Top Ten Tuesday 04

My Top Ten Game Designers

Disclaimer: There are many top ten lists, but this one is mine. If you think a game is missing here, I either didn't play it, didn't have any interest in it, or I just hate you.


Pre-List Notes

Thoughout the last decade or so I began getting really plugged into the video game industry. I liked video games sure, but I was also fascinated with their inception, development, marketing, and especially the people and game makers behind them. A few years ago I would only recognize a few names on this list; now it is difficult whittling down the dozens of awesome visionaries to a Top Ten, but supremely interesting doing the research for my Top Ten Video Game Designers.


Top Ten

10) Roberta and Ken Williams

Any industry has to be attuned to the consumer and to strive to give them the best product; the computer industry is no different. However, unlike many other industries, the computer industry is more complex and moves very fast. Anybody who wishes to remain in this industry for any length of time needs to be able to move on a dime and to be willing to change and to forge their own way and not to fall into set ways or "me, too" products.

This married couple co-founded Sierra On-Line in the early 80s and quickly became the leading figures for graphical adventure computer gaming. Best known for the iconic King's Quest series - spanning eight games and 14 years, from 16-color text input controls to fully 3D worlds - there's no telling what the state of modern computer gaming would have been without Sierra's influence and success.

Notable Games: King's Quest series, Phantasmagoria

Where they are now: Happily retired.


9) Ken Levine

Pacing is an interesting thing. There's not just sex, there's romance, right? You have to build up to things sometimes. You look at a film like Jaws, it's not just the shark attack. In fact the shark attacks very rarely. There's the scene where they're comparing scars and he's telling stories, that scene is funny and charming and then Quint tells that story about the sinking of the Indianapolis. It becomes horrifying and scary, and setting up what they're all in for. They're all laughing and joking, then somebody hears something and it builds and it builds. There's this growing horror and realization, and that's pacing, right? Spielberg understands that great, he did it in Jurassic Park with that T-Rex scene, he understands how to build tension very well. Certainly we watch a lot of his films, but a lot of directors do this very well. Building up to tension is very important.

Every once in awhile you come across a creator, whether it be in music, film, novels, etc, and while you don't necessarily love the genre or specific work they do, you can't help but feel drawn to them for their insight and creations in their industry. That's a long confusing reason why I put Ken Levine (@IGLevine) on my Top Ten. Levine founded Irrational Games in the late 90s, creating a much loved first person horror shooter System Shock 2, and one of my favorite underrated games Freedom Force, a tactical superhero game (the precursor to X-Men Legends and later Marvel Ultimate Alliance).

Like most developers, Irrational was swallowed up by a bigger publisher, Take-Two Interactive and was even renamed to 2K Boston briefly while they put out what many in the gaming public consider one of the best games of the last decade - Bioshock, a haunting first person shooter set in the fallen underwater city of Rapture. While I've professed to not being a fan of horror games, Bioshock is definitely worth the play (and stops being so scary when you can fling fireballs from your hands and turn invisible Predator-style). My real love for Levine, however, always comes in his interviews where he is always incredibly candid about the gaming industry and his own experiences growing up as a nerdy Jewish kid in the 70s. There's too many choice quotes to give here but do yourself a favor and search youtube for any of his interviews or especially his Key Note Address at the 2008 Penny Arcade Expo.

Notable Games: System Shock 2, Bioshock

Where they are now: Finally finished on his next game since the original Bioshock (the direct sequel was made with a different team), the much anticipated Bioshock: Infinite.


8) Hironobu Sakaguchi

Just the ordinary events of our lives: encounters, discoveries, disputes, compromises, betrayal, and love. It is the accumulation and interweaving of these elements that make a story fit for Final Fantasy.

Also known as the Father of Final Fantasy, a series named for what Sakaguchi thought would be his final game in fledgling company Square in the late 80s. Little did he know he was creating one of the most popular video game franchises in history, a game series which is currently in its 14th incarnation. Squaresoft was regarded as the premier role playing game company, well before JRPG was even a term. In the early 2000s he took a pretty big risk and directed the Final Fantasy animated film, which became one of the biggest animated box office bombs in history. Afterward he stepped down as Executive Vice President of Squaresoft (which would soon become Square Enix) and formed another company - Mistwalker, releasing the well received RPGs Blue Dragon and Lost Odyssey on Xbox 360. If you are a fan of JRPGs, his game credits read like a love letter to your favorite games.

