References for everyone…!

As a designer, you will reference games. A lot. And sincerely, even if there is a really neat mechanic in one of your favorite game being a ’95 SNES japanese-only game, it’s completely useless to cite an obscure game. When brainstorming with designers or others team members, you must think of popular games with stuff into them that are worth mentioning. So, here is my list of designer must-play games! Keep in mind that obviously, your own list should depend on the genre/scope/platform of your project ( study your concurrence! ) and the average age of who you will work with…! Do not cite pre-NES games to kiddos like me… and I won’t refer to you my strange emulated japanese games! 😉

  •  The Basis: Super Mario World
    • This is the starting block. Lucky for me, it has been my first game ever. But if you really want to get a good grip on all those essential mechanics, like probably a large number of your partners did before, play through Super Mario All-Stars (which is a compilation of all the NES Super Mario Bros.) You can’t go more classy than this: 2D platformer system, collectible/life system, worlds/levels/checkpoints system, snappy controls, warp zones, world map, powerups, secrets, solid level design (which is always perfectly displaying a particular gameplay ingredient), awesome art direction guided by gameplay, etc. We are all starting off on the same foot now.
  • Systems: Diablo 2
    • There are more complex, recent and better crafted RPG systems out there. But there are almost none that have been more played that those of Diablo 2 (and his younger brother Diablo 3, of course.) Here we have: loot system, shop system, character builds, skill trees, synergies, runewords/items system, procedural level design, waypoints, sidequests, etc.
  • Attack references: Final Fantasy 7
    • Come on, FF7 is a great game but frankly, it is nothing against his older brother Final Fantasy 6, which is one of my favorite game of all time. But since we are now in the 21st century, if you are making a game involving combat, chance are high that your game is in 3D. To add more, FF7 has one of the most crazy fanbase out there, so that’s 2 points in his favor. In fact, any JRPGs from the PS1 era could have been here : there is a simplicity in those assets (VFX/animations) which really are admirable and quickly referable. You have to develop and pitch an attack based on the *fill the blank* element to your team? Youtube some PS1 “Final Parasite – Xeno Cross”, you will find inspiration and references to link around.
  • Mini-games: Mario Party
    • An immense bank of mini-games for you to choose and clone/start off new stuff. Mechanics are tights and the learning curve is very low in them. Play the most games in the Party series that you can; it surprising how they reinvent their lineup each time. Runner-ups for this category: the Warioware series and Flash very simple games on the net (Newgrounds, Kongregate, etc.)
  • Simulation/customization/AI: The Sims
    • Massively popular in the beginning of the century, chance are that if you have a girl in his 20 in your team, she played The Sims at one moment… and probably intensively. There are a lot of interesting things to pinpoint again in this one: the customization system (for building and for characters), managing your needs, progressing in your career, having several players/gameplay and considering them (the “completionist”, the architect who cheats to obtain infinite money, the anarchist who burns his Sims.) Btw, in order to be a “completionist” in this game,  you have to be one heck of a control freak and to understand very well all mechanics…!
  • Social interactions: World of Warcraft
    • This is where I lack some interests in gaming, as a gamer. I do not play online for social interactions, it’s not in my solo/party gaming habits. But it’s even more important to be curious about what you do not play usually. So I mostly know what is going on World of Warcraft, what is good and makes it popular, but I didn’t experiment for myself. It’s clearly the best pick in this category, being the almighty MMO experience of all time, but one really strong candidate in here should be League of Legends, which I played. Recurrent topics in here : metagaming, roleplaying, fantasy universe, joining/participating in a guild, gauging your teammates skills vs. your enemies skills, colossal fanbase over the internet, etc.
  • Tutorial/Narrative: Portal
    • I shed a tear when I saw this article about Steam purchase habits and I discovered that over 2 millions estimated players have Portal in his Steam library and did not play it already. In my opinion, Portal IS the absolute reference for teaching your gameplay mechanics to your player: it’s so subtle, so much integrated inside the level design, so cleverly uncluttered. And for the scenario, it is awesome how the game tells you some very important information that push the narrative forward, but almost without any help of texts, dialogues or voice-overs. So let’s rejoice a bit on the bright side: there is en estimated 5 millions people who played it at least once, on Steam only…! 😉
  • Designing dungeon: Legend of Zelda : Ocarina of Time
    • Another great game (and series, to be honest) when it comes time to teach mechanics is The Legend of Zelda : Ocarina of Time. The first rule of every dungeon’s layout is to celebrate and glorify the new item that you will obtain. Enemies, gameplay ingredients, the boss battle : they are all a ramp up to your item mastering. Also, the pace is almost mathematically set to prevent repetition. Battles and puzzles don’t feel the same, rooms neither. Ingeniously, they mix up previous acquired items and Link’s base abilities in ways that are always surprising and fun.
  • Asymmetric gameplay: Starcraft
    • Any fighting games are worth studying in this category (or even any Blizzard games, truly), but Starcraft is one of the first who did it so right. The balance between the Terran, Zerg and Protoss races are really much nailed. Different styles of gameplay are given, thanks to the diversity of the units/buildings/techs, and they all have their advantages/disadvantages. Extra tip: if you really want to go hardcore with your comprehension of asymmetric gameplay balancing, go in here and try to analyse the history of Starcraft’s patches and the reason why these changes have been made.
  • Rewards: Super Smash Bros Melee
    • One thing about me: I am not a “completionist” gamer… when it’s not extraordinary rewarding. And Super Smash Bros Melee wins the palm for me in here. There are tons of thing to unlock, complete, achieve. There are tons of ways of succeeding. How they highlight your achievement adds to the satisfaction. And they know it works perfectly well : they pursue to build on those features in following installment of the series. Pokemon merits a honorable mention too: leveling in this game and catching new Pokemon are so entertaining and rewarding!

