The biggest media event of December is here!


I’ve been bombarding social media but forgetting about my poor old blog as I slave away in the education mines.

Players Making Decisions is out! You can buy it at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, right from the Publisher, or anywhere else fine game design books are sold. In January, I plan on poking various media outlets for coverage, but I figure that is a useless task this close to Christmas.

It is slowly trickling into real people’s hands, and if you own two of those lucky hands, I have a favor to ask. Would you please leave kind reviews at Goodreads and Amazon? Those two sites drive a lot of impressions.


  • Beautiful matte cover.
  • No The Force Awakens spoilers. However, the book does contain a game theoretic discussion of what Lando Calrisssian should have expected in The Empire Strikes Back.
  • Lots of images and diagrams to help distract from the author’s reliance on words.

But seriously, here’s a list of contents. If any of this sounds interesting, I’d be thrilled if you picked up a copy:

Part 1: Getting Started

1. What Is a Game Designer?

Responsibilities of a Game Designer
Attributes of a Game Designer
Make Things
Cultivate Your Gardens
On Ontology and Dogma

2. Problem Statements

Defining the Problem
Low-Hanging Fruit
Functional Fixedness

3. Development Structures

Production Methodologies
Iterative Processes
Climbing the Pyramid

4. Starting Practices

Analog Games
Theme and Mechanics
Next Steps
Designing for Others
Opening Questions

Part 2: Prototypes and Playtesting

5. Paper Prototyping Development Techniques

Software and Materials
InDesign Data Merge

6. Playtesting

Playtesting Goals
Playtesting Benefits
Listening to Feedback
Fear of Critique
Confirmation Bias
Finding Playtesters

7. Playtesting Methods

The Testing Environment
Keep Playtesters Talking
A/B Testing

8. Prototypes and Intellectual Property

Part 3: Meaningful Decisions

9. Flow and the Fundamental Game Design Directive

Game Flow
Interest Curves
Learning Curves
Individual Differences

10. Decision-Making

Player Agency
Anatomy of a Choice
Less-Interesting Decision-Making
Blind Decisions
Obvious Decisions
Meaningless/Misleading Decisions
Handcuffing Decisions
More-Interesting Decision-Making
Expected Value

11. Randomness

Completely Random Games
Completely Skill-Based Games
Fairness and Mitigating Randomness

12. Goals

How Players Determine Game Goals
Criteria for Goals
Solving Goal Problems

Part 4: Describing Game Elements

13. Mechanics, Dynamics, and Aesthetics (MDA)

What Are Games About?
Example: Realm of the Mad God
Example: Monopoly
Example: Habitat
More Dynamics
Button Mashing

14. Milieu

What Is Milieu?
Player Types
Milieu as Design Focus

15. Rules and Verbs

Qualities of Rules
Types of Rules

16. Balance

Self-Balancing Mechanisms
Progression and Numeric Relationships
Balance Heuristics

17. Feedback Loops

Positive Feedback Loops
Negative Feedback Loops
Feedback Loops in Action
Fixing Problems

18. Puzzle Design

What Is a Puzzle?
Possibility Space
Features of Ineffective Puzzles
Incomplete Critical Information/Missed Assumptions
Lack of Ability to Experiment
Brute Force
Triviality Surrounded by Complexity
Lack of Possibility Space
Types of Puzzles
Deduction Puzzles
Truth Puzzles
Deception Puzzles
Other Puzzle Types
Critical Path Puzzles
Strategy Puzzles
Algebraic Puzzles
Physical Manipulation Puzzles

Part 5: Game Theory and Rational Decision-Making

19. Equilibria in Normal Form Games

The Prisoner’s Dilemma
Solving Games Using Strict Dominance
Using (and Abusing) Dominance
Zero-Sum Games
Stag Hunt and Coordination
Determining Nash Equilibria in a Larger Matrix
Mixed Strategies
Stag Hunt Redux

20. Sequential and Iterated Games

Game Trees
Promises and Commitment Problems
Iterated Games
Experimenting with Strategies
Successful Strategies

21. Problems with Game Theory

Rational Actors
The Dollar Auction
The “Guess Two-Thirds” Game
Second-Price Auctions

