Business Cards for Game Designers

Note: this is the obligatory business card post that every blogger does eventually.

Fellow Horseshoeite Bryan Cash posted this on Twitter today:

PLEASE. Make your business card easy to write on. I have a pile in front of me of shiny cards of people I cannot remember for the life of me

Which I cannot agree with more. When conferences roll around I spend a lot of time hearing about and reading tweets about business cards. While they are this kind of antiquated artifact of 20th century business, they do serve as a reminder to add someone to LinkedIn or whatever when you get home.

The point of having a business card is communication. And what do you know? The main skill of game design is communication. Like it or not many game designers put a lot of weight into what goes on that business card as a barometer of the person’s ability to communicate. Thus, you can screw that puppy up bad. I’m no American Psycho card guru as there are a few things I will fix on my next try: bigger text, up the contrast, and so forth.

Here are some mistakes you can make and what someone receiving a card containing that mistake might think about you.

The Irregularly Sized Card says: “It’s about me, not you.”

Everyone complains about the designer with the monster ego and then we ooh and ahh at Kevin Mitnick’s lockpick business card. A designer that gives out an irregularly-shaped business card is saying: “I know you can’t file this with your other business cards, but I’m so important that you will need a special place to put my contact info.” Uh, no.

Corollary: If your card is made of titanium or hemp or souls of the damned, it better well be important to your business proposition. Otherwise, you are essentially broadcasting that you are all style, no substance.

The Glossy Card or No Space to Write says: “I don’t think ahead.”

This is what Bryan was talking about. If I’m at a conference and I collect fifty business cards, I like to put a little note on each saying what we talked about or where we met. Nearly everyone I met does the same. If you don’t make your card easy to write on, you are essentially putting all of your eggs in the “I’m so memorable that he won’t have to take notes” basket. For someone as forgetful as me, that’s dangerous. For me, the back of my card is completely white. Everything I need to tell people I’d give the card to is on the front. They can fill in the back with what they need.

There is no reason for a shiny card that can’t be written on!

For game designers, it says that you plan systems that don’t make affordances to how the user will actually need to use them!

Bonus: you can take notes on your own business cards when you need to remember something and have no other means nearby.

The Hard to Read Card says: “I don’t communicate well.”

If your card is hard to read, what kind of screens will you design? I violated this on my business cards by accident as the final product didn’t have the same contrast as my screen proof. I’ll fix that in the next go around. Your card should attempt to be easy to read at a glance, right? Contrast. Repetition. Alignment. Proximity. Yes, it spells crap. That’s what makes it easy to remember.

The Focal Clip Art Card says: “I am not creative.”

Jesus, God in Heaven, if I see a piece of MS Paint clip art like in the example above, you better damn well be the best designer in the world and using it ironically. Luckily, I don’t see this much in games, but I do see it often in just about every other industry that hands out cards. Luckily, in many of those industries, you don’t have to be creative. In games, you must be. If you even think for a second of putting clip art as a focal point in your card, give yourself twenty lashes and start over.

There’s a corollary to this: images aren’t bad. If the image is evocative of something and if it blends well with the other content on your card, then go for it. But do not make it the focal point and make sure it is related to what you do and used in an attractive manner. My card has a lot of black space on the front. I’ve filled that with some line art from Asteroids. It’s evocative of my style and it isn’t a focal point. It simply breaks up the visual field. I’m not making a Spinal Tap album.

The image here also shows the safe zone and bleed zone. Don't go to the edge. The card doesn't contain the dotted lines, obviously.

The Contains a Game Card: “I like games so much that I don’t care if they are terrible.”

I haven’t seen one of these out in the wild, but have heard about many instances of them. Ian Schreiber posted a link to one. If you are putting a game on your card, it better be 1) fantastic in design, 2) playable in no time at all with no extra effort or materials and 3) memorable. Just putting a game on your card is of no use unless it is spectacular, otherwise you are showing people that you don’t know how to design games. An at-least-we-tried is not particularly wowing. The cards I linked to would be much better off removing the visual clutter. They are certainly memorable, but not for the right reasons.

I’m sure there is a memorable business card game out there somewhere, but I’ve never seen it. How about just putting a link to your game that’s on the web that is already awesome?

The Printed on Your Home Ink-Jet Printer Card: “I’m not doing so well.”