10 games… almost 100 millions copies sold of them : maybe if you are lucky enough, you will find someone on your team that will know what you are talking about… 😉


The importance of personal development

You worked your way up at college. You produced an awesome portfolio. You befriended with people in industries meetings. You totally ignore the number of hours that flew by when polishing your resume. One thing leading to another, you find yourself in a job interview and BAM! : you’re in! Congratulations pal, you made it inside an industry which is not the most easy to access, trust me …you don’t trust me? I know a dozen of stories about people still seeking for an art job, 3 years (and there are probably worse case out there) after their graduation…. ouch.

So you might think “Ah, you made it through! Now you can at last relax and take time to do some other stuff with your free time!” and the answer is absolutely yes. Balance is essential to last long and it’s the same for other stuff than Game Development. And for artists, practicing other passions and experimenting life in new ways inspire them. Because, to be fair, there are important stuffs out there : you can’t only live for one matter, it would be insane and drive you to become the most single-minded person out there.

But becoming professional is not only about doing nothing outside your basic (OT-free talk) 40 hours/a week. In fact, I recommend to develop yourself personally at home. Learn about new technics, write a blog, read articles, watch conferences, participate in a community of developers, be a part of an indie project…! I try myself to do game-related stuff 8-10 hours / a week, outside the studio. And there are reasons why I think it’s crucial to spend time away from job (even if we all agree that doing 40 hours/ a week bring already a load of knowledge and experience.) So… let me pinpoint them! :


  • Deepen your knowledge about your field: It’s not because you’re a professional designer that you will touch at one point every aspect of the game, for example. AAA games teams are enormous and the chance is really high that you will only manage a single specific part of the mandate. You will probably become an expert on this particular task, but it’s important to get in touch with others developers specialties and create links that inspire and help your daily work. I tend to read a lot of professional articles/blogs/comments on the web and to listen GDC talks about design stuff. I am thinking for this one of psychology theory applied to game, finding the public audience, theirs goals… something that I had never been asked for to this date! So we watched Jason Vandenberghe‘s second conference on the 5 Domains of Play (link to the only accessible first part) and it really blew my mind how there is extremely different players and reasons to play… and it shown to be very useful on my job for taking  the right decisions!
  • Gather knowledge from other fields: To be multidisciplinary is the key of success in our industry. To be able to discuss and work efficiently with everyone on the team (producers, programmers, artists, designers, etc.) is essential, even more for designers. If you’re going to pitch an idea, you’ll understand better the weight of your decisions for your teammates. If you are a level designer, you will probably integrate every assets into your level and ask for precise element : you want to be able to talk the same language. And there is even a possibility that your next assignation will need more artistic or technical skills that what you’re used to do. For example, I try to prototype a lot at home and all those programming skills are really helping me at job.
  • Be informed on news games: Self-explanatory. Press releases, previews, reviews, fan receptions, forums, online streams, etc. Embrace new trends, ask questions to people why they like those new games. Try them as well. After all, it’s hard to be good at doing something without knowing anything about it…! And be sure that those references will become useful in future brainstorms or when the time comes to explain an idea spontaneously.
  • Develop personal skills: Let’s face it: it takes a lot of motivation and even stubbornness to weekly take time to develop at home. But it really enhances your creativity, problem-solving skills and sense of ownership. And since it’s the industry of “The infinite loop of learning-all-over-again!”, constantly learning on your own will increase your speed of assimilating new knowledge. Faster learners become reference on the team and then become irreplaceable members.
  • Design for yourself: Professionally, you are probably not making games for an audience that has the same interest as you when it comes to what they want and expect from their game. It’s one of the most common trap for designers: “I find it to be fun, so it is right.” Everyone on the team has ideas and feel the need to express them. But they are mostly hardcore gamers who appreciate mostly hardcore games and the mechanics in them. The need to take a step back and take a rational decision for the audience is capital and one of the best methods to forget your “own ideal game” ideas is to write them down on paper, prototyping them, etc. Maybe you will realize that there are not so great, that there are inappropriate… or maybe it will kickoff a new personal project  that will get you hooked and encourage the pursuit of your personal development!

So! What is you take : how much you involve yourself in home projects? What is your routine?