22. Marginal Decision Analysis

Marginal Nuggets
Balance on Margins

Part 6: Human Behavior in Games

23. Behaviorism and Schedules of Reinforcement

Operant Conditioning
Schedules of Reinforcement
Anticipation and Uncertainty
Ethical and Practical Concerns

24. Learning and Constructivism

Historic Approaches
Novices and Experts
Cognitive Load
Expertise Reversal Effect
Split-Attention Effect
Tutorials and Learning Design

25. Motivation

Two Types of Motivation
What’s the Problem with Rewards?
Self-Determination Theory and Challenges
Competition and Motivation
Other Motivation Effects

26. Human Decision-Making

Mental Shortcuts
Attribution Errors
Misunderstanding Randomness
Anchoring and Adjustment
Understanding Value in Uncertain Situations
Framing Decisions

27. Attention and Memory

Helping with Memory Limitations

Part 7: Game Design Tools

28. Documentation and Written Communication

The Game Design Document
The GDD Creation Process
Step One: Determine Purpose/Desired Scope/Connected Systems
Step Two: Research
Step Three: Idea Generation
Step Four: Murder Your Darlings
Step Five: Fully Detail the Best Answer
Step Six: Edit and Find Edge Cases
Documentation for Tabletop Games
States and Flowcharts

29. Probability

Probability Is Counting
Joint Probability
Conditional Probability
Adding Die Rolls
Example: The H/T Game
Being Careful
Problem #1: The Boy-Girl Problem
Problem #2: The Weirder Boy-Girl Problem
Problem #3: Isner-Mahut at Wimbledon

30. Spreadsheets for Simulation

Why Use Spreadsheets?
Formula Operator
Basic Math
Common Formula Errors
Goal Seek and Solver in Excel
One-Way Data Tables

31. Monte Carlo Simulation

Answering Design Questions
Hot Hand
Monty Hall
Once Around the Board
Martingale Betting

32. Presenting Ideas

The Thesis
Text on Slides
Do Not Waste Time
Acquiring Images
Example: State of Mobile Games 2014
Risk Analysis
Pitch Questions

Part 8: The Game Design Business

33. Profit, Loss, and Metrics

Profit and Loss
Cash Flow

34. Sustainable Lifestyles

Life in AAA Digital Game Development
Life as an Independent Developer of Digital Games
Life in Tabletop Game Development
Market Luck



I have news!

For the last two years in scraps of time here and there I’ve been putting together material to make my own game design textbook. Here is what I can tell you so far!

  • Pearson, the largest book publisher in the world, will be publishing it through its PeachPit imprint.
  • It should be out by the end of the year.
  • It doesn’t have a title yet! Titles are hard.
  • It is a platform agnostic game design textbook that looks at many commonalities between the design process and features of both digital and analog games.
  • One of the areas that I think this book covers better than almost anything else out of the market is player psychology. If games are about meaningful decisions, then how do we examine and design decisions? We can look at them through the lens of the rational player (game theory) or through the lens of the human player (behavioral economics/psychology).
  • I dedicated a LOT of time in the last few months finishing the draft. You may have seen a flow of all the other game design textbooks I could find clogging up my Goodreads this year as I tried to make sure I wasn’t making anything that already existed in some better form.
  • Currently, we are editing chapter by chapter and I’ve got a lot of tendrils out on the web trying to get permission to use all sorts of screenshots and photographs of various games. I thought the draft was hard work, but the editing phase is laborious.
  • As someone who is normally completely self-deprecating, I have to say I am really proud of this thing. It isn’t just another “this is what I think about Game Design” kind of book as is so prevalent. There is a little bit of that, but it is loaded with references so you don’t have to take my word for it.
  • You will be very tired of hearing me talk about this over the next five months.

The Last ZZT Disk

I’ve written before about how my game design career was kicked off by ZZT, a low-fi game making utility that was Epic’s first ever release. Anna Anthropy is writing a book about ZZT, and I’m intensely excited and a bit jealous because I didn’t think to do it first.

