Part 2 [08/01/2001]

dan kading 2 .Odd Squad
Dan Kading, Game Designer · Part Two

Fun. Yeah. So, anyway…
It’s the ambiguity of this concept that ensures game designers still have jobs. Fun is 100% subjective-nothing is fun for everybody. Though rare, there are folks out there who hate Tetris. But even so, if video game fun was Divine Power, then Tetris would likely be the object on Earth most resembling a Holy Grail, or at least those really shiny gold chalices that you drink the grape juice from during communion in some of the swankier Catholic churches, since there are a lot of copies of Tetris around. Almost as many as there are swanky Catholic churches.

Tetris is pure design. There’s no graphical wowing, and the programming behind it is comparably negligible, being a popular game for computer science students to code their own versions of in their (relatively small) free time. As a matter of fact, that’s how it came to exist. A Russian computer programmer named Alexey Pajitnov who loved games and puzzles was struck with inspiration while messing with a similar non-video puzzle, went home, and whipped up Tetris one evening.

Tetris is arguably the most successful video game ever made. In fact, in the two spaces between the previous sentence and this one, I spent about an hour playing it. The story of its creation is something of a very boiled-down version of the design process here at Oddworld. Somebody who dearly enjoys games comes up with something that is most assuredly fun for them, and decides to present it before a jury of their peers (the other designers). If most or all of them like it, we show it to more people, and eventually, there it is, in game format, to be judged by the masses (who may very well have paid money for it).

Pajitnov had his co-workers and fellow hobbyists to make fall in love with Tetris when he asked them “What do you think?” And Oddworld has a fairly broad demographic of folks working for the company, and everybody ranging from hardcore arcade tournament veterans to the office administrator’s teenage daughters winds up playing the game in the days before release. Comments like “Is the game supposed to freeze on this screen?” or “Is Munch supposed to be pink?” will make the programmers and artists, respectively, cringe. The Words Of Pain to the designers are generally insightful comments like, “This is boring.” Or occasionally, “Abe just fell through that solid platform, and I can’t see him anymore.” That last one we at least know how to fix.

Getting the game to be interesting is a trial and error process that would make Thomas Edison balk. At least he knew right away whether camel fur would work as a filament in a light bulb. Here, it’s not so much whether it works, but how many people it works for. And even if everybody in the office and all of their kids and parents give a game-mechanic a “thumbs up,” even if all the focus testing comes back with little smiley faces dotting the is in each comment, will it be a sufficient sampling to indicate how the (ideally) millions of customers will react to it?

What’s more, there’s the fact that Tetris is a boiled down example. You can describe the premise of Tetris in one sentence or two. The game itself could be said to be a single mechanic. Because that mechanic was a brilliant one, the game was brilliant. But what happens in a game like Munch’s Oddysee, then, where you not only have to develop over a hundred different mechanics that are fun, but you also have to account for how well they mix together? As the industry has progressed, the standout games are the ones that manage to best stir together the Apples and Oranges, and are then later topped by the ones that successfully stirred together Apples, Oranges, Buicks and Lemurs. Pajitnov had it easy.

Thus far, though, we’ve been successful. Abe’s Oddysee and Abe’s Exoddus were works of art, and the gaming masses looked upon them both, smiled, and said, “It is good.” This is owed as much to the people here who verify that the designs are good as it is owed to the people who come up with the designs in the first place.

So who are these people, you may ask? I’m sorry, that’s rude, I know you’d never ask a thing like that. But I’ll tell you anyway… to be continued