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Top Three Video Game Designers

March 9, 2009
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I’d like you to take a moment right now to think of the top three game designers currently practicing in the industry. Who are they?

Go on, do it now. Seriously. Get three people in your head.

Got it?

Good.

Now, when I did this, I thought the answer was pretty obvious: Shigeru Miyamoto, Sid Meier, and Will Wright. Then I started thinking: why? This seems so obvious, but why is it obvious?

Miyamoto is easy. Anyone who creates two new genres in their lifetime, wins.

Sid Meier puts out consistently good games. He makes solid turn-based strategy games, although he has more range than he’s normally given credit for (he’s made decent sim and flight sim games, among other things).

And then there’s Will Wright. And I know he’s an industry icon, but I started to question the status I’d given him as “top 3”. He has two notable successes (and one really notable GDC lecture) in between a string of games that were not all that critically or financially successful. He only works in one genre. The genre isn’t even all that well-loved by most hardcore gamers due to its lack of goals and achievement. So what’s the deal here?

Why do I think of Will Wright, and not Clint Hocking, or Rob Pardo, or David Jaffe, or Cliff Bleszinski?

Does this happen to anyone else? Can anyone explain it?

– Ian Schreiber

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21 Comments leave one →
  1. March 9, 2009 7:52 am

    Ian – this is really quite an eye opening thing to consider. My first list was very near yours: Miyamoto, Meier and Knizia. Knizia, for others who don’t know, is the very prolific German board game designer I’ve been consuming for the last couple of years.

    I realized you meant video game designers, and so I began a mental juggling game about who I would put in that third spot. There are several people to consider:

    * Molyneux: Consistently experiments in a variety of genres. Promises 125%, delivers 75% of that, but it’s usually a very very good 75%.
    * Romero: John’s been in the business since he was 15, worked in all genres, takes chances, has invented a genre and is presently doing some very exciting things. He is the designer to watch right now.
    * Artgame *.*: This world is changing the way we view those with the most polygons. Taken together, it’s a very powerful force. I suspect you won’t let me list Artgame *.* on your list, though.

    You raise a compelling and interesting question about Wright, though. I think about the number of plays in Tetris and the amount of money it has brought in for its various owners (including the Soviet Union). Yet, we don’t think of Alexey Pajitnov in the same way.

    Who designed Madden? That’s an analogous cash cow to the Sims.

  2. March 9, 2009 8:23 am

    I actually thought of Clint Hocking among the three, but that’s probably because the guys over at Idle Thumbs have been talking up Far Cry 2 for so long that he is burned into my head.

    As far as Will Wright is concerned, I too have wondered where the love comes from. I mean he’s a cool guy but doesn’t really come across as the genius that the media make him out to be. I think it’s just the designer-as-rock-star effect in action.

    Of course this brings up the whole question of how valid the auteur theory of game design is, but that’s a whole other discussion…

  3. March 9, 2009 9:41 am

    Simple, what you’re listing is not specifically good game designers NOW. But the best designers for all time, so the natural answer will be the most notable designers you can think of.

    Will Wright has left his contributing marks on our history with Sims and Simcity2000, he didn’t even need to create Spore. Which doesn’t seem to have as much success as his previous games.

    Miyamoto is probably, as you said, a no-brainer but what has he created recently? Miyamoyo’s last proper design is probably Picmin… That’s almost 10 years ago.

    So while I don’t think your wrong, you might want to define the question a bit more for a more interesting result.

    My list:
    Miyamoto (Why? Created what is iconic for games today)
    Raph Koster (why? MMO genre defining)
    Will Wright (Why? Created at least two new genres and super-mega mainstream hits)

    (Btw: Knizia rocks, Pajitnov isn’t that impressive)

  4. March 9, 2009 10:12 am

    Jesper:
    Actually, I’d say Miyamoto’s most recent design is Wii Fit, which was quite innovative.

    What two genres has Will Wright created? I would put Sim City and The Sims in the same genre (“sim games”).

    The question remains: why Will and not someone else? Why not Toru Iwatani, who followed a very Wright-like path of “create one hit game then imitate it forever”? Why not Ralph Baer, whose influence is still felt in every music/rhythm game and quicktime event to date? You list Raph Koster for his work on MMOs… but why not Richard Bartle, who was arguably more important to the history of MMOs?

    The point here isn’t to point to one designer over another, but rather to question our assumptions of why we do this in the first place, how we decide that this designer is on a different “level” than that one.

  5. March 9, 2009 10:59 am

    I actually thought of Peter Molyneux before Will Wright, but that is because I am a sucker for Fable 2. But I think the question is far too subjective. For example, by best do you mean the one who creates the most easy fun game (because that could easily be the person behind something like Halo), the person, as you said, who comes up with some thing genuinely new, the person who challenges the way you think or the person who gets you in to game design etc.

