Archive:Paper Pushers

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  • Published: 16 November 1999
  • Host:
  • Author: Paul O’Connor

The Designer Diary

Part Two: Paper Pushers
By Paul O’Connor

I had a conversation a couple of months ago with a very nice guy who is trying to set up a video-game college curriculum. Being the forward-looking fellow that he is, he wanted game design to be part of his program, so he set aside about 20 minutes to talk with me about it.

We talked about interface design, the lore of level design, the integration of story and gameplay, the subtle psychology behind shifting systems of reward and punishment, the importance of board games for systems evaluation, the role of the designer-as-collaborator with artists and programmers….

Whoops! That 20 minutes flew by!

When my friend asked me where he could go to learn all this stuff, I just smiled and tapped my skull. There are a couple of books out there, but none of them address the finest details of game design. And that’s because game design is a black art. It’s all experience and oral tradition. You’ve got to learn it by doing… which is why we’ve been in such a scramble designing Munch’s Oddysee. We’ve all done games before, but we haven’t done a game like this before—no one has done a game like this before—so we’ve had to go back to the beginning. I really wish there was some big, flesh-bound tome in the basement to tell us how to build the world of Munch and his pals, but this is virgin territory, and we’re making it up as we go along.


It drove my guys crazy, but at the insistence of assistant director Chris Ulm and me, we’ve been building the game for the last several months… on… (shudder)… paper. We’ve done documents for our projects before, but never like this. The whole team beavered away the summer composing documents with pulse-pounding titles like Objects/Mechanics, Player Develops Avatar, Interaction With Small Character Groups, and Recycling (and believe me, that Recycling doc was a page-turner!).

Each document starts as a loose collection of dreams and wild ideas that evolves into a written form that is criticized by the team in brutal face-to-face meetings that frequently last for days… meetings where feelings aren’t spared, cherished ideas are ridiculed, and conventional wisdom faces perpetual assault. The result: thousands of pages detailing every aspect of the new engine that will power Munch’s Oddysee, and damn me if all that advance work hasn’t made for the smoothest transition to active production I’ve ever seen.

Pushing all this paper has made me a Pusher of Paper as an indispensable step of game design. Will things change when we put it on the screen? You bet! But what’s going on the screen is made possible only by the solid foundation the lads have built, one page at a time. And even if they never look at those documents again, the designers will know the game inside and out, thanks to the summer of hell when they wrote the whole crazy thing from beginning to end.

And now, at last, on to production!