I was having my weekly existential crisis about teaching when I started thinking again about how I learned to program using ZZT when I was 11 or 12. For nostalgia’s sake, I started digging around for my ZZT floppies (I didn’t realize at the time that my current PC literally doesn’t have a floppy drive, but that is irrelevant to the story). I realized that I had floppies of my games and some games I got off of the AOL message boards of the day, but I never actually bought a copy of ZZT. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a disk of ZZT to frame and put in my office among my other gaming tchotchkes?

So off to eBay I went. Surely there was a market for old shareware floppies, I figured. Actually, it turns out that there was just one shady guy selling a CDR of a bunch of old shareware titles. And there are a lot of hits for ZZT that relate to some part of an old Toyota Celica. That would have been the end of it as it usually is for my fits of nostalgia if I didn’t have a crazy idea: what if I just Googled “zzt order form” and found the shareware catalog order form that came with all the Epic games back in the day and placed an order? The worst that could happen is someone could steal my check for a few bucks.

So I did.

Today I received something in the mail from “Epic Classics” in Maryland:


He sent back my check along with the order form, which was unnecessary. I was willing to pay for it, at least for the labor of digging it out of a box somewhere and mailing it.

But I think the best part is on the back of the order form:


Some subconscious neurons fired after I received this and all of a sudden I remembered reading this article on Gamasutra over four years ago where Tim Sweeney mentions that his dad is retired and still ships out copies from the house where Tim grew up and where he started Epic. I guess that was true until a few days ago when I was sent the last floppy of ZZT Epic will ever send out. It’s exciting for me, but a bit of a bummer for anyone else who used ZZT to learn about games “back in the day” and would want some physical token of those times.

Isn’t it awesome that his dad kept up fulfilling orders for so long? It’s so anachronistic these days to personally ship a game to someone. Indies almost exclusively digitally distribute and the only ones pressing discs are large corporations where the purpose of its physicality is to attract eyeballs on a shelf in a store, not because of any distribution limitations. There’s no love in the physical object anymore. Every once in a while you will see a Kickstarter that includes a physical artifact which is a reflection of the love of an individual or a small group of individuals for their work. But it just doesn’t happen often. It’s nice to see here, even if it is for the last time.

So thanks to Paul Sweeney and Tim Sweeney. You are both cool folks.



I’m not at GDC.

That’s not particularly news, since I’ve missed many GDCs since becoming a game developer. But seeing my Twitter-stream blow up with GDC tweets is always a bit depressing not because I am missing sessions (80% of which are just total garbage), but because I’m missing spending time with the people that make me feel like I can self-identify as a game developer. Since the launch of Sudoku Together, I’ve worked on a couple things for Sky Parlor that may or may not ever be released, did some other consulting things, and made a Corrypt-inspired puzzle game by myself that also may never be released due to lack of confidence.

I feel the need to learn a new tool like Unity or GameMaker, but deep down I wonder if that is because I want to leverage something to make new things or because if I am learning something new, then I can rationalize why I’m not making something (just not good enough with the tool yet!)

I used to do a blog post every day or every other day. I’d take what was happening in the world of games and try to relate it to my experience. But lately, I’ve been completely unable to do that. Everything I find just puts me off working on games. What is there to be excited about?

I teach by day and it’s a great job, but it does take a lot of work and 75% of students don’t actually want to design games, they just want to be a game designer.

I don’t want to be like that.

I have a lot of game design-related things to say, but feel like a phony saying them in a non-student setting anymore. I look at the sessions listing at GDC and know with utmost certainty that 90% of them can be distilled down to a blog post. Danc’s made Triple Town and Leap Day, so I think he’s qualified to write articles like this. When I look at my Scrivener, I’ve written almost 100,000 words on game design in the last year. Some of them ended up in this book, but most I just co-opted to use internally in my game design classes.

So I guess what I’m saying is that I need some rah-rah time. I haven’t fallen off the face of the Earth; I’ve just been working a lot on some unseen things.

On Consulting

I’ve been relegating most of my public thoughts and comments recently to the social networks due to the extreme demands on my time. 2012 has been a crazy year and I’ve worked more than I ever have in any other year of my life. Nonetheless, I will still take a small consulting job on the side here and there if its scope is limited and if it interests me. It has to be good to compete for my time against my two current jobs and any free/sanity time with my wife. I miss her, you understand.

