Games - AMA

I was asked by my friend Sye Robertson to do an AMA about my experience working as a designer for games. What is an AMA, you might ask? AMA stands for "ask me anything" and is a sub-reddit of Sye decided to run this AMA on his Facebook page "Art & Graphic Design for Tabletop Games." I am archiving all of the questions and answers here - It has been a really great experience for me and I hope it has been useful to everyone in the community.

Kim Brebach — “How do you go beyond a brief to understanding the thing you are designing for and the audiences it is intended for?”

Answer: I never stop at the brief. The best way to wrap my head around any game is to play it over and over. I am lucky that I work along side the game developers and I am not just brought on at the end so I get to be a part of the process, beginning to end.
I also try to go out and find similar games - one of the last things I want is to end up designing something that has already been done.
We have a research lab that I can tap into as well where we can bring in focus groups to play or send home copies of the game in various stages with families of employees.

Nathan A. Wright — “What would you do differently in organizing the development of game if it was only you and two other people (or so) at the company? From a timing sense, but also how you would go about testing, sales projections, advertising, etc.”

Answer: Interesting question. 2 part answer. The Mattel Games team is actually quite small. Currently we have 2 Game Developers and there are two of us on Design/Branding/Packaging. Our Marketing team is also quite small.
I will answer it from the lens of “what if we were a smaller independent company.” There is a big component of community that I feel we miss out on being a large company. Our products are mostly targeted to mass retail instead of hobby and specialty shops. I think that both have their place - targeting mass consumer helps make games accessible to everyone, but designing to specialty markets is undoubtedly more fun.
1 - I would engage the community more, testing on an open platform and have more transparency to get better feedback before we hit shelves.
2 - We work pretty quickly and could probably get things on shelf a lot faster but in Mass the stores are stocked seasonally so it doesn’t help us to rush production. If I was running my own I would finish when things are ready and relevant and put them up on an online store where they could grab some traction before hitting retail shelves.
3 - some products don’t take off right away. in retail this means that you lose space in shops. Often times this means that items are just dropped all together. I would love to give certain games a little more time to take off.

Tom Razo — “David, what finish do you prefer for box covers, game board, rulebook, cards, tokens, etc. and what would you need to consider if you were producing any of the above with a linen finish?”

Answer: I think that these are all completely dependent on the game, the best tool for the job. For example: Matte finish on a card that represent paper money or a high gloss finish on a piece of chip art that represents a gold coin. That said, all the pretty finishes in the world should always come second to function and mechanics. I feel this may be something I will repeat often as it was a big part of my learning to design for games.
BOX COVERS: I like semi-gloss – too glossy and it may be hard to read on shelf in a store, too matte and your images may look dull.
GAME BOARD: Again this probably depends largely on function but a more matte finish will reduce glare and make the board easy to read for all players from all angles.
RULE BOOK: Instructions should always look beautiful. NOBODY wants to read instructions, so make it as pleasant as possible. full color with a nice gloss finish whenever possible.
CARDS: if they will be handled and shuffled regularly go with glossy coating. they shuffle better and hold up better over time. (card stock is always important too. Blue Core or Black if you can afford it)
TOKENS: I think this should fall between game board and cards. low gloss helps with readability on the table.

I actually do a lot of work with Linen Finishes - All of my German Games use Linen finish on Board and Box. I would strongly urge to build in enough upfront time and budget in samples because your artwork will look very different with the linen finish. Artwork appears less saturated and with less contrast.

All of this said - I am a TOTAL sucker for matte, satin, and “soft touch” coatings and if left solely to my likes and dislikes I will use them as much as possible. Few things are quite as decadent as a soft-touch box with spot varnish or foil-stamping. Unfortunately, all of those scuff and wear on shelf horribly.

Sigursteinn J Gunnarsson — “Hi David, What do you wish game designers were more aware of in regards to visuals when designing their games?”

Answer: Answering this question makes me feel like I am bragging or up on a soap box, so let me just start by saying that I am still continually learning, myself. every time I work on a new game I find new challenges and six months after it hits shelves I find more things I should have done better on.
CLARITY - I feel that this is something I always need to go over in my head again and again. Sometimes the best looking solution is not the smartest solution. The primary read of any graphic should be conveying the mechanic of the game that it represents. Decorating and stylizing that element should come second.
TYPOGRAPHY - This is a very simple thing that all too often gets overlooked. Function first is very important here - your medieval game might look cool in blackletter but when nobody can read the rules it just doesn’t work. I see this a lot with numbered games where the numbers are difficult to read.
COLOR - While working on the game BANIA I came across a new challenge that I honestly didn’t consider before, color blindness. The mechanics of BANIA are heavily reliant on color for quick easy gameplay. I was play testing the game and one of my friends happens to be color blind - the first version I created was un-playable by him because of the colors I had chosen. This is now something I take into consideration with every game and reasonably easy to solve for. If you don’t know someone who is color-blind there are a myriad of apps out there that will simulate it for you.
INSTRUCTIONS - I don’t need a novel but I don’t need a comic strip either. Try to lay out instructions with rhythm, break up your copy with visuals, make them interesting and aesthetically pleasing. Instructions should be an art-form, not an afterthought.

