Giant Bomb News

66 Comments

The Game Designer Who Won’t Call Himself a Game Designer

153 game mechanics down, 147 to go. Game enthusiast and sometimes developer Sean Howard explains why he wants to develop 300 game ideas.

Pellet Quest is one example of Howard's wild experiments, in which Pac-Man goes the way of the RPG.

We all have goals--some long, some short, and most of them will never happen. Maybe it’s finishing a beloved game that’s fallen into a pile of shame, or shuffling our feet to the gym more than once a year. For Sean Howard, who refuses to call himself a game designer, it’s devising and fleshing out 300 game mechanics and putting them online.

Howard, who most recently contributed dialogue to both of the DeathSpank games, is otherwise a stay-at-home dad who’s hoping to finish reading the Song of Ice and Fire series “before his nerd wife spoils the damn thing."

He also needs to come up with 153 more game mechanics to add to his current pile of 147.

The reason for drawing the line at 300 ideas is simpler than you might think: it’s a big number, a dramatic one, and perhaps a number that would be difficult to top. It's a feat that would be something Howard could call all his own.

“The reason I wanted to do something like that in the first place was because I was sick of people saying that ideas were worthless,” said Howard over email. “It's something I've been hearing for so long, and always at such a deafening volume, that I just wanted to fight back. I wanted to say that, if nothing else, good ideas inspire. They excite you and get the gears moving. That's not worthless. I don't think you can worship the fire without respecting the spark that starts it just a little bit.”

Negative Space was an early idea that Howard has iterated on several times over the years.

Negative Space, in which he explored the sizable number of gameplay possibilities from being able to flip between black and white spaces, was the first concept published in the experiment, all the way back on May 9, 2007. It's one that he’d actually first started developing farther back in a Usenet post from September 2001.

He goes deeper than a few expository lines about a half-baked concept, instead producing extensive pixel art--a personal expertise--to elaborate on what might otherwise be hard to mentally visualize. Practice within the art of the pixel comes from Howard’s own webcomic called A Modest Destiny, which has lived for years.

All of these ideas used to exist in a notebook, and besides providing a sense of grand ambition and scale, collecting and publishing them online was a way to categorize them for Howard’s own perusal.

“I do feel a need to create at all times,” he said. “It's a clawing need that gets worse if I'm without a project for too long a time.”

How many of us don’t have a similar, gnawing passion? When I go a few days without putting pen to (digital) paper, it hangs heavy. It doesn’t matter what I end up writing, I just need to get a thing out, or else I feel terribly guilty.

“I just want to feel closer to games,” he said. “There's something about them. I'm drawn to them in a way I can't possibly describe. When I was kid, when my future could hold any possibility, I played a game that spoke to me in a way nothing else has. It inspired me and turned on a little light that I've never been able to turn off.”

Outside of contracted dialogue work on DeathSpank, Howard hasn’t been a part of any other game that’s shipped, and the game he worked on that didn’t make it onto shelves, he has no kind words for. It caused him to step back.

Some of the dialogue you may or may not have chuckled along to in DeathSpank was by Howard.

“The Three Hundred [Mechanics] is a way for me design games without being a game designer,” he said. “Ask a hundred people how to be a game designer and you'll get a hundred answers. Many of them involve paying your dues. Many involve classes you have to take in college, jobs you have to be employed in, people you have to know, slogans you have to follow, skills you have to have, programs you have to master, and employers you have to flatter.”

One might wonder about the risk of publishing all of your ideas online, and Howard is well aware of the problems. He claims to have seen some ideas taken and turned into commercial products. At one point, he simply asked for credit in such scenarios, but after a few situations turned sour, he waved that away.

“I decided that I would remove that requirement, releasing the ideas fully into the public domain, to end that threat forever,” he said. “It wasn't an easy thing to do. I still feel pride in my ideas. But I've decided that pride should be the reason I share these ideas instead of the reason not to.”

Some ideas are begging to be made, such as Pellet Quest, where Pac-Man gets infused with RPG sensibilities spread across a gigantic, persistent map, and the main character must return to old areas with earned abilities, ala Super Metroid. Or Diorama Designer, in which players create a “screen shot” for a game they’d like to play, and the game procedurally generates a game that makes that scene possible. Or SimMMORPG, in which the player doesn’t manage an ant colony, tower or civilization, but a simulated MMO world. None of these ideas sound easy to make, and there are much simpler ones within Howard’s set of 147 ideas, but they’re exciting to page through and dream.