Notable Games: Final Fantasy 1-10, Final Fantasy Tactics, Chrono Trigger, Super Mario RPG, Kingdom Hearts, Lost Odyssey

Where they are now: Still at Mistwalker working as full on director for the first time since FFV on his latest project, titled The Last Story.


7) David Gaider

There are lots of theories for how to approach putting together an RPG story, I have no brilliant one-size-fits-all solution- that doesn't exist. But mostly it's like creating a maze and letting the player be your mouse that goes through it. It could be a single path, but that would make for a poor maze. Too much meandering and the mouse gets lost. Either way, the experience belongs to the mouse and you have very little control over what it does or why aside from constructing the paths it can walk. You can predict, and set up places for the important beats of your story to occur, but you'll never know the exact impact. At best you'll check in with them and ask them, in the story, how they're doing.

David Gaider (@davidgaider) is the lead writer at Bioware, and you've seen his influence since the early 2000s in Neverwinter Nights, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and his first gig, Baldur's Gate 2. While not technically a lead designer, it could be argued that the lead writer has a huge amount of influence on a role playing game with hundreds of thousands of lines of dialogue - as in David Gaider's premiere franchise, Dragon Age. While its rushed sequel was much less well received, it was mostly for reused areas than in the excellent characters and writing. Gaider has also written two full novels set in the Dragon Age universe which act as prequels to Origins. I've read both and I can definitely recommend them if you enjoy that high fantasy world. He also maintains an insightful blog for any aspiring writers at

Notable Games: Dragon Age: Origins, Dragon Age II, Neverwinter Nights: Hordes of the Underdark

Where they are now: Just penned a Dragon Age comic book series, and currently deep in development on Dragon Age III: Inquisition


6) Chris Avellone

Build a tone. This starts as soon as you start writing - and sometimes, the tone surprises me once I actually start writing. The cadence of how the character talks, their slang, the subjects that interest them - I start a conversation with the character and try to imagine what I'd like to ask them about as players... and often, I try to steer the conversation into game mechanic help, gifts, new perks and skills to learn from the companion (which we used a lot in Torment, KOTOR2, and Dead Money, for example). The player should feel that they are gaining something of value from the interaction, even if the interaction isn't mandatory - exploring a character's personality should be as much fun as exploring a dungeon.

If you were a hardcore PC gamer in the late 90s, you're definitely smiling at the mention of MCA - Mr. Chris Avellone (@ChrisAvellone). Most of you, however, are probably wondering who he is. I have two words for you: Planescape: Torment. But that probably doesn't help much. Avellone joined PC gaming giant Interplay in 1995 and helped make one of my all time favorite games - Fallout 2. Avellone's talents with writing and roleplaying games became apparent with the release of Planescape: Torment, considered one of the best written games of all time. As part of Interplay's cherished CRPG branch, Black Isle Studios, Avellone's words and designs were felt throughout the premiere Dungeons & Dragons game franchises Baldur's Gate and Icewind Dale.

In 2003, as 3D gaming, action and shooting were on the rise, a floundering Interplay closed Black Isle. Avellone ended up at Obsidian Entertainment, which found initial success making big name sequels to big name RPGs - Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II, Neverwinter Nights 2, and recently Fallout: New Vegas. Avellone himself worked as lead creative designer for all of New Vegas' Downloadable Content. To top it off, he's supremely funny and personable in interviews and on twitter, and his constant doodling is hilarious.

Notable Games: Planescape: Torment, Baldur's Gate, Fallout 2, Fallout: New Vegas

Where they are now: Working on Project: Eternity as per Obsidian Entertainment's recent multi-million dollar Kickstarter project, as well as helping to contribute to InXile's similar Kickstarter success, Wasteland 2


5) Brian Fargo

For years, PC gaming has been declared dead and going away. And strangely enough, here we are and it appears to be stronger than ever, especially from a creative perspective. I look at crowd-funding, I look at the slate of titles that are coming out in the next year to two and they are more innovative and creative than I have seen in a long time. That's going to make you feel pretty good about the PC. It's really an open system, much more so than [home consoles] where it seems like we always see the same [kinds of games.] You can't compete with the crowd, so as the PC continues to remain open I think we're going to continue to see more and more innovation there than anywhere else.