My parents have instilled in me very powerful lessons on saving money for the lean times. Nonetheless, there have been times when I’ve been broke as a joke. You may desire to print some cards on whatever thick paper you have in the apartment. Stop. These cards generally bend and crease and fall apart in people’s pockets. There are usually coupons for Overnightprints.com or Vistaprint where you can get professional weight cards for very little cost. (Don’t get the free Vistaprint ones). If you go the cheap route, you end up looking kind of pathetic, even if you are kind of pathetic (and we’ve all been there).

Too Much Text: “My design documents will be impossible to parse.”

The above linked business cards from the students with the board game brings up another point. If you have no white space on your card, if you try to cram as much info as possible into those few square inches, I’m just going to assume that you put five hundred words on each powerpoint slide and fill your design documents with meandering asides. There’s a place for additional information. In fact, some folks rely completely on this.

Doesn’t Have a Website: “I’m All Talk and Have Nothing to Contribute”

If you don’t have a website that has some sort of content that gives me an idea of who you are as a person and as a designer, then what do I have to go on? If you are a student, the link to your portfolio should be up front and highlighted. My card contains in order: my email address (where you can ask less public questions), my blog (longer-form writing and other content), Twitter (something where we can talk publicly and you can see my personality). If your information is easy to find or if you tell everyone within earshot of your website that is easily Googleable, then maybe you can leave that out. Err on the side of caution.

These snap judgements I listed leads you to a very simple card: name, sparse but evocative presentation and links to additional information/communication channels. Every other statement you make about yourself should be in the conversation you have with the guy or lady you are giving your card to! Be memorable there! How much time are you spending designing your card versus actually being interesting so people will want to keep your information?

“You should never meet your heroes.”

The lesson of the Scott Adams thing is not that Scott Adams is a misogynist.

It’s that your heroes are probably assholes. Scott Adams. Tycho. Charles Barkley. Whatever. All probably assholes.

And luckily for us, here in the 21st century we have Twitter which allows us to meet our heroes every day 24/7 and as they get comfortable letting their thoughts and feelings tumble out we find out one at a time that each and every one of them is an asshole.

Or that they are a misogynist or a racist or a Republican or a Democrat or a Marxist or a holocaust denier or a flat-Earther or a furry or that they bankrolled Rebecca Black.

Your hero is probably an asshole. It’s okay to still like his or her work. Honest.

Thank God I’m nobody’s hero.

Shallow (05)

I’ve played most of the Pokemon games. It’s not something I’m particularly proud of, but they are part of the gaming cultural front and I like to dip my toes into every pool, occasionally jumping waist-deep into ones that I probably shouldn’t. Pokemon: Black is one of those pools.

The main gameplay loop isn’t interesting. The story is dreadful. The dialogue is worse than dreadful. At least in Black, they attempt some sort of allegory but mostly fail miserably because at its heart Pokemon is a series about dogfighting. Aside: If anyone makes a ROM hack of Pokemon to replace all the Pokemon with dog breeds, I’d vote for them in whatever contest they entered.

And so I should have quit after about an hour, which is usually the latitude I give for games that I know just aren’t any deeper than what I see in the first hour, but I trudge on for some reason. There’s another badge to get. Maybe I’ll see a Pokemon based off of an ice cream cone or a trash bag or the collected works of Borges that will make me smile (at least two of those are real). But in the back of my mind I realize I’ve paid $25 for what is essentially a non time-gated Mafia Wars.

So I’m a bit of a hypocrite, yes. I still wade into social games hoping that one will give me something more than the shallowest of decisions or a story beyond the thinnest veneer of narrative. But then I actually buy games that give me neither.

That’s okay for millions of players because that’s all they know or are satisfied with. Take this article being passed around the Intertron about why the status quo in games is okay. Here are smart guys making the same arguments. This particular article actually collates (by accident, it seems) almost all the anti-Bogostian themes on why social games are the bee’s knees:

1. “It’s all a matter of taste, man. Millions enjoy it.”

Millions paid to see Transformers. Is that the pinnacle of what we can achieve in filmmaking? Should we be satisfied and applaud that? Should we copy Transformers as the business model of the future as every single social game company copies Zynga’s methods? If Michael Bay literally scammed people to trick them to buy tickets, would we applaud his success?

2. “It’s okay that they are shallow, because most games are.”

Why aim for more? Sure some games have meaning and interesting choices, but that’s hard and I’m lazy. So let’s just be happy with what we got. Right? Bull squeeze.

3. “Actually, scratch that. All games are shallow because you just move around and press buttons. Fighters, shooters. All shallow.”

