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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.

Read This Text (or Tutorials in Social Games)

August 24, 2010

If you’ve made games for a while, you have likely faced the frequently forced, painful and cramped narrative-on-rails that is the in-game tutorial. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear to me, many game devs (including me) decided that we’d work as hard as we could to make the tutorial a part of the game story. The result is often garbage like this:

Grab that gun! Let’s go! They’re after us. Oh, and if you need me to give you ammo, press CTRL A.

And if you are a player right then, and this is the first bit of tutorial-speak you hear in the game, you tolerate it, because you have grown accustomed to such weirdness. I vividly remember this one game experience where I was regularly jolted out of the game by these messages as the ramp progressed.

So, it’s an interesting and refreshing change to see tutorials in social games.

See that star? Click on it to increase your earnings. The more stars you collect, the more you’ll earn!

Or the deliciously simple:

Follow the yellow arrow to learn how to play.

Social games, casual games, board games and sports have all embraced this simple “tell it like it is” approach. There is the explicit understanding between designer and player: you need to learn how to play, and I’ll tell you how to do it. Part of the reason social games do this is clear: we can’t afford any potential disconnect between the player and the rules in the roughly 30 seconds (literally) that we have their attention before they decide to either keep playing or move on. This is compounded by the constraints of narrative exposition. Must I explain who I am, what I am, what I am doing here and the player’s relationship to me? Must I set the stage in some weird way by first giving an explanation about why the player’s here in the first place? In board games and social games, the angst is very much up front and the tutorial or the ruleset in board games delivers the goods straight:

Object: To acquire land through purchase, trading and takeover.

So much of the fluff falls to the floor.

It’s refreshing, I think, this simple and direct means of explaining play.

Free Talk in SF: Multi-Linear Narratives – Letting the Player Lead the Game

July 31, 2010

I am giving a talk at a women’s mixer at my employer Lolapps on August 26th. The talk is free, but registration is required. We’re located in downtown SF at 116 New Montgomery Street. Parking is convenient in the SOMA garage.

Multi-Linear Narratives: Letting the Player Lead the Game

Entering a city, a house or any other interactive environment, different people have unique desires which the ideal environment both receives and responds to. This is not so with many games, however. In the most interactive of environments, players are often led, railroad style, down a prescribed path toward fixed ends. In this talk, award-winning game designer Brenda Brathwaite explores this problem and offers some solutions through the use of multi-linear narratives and the role of the un-storied mechanic in creating an experience players believe they crafted.

6:30 – 7:30 Networking

7:30 – 8:00 Presentation

8:30 – 9:00 Q&A

Overhaul Done

July 31, 2010

Thanks for your feedback. Hopefully most of you like the new design. Compared to the last design change, this one got way more positive response than the last. I usually overhaul once a year, so if this is bothersome to you, wait, or check it from your iPhone where the theme can’t reach.

On another note, some of you asked me to update more often. Yes, it has been slow around here lately. I’ve had an overwhelming amount of change: jobs, moving and more. So, in solid game dev fashion, I triaged my to do list and regular updates became a P4. Sorry for that. I should be back to my regular schedule now (roughly 1x a week).

Have fun,


Changing AGD’s Look?

July 30, 2010

I’m feeling the need for a change of scenery around here. In keeping with past changes, I figure I’ll ask how you feel about the new possible look first. Click the image to the right to see what I’m thinking. Your comments are appreciated.

Some forming social game theories

July 29, 2010

I started this on twitter (@bbrathwaite), but moved it here. Feel free to add to this list, disagree or discuss. Thanks.

