Game Designers in Detail: Richard Garfield

In preparation for the NYU Game Center’s PRACTICE conference, we are publishing long-form interviews with some of the amazing designers that will be speaking at the event.

 The PRACTICE: Game Design in Detail conference runs on November 9-11 2012. http://gamecenter.nyu.edu/practice/

In this second interview, MFA student Shervin Ghazazani interviews game design legend Richard Garfield. Richard Garfield a prolific game designer and a former professor of mathematics.  His games include the seminal collectible card game Magic: The Gathering, as well as King of Tokyo, and Spectromancer, among others. He is one of the few game designers that enjoys the distinction of popularizing an entire genre of games.

Shervin Ghazazani: As someone who is considered to be a veteran game designer, is your design process similar to when you were first designing games like Magic: The Gathering? What were the most beneficial changes to it?

Richard Garfield: My design process is similar, though I have more tools in my bag. I have always iterated a lot, I have always listened to the feedback others gave me even when I didn’t agree with it, I have always drawn on a large knowledge base of games for mechanics and ideas – and these are probably the most important elements of my game design. I would say one change is that I am willing to get my hands dirty with areas that formerly I would have left with graphic designers, artists, editors, interface designers, and the like. If I didn’t like something 20 years ago, I would have let the professional have control anyway – now I push back if I don’t like the elements being contributed. They may be excellent at their jobs but that doesn’t necessarily extend to excellent at how it applies to games in general.

SG: In your article “The Creation of Magic: The Gathering”, you mentioned degenerative decks and their part in the game. I’m curious to your thoughts on banning degenerative solutions (cards, decks or characters). When do you feel it is important for a designer to step in and fix degenerative solution in strategy games? Are there any specific formulas that you follow for defining which degenerative solutions are solvable and which are not?

RG: Any strategy or mode of play which makes the game not fun for some audience needs to be controlled but not necessarily by the designer. It is best when play communities solve their problems, because there really is no way of anticipating all communities’ problems with a game. For example, in StarCraft it is possible to find a lot of games that the community declares “No Rush”, because a significant part of the community likes more time for the game to develop. Similarly in Magic different communities will shun different decks or styles of play – adjusting the game to their taste. If the community can’t or won’t solve the problem the developer must step in and patch the game.

One thing that many designers miss is that just because a particular strategy or card is not degenerate among their expert friends doesn’t mean that it isn’t degenerate for other players. If the player who plays strategy X always wins in a playgroup it doesn’t matter to them that the game would have been fun if they played “properly”. This fact makes it hard to create enduring broad balance in a game.

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SG: You’ve recently been working on some digital card games such as Card Hunter and Solforge. Do you find yourself facing new design problems that are exclusive to digital games and not found in analogue games such as Magic?

RG: The biggest problem is that the prototype/evaluate/redesign cycle is very different. You have to give a lot of thought to your prototype to make it flexible for redesign. Also, the interface issues are entirely different and much more important.

SG: Did you find similar issues when creating Magic Online? Was the digital implementation of Magic a simple conversion of the analogue game rules or were changes needed to the game’s design when bringing the game to the PC?

RG: Our goal with Magic online was to make a transliteration of the card game, so a lot of the problems with iteration weren’t there – the game was already designed. The problem with interface was there in spades, however, Magic was not designed as a digital game and the interface issues threatened to overwhelm the game play.

SG: At your last talk at the NYU Game Center, you mentioned that one of the values of having luck in a game is its ability to broaden a game’s audience. Do you feel that as the general population becomes more game literate that the value of luck is decreasing for game designers? Should an increase in game literacy change the way we as game designers use luck? 

RG: It is a consideration, but one only has to look at poker to realize that very hardcore games for very game literate people can have a large amount of luck. As long as your goal is a broad group of people; beginners, experts, casual, serious, young, old – luck will have a place. Now if you want to design low luck games for a narrow literate audience – that audience may get large enough to make it worthwhile. But it won’t replace poker any time soon.

SG: When we look at e-sport games such as StarCraft 2, Street Fighter 4 or Counterstrike, none of these games use luck in the traditional or analogue sense (i.e. rolling a die, picking a random card).  Instead they commonly have a type of luck defined by player skill (i.e. missing a headshot). Do you believe that the traditional type of luck can exist in e-sports?

RG: Luck in sports will always be better if it feels like the player is in control. There is luck in Basketball, Golf, and getting a headshot, and you can increase or decrease the luck by changing the environmental consideration or the size of the target you are going for. If you don’t count these, and instead are talking about strictly random numbers, bridge and poker are played very seriously and have overt luck – there is no reason to think these elements couldn’t be in an e-sport. As an ALMOST example, in StarCraft – which was played as an e-sport – had a lot of luck in the combat in the sense that we would get a group of 12 marines and fight 10 marines and as close as we could manage engage them in exactly the same way, and we got wildly varied outcomes. As an actual example games like League of Legends have randomly triggering attacks and passives.

Richard Garfield is a speaker at PRACTICE this year.  Join us on the weekend of November 9th – 11th for a deep dive into game design theory and practice with Richard and a collection of the best game designers in the field.

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