Well, no. The structure of the game world can create interesting decisions. If you think that no decision can be more interesting than where-do-I-place-my-cow, play Civilization V. Or Sleep is Death. Or Drop 7. Or maybe you believe that shallow gameplay cannot lead to deep discourse? Then try Cow Clicker or Passage.

4. “Jocks like console games now, so there’s no hope. I can’t like them.”

What the fuck? Are we in high school? Clique warfare? Really?

5. “You just feel threatened/resentful/jealous that Zynga is successful/that the industry is passing you by/that what you like isn’t popular.”

These arguments generally break down into ad hominem at some point. Even responding to this point makes me feel slimy. Before I took my teaching job, I applied all over the place. Some of these jobs were at places that make social games. Some of these jobs got to the interview stage. Some of these interviews were with Big Social Developers. In these interviews, we talked about process. In at least two of these interviews, a lead designer or creative director told me that they weren’t interested in making interesting or fun games, that they were just trying to pump up user numbers and ARPU because that’s all their boards/presidents/CEOs wanted. You could tell that even under the corporate facade they were contract-bound to keep, they were miserable. That they wanted to do more.

I don’t want that fate for us. That’s what I’m truly threatened by.

Of course, there are dozens of social developers that drink the Kool-Aid and think that their stuff is hotcakes. Good for them. Hopefully, they won’t just repeat the status quo like hundreds of console game makers do when they make Generic Shooter of Duty XVII. Bryan Reynolds thinks he is helping, bless his heart. And he is, just a tiny bit maybe.

You know who is generally a positive-seeming guy? Frank Lantz. I met him at GDC a few years back and had great discussions with him about games and the craft of making them. His company, area/code, made two of the social games that I think are actually worthwhile. One is Parking Wars. The other is Power Planets. He’s one of my favorite designers.

He sold his company to Zynga to become Zynga New York.

God help us.

If anybody will push the industry to do more, hopefully it will be Frank. He doesn’t seem content in the status quo and Xerox culture.

6. “People like Zack Hiwiller are just elitist snobs. Whatever you like is what you like. Millions like clicking on cows. Zynga swims in a Scrooge McDuck money vault every night before closing at 2am.”

That’s just the taste argument again. If you give up on making games interesting in favor of making games profitable, then I pity you. You are lazy and holding the form back. We may not always succeed – I haven’t. I’ve made some dreck. But I still hold out that something better can be made.

If we hold *ville on a pedestal we say: “this is the best we can do right now”. If that is true, then we’ve regressed to making themed Skinner Boxes and can define success by metrics. We should just stop at Saturday morning cartoons, Dancing with the C-list Celebrities and Stephanie Meyer because popular=nutritious. If that isn’t true, if we can do better, then why hold them on a pedestal at all? Why are they sacred cows?

You can attack me all you want and paint me as elitist and out-of-touch. Maybe I am. Or maybe I just want more.

7. “You just admitted to playing Pokemon, so what gives you the right to criticize Farmville? I like clicking cows, you like shooting space marines.”

Theme is irrelevant and is used to obfuscate mechanic discussions based on stereotypes about classes of players.

I love discussion and argument. Any day of the week I will gladly put up a game I play against Farmville. Even a game as vapid as Pokemon: Black.

Fervor

Let’s sum up the facts:

1) Jason Rohrer creates a game about religion for a GDC contest. It’s a unique flash drive containing a modded Minecraft called Chain World.

2) He creates nine “commandments” and gives the drive off to a second “owner” at GDC.

3) The second owner sets up a charity auction to benefit Child’s Play for the next owner, whilst having Jane McGonigal and Will Wright calling dibs on owners #4 and #6 respectively.

4) People FLIP THEIR SHIT (no links, because… come on) over someone auctioning off the flash stick or reserving it for anyone.

5) Hilarity ensues with polarized camps. The “orthodox” camp sees this as a perversion while the “reformed” camp thinks it is a great idea to raise money for charity. The parallels to modern religion abound: Matthew 16:19, protestant power struggles, apocrypha, Scientology and so forth.

The difference between Chain World and religion that breaks down the metaphor is scarcity. Religion itself isn’t scarce; it is meant to be memetic. Religion artifacts, however, are scarce. How do we determine who receives the Chain World artifact next? Lo, commandment #7, etched into the stone iPad reads: “Pass the USB stick to someone else who expresses interest.” Unfortunately the method of that passing is never mentioned.

