‘Games Are Just Systems’: ‘RimWorld’ Developer Tynan Sylvester on the Measure of a Game by the Emotion It Creates

Indie developer Tynan Sylvester and I sat down for a lengthy conversation on game design theory, innovation in the industry, and his own project: RimWorld, the culmination of everything he has learned about engineering experiences for players.

Speaking to Sylvester was a particularly unique experience. It recalled watching exchanges with the likes of Will Wright or Gabe Newell. There’s a lot going on under the hood, nothing haphazard or erratic. He has Molyneux-esque ambition, but without the infamous Fable creator’s penchant for empty claims and blustery promises. He’s measured, stubborn, and critical of everything — but none more so than himself.

It was a refreshing conversation. Marketing fluff never entered the conversation, and amidst the thoughtful observations and bold design assertions was a dry wit and self-awareness that very few who attain such success manage to keep.

This is the first of three parts and focuses on Tynan’s personal history, as well as the design philosophies he describes in his book, Designing Games: A Guide To Engineering Experiences.


 

Nate: Let’s start with your “origin story.” I understand that you worked for Irrational on Bioshock Infinite?

Tynan: Actually, the more relevant part of my background comes long before Irrational. In fact, I actually started by doing modding for classic Unreal Tournament — the 1999 version — back in the day. And I was in high school when I was doing this. I used to make maps, and I made a full conversion mod I called “Elemental Conflict,” and that is really where I started doing game development. Back then I was sort of working by myself, independently or with teams of people remotely, and that’s kind of what I ended up doing in the end.

So, that was the origin of it. Then, after a while, I went to university. I kept doing indie game projects on the side — really terrible ones, like I was just totally awful, but you know, just racking up the experience and trying to learn what was going on. After university, I went and I worked at Irrational for 4 years, which was mostly spent on Bioshock Infinite, and I left a year before that game released. So I wasn’t there right at the end, but I worked on systems design and weapon design and enemy design and a bunch of sort of random combat-oriented tasks.

Ultimately, I found that working as one person in a studio with 100+ people wasn’t that gratifying to me, personally. So, I really liked, you know, having the freedom to approach problems the way I wanted. I really liked the freedom to try different things, and essentially solve things the way I thought they should be solved. So, I saved up some money and I quit.

And I basically was just burning through my savings to try to build up prototypes for an indie game. I didn’t know what it would be. I wrote a game design book at this time — which is partially to do something that I thought would have some significance for other people, and partially just as a learning project for myself — and I got it published with O’Reilly Media. It’s called Designing Games.

And that, I think, was probably the event that I guess matured me as a game designer, and crystallized everything I’d been trying to learn over the last ten years before that. Because I got to take it all, and actually write down my thoughts, instead of having them just this sort of foggy, blurry, swirly format in my head. And I think that really helped develop the tools that I used later on to make RimWorld and the methodologies.

So, I quit. I finished the book. And then I started working on independent gaming designs and I made a sequence of prototypes. Each one took about a month. There was this zombie survivor game, where you had this group of survivors and you’d go and try to survive in a zombie world. There was this mercenary management game, where it was this sort of business simulation of running a mercenary company. There was this game where you ran this, like, Hogwart’s wizard school simulation, and a starship building game.

Ultimately, I tried them all, and they didn’t work as well as I wanted them to. I don’t know. It’s a tough decision to just give up on a game you’re working on, because you’re like, “If I worked on it more, would it become fun, or is it just a dead concept in the first place?”

Nate: And then there’s that whole “sunk cost” feeling too, I’m sure.

Tynan: Yeah. It’s brutal. And I just did this like five times in a row, month after month, throwing it out each time. So it’s a tricky decision. And based on what I wrote in the book, it sort of crystallized my belief that a game design really sort of “hits” or doesn’t pretty early on. Like, it either works or it doesn’t, in a very simple state.

So, I kept changing it, and it turned out well because RimWorld — which was called “Eclipse Colony” at the time, as its temporary development name — did work. I had a couple friends over at around 10pm to play it — this was the first time anyone had played the game besides me — and it was still super simple. It was just yellow dots for the colonists, and very, very simplistic. And they wouldn’t leave. They wouldn’t stop playing for like four hours, and we all were falling asleep at like 2am before they would actually stop.

So, that’s when I kind of knew, “Yeah, this is going to work.” I worked on it for like six more months and then put the Kickstarter out in late 2013, and I’ve been working on RimWorld ever since.

Nate: You had mentioned the book, Designing Games: A Guide to Engineering Experiences. Out of curiosity, I dipped into it a bit myself. It’s probably the most interesting writing about game design theory that I’ve ever read.

Tynan: Glad to hear it!

