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Matt Miller: Becoming a Designer - Part One

Column By Matthew Miller on April 16, 2013

At Paragon Studios we sent design candidates a test to judge them on a variety of factors. The test was a smattering of topics that covered all aspects of game design, so we could get an idea of how a designer thought and their level of creativity. The test was timed, but not rigidly so.

The first question and last questions were generally considered the hardest and took the longest to complete. This was intentional because if you didn’t read through the test entirely to begin with, you might end up with no time left to answer the final question. Most people who took the test did these two questions first, disregarding their order on the test, because they knew that they would be able to finish the other questions once those two were completed.

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I don’t have the test anymore (it’s locked away on a computer at NCsoft I assume), so I’m going to be paraphrasing the questions, and might even miss a question or two. I am sure anyone who took the test will be quick to email me and let me know what forgot.

The first question was “Design a multiplayer game where the heroes must defend a small midwestern town from giant insects.” Designers were asked to provide a map and unique mechanics used by the game. It was a very straightforward question, but had a hidden aspect that I always looked for when going over a test: research.

Did the designer research insects in order to come up with her game design? Did she pull interesting tidbits of entomology from that research and come up with gameplay mechanics from that? Very few people can spout trivial facts about insects, so I could tell from the design if the designer did research to find some obscure fact about locusts that made for a fun game mechanic. All too often the answer to the question involved bees. I assume because the thought process went something like “game mechanics, gonna need a boss fight at the end. Which insect would make for a good boss battle? A Queen bee!” This was not to say that using bees meant no research went into the design. I could tell if there was some thought put into the different enemies and their tactics based on if the designer was going off of “what everyone knows about bees” or “what wikipedia says about bees”.

The small town aspect played a big role. It immediately meant a contained play area, and most everything you needed had a place you could deduce to find it in town. This made the map super-important, because if you needed weapons and items from 4 different locations and the map had them scattered all over town, then the players would spend most of their time going back through locations they have already been. Even if your game feels open-world, having a good linear path draws the player in more as they feel like they are always making the right decision in where to go next. The Left 4 Dead series of games are masterpieces in this line of thinking.

The order of the middle questions is always a bit fuzzy for me. I think because we changed the test over the years, and in the end had three different tests we sent out, based on the discipline we were hiring at the time (content designer, world designer, or powers designer).

We had a question that directly tested a content writer’s ability to write unique voices and dialog. “Write two soliloquies of the Master Villain finally trapping the hero in his death-trap. Write one in the style of an English aristocrat, and the other in the style of an insane New Yorker.” The trick here was to convey not only the attitude of the villain, but the accent as well, without going overboard on it. When reading text in a game, a player will become very disinterested if they are trying to read dialog that is written phonetically in an accent. You can only read so many “youze” and “fuggeddiboutit” before the entire dialog seems artificial and pulls you out of the moment.

The attitude was the other thing. Aristocrat and insane needed to come across in the words. A lot of tests came back with “aristocrat” simply being soft-spoken and “insane” simply being angry. While those could possibly be aspects of the attitudes, we definitely wanted more conveyed between the lines to the player.

We had a couple tests of creativity as well. Powers designers were asked to come up with the names of 20 attacks using a polearm. As with anything creative, coming up with 5 or so is pretty easy, and then it gets more challenging. Attacks 18, 19, and 20 were usually the hardest for a lot of people. They were scraping the bottom of the barrel by that point. It was another aspect of the test was was made easier with research, and I could tell when a designer would be inspired by the question and just get on a roll, and have to pare down their list to 20 because they had so many to begin with.

The content designer’s creativity test went like this “Come up with the origin for a villainous magical robot.” This question stemmed from a real-life incident where I was playing City of Villains with another employee of Paragon and asked him why his (obviously a robot)’s Origin was Magic. His answer was “I don’t know” and I and a few other people in ventrilo that night started coming up with plausible backgrounds for the weird combination of aspects.

These were usually pretty fun to read on the test, it was one of the simpler questions that just let you be free form creative and gave us a good idea into your thought process. Quite a few designers took the “modern-day interpretation of a golem” route, and an equal amount took the “robot possessed by a demon” path, so I was always pleased to see answers that diverted from these common themes.

In the next column, I’ll go into more of the questions from the test, but for you all, I’ll ask you one this one: Do you regularly (or have you ever) crafted a background for your MMO character? Even if it was just in your head, but bonus points for writing it down and sharing it with the world.

Matt Miller / Matt Miller is a 22 year veteran of the computer game industry and columnist for MMORPG.com. He was Lead Designer for City of Heroes over five years, and has "seen it all" when it comes to MMOs (but still learns something new every day). You can always reach him on twitter @MMODesigner


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Matt Miller
In this bi-weekly column, Matt "Formerly Known as Positron" Miller of City of Heroes fame seeks to clue MMO gamers in on the minds of developers, their decisions, and what it's like to craft these massive games.
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