Darius Kazemi seems to be the spokesperson for the orthodoxy and he says: “My major issue with this is that it is limiting the people who can participate to people who have money or are famous enough to get on the list.” But how else to distribute the scarce resource? In a money-free transaction, how does Owner #N pass to Owner #N+1?

Well, he or she will likely pick from someone they know who will be interested enough to appreciate the idea and pass it on when he or she is done. Owners N to N+x will likely all come from the same social circle, limiting the artifact to an already connected group of people. Auctions are one method to cause the device to migrate throughout different social circles. Auctions are certainly not the only method.

Thus, the main difference between the bidding schema and the orthodox schema is that in the former the wealthiest have the best chance, while in the latter the most connected have the best chance. Is one more noble than the other? Is it perverted to use some objective measure like amount-of-money-willing-to-give-up-to-charity to use to measure enthusiasm for the idea? What happens if the connected person gives it to someone who doesn’t care enough to pass it on? Do you think that would happen with someone who paid $500 for the privilege?

This makes it seem like I’m coming out on the side of the reformation. I’m not. I think that since “Owner #3” will own it, that he or she can choose not to give it to Jane or keep the auctions going. But if “Owner #3” wants to put the drive in a museum and not follow the commandments, I think that too would be a positive statement. “Owner #3 can no more control what Owner #4 does with it than our forefathers could control which religious dogma we discarded (shellfish are an abomination, divorce is a punishable offense) and those which we held dear.

Talking about meta-procedural rhetoric.

Results

I respect Brenda Brathwaite a lot, which one wouldn’t understand given how much I rage at her blog posts. Here’s one that hits particularly close to home, about game design curricula. And WHAT DO YOU KNOW, I’m a recently minted game design professor. Twitter was abuzz with it earlier this week, since it is a bit controversial in that it suggests that game design programs that aren’t heavily laden with programming aren’t useful.

Have you ever run into someone who used to be overweight but is now fit? For some of these folks, whatever they did to stoke the change becomes THE THING you have to do: cut carbs, pilates, P90X, whatever. It’s all they talk about because they have first hand experience on how amazingly useful it is. And who can argue? Look at them!

Brenda has made many mentions of how she feels her inability to code has hampered her as a designer. Now she is learning how to code and it is awesome. And yes, kids, coding IS awesome. Because it gets results. You can’t make a sprite jump on the screen without getting into some code. She has opened up a door that changed who she was as a designer. Now every problem is a nail. Look at the results! Who can argue? I have a hammer, now let’s get those nails!

But to say that a game design program needs to be a game dev program (because look how awesome programming is!) is folly. There are so many areas of knowledge that make a designer better: code is one. Art is another. Psychology is another. Statistics is a huge one. Interpersonal Communication is another. How about Behavioral Economics?!

But you can’t build a program on all of those. You can, however, build a program that incorporates all of those.

What a game design program needs to be is about results. Brenda is making the jump that because you can get results from coding (a final product) that coding is the sole focus and foundation. But this ignores other means of gaining results. Which is more useful to a developer: a designer that knows how to code really well, but knows the other disciplines only superficially or a designer that aims to be modern renaissance men/women by knowing a bit about coding, art, economics but most fully about design? The former I’d hire as a programmer, the latter a designer.

Formal programs can only expose students to material. It is up to the student to turn the education into results. That requires a mindset that cannot be coerced. You can lead that horse to water, but you cannot make him think.

The Act of Playing (04)

You Don’t Know Jack is a relaunch of a classic trivia game. But in fact, it being on a console is the only major difference between the late 90s original and the reboot. Now, there are two routes this can go down: the developer can make it shovelware, not caring to add featuresbecause features cost money OR the developer can focus on experience over features, something vastly more subtle. Jellyvision chose the latter.

Here’s an example: the rarely used Xbox “Big Button” controller was packed with SceneIt! but isn’t entirely a market penetrated device. I plugged mine in and it worked! This makes YDKJ a nice segue from SceneIt! or vice-versa. Now base support is one thing, but not only do the button diagrams change on the screen if you are playing with these controllers, but the audio clues do as well! That’s an attention to detail that fixates on the experience of playing versus back-of-the-box features. It actively repudiates the quantity vs. quality metric that many studios use: “How many different kinds of crops are in your farming game?” I’ve had a similar question asked of me.

A logical producer focusing on the task-level will say: how many SceneIt! players will also be YDKJ players? 10,000 at most?

How users play your game needs to be focused on in conjunction with what they are playing. The two live in tandem and you cannot ignore the how over the what.