“I may never earn the right to call myself a game designer,” he concluded, “but the Three Hundred [Mechanics] allows me to feel closer to games than being in the game industry ever did.”

You can continue to follow Howard’s work at www.squidi.net.

Patrick Klepek on Google+
66 Comments
  • 66 results
  • 1
  • 2
Posted by patrickklepek
Pellet Quest is one example of Howard's wild experiments, in which Pac-Man goes the way of the RPG.

We all have goals--some long, some short, and most of them will never happen. Maybe it’s finishing a beloved game that’s fallen into a pile of shame, or shuffling our feet to the gym more than once a year. For Sean Howard, who refuses to call himself a game designer, it’s devising and fleshing out 300 game mechanics and putting them online.

Howard, who most recently contributed dialogue to both of the DeathSpank games, is otherwise a stay-at-home dad who’s hoping to finish reading the Song of Ice and Fire series “before his nerd wife spoils the damn thing."

He also needs to come up with 153 more game mechanics to add to his current pile of 147.

The reason for drawing the line at 300 ideas is simpler than you might think: it’s a big number, a dramatic one, and perhaps a number that would be difficult to top. It's a feat that would be something Howard could call all his own.

“The reason I wanted to do something like that in the first place was because I was sick of people saying that ideas were worthless,” said Howard over email. “It's something I've been hearing for so long, and always at such a deafening volume, that I just wanted to fight back. I wanted to say that, if nothing else, good ideas inspire. They excite you and get the gears moving. That's not worthless. I don't think you can worship the fire without respecting the spark that starts it just a little bit.”

Negative Space was an early idea that Howard has iterated on several times over the years.

Negative Space, in which he explored the sizable number of gameplay possibilities from being able to flip between black and white spaces, was the first concept published in the experiment, all the way back on May 9, 2007. It's one that he’d actually first started developing farther back in a Usenet post from September 2001.

He goes deeper than a few expository lines about a half-baked concept, instead producing extensive pixel art--a personal expertise--to elaborate on what might otherwise be hard to mentally visualize. Practice within the art of the pixel comes from Howard’s own webcomic called A Modest Destiny, which has lived for years.

All of these ideas used to exist in a notebook, and besides providing a sense of grand ambition and scale, collecting and publishing them online was a way to categorize them for Howard’s own perusal.

“I do feel a need to create at all times,” he said. “It's a clawing need that gets worse if I'm without a project for too long a time.”

How many of us don’t have a similar, gnawing passion? When I go a few days without putting pen to (digital) paper, it hangs heavy. It doesn’t matter what I end up writing, I just need to get a thing out, or else I feel terribly guilty.

“I just want to feel closer to games,” he said. “There's something about them. I'm drawn to them in a way I can't possibly describe. When I was kid, when my future could hold any possibility, I played a game that spoke to me in a way nothing else has. It inspired me and turned on a little light that I've never been able to turn off.”

Outside of contracted dialogue work on DeathSpank, Howard hasn’t been a part of any other game that’s shipped, and the game he worked on that didn’t make it onto shelves, he has no kind words for. It caused him to step back.

Some of the dialogue you may or may not have chuckled along to in DeathSpank was by Howard.

“The Three Hundred [Mechanics] is a way for me design games without being a game designer,” he said. “Ask a hundred people how to be a game designer and you'll get a hundred answers. Many of them involve paying your dues. Many involve classes you have to take in college, jobs you have to be employed in, people you have to know, slogans you have to follow, skills you have to have, programs you have to master, and employers you have to flatter.”

One might wonder about the risk of publishing all of your ideas online, and Howard is well aware of the problems. He claims to have seen some ideas taken and turned into commercial products. At one point, he simply asked for credit in such scenarios, but after a few situations turned sour, he waved that away.

“I decided that I would remove that requirement, releasing the ideas fully into the public domain, to end that threat forever,” he said. “It wasn't an easy thing to do. I still feel pride in my ideas. But I've decided that pride should be the reason I share these ideas instead of the reason not to.”