Despite not really putting too many feelers out there, I’ve been blessed with getting more than a dozen offers for consulting work this year. These come from either referrals from my network (hey, you know who might be good for that?) or oddly, organic searches that may get my name and contact info from this here blog. Since some of them have been outright odd I figured I’d take a moment and compile a short list (blog are about lists, you see) based on my experience called:

How to Convince Consultant Talent To Work For You On The Internet

  1. Know What Business I Am In – I guess there is some third party service sending traffic my way, but I have had multiple inquiries in the past year to work on slot machines. I have nothing particularly against slot machines, but I also don’t have any experience with the casino industry. I am a game designer who has worked and does work in consumer games. I’m mostly a systems designer, but I also do some concept work. This means my specialty is in understanding how systems interact and how to design game dynamics to reach certain “gameplay” goals. If you are having troubles getting your game to feel a certain way, that’s where I can be of a great help. If you are, say, looking for someone to dig up dirt on Zynga for a patent lawsuit, I won’t be of much help. Or if you are looking for someone to develop your “hit idea” (see below), you also won’t find me very helpful.
  2. Tell Me What Services You Would Like For Me To Deliver and in What Timeframe – As I said before, I have been very busy. I’m very satisfied by my work with Full Sail University and with Sky Parlor Studios. These jobs don’t leave me with a lot of free time. If you are interested enough in hiring me to provide you services, please know why you want to hire me in the first place! Let me know what you would like me to provide and in what timeframe. I do product reviews, concept work, critique, editing, content development and sometimes the miscellany of general consulting. I recently had a gig where a client wanted me to review his current game and provide him feedback on why certain systems were not working. It wouldn’t take more than a few hours. Perfect! He TestFlight’ed me a build. It took me about four hours; the project was really interesting stuff. I felt like I provided some honest value and I was able to crank it out on a weekend.On the other hand, I often get emails that say someone has “an idea” for a “hit game” and if I could just help design it and develop it, that would be great. I’m sure someone out there may fall for that one, but you are better off not wasting your, my, or anyone else’s time. Scratch that. There is one scenario in which I’d take that job. It would require at least five to six zeroes before the decimal point based on the scope of that “idea”.
  3. Use Professional Language – I am very much aware that for many of the folks who contact me, English is not their first language.That’s ok!  But for me to know what you want from me and for me to know that I will be able to communicate with you, I must be able to decipher your requests. If I cannot understand your introduction email, I know that when money gets involved, I may not be able to deliver what you expected and that’s when business turns sour. And if English is in fact your primary language, if you do not take the care to read over your email a second time to check for basic errors that could cause confusion, what does this tell me about the level of care with which you operate your business?
  4. Make Sure You Are Googleable – Know this: I will Google you. If I cannot find anything tied to a person or business that has some record in the real world, I will not work with you. It is too risky for me. Give me a link to your company or project’s website that lets me know what I am getting into. Maybe your current project is under wraps and your company is operating silently. That’s fine. I will sign a professional NDA. Or send me a link to something you’ve done before that can show me you are a real person operating a real business.
  5. Offer Me Money – You can have the most interesting sounding work in the world for me. If your introduction letter contains “We cannot pay you right away, but…” just stop right there. I want to know you are serious. A portion of your Kickstarter proceeds (this has happened) is not payment. Show me skin in the game if I am going to spend my precious time on your project. If you think I will work for free or for the vaporware promise of payment, you just show that you think my work is worth nothing. I know otherwise and so I will not accept your offer. Maybe there will be some future in which I will work for equity, but that’s not the case now unless I know you personally.
  6. Show Me That You Know What You Are Doing – All of these really just boil down to one principle: show me that you know what you are doing. I am a professional and will work with other professionals. I have my own hobbies that I love; working on your game isn’t one of them. If you are looking for me because you know I have a specific set of skills that can help you get over a rough point in your project, I’m happy to discuss terms with you. If you are looking for me because you Googled “game designer” and I came up in the top one thousand, then you don’t really know what you are doing.