Nate: I think it’s arguably more useful than something that gives specific technical tips, or instruction on how to accomplish a certain task, like the “Right Way To Do Gun Progression.” It’s more like a thesis on the psychology of games and design. For the benefit of those who haven’t yet taken a look, would you care to talk a bit about it?

Tynan: The basic thesis of the book is that the purpose of a game is to create an experience for the players. And the key aspect of any experience that makes it compelling is the emotions that you feel while you’re having it. So, that’s the core thread of the book — essentially, a guide to engineering experiences, which means a guide to creating systems, which is really what games are. Games are just systems, like a computer system, or a mechanical system, like an old arcade pinball machine, or just sort of an abstract system, like a game you can play with words, or a game you play with pieces on a board.

They’re all just systems, but their purpose is the same, which is to create experiences with the people who are interacting with them, and to make those experiences compelling. Which means making those experiences emotional in some sense. So, that’s the core idea of it, and the rest of it is essentially analyzing how to make this happen effectively using game design tools of almost any medium.

Obviously I’m a video game designer, but the principles are the same in board games or electro-mechanical “arcade” games, or word games, or social games, or even other sort of experience-creation media, like if you’re putting on a show for people. It’s a very broad thing. It focuses on psychology because that’s what games are about; you’re sort of tweaking with the player’s brain. You’re creating this machine that the player’s going to plug their brain into through their eyes and their hands, and the machine — the game — is going to try to make them feel something.

So, you can make a game that targets different types of emotions. For example, if you make a horror game, you’re looking for this mixture of jump scares and dread and interest and disgust. You’re just trying to tweak people, right? Or if you’re making like classic Minecraft, you’re looking for this feeling of contented satisfaction, maybe intermixed with a little bit of trepidation about the night or threats that are coming after you, and a sense of sort of social humor that you would have if you were playing with your friends and make a big dick or something like that, you know?

Nate: [laughs] I wouldn’t know anything about making a big dick in Minecraft. (This is a bald-faced lie.)

Tynan: So it’s essentially taken that lens. And you can look at it as the core view I have of games, because it’s the only one that I think applies universally. It’s not like “how to solve this narrow problem better,” or like you mentioned making a better gun progression or something like that.

You have to ask why you make a better gun progression, like what are you actually trying to accomplish here? Well, you’re trying to create a nice set of emotions. So, if the gun progression is broken, it’ll have big long periods where nothing happens, and then you’re developing emotions of boredom. Or, it’ll progress too quickly and leave players confused, which creates unpleasant senses of cognizant effort and a sense of being overwhelmed, which people don’t tend to like.

So, how do you make the “right” gun progression? Well, it’s the one that gives you the emotions you want the player to have. And I think that that has been really key for RimWorld as well, because once you take this view, it’s really about choosing the emotions you want, and then trying to create them. You can sort of step outside some of the assumptions that I think ruin a lot of games. Like, there’s a very common assumption that games have to revolve around challenge and victory, which, you know, sports do tend to do, and so do these classic arcade games.

But a lot of people, just at the core of what they say about games, is the core assumption — unquestioned and unconsidered — that it has to revolve around “triumph.” Which is an emotion; triumph is a great emotion. But there’s other experiences you can target as well. Which, you can’t do with triumph, because not every emotion can go with every other emotion; they don’t always mix, like in a dish, right? So sometimes you have to give up triumph.

Nate: One emotion isn’t compatible with every human experience.

Tynan: Yeah, like you can’t mix a horror game and this sort of happy children’s building game and like this hardcore triumph game. They’re different emotions; you’re targeting different things.

Nate: Do you feel like that’s lacking in the AAA space?

Tynan: Definitely. I mean, they’re quite risk-averse. Some of them get into it. But it’s a very slow progression. I think indie is really where all of the interesting experiments are going to happen, which is obvious because indie is where you’re not spending $50 million dollars.

Nate: Right. Same with music and film; the indie scene tends to push forward change.

Tynan: Yeah, pretty much. And that’s fine. That’s why you see games like Abzu recently, where there’s no triumph, there’s no challenge, you just sort of go around and feel the atmosphere and the ambiance, swimming, and this beautiful underwater space, and various other experimental indie games. And then there’s a million details of how to actually “operationalize” that, and actually apply it, and kind of develop the sense for … you know, when I was pushing too hard, or how to feel those emotions that most people don’t feel.

I think one of the most interesting subsections of the book is that it talks about the emotions that people don’t realize they have. I think most people, when they think “emotion,” they think of tearful crying sessions, or a huge sense of overwhelming triumph. But the reality is, emotions are very fine-grained and they’re hitting you all the time at every moment.