Some ideas are begging to be made, such as Pellet Quest, where Pac-Man gets infused with RPG sensibilities spread across a gigantic, persistent map, and the main character must return to old areas with earned abilities, ala Super Metroid. Or Diorama Designer, in which players create a “screen shot” for a game they’d like to play, and the game procedurally generates a game that makes that scene possible. Or SimMMORPG, in which the player doesn’t manage an ant colony, tower or civilization, but a simulated MMO world. None of these ideas sound easy to make, and there are much simpler ones within Howard’s set of 147 ideas, but they’re exciting to page through and dream.

“I may never earn the right to call myself a game designer,” he concluded, “but the Three Hundred [Mechanics] allows me to feel closer to games than being in the game industry ever did.”

You can continue to follow Howard’s work at www.squidi.net.

Staff
Posted by needlesjt

I wish I had the time and ingenuity....

Posted by IkariNoTekken

Browsing some of those concepts you can see that Sean has such a high level of creativity. Something many of us lack... myself included. Great read Patrick; inspiring stuff.

Posted by GalacticGravy

It's inspiring to see a dude doing stuff simply because he thinks it's cool.

Edited by JackSukeru

I thought I recognized the character in that first screenshot. I was right, this was the guy who got into a fight with Penny Arcade at one point, over an edited version of one of his characters being used as an avatar in their forums.

Posted by BertieWooster

I chuckled after reading the full headline vs. the truncated one that was on the posting schedule on the main page.

There it read: "The Game Designer Who Won't Call"

Why won't he call? Doesn't he love me?

Posted by cheddartyme

yeah rockman, and the way the penny arcade community talks about him he sounds pretty crazy.

Posted by Ventilaator

I'm reading through his ideas and finding several that exist already, and I want to fault him for it, but then I read another dozen that sound absolutely brilliant and I'd love to play the game he is describing.

So good on you, guy! I'll be sure to read more.

Posted by Bocam

@RockmanBionics: Wait, what?

Posted by Klaimore

I hope he gets go all 300 and hopefully make a book.

Posted by Chet_Rippo

"Or Diorama Designer, in which players create a “screen shot” for a game they’d like to play, and the game procedurally generates a game that makes that scene possible."

WHAAAAAAAATTTT!?

Posted by Jabr

Yea I've seen a post of that dude on GAF. Pretty cool stuff he've got.

Posted by Entish

props to any dude who wants to show case creative ability not for the money or the bitches but for the art.

Posted by Babylonian

Reminds me of jayenkai, an indie developer buddy of mine who makes a game every single week (and has for years): agameaweek.com

Posted by CptBedlam

Wow, that is sounds inspiring. I now have to research that man's work.

Great article, Patrick.

Posted by HaroldoNVU

I'm a fan of his work as a whole but I just wish he'd finish A Modest Destiny. I've been following this comic for what, 7 year and almost of that time it was on hiatus. Great guy, just very protective of his work which is why there was that whole problem with "Gabe" from Penny Arcade. But squidi is a decent person and produces a lot of great stuff.

Great article, Patrick.

Posted by katelyngadd

Glad he's still at it. He kind of went off the rails back when the fuss with Penny Arcade started, but I thought he had a lot of talent and I used to follow his work. I ended up stopping after he posted my email address on his website to have his fans mailbomb me, but maybe I should go check to see what he's up to now!

Posted by mnzy
@kevingadd said:

Glad he's still at it. He kind of went off the rails back when the fuss with Penny Arcade started, but I thought he had a lot of talent and I used to follow his work. I ended up stopping after he posted my email address on his website to have his fans mailbomb me, but maybe I should go check to see what he's up to now!

What fuss with Penny Arcade?
Posted by Doskias

God, it's been years since I thought about Sean Howard. The forums on his website (and the IRC channels that spun off of them) were sort of a crazy-big part of my life at one point. The comics were cool too.

He always seemed to be a hard man to get to know. I think he's like one of those artists who are legitimately inspired and awesomely creative, but never really learned how to exist in human society.

Posted by buckybit

Another Patrick Klepek exclusive ...