A name that any self respecting PC gamer of the 90s should instantly recognize, Brian Fargo (@BrianFargo) founded Interplay Productions in 1983 and for the next 17 years would help shape the face of computer gaming: Giving the first game contract to up and coming developer Silicone and Synapse (which would later become Blizzard Entertainment), forming Black Isle Studios which created many of the best computer role playing games of its day (and most developers would later form Bioware), and acquiring Shiny Entertainment to produce many beloved console games like Earthworm Jim.

Fargo left Interplay as French publisher Titus Interactive gained majority control in 1999 as the company began to shift away from computer gaming and onto consoles. Founding InXile Entertainment as a play on his status, Fargo continued to release games with many of his former Interplay employees. InXile mostly released smaller iOS games over the last decade, with the only two major releases being The Bard's Tale in 2004, and Hunted: The Demon's Forge in 2011, both with mixed reception.

Notable Games: Fallout, The Bard's Tale, Take your pic!

Where they are now: While being relatively quiet for the last decade, Brain Fargo is now all over the gaming news in the last year thanks to the huge success of the Wasteland 2 Kickstarter campaign, currently in development by InXile.


4) Shigeru Miyamoto

Video games are bad for you? That's what they said about Rock and Roll.

If Nintendo single handedly rescued the video game industry in the mid 80s with a mustachioed plumber, then I consider Miyamoto the father of modern console gaming. From the creative mind of the always positive designer sprang such classic franchises as Mario, Zelda, and Donkey Kong; not only the original creations on the Nintendo Entertainment System but each subsequent iteration on each of Nintendo's evolved consoles. Nintendo has been at the forefront of gaming for decades, and out of their cherished franchises have come many of my favorite games, most of which Miaymoto worked and headed up personally such as Super Mario Bros. 3 and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.

Miyamoto has been a prolific game designer for over 25 years, and most of the designers on this list and anywhere cite the Father of Nintendo as an inspiration. If you only know one name in the entire video game industry, it should be his.

Notable Games: Everything Nintendo!

Where they are now: Managing the Analysis and Development branch of Nintendo Entertainment, Miyamato continues his role as frequent spokesman and face of the company.


3) Will Wright

So I guess what really draws me to interactive entertainment and the thing that I try to keep focused on is enabling the creativity of the player. Giving them a pretty large solution space to solve the problem within the game. So the game represents this problem landscape. Most games have small solution landscapes, so there's one possible solution and one way to solve it. Other games, the games that tend to be more creative, have a much larger solution space, so you can potentially solve this problem in a way that nobody else has. If you're building a solution, how large that solution space is gives the player a much stronger feeling of empathy. If they know that what they've done is unique to them, they tend to care for it a lot more. I think that's the direction I tend to come from.

There aren't too many genres that come down to just one man. The entire simulation genre, the concept of sandbox or toybox gameplay, however, can easily come down to one brilliant game designer - Will Wright. Wright co-founded Maxis in the mid 80s and soon developed his first breakout hit, SimCity, a franchise that would spawn numerous sequels throughout the next decade and half, before lying dormant until just recently! Of course the popularity of the Sim games only grew, and Maxis took full advantage with SimEarth, SimAnt, SimCopter, etc. While the simulation genre remained relatively popular, Maxis was purchased by Electronic Arts in the late 90s. Despite the acquisition, Wright was much respected throughout the gaming community and was able to bring his high concept of a living dollhouse to life in the 2000 release, The Sims, one of the most popular video game franchises of all time. His next major project was Spore, designed as an evolutionary life simulator that was met with mostly positive reviews and commercial success.

Notable games: SimCity, The Sims, Spore

Where they are now: Wright left Maxis in 2009 and formed Stupid Fun Club, an "interactive think tank."


2) Tim Schafer

The Kickstarter thing and the documentary that we're doing with the Kickstarter has just taught me that there's nothing to be afraid of. You release your stuff out. You show a piece of concept art that may or may not be in the game. It doesn't matter. People are just like, "Oh, that's cool!" People get on your side more, not get on your side less. The fear is that if it's not perfect, you can't show it to people because they'll freak out. The fact is, they just feel more bought in. They feel like they're part of the development team.

A name that I'll freely admit catapulted up this list in the last year, Tim Schafer (@Timoflegend), began his video game career working for the esteemed LucasArts, the other major computer adventure game company and competitor to Sierra. There he helped write and create several of the most beloved adventure games to come out of that era - The Secret of Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle, and Grim Fandango.