Like from one half-second to the next, your emotions will change. A cat jumps out of a box. First it’s two seconds of curiosity, followed by one second of confused anticipation when the box makes a noise, followed by a half second of fear when the cat jumps out, followed by a few seconds of exhilaration mixed with fright, followed by this sort of cuddly happiness.

And that’s like — you’re going through like seven or eight emotions within ten seconds, right? Which I think is fascinating. When you’re doing a game design, you want to analyze it on that level, a very fine-grained level. And you can! It’s interesting, and you can create a worthwhile experience using that. So it’s not just academic either, which I find really compelling.

Nate: Speaking of  things “academic,” I noticed in one of the Reddit AMAs you said you learned basically nothing in school about creating games, and that a lot of it came just by doing it, by personal experience. Do you think that higher education is a valuable thing to pursue when getting into games, or do you think that’s just adding empty debt to something you’re just going to have to do on your own anyway?

Tynan: I think it depends what you want to do. You know, for study in technology or art, there’s some great programs. And if you want to be a really hardcore programmer or a really great artist, I think it’s possible to do those on your own, but I think there are also good programs. I’m not an expert in that field, but I think in terms of game design, like actual game design — not like “we’re going to call it game design but it’s actually programming” — but in actual game design, I really don’t think there’s anything out there.

It’s just not a mature field. And it’s a field that’s so immature that there’s almost zero supply of game designers, there’s almost no public knowledge of what it’s really about, or any general comprehension that this is something that exists, and it is distinct from programming. Half of these game design programs are really just coding programs, and the general level of knowledge is so low and so concentrated in those few people that are actually doing it, who are still doing it, that I really don’t think that there’s any worthwhile game design programs that I’ve seen or heard of.

I think that anyone who wants to get into it would be far better served doing it on their own. That said, I could be wrong. This is obviously advice tailored from me, and I’m a very independence-minded person. Someone who wants to work in a big company or is more social like that might get more out of it, but from what I’ve seen there’s really nothing there. The people who learn to do it have learned to do it by doing it, and they’re still doing it because this industry is really only a few decades old and we really haven’t had time for people to get old and write their retirement books yet, you know? It’s going to take a century before it really matures, you know?

Nate: That’s a very good point.

Tynan: So, like, even when computers were invented, they still came from mathematical principles that had existed before. But in terms of game design, it’s sort of trying to bootstrap off of movies or programming. It’s like you’re bootstrapping off of programming, which is a completely different field, so it’s just this really fucked up — it’s in this really fucked up state. So I think it’s going to take fifty or a hundred years before there’s really a mature education system. Because we need two generations of people to retire and write their books and so on and so forth. That’s my opinion.

Nate: You’ve said that you learned a lot in the course of writing the book. What are some of the things that it taught you?

Tynan: That’s something that’s really hard to describe, right? Because it’s like knowledge that you had beforehand — like, how do you organize your own knowledge? Before I wrote the book, I would describe the state of my mind as having a huge amount of reference experiences — by which I mean, memories of things that’d happened, or games I’d played, or experiences I’d had working at Irrational, or things I’d tried in making games that worked or didn’t work.

I had tons of those “reference experiences,” because I’d been doing this for years and years. I had all these games I’d played, I had a ton of thoughts and ideas about how they should work, I had a huge amount of advice that I’d heard, or just design articles I’d read. But it was all just sloshing around in my brain without a system of organization.

I think writing the book, for me, was beneficial because it allowed me to take all that knowledge and crystallize it into a structure I could really work with, and really use to sort of prioritize things, or know when to reference one experience over another, or when one concept should connect to another or override another, and so on and so forth.

It’s exceptionally hard to describe, this sort of learning, because it’s not like a fact-oriented learning, or episodic learning, it really is an incredibly intuitive thing. It’s the difference between, you know, ten years ago or even a few years ago if I looked at a game design problem and you just asked me what we should do, I would just give a totally different answer from now. But in either case, can I really explain why the answer is different? So, it’s a very tacit knowledge thing. I’m sorry if this answer is unsatisfying.

Nate: Not at all. There’s a lot to digest! A lot of people are struggling to learn the same things you have.

Tynan: I think that for anyone working on their game design skill, writing about it, and really working at writing about it and releasing those articles, is essential. So, I’ve written on Gamasutra as well, I’ve written design articles which were also helpful and anyone can read for free. I’d totally recommend that.

There’s a design article on Gamasutra called “The Simulation Dream,” which is the last one I wrote a few years ago, a little bit before I made RimWorld actually. And you can really see the connection to RimWorld from that article. It’s sort of a taste of the kind of thing my book tends to say.


 

In part 2 of the interview, we discuss the indie gaming scene, VR, and the future of the gaming industry at large.

Follow Nate Church @Get2Church on Twitter for the latest news in gaming and technology, and snarky opinions on both.


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