There is probably much more I am not thinking of at the moment so if you have any more specific questions on this I am happy to dig deeper.

Sean Howard — “When you begin work on a box cover, what drives you? The theme? The feeling that best fits the game in question? Or more technical in that you have a good idea of a great image based off of a sentence or two? I am just now beginning work on my next game and the development of the cover art is a very interesting experience as a whole.”

Answer: There are really a few different approaches I take when starting on cover art and the first question is always who my target audience is. Designing for mass retail is very different than designing for hobby market.

VISUAL CONCEPT AND GRAPHICAL KICK OFF - Most game art boils down to the cover illustration. I am not an illustrator - I can draw but I do not hold a candle light to the talented illustrators that I work with. I typically will start a concept by telling the story of the game or coming up with several story lines that revolve around the theme. I take that story and I try to infuse some of the mechanics of the game or graphical elements from the game and build it in layers. I will do a few sketches of the layout but typically ask illustrators to give me some sketches based off my description. I then share my sketches and have an open dialogue about what is working and what isn’t working.

RESEARCH - what have others done? what is working for them? how can you do it better? how can you be different? Research for me extends from comparative, looking at the competition, to explorative. Have a game about sea trading? Don’t just look at games, look at toys and movies to see what the vernacular is.

DESIGNING FOR MASS RETAIL - The two elements I focus on for Mass are Function and Emotional Benefit. In other words what does this thing do, and how will it make me feel? Designing for mass it becomes much more important to either be good at copy writing or hire a good copy-writer to help you with communication. In mass your target consumer is typically “mom.” “Mom” is looking for something that has fun features, brings the family together and optimally has a tertiary benefit of being educational in some way. I will always argue that all the strategy and socialization you get from game play is educational in and of itself. Competing in mass is difficult because you are up against a lot of heritage game names. Minions Monopoly probably out-sold most new titles last year because of Minions and because of the heritage name Monopoly.
Be bold. Be funny. Evoke and emotion. Define your mechanics.

DESIGNING FOR HOBBY - I use hobby for the broader specialty market. This could really be anything outside of mass though. I personally find these covers much more fun to design for. I typically start this process looking for key aspects of the game. These covers do not need to be so literal like covers for mass typically are. I can define a resource management game by depicting a marketplace, fast pace with characters running, age rating with art style. I compare it more to developing Key Art for a movie poster.


re-reading what I just posted I feel like my answer is all over the place, darting back and forth a bit. Design is all about story telling. I love movie posters and cover art because it really challenges the designer to flex that story telling muscle.

  • Create a scene
  • Define the characters
  • Give a challenge (this can introduce game mechanic)
  • Show action (probably a second layer of game mechanics)

a lot of subtleties can change the tone of the entire piece, characters facial expressions, color palettes, stillness vs action.

Behrooz Shahriari — “Hi David, thanks for doing this! When is the earliest in the game design/development process that Mattel would start you working on the art?”

Answer: I don’t really have a clearly defined time where I am supposed to start on artwork. My level of engagement from the beginning depends on a few things from availability to company initiatives. The developers I have worked with are for the most part Designers and Developers so often there is at least the seed of an idea where the graphics will go. Other times it is completely blue sky and the developers are really just giving me a black and white mechanic to theme.

If I am starting with a blank slate I like to try and get involved earlier in the process. Part of designing a game isn’t just making something consumer will like but selling the concept up the ladder internally - this is must easier to do when we have a theme and the beginnings of graphics.

On the same page, our developers will come up with many more concepts than you will ever see end up on shelf. If I involve myself too early I might be spending time and money on a game that ultimately gets dropped from our line.

Ultimately there is a deadline by which I must start artwork but I keep myself involved long before that time by being a part of all play tests. Discussing story and theme with people as they experience the game has led to some really great concepts and ways of explaining game play that I had not previously thought of.

