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Brenda Romero

I am the Program Director for the UC Santa Cruz Master's in Games + Playable Media and the CEO and Co-Founder of Loot Drop, game studio focused on fun. I have been fortunate to make games my whole life.

Ravenwood Fair’s Success Numbers

December 1, 2010

Lolapps CEO Arjun Sethi gave a talk today about the numbers for Ravenwood Fair.  Those of you interested or active in social game design may be interested in these slides.

“Sole” Does Not Equal “Lead”

December 1, 2010

We're both lead. No really.

A friend of mine recently received a resume from a person who listed their role as “Lead Designer” on several products. When pressed for more information about their role as lead, it turns out the person was the sole designer, and in their world, sole game designer = lead game designer.

That’s not actually the case. Sole game designer does not equal lead game designer. You can’t lead in a race of one. Exactly who are you leading, again?

The distinction is particularly important when trying to source a lead for a particular role. When I am looking for a lead, I search for people who can lead a design team. A lead has:

  • Experience managing other people of the same discipline on a single project – one or many.
  • Experience getting randomized by those people 30-40% of the time, but still getting your work done.
  • Experience creating the larger vision of the project, and knowing how to parse out pieces of it to others while maintaining cohesion in the overall design.
  • Experience establishing and maintaining communication flow through the design team. This is critical for changes.
  • Experience teaching junior designers while under deadline pressure.
  • Experience mentoring junior designers, complimenting and correcting them and delivering bad news.
  • Experience managing team morale.
  • Experience firewalling, bullet-shielding and grenade repelling.
  • Experience not having all the ropes in your hands all the time.

In effect, you lead a group, while the solo designer has it all on his or her plate. In saying this, I am not at all discounting the role of the solo designer. I’ve designed games all by myself, and yeah, it’s a challenge unlike any other. However, when looking for a lead candidate, I am looking for someone who can lead others while designing, too. I might hire someone who solo designed 5 games, or I might hire someone who led 5 teams of designers. Both feats are super impressive. Whichever way I go, when I see someone claim the lead role on a title, I am assuming that this is what they’ve done.

Gift Suggestions

November 29, 2010

I am often asked for gift suggestions this time of year. I’ve put together a list of my favorite game design books as well as some excellent board games.

Closure in Social Games

November 25, 2010

The player of a social game needs to feel closure.  The principle of closure is so important that without it, a game will struggle with low retention and all the problems inherent therein.

What is “closure?”

I will define closure as the ability to leave the game with a feeling of certainty that one has done all one can do and that things will be okay until one returns so long as the player abides by known rules. It’s all wrapped up – or knowingly left unwrapped (ie. the player runs out of energy) – and the player perceives that she understands the complete game state.

To illustrate with any Facebook game, closure exists if:

  • I understand the primary grind of the game.
  • I know when I need to come back to tend to the primary grind of the game.
  • I know precisely what will happen if I fail to come back either because the game tells me what will happen or an implicit mental model exists.
  • I know the things that can modify this stability (being whacked or assisted by another player, for instance)
  • I have a means to protect my game state or enact revenge for things happening in my game which I perceive are beyond my control (and returning in time is within my control).

If players are unable to achieve a state of closure, they leave the game feeling confused at best or failed at worst. Typically, failure to achieve a state of closure results in players feeling uncertain in their decisions or uncomfortable with what they perceive will happen while they are away. Players who leave feeling something in this range are less likely, then, to come back. Why come back for more “confused” or “failed” or “uncomfortable”?

Closure is a tricky thing to identify, too, and it’s closely tied to a word I’ve used several times here – perceive. The player’s perception of the game state is more important than the actual game state.

For instance, during the development of Ravenwood Fair, there were multiple times where I perceived the game state was doing something when, in fact, it wasn’t even thinking along those lines (though I am a designer on the game, I didn’t design the creature AI, so I was free to perceive whatever I wanted). Interestingly enough, when I was assured my perceptions were false, it didn’t actually make me feel much better. My perceptions about the way I thought the game was working and my buy-in of the perception (and the mental model upon which it was based) were too strong. So, instead of saying, “Okay, cool”, I struggled with how I thought the game should behave and felt a strong need to see it rectified. It was an odd moment of dissonance for me, but the resultant design solution gave me closure. The “Protectors” system you see in the game today was Romero’s effective design solution to this problem.

