Concerning Great Designers

Not About the Designer

There was a recent conversation in my Twitter feed about “What makes a good RPG designer?” The question was posed by Stuart (@RobertsonGames). It made me think that while I have a laundry list of qualities that good designers should probably have, I don’t know if I choose game products simply based on the designer. My favorite roleplaying games were not singlehandedly created by a single individual.

Regardless who gets their name on the cover, game material is often the work of a dozen or more people. I can’t tell from looking at a supplement who came up with what idea or mechanic, so it’s nigh impossible for me to make connections between a designer and games I like.

From my understanding of how most of the industry works, when developing the core system, there are two levels to creating a game. You have the designer (the one(s) who get top billing) who set the stage and determine the general direction of the system. Then you have the developers who actually write the mechanics and bits that meet the specifications set forth by the designer.

You can think of a game system like a canvas, the designer comes in and does some rough sketches and perhaps lays down some broad strokes of paint and then the developers come in and fill in the details. A designer seems to have a lot in common with a project manager from a software development perspective.

Of course, once you have the words of a system worked out, there are still the illustrators, graphic designers, and editors that add the glitz and polish to a game. I highly doubt as many players would like D&D as much as they do if the rules were printed in a massive block of text and bound like research papers.

So for me, I don’t really think in terms of great designers, just great games.

Personal Bias

As a side note, Stuart’s question was actually initiated by this comment from Daniel Perez (@Highmoon):

“Some games are better served by getting to know the designer at least a bit, seeing what makes [the designer] tick that’s reflected in the RPG. Other games are better served by one knowing little or nothing about the designer, as this can influence adversely an otherwise great RPG.”

I have heard this sentiment before, and not just when referencing RPGs. Many people feel this way about illustrators, actors, directors, authors, etc. I think a related statement (of my own device), and one that presses more to the issue can be this:

“Some people are just giant fucking douchebags. Once you know how much of an asshole they are, it’s hard to appreciate anything they do, even if you would have otherwise enjoyed it.”

Some examples of the above, from my own personal experience/opinion, include: Tom Cruise (Scientologist nutjob), Todd McFarlane (comic-publishing hypocrite), and Apple (computing snobs).

It can work in the other direction too. You might actually enjoy something more once you’ve learned more about its creator. This direction is probably less common; in fact, I can only think of one example at the moment: a parent’s opinion of anything their children do (except my daughter really is good at everything).

Listening to: Agents of Obilivion – Agents of Oblivion – A Song that Crawls

2 thoughts on “Concerning Great Designers

  1. It can definitely work in the other way – otherwise companies would never put effort into PR and we wouldn’t have the word “fan.” If you like everything someone’s done, you’re more likely to give the benefit of the doubt to something that looks shaky. And thanks to confirmation bias, you’re more likely to notice only the good in what they do. If you think someone is a good person, you’re more likely to like their stuff because you WANT to like their stuff, regardless of whether they have a track record with you outside of that.

  2. @Swordgleam: I don’t think you need to like the creator to be a “fan” of the product. I’m a fan of several Microsoft technologies, but I’m not all that fond of Microsoft itself. I think fans can exist with or without knowledge of creator and that knowledge may or may not affect certain fans.

    I would also state that previous product experience is not the same as getting to know the creator, but may also instill confirmation bias. A track record of solid products can produce fans regardless of knowledge about the people that created it.

    It does happen the other way, it just happens WAY less frequently with me (the last sentence should read: “This direction is probably less common in my experience; in fact…”

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