This method works really well for instructions too. It is never too early to start testing instructions. create drafts and watch people try to play off those instructions. Do not interject and if they do something wrong just continue to watch how things work out. This step has helped me immensely with not only developing better instructions but also helped me to develop better graphics on game components that make setup/actions/scoring/etc all more clear.

Justin Cognito – “This isn't really to do with graphic design and I'm not sure if this is a question you can answer, but after I saw your response that you are involved in the game design process from the very beginning, I was hoping you might be able to help me with this.
Mattel often publishes games using contractual rights to big IP franchises. If I had a game design that uses that IP, is there a way to submit it to Mattel for publication?
In my specific case, I know Mattel has in the past released games using the Harry Potter IP, I don't know if Mattel still owns these rights, but I have a game design that I've been working on for the upcoming Fantastic Beasts film, but I don't know how (or even if) I can submit it to a company like Mattel, or if all game designs have to be done in-house. Right now I've been designing it in a way that is non-specific to the franchise, but I've retained the ability to switch it to a Harry Potter theme if I can get permission to use the IP.
Is it possible to submit designs using IPs, or should I just avoid it altogether?”

Answer: I will do my best to answer your question, it may be vague in parts and a little scattered.

Sye posted a link which answers the question “May I submit a product idea, concept, or material to Mattel?” To clarify this a little bit, I think that the FAQ is targeted more to an individual who thinks they have a good idea vs. someone who has actually done development on a concept. That said - Mattel does have an entire group who manages all of this, they are called Inventor Relations. I do not know a great deal about this group or how they interact and accept new people/companies. I do know that when taking submissions for games it seems that we have more individual submissions compared to a group like action figures who may deal with a smaller pool of larger inventor companies. I don’t know how to get added to that pool though.

As for “IP,” we would call them Licenses. Developing a game based off of a license can be a great jumping off point for a game. We attach licenses to existing games all the time to gain incremental sales with consumers we may not have otherwise reached. A license may also help to get a game incremental placement - a Harry Potter game might be sold in the games aisle and alongside Harry Potter toys or books.

Trying to sell a game concept into a developer with a license attached may have pros and cons. I think it might be best to submit the game without the license but then show how the license could be applied to that property. it shows flexibility and allows the publisher to better envision where they could take the game.

Mattel now allows for open submissions from individuals and agencies that are not already in our Inventor Pool.

Matthew Lee — “What kind of resources does Mattel put into board games? Do you think they have the balance right, or could do more or less in this area?”

Answer: The Mattel Games portfolio is made up of a fairly diverse selection of games and categories. Our Core Games are UNO, Scrabble, Pictionary, and Apples to Apples. On average each of these brands comes out with one “extension” each year. Extensions introduce a new way to play based off the original gameplay and brand essence.

I give that as background because it helps to understand that our portfolio is largely made up of heritage brands which require work to keep them thriving. Keeping our core portfolio healthy allows us to expand and add new games.

For the last three years I have worked on board games for the German Market. I have been asked a lot “why only German?” and while I can’t talk about our strategy believe me I hope we can expand eventually. Focusing on a specific strategy in a specific market has allowed me to work on 5 new board games over the last 3 years which is a nice increase.

That is a long winded way of answering - when we have the available time, money, and man hours to devote to new board games we passionately get to work on them. That all comes from how well we stoke our core brands because those are the bread and butter that allow us to invest in future games.

Kim Brebach - “Thanks David - great answers so far. Another question.
Front of box is for recognition and to catch the eye of the right type of browsers / audience. Back of box is to tease / explain the game and seal the deal.
In drafting my own back of box design (I’m no graphic designer but I know what what I like as a game designer and developer) for a kids / family / gamer light strategy monster chucking card game, I noticed a growing trend used in simpler hobby games. They give a brief thematic feel for the game with text and pics, and then try to distill the core gameplay into 3 - 5 core gameplay steps through a sequence of graphics. I presume this approach is designed to:
a) be clear about the core engagement / experience in the game
b) assure the audience of its simplicity
Is this a trend you have noticed or used when trying to make a game appeal to a wider audience? Do you have any tips around how to do this best?”

Answer: I touched on this a little bit in my reply to Sean Howard but I was focused on the Cover. Some of the same concepts translate to the back panel as well, though. I feel there is a difference in how to approach this depending on if you are targeting mass retail or more specialty markets.