  6. March 9, 2009 11:09 am

    Interesting, I personally am somewhat terrible at naming names from games I’ve played.

    However, to go into the question of why we promote certain designers? It can boil down to them making damn fun games.

    Tastes differ, I think Will Wright has had more variety in his games (Simulations, sure, but so damn many! and very different ones to boot) then any Miyamoto one (all Zelda or Mario) for instance. πŸ™‚

    Like the “best film directors” (a somewhat good comparison, except for films have much less input from the grips and cameramen in how the film is designed), any “list” will be flawed, and the method chosen to make that list subject to opinion, not fact πŸ™‚

  7. Fran permalink
    March 9, 2009 12:13 pm

    It’s not about the games they made…it’s about the sweeping changes they initiated. I thought of major industry-changers and then work backwards to who they’re attributed to.

    Turn-based strategic gaming has somehow become mass market and surely Will Wright had something to do with this, but there must be others.

    Casual gaming often means abstract puzzle games and surely that is partly attributable to Pajitnov.

    MMOs? Music games? Shooters? I guess those are less attributable to a single household name.

  8. Dan Menard permalink
    March 9, 2009 12:34 pm

    I agree with Miyamoto, Sid Meier being 1 and 2. Then I think there is a six person tie for third. Among Will Wright, David Jaffe, and Clint Hocking, Cliff B has to be high on the list because designing a cover system successfully so that almost every other shooter has implemented it is impressive. Rob Pardo also has to included for his work on two genres, strategy games and MMORPG’s, with all his great games. Hideo Kojima, though he is more of a director, I think should be thrown into this conversation for one of the earliest designers of the stealth action game. He also one of the few designers/directors to bring in a strong story with “solid” characters, something video games need to do more often.
    Lastly, if a designer only designs one type of game or one technique that a lot of people pick up on or only has a few genre-defining games does not mean they are any less of a designer (hell they designed a genre). If they create a lasting affect on the industry they have to be considered high on the list, and if they consistently do it then they are great designers.

  9. March 9, 2009 1:33 pm

    Why? Easy, he’s done several things that many other designers would love to be able to do, besides create a single game design and repeatedly turn a profit on sequels. Sims expands the gamer base into the female demographic and the quieter, less violent part of society, while making a ton from the single genre. He’s become almost a household name with that single form of games. For a game designer to be able to continue to create more of their design, make money, gain renown and target a non-traditional player base with a single type of game design make him a seriously high grade specialist.

    I know very little about the Sims games, hardly even tinkered with them in fact, so I could be totally off on this. Oh, and Miyamoto is #1 without a question.

  10. March 9, 2009 2:08 pm

    But Miyamoto didn’t do sweeping changes Fran, nor did Sid Meier or Will Wright – they all refined what had previously come before in their respective genres very well – there are more games then the NES age onwards!

    Not to say they are not great, but there are probably a fair few hundred who radically improved the state of games just by one game that was subsequently copied, used as a new genre, or whatever πŸ™‚

  11. March 9, 2009 8:12 pm

    If we’re talking best game designers of all time, I nominate Dani Berry (who inspired Will Wright and the Sims).

  12. March 9, 2009 8:15 pm

    PS. It always boils down to her.

  13. denright permalink
    March 10, 2009 12:15 am

    Playing Devil’s Advocate for the sake of topical criticism:

    Most of the names mentioned in the post and comments are great Creative Directors, but do very little “game design” by the modern industry’s definition of the job/title.
    I know it’s a matter of semantics, but important because there is a common misconception perpetuated by the enthusiest press that these rock star “Designers” are single handedly responsible for the quality and/or success of the games they produce. The truth is that while they provide the creative direction for their studio’s projects (a task for which they deserve the kind of praise this post intends) many of them are primarily public figureheads for the studio and/or label “brand name”.
    There are entire teams of talented engineers, artists, and designers behind the majority of the contemporary high profile products and lists like “The Top Video Game Designers” just perpetuate the myth and falacy of the role of the game designer in the current state of the industry.
    Rephrasing the topic as “The Top Video Game Teams” or “The Top Video Game Studios” would be much more accurate given the project oriented nature of the replies.

    I don’t mean to piss in anyone’s cheerios but I have a lot of respect for this blog and for Brenda and Ian’s publications and don’t want to see this blog turn into another enthusiest press circle jerk.

    • March 10, 2009 6:07 am

      You’re absolutely right that many of these individuals do take that role, and I have also grown tired of the Top 100 lists. They are so subjective. Of those designers listed here, Sid Meier is the only one I am aware of that actively steers the design of the game. He still codes all his own prototypes and is very active in the minutia of the game’s design.