Posted by bhhawks78

It's hard to be excited about anyone connected to deathspank considering the writing, voice acting, combat, and art were all very poor.

Posted by DazzHardy

You know, even when I think they won't be all that interesting to me, all these thing's Patrick has been putting up have been great reads. Bravo sir.

Posted by Klei

After reading this ''article'', I find myself puzzled. What was the point to this, exactly? No idea. I'm off doing something else now.

Posted by WMWA

This is a great article, Klepek! I don't think I would have ever known about this without you shedding light on it. Keep up the great work, man

Posted by JohnnyMcmillen

@Klei: To inform you about something, asshole.

Posted by paulunga

Oh yeah, I remember squidi. Didn't he sort of start a shitstorm because he called his comic pixel art before that was an accepted term?

Posted by MisterWaingro

WHY DOESN'T HE JUST MAKE A GODDAMN GAME!?

Posted by patrickklepek

@MisterWaingro said:

WHY DOESN'T HE JUST MAKE A GODDAMN GAME!?

A quote I didn't use:

"Though I enjoy programming, I don't enjoy programming games. There's some sort of mental block there, where I've never been able to complete my own game. I've written all sorts of programs, some very large and complex, but never a game. To my infinite misery."

Staff
Posted by UricTheOddball

While DeathSpank wasn't very good, I wouldn't mind playing SimMMORPG...

Posted by MisterWaingro

It's madness!

Posted by Brendan

@cheddartyme said:

yeah rockman, and the way the penny arcade community talks about him he sounds pretty crazy.

The Penny Arcade community is a little crazy themselves, though, so you can't take what they say at face value. They're a little...cultish, when it comes to their devotion to the creators and their opinions.

Edited by BlazeHedgehog

I remember this guy from the Penny-Arcade forums. Or, more specifically, his sprite artwork. Somebody had found one of the sprites he made, I think he was writing a webcomic or something, and made it their avatar.
 
He did not like that at all. He claimed his artwork was being stolen. He legally threatened Gabe and Tycho. Everybody laughed at his impotent rage (of which there was quite a bit, as I recall). Nothing ever came of it. It's documented a bit here:
 
http://www.jeffandcompany.com/ethnography/copyright.html(see: "Penny-Arcade v. A Modest Destiny")

Posted by LaszloKovacs

Great article, Patrick! Guess I've got my afternoon reading laid out for me.

Edited by lightsoda

Nice article, will have to check out those mechanics when I get home.

Also, love this quote:

“Ask a hundred people how to be a game designer and you'll get a hundred answers. Many of them involve paying your dues. Many involve classes you have to take in college, jobs you have to be employed in, people you have to know, slogans you have to follow, skills you have to have, programs you have to master, and employers you have to flatter.”

Same is true for any job.

Posted by Klei
@JohnnyMcmillen said:

@Klei: To inform you about something, asshole.


 
No need to lower yourself to insults, dude. Different opinions do exist, by the way, not only yours. Because, you see, what is considered informative varies from an individual to another.
Edited by BitterAlmond

@Klei said:

After reading this ''article'', I find myself puzzled. What was the point to this, exactly? No idea. I'm off doing something else now.

I'm even more confused: what are these "ideas"? How is he "making" them? A little more elaboration about what exactly it is he's doing would have been nice. I just did not understand this article.

edit: after clicking the links, I understand they're all concepts for unmade, hypothetical games. Although I feel a little silly now, the fact remains that the article didn't entirely make this clear. Links should be supplemental, not necessary for understanding.

Posted by kerse

Its just an article guys, not everything posted here needs to be incredible. Its not like they're only allowed to post one thing a day, they can do stuff like this and important stuff. If its not interesting to you don't read it, done.

Posted by prestonhedges

I was gonna be like, pffft, this isn't news, and maybe it isn't, but I really liked this part:

“I do feel a need to create at all times,” he said. “It's a clawing need that gets worse if I'm without a project for too long a time.”

How many of us don’t have a similar, gnawing passion? When I go a few days without putting pen to (digital) paper, it hangs heavy. It doesn’t matter what I end up writing, I just need to get a thing out, or else I feel terribly guilty.

Yeah, I always feel the need to record music or write this book or something to feel like I'm doing something with my life.

