skills quite up to snuff yet, so I thought about it a bit and decided to approach the question from another angle.

Namely, what are the first steps of game design?

In “The Industry” (which outside of L.A. is more likely to mean the video game industry than the movie or porn industry) designers talk sometimes about “paper design”. In the same way that paper prototyping can be used by user interface and usability designers to probe the benefits and pitfalls of the human-to-computer interface, paper design can ferret out issues long before the expensive expenditures in software architecture and data entry need to be spent.

Euclid_flowchart_1Computer science uses the term algorithm, meaning a step-by-step procedure, distinct from the actual code that processes said algorithm, in the same fashion, determining the logical process by which one gets from input to output.

The same thing happens in design:

There are inputs (player strategic decisions like character class, tactical decisions like which direction to execute a roll or what power to use, environmental determinations like random chances for debris to fall from a ceiling) and outputs (how much damage the mob takes from a player-initiated attack, or the visual effects that play when the debris falls from the ceiling).

Computers are amazing machines capable of incredibly fast calculations, and there are some game designs that work really, really well on a computer that in the absence of a human computer well, just plain suck. Conversely, there are designs that are damn fun without a computer (roleplaying games with, well, actual roleplaying) that are really hard to get right in an online environment.

That being said, there’s a lot of crossover, and more often than not, if a basic idea works well without a computer, it will usually work pretty well with a computer.

Traditionally, “paper design” refers to the design version of making an algorithm; as a designer, you put together the possible inputs, the basic rules to process those inputs, and the possible outputs arising out of all possible combinations of inputs + rules. In video game development, it’s most common to jump from paper design to prototyping, where you build a basic form of mechanic, system, or game on whatever game engine you are using to see how it feels.

This is, I think, actually kind of a shame, and I think it skips an important step that – for some kinds of designs, albeit not all – can be incredibly useful in fleshing out a design. Germanely to this article, it’s also a fantastic way of developing the skills of a designer.


Board and card game designers are very familiar with this process, as for them, such a “papered” prototype is a true prototype for a board or card game, but this process can also be used with an eye for many types of video game design (though, I should note, probably not all – it could work really well for character generation, level flows, trading systems, metagames like Vanguard‘s diplomacy system or Star Trek Online‘s duty officer system, but probably less well for things like Marvel Heroes combat or achievement systems).

So back to the question that started all of this – how to teach someone how to design a video game?


My answer? Chess. But without the rules.

  1. Pick up a chess board, dump out the pieces, lay out the board.
  2. Now, make a new game using at least some of the pieces. Spend twenty minutes or so and make some rules (I trust you – it’ll be brilliant, really).
  3. Dragoon someone into playing the new Not-Chess Game.
  4. Step away alone now, and spend another twenty minutes or whatever you want to dedicate to the exercise to rework the rules, learning what you did from playing with whatever poor sucker, er, friend, you convinced to play opposite to you.
  5. Play again.

Interesting, no? But we’re not even close to done yet.

Now that you’ve made one game with chess pieces…make a completely different game, still using those chess pieces. If you really want to maximize the effects of the exercise, let a day or so pass and try it again.

If you have the stubbornness and perseverance to be good at game design as a career, you’ll still be game – pun intended, of course – for more. The next step is to take chess and something else – maybe a standard pack of cards, or the pieces out of a Settlers of Catan game, or even something that isn’t even a game at all, like a pile of DVD cases – and make yet another game – or games.


When I was at Cryptic Studios, one of the high-level exercises that the Chief Creative Officer would have senior designers engage in was to come up with ten different solutions to whatever problem was at hand that day.

Why ten? Simple. The first solution will be obvious. The second and third, probably as well. The fourth is going to be getting desperate, and by the time you hit Idea #7 and #8 you’re going to seriously be going oddball just to come up with something different.

Most of these ideas are going to be dead on arrival for a lot of reasons, some technical, some philosophical, some for other reasons. Some, however, won’t, and this kind of exercise can generate some truly out of the box ideas. Now, you usually won’t use any of the ideas, particularly the later ones, as-is, but you can often hybridize two or three of the ideas, or graft on a part of an unconventional idea onto a conventional approach to give it a new spin, and that’s where things get really interesting.


So what about my goddaughter? She was, I think, more enamored of the idea of making games than quite yet prepared to actually sit down and make them, and I am not the kind of person to push someone before they’re ready, so when she lost interest and asked if she could play Marvel Heroes on my computer (true story) I didn’t fight it.