In 2000 he left LucasArts to found Double Fine Productions. They began making big budget console games like Psychonauts (a cult classic adventure/platformer) and Brutal Legend (a unique heavy metal action game starring Jack Black), but disappointing sales forced them to think smaller. Throughout the multi year production of Brutal Legend, Schafer held "amnesia fortnights," a two week session where the entire production team "forgot" whatever they were currently working on, and were allowed to come up with and pitch their own game concepts. The team would vote on which to make into playable protypes to pitch to publishers, and four such games have made it all the way to retail: Costume Quest, Stacking, Iron Brigade, and Once Upon a Monster. All four were met with critical praise and commercial success, and Schafer recently brought his amnesia fortnight into the public eye, allowing each team member to create a pitch video for their concept, and the gaming community could vote on which ones were the best.

Recently, however, Schafer is in the news for being the original video game Kickstarter phenomenon. In Februrary of 2012, Double Fine Productions launched a campaign to make an old school adventure game like Schafer had made back in the LucasArts days in the 90s. They asked for $400,000, and planned on giving half to an experienced video game documentary crew to film the entire process. The campaign lasted for a month, though funding exceeded their asking amount by three times within 24 hours. The concept caught on like wildfire, and excitement of Tim Schafer being funny and Schafery in the pitch video helped make it the first Kickstarter project to reach $2 million. By the end of the campaign, Double Fine collected over $3.3 million dollars from Kickstarter for a game that didn't even have a title.

His fantastic sense of humor, witty writing, and successful business management has earned him numerous awards over the years as well as the adoration of the gaming public, a much more intangible, though arguably much more important quality.

Notable Games: The Secret of Monkey Island, Grim Fandango, Psychonauts

Where they are now: Deep in development on aforementioned Kickstarter project, still named "Double Fine Adventure." Also his studio just developed The Cave in collaboration with fellow LucasArts alum Ron Gilbert.


1) Sid Meier

I love designing games. I enjoy the process of watching them come to life. They start with just a wild and crazy idea and a lot of optimism. Then, day by day, you have to build a little piece of that final product. There are good days and bad days.

How many video game designers get their name above the title of each game they make? Just one. I've undoubtedly overused the term "Father of" in this Top Ten, but Meier is seriously one of the founding fathers of computer gaming. After co-founding MicroProse in 1982, Meier created lots of early flight simulator games before hitting it big with Civilization, still the premiere franchise for turn based strategy, now in its fifth iteration. In 1996 Meier left MicroProse to found Firaxis Games, which has found success mainly continuing the Civilization series, as well as remaking his older games like Pirates! and Colonization. As early as the late 90s Sid Meier was being widely recognized as one of the most influential people in computer gaming.

Firaxis successfully brought the Civilization gameplay to consoles in 2008 with Civlization Revolution, but hardcore PC Civ fans needn't have feared long as Sid Meier's Civilization V continued the trend of evolving the series while keeping the gameplay intuitive, complex but not complicated. I've sunk hundreds of hours into Sid Meier's games over the last two decades, and every interview I've read or sound byte I've heard paints him as the supremely optimistic creator. Everyone that works with him claims him to be the nicest man on the planet, and a brilliant game designer.

Notable games: Sid Meier's Civilization, Sid Meier's Railroad Tycoon, Sid Meier's Pirates!

Where they are now: Firaxis just released its first title without Sid Meier's name all over it, a little gem of a remake by the name of XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Despite the lack of name, Meier's influence and guidance is all over this masterpiece, and I encourage you to read the phenomenal article "The Making of XCOM's Jake Solomon," for more insight into Firaxis and Sid Meier.


Wrap Up

As a film buff that holds a degree in film analysis, it's supremely cool that I can rattle off dozens of big name video game designers as if they were major Hollywood directors. There are so many influential people that helped shape the industry that didn't even make this list - Cliff Blezinski, Peter Molyneux, Tim Cain, Koji Igarashi, Hideo Kojima, Todd Howard, John Carmack and many more. While not everyone gets their name above the game like the great Sid Meier, many of them are widely recognized throughout the industry for their talents and passion, and hopefully someday soon most will be more recognizable by the general game buying public as well.

Quote Sources:

Roberta Williams -

Ken Levine -

Hironobu Sakaguchi -

David Gaider -

Chris Avellone -

Brain Fargo -

Shigeru Miyamoto -

Will Wright -

Tim Schafer -

Sid Meier -