It’s worth going into this a little deeper on two points:

  1. This was a gendered problem.
  2. It couldn’t be a gendered solution.

Not all problems of closure are gendered, meaning that one gender feels a much stronger need for something than the other, but this clearly was. It was something that genuinely affected how I felt when I left the game (and therefore affected my likelihood to return to it). Researching the issue, I found it was a feeling shared by other female players, but the male players seemed completely unscathed by the issue. As its lead designer, Romero worked to fully understand the root of the problem, but his design solution needed to do more than solve my issue – it needed to be fun for all game players. Otherwise, it risked appearing like a Band-Aid on an otherwise tight system. For those interested in gendered issues in game design, I recommend Sheri Graner Ray’s Gender Inclusive Game Design.

So, closure.  In the social space where the player has absolutely zero investment, it’s critical. I must leave feeling that I know what happened, what will happen, and what role I am expected to play in it. I need to know (not merely feel) that everything has gone right. I need to know I have maxed my gameplay session. If I don’t understand your grind, the role of various components in the grind, or what my role is in some part of it, you’ve lost me (and some part of your DAU, too).

Closure allows players to comfortably leave the game with a plan, and that means they are much more likely to return.

Protected: The Form

October 28, 2010

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Please Support IGDA Foundation Dinner with Romero & Wright – November 5

October 27, 2010

Game Legends Will Wright and John Romero Headline First Annual Foundation Charity Dinner at IGDA Leadership Forum on Friday, November 5 at the San Francisco Airport Marriott, the final day of the IGDA Leadership Forum.

The dinner, preceded by a cocktail reception, will feature a live, on-stage discussion between John Romero and Will Wright, whose work on series such as the Sims and Spore has helped define the game industry. Romero, a prolific game developer himself, is best known for his design and coding work on such titles as DOOM, Quake and Wolfenstein 3D. The designer-to-designer discussion is in keeping with the mission of the Romero Archives, which is dedicated to preserving the work, processes and history of game design and game designers. Romero, a passionate advocate for the preservation of game design history, has already completed design documentary discussions with Sid Meier, Bob Bates, Don Daglow, Noah Falstein and others with many more in progress.

Proceeds from the dinner will help support the various charitable projects supported by the Foundation including the Romero Archives, the Eric Dybsand Memorial Scholarship for AI Development, the Accessibility SIG “Gamers with Disabilities” Project and the other charitable works of the IGDA Foundation.

Seating is limited for this event. Register now!

Cost is $125 for Leadership Forum attendees and IGDA members and one guest each and $150 for general public (group pricing available).


Ravenwood Fair is out!

October 25, 2010

Our new game, Ravenwood Fair, has been released on Facebook. If you’re curious about my radio silence, now you know why. Hope you’re able to play it.

Train at Learn to Play at the Euphrat Museum of Art

September 8, 2010

Train is at the Learn to Play exhibit at the Euphrat Museum of Art.

The preview will be held on September 17th and 18th, while the exhibit itself will run from October 4th to November 24th.

This is Train’s first long-term installation in a museum. I’m excited and honored.

Making Another RPG

September 5, 2010

There’s a regular conversation I have with one of two people. This is almost always how it ends:

Eventually, I will make another RPG, I suppose. I don’t know when.

I say this comment or one a lot like it after being asked if I’m going to make another Wizardry or another RPG in the same vein. Typically, I am asked at a conference when I am speaking on a completely unrelated matter. The answer  to the Wizardry question is “no”. I don’t have the license or even access to it. Besides, it’s alive, well and doing its own thing in Japan. The answer to the latter question about making another RPG is more nebulous and is what starts the conversation with either my partner or my long-time co-designer. In that conversation, I talk about the initiating circumstance (talking to a Wizardry fan/RPG designer/playing a particular RPG), what type of RPG might be interesting to make and when, if ever, I’d consider starting one. The answer, as noted above, is nebulous.

For a long time, I had little desire to work on another RPG. Bear in mind that I worked on them for over 20 years, from 1982 until 2003. During that time, I saw the rise and fall of the hard-core RPG (Wizardry), the advent of the light and loved RPG (Diablo), the MMORPG (Ultima Online), the short-lived adventure RPG (Nemesis: A Wizardry Adventure) and RPG-ish spin offs that weren’t really RPG, but felt that way to me anyway (Magic: The Gathering). I recall being at Sir-tech in the 1990’s and being thrilled to work on the Jagged Alliance series because it had guns and modern settings, and the creative side of me wanted to work on something which contained no swords, or swords only in the form of daggers which one would use in the event that their primary, bullet-packing weapons ran out of bullets.