The player should:

  • Return to the game to good news (game progress, new content, visits from friends, mail, gifts).
  • Return to the game with a problem to solve (wilted crops, empty supplies, shifts to start).
  • Have short-term problems to solve (in a session) and long-term problems to solve (multiple sessions). Longer term problems/desires may be aspirational goals, collections or quests to complete.
  • Always be able to make progress on longer-term goals and complete short-term goals.
  • Always know precisely what they need to do to solve all problems in the game. These things should never be nested or “discoverable” if you’re clever. That’s not to say that there shouldn’t be discoverable things and surprises. There should be (Pocket God comes to mind). However, the player shouldn’t be confronted with a problem that has no obvious solution – that equals a block and goodbye.
  • Always have an aspirational goal on every screen, if possible (something they want – item/action gated by $, lvl, quest progress), and a clear understanding of what they need to do to reach it.
  • Have genuine motivation tied into the core of the game which makes them want those aspirational goals (if I get X, it will help me do Y faster or will earn me more $)
  • Be rewarded for every single click either visually, through XP, coins or some other measure of progress.
  • Clearly understand how and why every change state in the game occurs. If an NPC suddenly becomes happy, why did that happen? Is it visually obvious? Is the transition from normal state to happy state clear? Is it rewarding? Does the player know what they did (or something in the game did) to make that happen?
  • Feel like they have agency in the game. Through their direct action, something happens. Without them, it doesn’t happen. If you never plant crops, you never get results.
  • Understand your UI instantly. If you need to explain it, you need to redo it.
  • Have a pre-existing mental model of the game before they even play it. I know how a farm, a nightclub, a bakery and a restaurant run, at least at an abstract level. The less you need to teach people about the game, the better. This information should be pre-grokked before they even enter the game.
  • Feel good about posting something in their feed. They believe what they’re posting will help them and help their friends playing the game, too.
  • Have a “feel good” endgame state for a session. This is appointment gaming, and people want to feel like they’ve tidied up this session before moving on to the next. That means that they can finish or, in some cases, optimize until it’s not really optimum to continue anymore. If they leave feeling like the game didn’t really let them leave (because there was always something new to do), they leave in a sub-optimal and unsatisfied state and thus are less likely to return.
  • Have clear dailies including friend grind, playspace grind and bonus progression, if applicable. What do I do everyday when I come back to the game? Do I know that I have finished what I needed to do? How do I know that I need to do it (and no, your last play session isn’t enough).
  • Be reminded of what they need to do. They’re playing for 2, 5 or 10 mins at a time, and are possibly playing dozens of social games simultaneously. They need visual reminders of what they need to do to progress play in your game. Give them explicit and constantly visible goals, badges, or visual reminders of some kind.


  • If you nerf their playstate or playfield, the player better understand why and feel like they could have prevented it (keeping their appointment, getting an item by x time or it expires, etc).
  • Players want direction. Give it to them everywhere: tool tips, quests, pop ups, etc.

Learn with me

June 25, 2010

This is Ian Schreiber writing (yes, I’m still around, even if I haven’t posted here in awhile). For those of you who were following this last summer, I ran a free online course on game design. It was a fun time.

I’m taking what I learned from that, and doing it again this summer on the topic of game balance. The course website is here, everything else you need is linked to from there, and I hope those of you who are interested in game design will join me again as we continue our journey.

What do Education and Facebook have in common?

Since we talk a lot about social media games and online games on this blog, there’s one other thing I wanted to mention. This year, I wanted to find a way to monetize the course; it’s a lot of work, it contains real value (or so I’d like to think), so it’s only fair that I get paid for my time. While investigating the different ways I could do this, I realized that there’s a direct one-to-one mapping between monetization methods for a course and for a Facebook game. For example:

Subscriptions. Sign up for a course with a credit card, get auto-billed a small amount each week (or each month). Okay, I guess there aren’t many Facebook games that do this yet, but other online games like MMOs have been doing it for years, so it’s only a matter of time before it catches on here.

Microtransactions. The course is free, but I offer small bits of gated content individually for a small amount: maybe a sample spreadsheet or Flash app, $1 each.

Advertising. The course is free but has banner ads or embedded content thanking those who made this possible. This could take the form of enabling targeted ads on the course blog, or taking direct sponsorships from individual entities (such as schools with game programs) and pushing their program.