Maybe that came off a bit curmudgeonly. I certainly know a lot of visual artists soured on the perils of freelancing. That’s not my point. If you are serious, I want your project to succeed. And if I can help, even better. The consulting work I’ve taken has been some really interesting changes of pace from my two primary jobs. But if you are wasting time trying to bark up the wrong tree, then you need to reevaluate where else you may be wasting resources. In the end, it doesn’t hurt to ask, but I’d like to save both your time and mine.



“It seems to me that Facebook and Twitter and YouTube—and just so you don’t think this is a generational thing, TV and radio and magazines and even newspapers, too—are all ultimately just an elaborate excuse to run away from yourself. To avoid the difficult and troubling questions that being human throws in your way. Am I doing the right thing with my life? Do I believe the things I was taught as a child? What do the words I live by—words like duty, honor, and country—really mean? Am I happy?”

From William Deresiewicz.

I’ve been ignoring this blog in favor of quicker more micro posting forums like Twitter and Facebook, but I plan on using this more in the future. I find a lot of links worth sharing like the one above, but I cannot keep them forever if I simply post them on FB and let the waves of “content” erode them for the ages. I’ll certainly be posting a flood when I go to GDC next month. Oh, and speaking of GDC and Leadership, here’s a really interesting talk on leadership and Buddhism and things from last GDC.

In other, more game-related news, Fire & Dice is someone’s “hands-down … favorite mobile game”. So I pat myself on the back.

Fire and Dice

Education is boss and I dig what I do, but I’ve also missed actually making games. Luckily, there’s a neat little startup about fifteen miles down the road from me called Sky Parlor Studios that needed some help crafting a portfolio of mobile games. We are working on a number of things but the first to release is called Fire and Dice. It’s one of my favorite games I’ve designed in many years, so I do want to tell you a bit about it.

Fire and Dice has a number of inspirations, notably the board games Roll Through the Ages and Elder Sign where the player takes random resources and assign them in a Yahtzee meets Sim/RPG kind of way.

In Fire and Dice, you play as the fire chief of Sparksville, which is a town of sixteen blocks that seems to have trouble avoiding combusting. You roll your dice and choose to lock in water, movement, rescue or truck dice to drive around the town, put out the fires and rescue the citizens.

Small fires take five water to quench; large fires take ten. If two large fires are next to each other, they will spread. But having two trucks at a location will double your water efficiency (spend 5 instead of 10 to quench the large fires). Having three trucks at a location will triple it.

Rescuing a citizen and returning them to the fire station awards you a new die (up to seven), which is key to long-term survival.

Here’s my strategy, but I don’t have the score, so take it with a grain of salt: get to seven dice as soon as possible, then expand your truck fleet and make sure there are never two large fires next to each other. Easier said than done. Do you bunch your trucks together for the efficiency bonus or do you spread them out to cover a larger area? It’s a catchy game and I wouldn’t sell it so hard if I didn’t think it was a lot of fun.

The Ad-Supported Android version is on the marketplace now. The Paid Android ($2) as well. Paid iPhone, Free iPhone and iPad Universal apps are all forthcoming. There are more features and tweaks we are rushing to add, but we wanted to get this in front of folks as soon as possible.

We put a lot of love into the game, so we would appreciate if you purchased one of these for the mobile device of your choice and supported original indie development. We’ve got a bunch of good ideas in the pipeline and want to be able to afford to come out with something fun every month or so. Use the comments if you have questions or suggestions and I’ll get to them as soon as I can. I’ll keep this post updated with news and screenshots.

Tape Delay

TwitShift is a service that will set up a parallel Twitter account that will post what you have posted or retweeted exactly one year to the moment that you tweet or retweet. Last year was a particularly difficult year for me. I had moved to New York City with which I almost immediately fell in hate. My job that moved me there turned out not at all to be what I expected. Watching “Past Zack” tweet for the past few months has been strangely unnerving as the growing angst and depression started to seep into my outward-facing persona.

In January, I was wide-eyed and hopeful. In just two weeks, I’d start to get disenfranchised:

January 19 – First day at new job. No one told me what time, so I’m going in for 9. Strangely nervous!

January 20 – The inspiration. I found it? This is what it felt like?

January 26 – I may finish the draft of this GDD by Wednesday after all… 5200 words in two days ain’t bad.