I recall interviewing with a company back in 2006. I was a contender for a lead design gig on [giant game 1] or [giant game 2], RPGs both. I ended up stopping the interviews in the 6th round and accepting a gig that let me teach and work on some independent and contract projects for a while. My new students, in hearing about the interviews, thought I was insane, but tried to understand my motivation. In their eyes, I had left the industry and turned my back on a company that they’d kill to work for. I didn’t so much turn my back on that company – in fact, I love their games – as I did accept my need to explore other genres.

Over the last couple of months, however, and in the absence of questions or comments, I’ve thought a ridiculous amount about RPG design. It’s probably because I am designing the leveling curves for a couple games, determining drop rates for things, and creating specs that could be RPG-ish if I wanted them to be. I am also setting up my game room at present and the first game on tap when it’s done will be the legendary Chrono Trigger. And so, though no one asked me about making another RPG, I decided that I would, and one night while lying in bed, I actually found myself playing with a full-on RPG spreadsheet in my head. Had I an idea of which direction I wanted to go in, I think I may have gotten up and actually started it right there.

RPGs have changed a lot over the last decade. The time for me to make another RPG is here, though. As I explore the space, I am curious what some of your required features might be and thank you in advance for sharing them with me.

Tabletop RPGs and Level Editors

September 5, 2010

by Ian Schreiber

For the longest time, I had a hard time even thinking of how one would evaluate a tabletop RPG (say, comparing the new D&D to the old one… or in my case, grading a student-created d20 supplement). With board games the obvious answer is “playtest it, DUH” but to an extent, that fails with RPGs: so much of the experience comes down to the players. A great GM and great players can work with a mediocre system to produce some really fun moments, while an inexperienced GM and lousy players can ruin what’s otherwise a wonderful system. How do you separate the players from the system when it is the combination of the two that produces the end result? How do you tell the difference between d20 and GURPS when you can pretty much run the same campaign in either system?

It occurs to me that this is the same problem that would be faced by a designer trying to create a game where all (or most) of the content was player created, like Second Life or NeverWinter Nights or Unreal Tournament or LittleBigPlanet or WarioWare DiY. Anything where the game = the level design tools.

The answer, I think, is that you evaluate based on what the players are going to spend most of their time doing, regardless of how good a level was designed. With Unreal the player is going to be doing a lot of running and shooting. With WarioWare DiY the player is trying to figure out what to do and then executing a plan in a very short space of time. With Dungeons & Dragons, the players spend most of their time rolling dice in combat situations. Sure, you could run a D&D campaign with no combat and just a lot of talking and political intrigue, just as you could make a turn-based strategy game in the Unreal engine, but that’s really not what the system was designed for.

Designing these kinds of games is hard because it’s a third-order problem. You’re designing a system, which someone else is going to use to create content, which someone else is going to experience. The trick is to decide what you want the end players to spend most of their time doing, and then design systems that encourage such behavior. For example, suppose you wanted to design a tabletop RPG about bragging, where each player’s character is trying to convince the others that he’d win in a fight, and the actual combat takes only a few seconds compared to the hours of pre-combat taunts. In such a case, you’d want to make combat resolution into a single die-roll, while designing multiple successive die-roll contests for speaking (rather than a system like D&D which is the opposite). Or suppose you wanted to make a video game about physics interactions between objects; then your level editor had better have all kinds of objects that interact with one another in clever ways (weights, ropes and pulleys, springs, bouncy balls, etc.).

How do you then deal with the playtesting problem, where players might be having fun (or not) in spite of your systems, simply because there is a really good GM or level designer? The answer is that you don’t just look at whether the players are having fun or not; you look more closely at how they are spending their time, proportionally, at each task in the game. If players are spending more time in your FPS engine walking and looking around and not enough time actually shooting at each other, or if players in your conversation-based RPG are spending half of their play session resolving a single combat, then you need to go back and check your systems to simplify the non-critical actions while complicating and extending the core actions of your game.