Commissioned work. Like the Facebook H&R Block games, someone with a vested interest in game design pays me to develop a course for them. Realistically, any school that would pay for this wants the course to be theirs exclusively, not something that they release for free online… but then again, some schools put their course materials online for free, so who knows.

The patronage model. Game is free, but there’s a donation / “tip jar” button. I don’t see this much in Facebook games, but it seems popular with Flash game portals (Newgrounds, Kongregate, Armor Games, etc.) as well as some indie games. A variant on this is “pay-what-you-want” where everyone must go through the payment screen to pay something, but that something can be any amount from $0 to $infinity (some game developers, musicians, even restaurants have tried this, to varying degrees of success).

The “Free-mium” model. Most of the course is free, but access to a block of premium content is offered in exchange for a one-time payment. This is the model I ultimately went with: the blog and Facebook group are free, but live and recorded lectures, supporting files, and direct instructor contact require money. I also went ahead and created some sample content that’s available for free, to let people see the value they’re getting. (How much is the right amount to charge? I chose $55. Why that specific amount? That’s a question for another day.)

I’m still deciding whether there’s a strong analogy because games and education are just that similar, or whether online business models are transferrable between all media (whether it be games, education, goods, services, or whatever) and online games can freely crib their business model from, say, the B2B manufacturing sector.

Train GDC Talk is Now Free on

April 18, 2010

Due to your requests (really), my talk on Train has been moved to the free section of the GDC Vault. Thanks to GDC, Meggan Scavio and Think Services for making that happen.

The Interface is a Part of Gameplay

April 15, 2010

Rodin's "The Kiss" from the Gates of Hell

An anonymous game that’s still in development called and asked me to relay this message: the interface is a part of its gameplay. It’s not something you can take for granted. It’s not something you can leave to your lowest level team member. It’s not something you can “pretty up” or deal with later on. It’s critical, and it needs to be on the table from the beginning. It’s the functionality through which we receive the experience. It’s the colors and what they signal. It’s the size of things and their consistency. It is everything your players have already come to know.

It’s so critical that Rodin’s famous The Kiss, pictured, is on his larger work The Gates of Hell because the lovers never connect for all eternity. Their interface is broken. It’s hell.

The interface of a game is an expression of the player’s fingertips into the game’s dynamics. Make those touches as natural and as fulfilling as they can be. Please.

BMW gets it, and we don’t question it. It is the ultimate driving machine. If we have any issue with this thought at all, it’s often because we own a competing brand or think that perhaps super cars like the Ferrari fit the “ultimate” label better. We don’t question the “driving” part, though. After all, that’s what you’re in a car to do.

I’m using this set up, of course, to hammer home this point: the interface is a part of the gameplay in the same way that the steering wheel, the cabin design and the handling of the car are critical to driving. Put that beautiful engine in something that handles poorly or whose cabin is sub-optimally built, and you’ll not enjoy the same experience. In fact, even with a great engine, you might hate it. “I can’t control it,” you’ll say. “It doesn’t work like other cars work.” Put the steering wheel on the other side of the car, and see how long it takes you to relearn what you already know (took me about 2 months).

Seconds before we engage with a game (or a car or whatever), we have a certain expectation about how it’s going to work. To the exact extent that a game doesn’t match these expectations, you give the player confusion, irritation or boredom. If the game is free-to-play, this could be the end of the player altogether. After all, they haven’t spent $60, brought the game home and looked forward to playing it for hours. This player might try to muscle it out, but he or she critiques you on Twitter and on Facebook along the way. In general, designers stick to patterns for a reason: they work. There’s a reason the keys for FPS control have remain unchanged since Wolfenstein 3D. Players already know what to do. Who wants to learn an interface when you could be having fun?

The interface is the gameplay. It is the experience. It is what connects player to technology. I bought the BMW for the Ultimate Driving Experience, and that came only through connection of man to machine, hand to wheel and foot to pedal. The only thing that connects the player to the underlying mechanics of the game is the interface. It is there and only there that the experience of play is made, and through the interface, you will either succeed or fail, be branded clumsy or almost there.