January 27 – Blarg. My 33 page doc is in the wrong format, needs to be totally reorganized. Here we go!

January 28 – Balls. My design proposal got vetoed.

February 17 – Just saw the most masturbatory design document I have ever seen in my life.

February 23 – I think my team just formed a new band called “Rage Against the Gantt Chart”

By March, I was starting to learn that I wasn’t being respected and it was getting to me:

March 2 – Grr. Breathe. Relax.

March 31 – Unbefuckinglievable.

April 1 – Why do I let myself get this stressed?

April 12 – I totally understand Alan Smithee

April 13 – You know it’s bad when delicious Polish food, getting a game from Germany in the mail and walking home with my love couldn’t cheer me up.

April 26 – No! My beautifully balanced system tumbled like a Jenga tower!

April 27 – Today crossed that line from frustrating to so ridiculous that you have to laugh. It’s a good place to be.

On April 29, my creative frustration must have boiled up and it led to my famous Mario + Tutorials post and everyone started telling me I’d get fired.

May 4 – Wholly depressed. Best time to try writing.

May 5 – Seriously, if I get fired for that I’ll probably kill myself since there will be no one with a sense of humor left in the world.

May 17 – wegyrgwuegroqrgtqwiergfylqwgeflqwergfqpw;re8tyq9rwehfrgbkhgwwuoewr830ywe97wte23gui34hkr32gifewkbfewaoywfeuo412h43hjv532vhj532h23589y532ghi90

May 21 – Quick! Shoulder me out of the way because if you don’t stand 1 inch from the subway door, you won’t be able to get out! i hate ny

June 1 – Some of my work got nuked, but I hid a backup in a place no one would ever think to look – the GDD.

By June, I’d given up and was a downright mess. Our project that had given me so much stress over the past half-year was cancelled for reasons way beyond my area of impact. Nothing looked like it would make sense and I had nowhere to turn.

June 16 – head kablooey

June 28 – Only saw three crimes on the subway this morning. #mondayinnyc

June 28 – Filling up documents with useless data. Thinking about adding some lorem ipsum to see if anyone reads it.

July 6 – It’s so hot out that the area of high pressure has reinflated my hopes and dreams.

July 8 – I’m gonna choke a bitch.

July 12 – The least annoying thing happening in the office right now is the drilling into metal sounds.

July 13 – If enough people believe that our project is uncancelled, then maybe it will be? @radmartigan get working on that.

July 19 – Fast, Good and Cheap. Pick all three.

July 19 – On the verge of totally flipping out. #keepsayingitsfriday

July 19 – When I feel like I am about to lose it, I read “focal feature” as “fecal feature” in a GDD and all is right for a moment.

July 21 – Watched world’s worst mother berate and abuse her child on the subway this morning. No civilized person can live here. I’ve had it.

July 28 – I can just tell this will end poorly.

July 29 – Cells in this s.sheet that are important are highlighted yellow. Cells of cut features are also yellow. Then we just made some more yellow.

By August, despite my internal attitude leaking out to Twitter, I was still creating prolifically and working hard. But when you push yourself to the bone and then you are essentially called worthless, there is little you are left to do.

August 10 – 25 pages of design doc in one day. Not bad.

August 13 – Left Gameloft today. Definition of a poor fit. Anyone know of any openings? RT if you can.

Damn do I feel bad for “Past Zack”. His tweets really do feel like they are coming from a different person. The Twitshift application is a lot different than just reading your old blog or diary. Since it happens in realtime alongside the tweets of real people, it really does feel like you are watching an external real person. Except you have this burden because you know how his story will go before he does. I want to message him and tell him to hang in there, that everything gets better really soon. But I can’t and it breaks my heart.

By October, Past Zack will have moved away from New York but will be really vague about where he is and what he is doing. He won’t want to tell people that he, a grown man, will have moved his things back to his parents house to save money while he looked for a new job. He won’t tweet about the crippling depression he is trying so hard to hide from everyone. In fact, he will try and stick mostly to retweets and quips about football. I think what is more disturbing to me is my knowledge of what is going on behind those tweets, why they get farther apart and why they become less relevant to the things that actually interest me.

By the way, things are completely great for me right now. What a difference a year makes!