      Your suggestion for recognition of teams is an important one.

  14. March 10, 2009 2:03 pm

    FWIW, I do my own prototypes. But I don’t belong on this list. πŸ™‚

  15. jcaskey permalink
    March 10, 2009 2:21 pm

    No love for Kojima? Though he’s only really worked in one genre (maybe you could argue two) he consistently delivers intensely immersive and engaging experiences. I’m looking forward to what his next project will be.

    @Dan Menard

    To be fair, Cliff didn’t really come up with that cover system. Similar systems were implemented by a couple other games before Gears. Epic just took the idea and made it better. The kind of refinement seen in their cover system also has a lot to do with the engine coding (hitboxes, covernodes) and animations. A lot of things that Cliff wasn’t responsible for.

  16. March 10, 2009 2:59 pm

    I thought of the same people as you, Ian.

    In the case of Sid Meier, I’m sure the exploitation of his name has something to do with it as well. It’s not just “Civilization,” “Pirates” or Railroad Tycoon,” but “Sid Meier’s Civilization,” “Sid Meier’s Pirates,” and “Sid Meier’s Railroad Tycoon.”

  17. Dan Menard permalink
    March 10, 2009 10:48 pm

    @jcaskey

    I completely understand that Cliff’s team did not invent the idea (I remember kill.switch having an effective duck and cover system), but the way Gears implemented made it a hit with the gamer community and a necessity for third-person and some first-person shooters to come (I haven’t played it extensively and don’t consider myself a fan of the series, I just have noticed it’s effect on the industry in the last couple years).

    @denright

    I completely agree that game design is a community effort and that these people may not get into the nitty-gritty details of designing their games. But the way I interrupted the question is how these people’s ideas and vision allows for effective game design and how their creative direction allowed their game to be successful (the reason I added Kojima). Maybe asking who the greatest game designers of all time was a bad phrasing of what I interpreted but they did Lead Design many of their projects, hence fall under the label of Game Designer and get all the credit for the game. If the game they make was bad (and their are plenty of badly designed games out there), they would get all the blame. So, no matter what title they are given, game design or creative director, they deserve some credit for the lead design on the game.

  18. Jeff permalink
    March 11, 2009 2:18 am

    How does one judge best? That’s the real question in my mind. Is the best designer one that makes the most money? The one that affects future designers the most? The one that pushes that envelope of “game” to something more? There are all sorts of indy designers and interactive artists that are pushing beyond commercial boundaries that usually aren’t even considered when we talk about “best”. So I do think Artgames *.* is valid. Designers like Flanagan, Chen and Humble are usually ignored when talking about this kind of list (And that’s Humble in the ‘Marriage/Braid’ sense, not the Sims Studios sense)

    Are Wright, Miyamoto and Meier deserving of a “best” title. Hell yes. Their influence cannot be ignored. But lets here it for the little guy too!

  19. Chris Pioli permalink
    March 11, 2009 2:30 am

    I give all my props to Miyamoto. Especially during the eighties for Mario and Zelda. At that time he was the only designer for those games, iirc from my reading and documentary viewing…

    And yeah, the third is kind of hard. It’s difficult because at the same time we’re also saying “the other game designers don’t belong in the top three.” And when it comes to electronic games, it is difficult to find that third person who has contributed as much as the other two. Will Wright is definitely a candidate in my book. As is Hideo Kojima.

    But how about Yasumi Matsuno, the genius behind Ogre Battle, Final Fantasy Tactics, and Vagrant Story? I don’t think he can really be seen as the third next to Miyamoto and Meier, but his body of work in tactical RPGs sure is impressive to me. FFT and Vagrant Story are my two all-time favorite games.

  20. Mark permalink
    March 12, 2009 3:31 pm

    Your top three are correct. And I don’t consider anybody else to be close to them. (Maybe Carmack, but for completely different reasons.)

    Why does Will Wright belong? Because he is the single-most important proponent, expert and developer of simulation-based interactivity. If that seems too obvious, consider that simulation-based interactivity is the only true interactivity in computer and video games. All other instances are either pre-designed (narrative elements, for example) or facets of a gameplay system (movement points, terrain types, etc.) that determines a winner or loser. Will Wright, on the other hand, creates products which change their outcomes based on calculation, which is the essence of a computer.

    Sid Meier belongs because he understands gameplay (winning and losing, and all that can be done to make that fun), better than anyone ever has.

    Miyamoto belongs because he defined so many core mechanics in the interactive entertainment industry that he’s probably responsible (one way or the other) for half or more of the current lexicon of in-game character movement and character interaction with a game world.

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