Please, on behalf of players everywhere, I am begging you: believe that your interface is your gameplay, too.

GDC Evaluation Responses from Train talk

April 11, 2010

Here’s a complete cut and paste of the GDC Speaker Evaluations I received from my Train: How I Dumped Electricity and Learned to Love Design talk at this year’s GDC. I keep saying I was blown away by the response and several of you have asked me to post this. So, here you go, and thank you again:

Speaker Evaluations

Hide Evaluations [Head Count: 120; Evaluations: 99; % Returned: 83%

4.9 — (Q1) Overall rating of the presentation

4.6 — (Q2) How relevant was the topic to you?

4.8 — (Q3) How well did this class meet your expectations?

4.9 — (Q4) Would you recommend this session to a colleague?

4.9 — (Q5) Evaluate the speakers’ ability to communicate

4.9 — (Q6) If there were visual aids (slides) how were they?


Absolutely incredible. Hearing Brenda speak always gets me fired up.


Best talk this year. One of the 5 best talks I’ve seen in 20+ years of GDCs. This should be repeated as next year’s design keynote!

Incredibly inspiring.

Most powerful presentation I’ve ever seen at GDC.

Simply amazing! Way to go, Brenda!

Amazing and inspiring. I almost cried just thinking about it.

Could have been longer.


AMAZING!!! Great to hear the process for dealing with and designing difficult topics.

Best session at GDC yet.

Please stop speaking so fast. Not what I expected, but a great talk.

I don’t normally give 5’s across the board, but this talk definitely deserves it.

Brenda is brilliant. Her middle passage anecdote could teach the serious games people a thing or two. Brilliant! Brilliant! Brilliant!

Good stuff.

I’m pleasantly surprised at how much I got choked up simply listening to Brenda talk about this. I’d love to see more soul baring talks that are so relevant.

Not a designer but work with designers. I only saw half but was 100% inspired.

I’m not just giving you 5’s because you dared, or from any fear I have of belittling the topic. These are honest ratings of your performance presentation today.

This may have been the best talk I’ve been to this GDC. Pretty good for something I wandered into without knowing what it would be about. I had heard of TRAIN, but hadn’t realized what this talk would be about. Difficult to hear sometimes, uncomfortable, but excellent to hear.

By far the most inspiring & creatively challenging talk I have been to…and I’m an animator, not a designer.

Inspiring stuff. Thanks for sharing.

With respect to Sid Meier, this should have been the keynote.

Awesome talk!

Great talk…*hugs*


I’m a “programmer”. more please.

Thank you.

Fantastic. Keep going.

This woman is brilliant. Really hope Brenda is back again next year.

Brilliant and inspiring.

Glad I came to the talk but feel manipulated by the title of the talk. Moving and poignant.

Wasn’t expecting an epic presentation.


This single talk justified the entire conference to me.



Speaker’s content & message is amazing. However, she needs to take a breath & slow down.

Absolutely inspirational. The talk at GDC.

Train Talk Up on GDC Vault

April 11, 2010

My talk on Train is now up in the GDC Vault: How I Dumped Electricity and Learned to Love Design. You need to have access to the GDC Vault in order to see it, and being logged in already when you click on the link above will take you directly there.

For those of you who are not aware, it was a fateful conversation around the breakfast table at Project Horseshoe with Steve Meretzky that made this whole talk happen.

Steve extracted a promise from me that morning thusly:

Steve: Are you going to talk about it?
Me: No.
Steve (loudly and with arms spread): You HAVE to talk about it!

So, I did at a little conference in a little room attended by about 30 people… and things just took off from there. I remain grateful for that push and the extraction of a promise to talk about it. That people cared about this game design experiment still touches me, and I remain so surprised and humbled by the response this talk got from the audience. They literally made me cry (which you can see in the video).

Again, if you were there, thank you so much. This remains the single most amazing moment in my whole career. I am so glad to be among you.