I like to add the flavor or a back story to the game on the back panel:
MASS - When I look at mass retail I see a parent picking up a package and trying to make their decision while little Billy is pulling at their pant-leg asking for 30 toys. That story needs to be told visually and communication needs to be quick.
1 - An image that conveys emotion/energy of the game
2 - a 1,2,3 that hits on basics of game play
3 - honesty shot or strong call out to what exactly comes in the box.
SPECIALTY - When I design for specialty the touch points are basically the same but the delivery is different. The consumers who pick up a specialty game are typically more conscientious of what they are buying. More thoughtful. Predominantly, in my case, specialty has meant a more high-end product as well so it is important to show this off.
1 - An actual story line that gets the consumer into the game
2a - A large image of the game laid out on the table with all components visible in a typical setup
2b - potentially supplement the image with communication on what components are
3 - contents list

I have found with specialty games I typically am not asked for a 1,2,3 of gameplay but that is predominantly because most of these games are more strategy based and are not easily diluted to a few easy steps. In this case it is better to talk call out features of game mechanics such as “resource management” or “co-op game play."

Tom Razo – Hi David, here is another one.
What guidelines or restrictions do you generally apply to the design of a Rulebook?
What tips or suggestions can you offer in regards to structure, formatting, typeface, colors, page count, font size, etc. that can help to create a polished looking Rulebook?
Do you have any favorite rulebooks done right?

Answer: That is a great question! To be honest, I can’t say that I have a favorite set of instructions.
To be more honest, I luck out a lot and don’t need to read instructions. I have worked with a lot of game developers and over my first year designing for games we used to play a new game almost every day at lunch time. These were typically games they already knew and I didn’t need to read them. In hindsight – I should have.

Three things I think rules need are: Quick Start, Visuals, and Rhythm.
QUICK START - A Quick Start should work to be a preview to someone who is just learning the rules so that they know what to expect as they dive in. Quick Starts should also be an easy way for a returning player to easily remind themselves how to set everything up and get rolling quickly.
VISUALS – Visuals should not necessarily only include images of game play. Some times the game play does not warrant a visual to show you how an action is done or heavy text is required to explain a concept in detail. Eyes glaze over at long copy – break it up with visuals that add flavor to the concept or the game in general. Flavor imagery is not necessary if you already have a lot of game visuals. You don’t want a dense book of instructions just because you crammed images every other line.
RHYTHM – Rhythm should be the center of everything you do. Design is like music. While mechanics can be complex and all over the place like Jazz your rules should always have a linear rhythm. Rhythm is in the spacing of your typography and in the continuity of visuals. If you start a quick start in 1,2,3,4 you don’t deep dive in a different order – it breaks the rhythm of the reader.

alea has smart instructions. Not sure if all of their rules are laid out this way but I believe most of them add their quick start rules. I think that all games should have a quick start but alea has done it in a smart way which combines quick start rules along side the full rules in columns. This makes it really easy to pick the game back up for a refresher when you already know how to play and makes for increased replay-ability.
The instructions for Corto and Takenoko are laid out to resemble a comic book and they really just make you want to read them. These are a great example of Visuals and Rhythm. They don’t just look approachable but the conversational way of breaking things up makes it a little more easy to digest.

Behrooz Shahriari – "Thanks for all the answers! Very interesting reading.
I'm curious about this, but let me know if you can't answer:
What do you wish you had the power or resources to do in your job? I'm specifically curious about what you might do differently if you had complete freedom.”

Answer: I’ve had a hard time deciding how to answer this. For all of the times I have thought to myself “I could do this so much better if only…” I am constantly trying to remind myself that I won’t always know best and I need to rely on others expertise.

There are definitely projects that I would say “no” to if I had the power. UNO is a good example. We create a lot of licensed versions of the game, such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Sometimes my marketing partners will decide we need to do a license with a property that just doesn’t make sense. Occasionally I can win the argument by saying it is “off brand” but other times the popularity of the license wins out, no matter how off it is. So I wish I could have more veto power.

In contrast to the veto, I wish I had the power to keep some projects alive. A lot of the games we bring to market exist because they fill a need in our marketing strategy. Sometimes we may pitch a great concept that doesn’t actually fulfill a marketing need so the idea will just be shot down.

If we are going to discuss “freedom” can I just throw financial freedom? I mean, who doesn’t want to be able to use the best materials on the product and the package. It is always a disappointment when you need to rework the mechanics of a game because you couldn’t afford all the components in it.

Finally, I would just appreciate more voice. In a large company you really need to assert yourself as the expert to be taken seriously. Corporations put the most value on someone with an MBA, no matter how full of hot air they may be. The same level of respect is often not afforded to designers and creatives. You can put a dollar amount on what some roles provide, it is not so easy to show that value on creativity.

Games - AMA