I’m still waiting for her to come back in a year or so and ask the question again, and this time I have a whole bunch of new ideas ready to suggest to her…

Touching the Ground

In a warm sun that laughs at our unease
Not speaking we stand side by side

You bury your heart in a cold shallow grave
But to change who you are is to kill yourself today

And you turn and walk away from all that used to matter
As the blood from your heart drains into that black

Hell is having everything that you dreamed of
But the one you would give up all the rest for

So without thinking you are running away from the dawn
Only at the end of your road to be drowned by the dusk

And when her pale hand reaches out there for yours
You suddenly cannot think of why you should fear

For here in this dream where your feet touch no ground
Your companion alights on wings of coal and there delivers you

Consumed by those waters that wash you of your malediction
And there in the darkness all memory at last sleeps

Wheels of Murder

Above, a wheel of murder spins
A black rain suspended beneath
The ashen shroud fattened by this
Annihilation of our conceit
Soon alive now only in those dreams
Decapitated by their hopes

   Just cede me twenty years of peace
   Twenty short years of reverie
   Of hope and dreams and halcyon sight
   Aegis against that longest road
   Twenty years of wrested conscience
   Conviction born of severed wraiths

   Just grant me twenty years of life
   Twenty years to grow and to glean
   To extort from the Moiral decree
   A burden to carry this bearer
   Twenty years of stolen reward
   Against this lifetime of desolation

   Just twenty years of ardor spent
   Twenty years to never forget
   To unsettle the weeping for
   The forfeits of a world misplaced
   Twenty long years of hoarded hope
   To speak for the unburied dead

And from this cliff of metal and stone
Far below upon fields of grey
Comes the triumph of nature denied
That verdant wrath now unleashed upon
Wrecks of men now picked but to bone
By wheels of murder in spirals, below

The Law of Unintended Consequences


In the process of researching the Virginia man‘s quest to claim unclaimed land on the Egyptian-Sudanese border to make his daughter a princess, I ran across (not for the first time, granted) the Outer Space Treaty of 1967.


Basically, it holds that no celestial body is able to appropriated or claimed by any individual, corporate body, or national entity, and that any development of said must be spread for the benefit of all humanity.

Lofty, ideologically warm and fuzzy, completely theoretical in 1967 – and utterly, destructively idiotic to the longterm practical development of spaceflight.

A 1950s artist’s impression of a moon base. x-ray delta one

A 1950s artist’s impression of a moon base. x-ray delta one

Here’s a quote from The Conversation by Steven Freeland, a professor of International Law at the University of Western Sydney that sprains my brain trying to figure out how someone could honestly not see how this principle accomplishes exactly the opposite of the intended goal of promoting the development of humanity off this tiny-ish blue marble we are all on:

“[T]his principle of non-appropriation helps to protect outer space from the possibility of conflict driven by territorial or colonisation-driven ambitions. In this regard, it is a necessary requirement to promote the exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purposes.”

So, explain why would anyone spend any money, time, or effort whatsoever to develop spaceflight if you subsequently…can’t actually control the fruits of such development?

I mean, look, I am the first person to be skeptical of national political machinations, corporate malfeasance, and general douchebaggery as perfected by homo sapiens. I trust the principle of corporate beneficence about as far as I trust the principle of car salesmanship – an unapologetic booster of unfettered capitalism I am not.


That being said, this is no longer a theoretical proposition or a problem solely for a public policy student’s dissertation.

There are currently three active, theoretically feasible, plans for mining asteroids, and this braindead piece of legislation has actually thrown these plans into legal limbo since the treaty effectively bars such ventures.


Want to see permanent settlement of Mars? The Moon? Europa? Yeah, by international law that is actually illegal, because the second you use local resources such as, well, water, silicates, whatever, said nation, individual, or corporation is in violation of the treaty.

To be sure, there are several potential methods of getting around this, such as operating under the flag of one of the nations in grey or yellow on the map below – those who have neither signed nor ratified the treaty.


Alternatively, one could see the exercise of a deliberate act of abandoning association with any signatory of the treaty – hello there, brand new Sovereign Republic of Ceres! Another possibility is simply that people simply ignore the treaty as unenforceable when it comes to that. We’ll see eventually, one way or the other.

Right now, this ill-considered treaty does nothing but discourage private development of spaceflight, introducing unnecessary uncertainty and unproductive roadblocks into a venture that ultimately benefits our entire species.

In other words, exactly the opposite of what the treaty was supposed to do.

Relationship Blues

A small bloodstained tangle of meat and bone
Like Christmas ribbons scattered on her stoop
Red-decked walls of her beloved brownstone
Her hateful Yorkie now nothing but soup

Perhaps this should be the day I explain
My nocturnal absence every full moon,
That allergy to silver and wolfsbane,
Even what happened to that damned raccoon

Too late now to find gentle rhetoric,
As my fiancée’s steps round the corner
There in my head a plan suddenly clicks,
Recalling a diabolical purr

Her eyes widen in consummate horror,
And I blurt: “I saw your cat off poor Butter!”