Posted by robot21

Ah nice. I saw his list when it was around 80 ideas total and then forgot about it. Great to see he's still adding more.

Posted by RedRavN

that dude seems cool, and possibly crazy but in a good way. I thought the writing in deathspank was consistently great, although I personally found most of it irritating more than funny.

Posted by Mento

Oh hey, it's Squidi. Cool to hear he's still keeping up with these ideas, but he was around that number when I stopped visiting his site several years ago so it seems his fatherly duties are keeping him busy. Dude's very serious about his intellectual properties (hence the unfortunate Penny Arcade incident), so I'm glad he's getting some coverage on Giant Bomb.

I remember being inspired to come up with 100 game ideas in 10 weeks on my own game design blog when he first began that Herculean task (which I actually did, but then I can't speak to the quality of most of them...)

Moderator
Posted by Soulglove

@patrickklepek said:

@MisterWaingro said:

WHY DOESN'T HE JUST MAKE A GODDAMN GAME!?

A quote I didn't use:

"Though I enjoy programming, I don't enjoy programming games. There's some sort of mental block there, where I've never been able to complete my own game. I've written all sorts of programs, some very large and complex, but never a game. To my infinite misery."

It is a good quote, Patrick, you could have used it. I understand the person better with something said like that. I designed games constantly growing up. I made levels in Doom and Duke Nukem 3D. After taking a Computer Science course in High School, however, I found the process of programming incredibly boring. I couldn't see my creations in code as well as on paper. I could do it if I had to, but I would rather not. That's just me. I would rather write a 300+ page design document than write code. The difficulty for finishing projects derives from both piling on more concepts and more projects with realizing I'm not making a dime with them, and I need to use my limited time finding other means paying bills.

Edited by Rox360

Oh! Oh dude, it's Squidi! I knew I recognized the art style! Holy crap, I used to follow his stuff, like, half a decade ago, when I was super serious about pixel art. Pretty sure we used to hang on the same art forum. I had his website bookmarked on my computer before it exploded and I lost all my stuff, several years ago, and I remember being rather inspired by some of his ideas. Man, I can't believe he's still going with that thing. Talk about determination...

I should probably bookmark that page again. Thanks for the reminder, Patrick!

Posted by JohnnyMcmillen

@Klei: Oh I'm sorry I thought we were being obnoxious about how we feel about things,

Posted by CitizenJP

What a hipster.

Posted by King9999

Mr. Howard really shouldn't just put up his ideas on the Internet for everyone to see. That's why game developers will straight-up refuse to look at a random person's game idea. Since he doesn't care now, I would love to see that Pellet Quest game be made. Maybe I could do it, since I'm a student developer.

Posted by jmrwacko

I'm watching Game of Thrones on HBO atm, so kudos to Howard.

Posted by happymeowmeow

Interesting . A lot of duality in this. Seems like a very personal project, but at the same time completely public. It's a project about the importance of the idea...but does putting them on the internet for all to use devalue them? Or add to their value?

Maybe its the acceptance that the concept is everything, but worthless if you don't do anything with it.

Edited by cyber95

Dude is creative as hell, but he's kind of a dick. Or at least super easily pissed off. There was the Penny Arcade fiasco, as previously mentioned, in which people had the gall to use his art for forum avatars. It's a good thing he never found the forum I used to go to. Gosh, he wouldn't like me one bit.

As for the 'he's seen his ideas taken' thing, there was a game made that used the negative space platformer concept, with one character being in a black area and one in a white area and the two characters could alter the other's area by doing things like moving a white block to move where a movable white area is. While a neat concept, not THAT hard to come up with the idea of negative space as a video game mechanic. Perhaps the idea was stolen, but Squidi just could not buy the idea that somebody could possibly just happen to have a similar idea to him.

Note that he wants to make 300 of these ideas. 300 ideas that he is confident nobody else could ever come up with. But oh boy, if somebody does, there'll be hell to pay!

(that said, with all the neat stuff he DOES have on his list, I hope that people do use some of these ideas with the extra exposure here. While giving credit.)

Posted by probablytuna

Never been a big fan of coding games but I respect those who can and are able to build games by themselves.

  • 66 results
  • 1
  • 2