June 8, 2022 -

As told to Jonathan Ritter-Roderick, 2298 words.

Tags: Games, Design, Process, Collaboration, Inspiration, Beginnings, Day jobs.

On working hard to get to do what you love

Game Designer Patrick Leder discusses knowing your audience, the value of constraints, not settling, and how being a parent changed his creative path.

All of your games have four letter titles. Are there any other things Leder Games does that are restrictive and encourage creativity in unique ways?

As an aside, because I think it’s a great aside: Chuck Palahniuk, the guy who wrote Fight Club and Invisible Monsters and Choke and others, I saw him speak live, and he just didn’t want to publicly speak. I could tell he was just doing it because his agent needed him to go speak to a group of 100 people in various cities. So, basically, what he does is he waits for the question, and then he thinks of one of the anecdotes in his head, and then tells the anecdote. It was so bizarre because he was just pulling stories out of the air and putting them into whatever gap he could fill in the interview.

Forcing four letter titles is one of of the restrictive ways we encourage creativity in unique ways. I think another big thing that we do is we stick to a budget for our rule books about how many words you get to use. We essentially have two game lines at this point. One is the line that is Vast and Root and Oath and Arcs. Those are a heavier type games—heavy being a board gaming concept of a weight of decision you need to make to finish the game. We have a budget of about 2,000 words for those and that helps a lot, because I will go through cycles of when I’m massively overwriting 2000 words, and then I’ll contract it back down to 2000 words. That helps manage the target depth that we’re going for.

And, just knowing your audience really well, for us, helps a lot. I had a play test session late Friday night for the game I’m working on for the studio next, and one of the people in it was this very senior person in the game industry. And he said to me, “If this was anybody else’s game right now, if I were helping any other publisher as a developer, I would tell them to cut about half this game out, but since I know your audience is going to like this depth of game, it’s fine.”

What he was literally talking about was how it takes more than one session to really get good at or to get into [the game]. He was like, “You need a game to hook the player by turn three.” And our games do that. You’re hooked by turn three, but you’re not really going to fully appreciate the nuance of the strategy until your third or fourth game. He said, “So any other client, I’d be like, ‘No, cut this down,’ but I understand how your company works, I’m going to say this is fine. I would just tighten these things,” and then he got more specific about what needed tightening.

Outside of games, what creative work do you do?

I’ve sacrificed everything to games. All my free time, all of my conscious thoughts are to games. I do play a lot of video games. I think some people try and draw parallels between the design of board games and video games, and I don’t think that’s as true as people would hope. Video games allow you to hide a lot of mechanics. There was a Stellaris Kickstarter. I played a lot of Stellaris. Someone asked me, “Why don’t you approach Stellaris and see if you can design a game for them since you like it so much.” My big problem with Stellaris is that the game is 1%, 5%, 10% at a time, and not like a board game where you’re just trying to outscore somebody by 100%. And so to simulate that winning in the margin that Stellaris is asking you to participate in, I just don’t think that can be simulated well in a board game. Now, the people that design the Stellaris board game, I am ready for you to prove me wrong.

So yeah, anyway, I play video games. I find video games to be a place where I can quiet my mind a little bit and work on some of the problems I have in life, or problems I have in board game design. It gives me structure to think about them while I’m playing something in real time. I play a lot of role playing games too, with my friends. That’s very casual and very social. I play some miniature board games. It’s all games. That’s all I do.

Then I exercise, just so that this bag of meat that I live in makes it to a decent timeline. That’s why I’m only playing games because I also have kids. And so if I’m awake and they’re awake, I’m playing with them, and then when they go to bed, then I have 15 minutes to play video games, and then I go to bed.

I feel the same. I’ve devoted my entire life to games now. So what do I do for creativity outside of games? I don’t have the mental capacity to do anything creative other than games.

I did a lot of miniature painting last year, which it’s still gaming adjacent, but the painting part is very relaxing in a very different way, so I really enjoyed that. I’ve been taking a yoga class with my daughter on Saturdays. And every week, the teacher will say, “Introduce yourself and then say one thing.” And so this week the teacher said, “What do you like to do outside during the summer?” And I was like, “Nothing. I like to do nothing. I just like to sit and let the heat take me.”

You had an idea for a game that has three different levels, three different ways you can play. That’s interesting because it’s an idea that you can tell to anybody, and most companies would not be able to crack that. If you had that idea handed to you and two other game studios, even if the other studios figured it out, it would be a different game coming from you versus somebody else. I thought of this because there’s no way to truly protect ideas in boardgame design. You can’t say, “Hey, this is my mechanic.” But you did find a lane where it doesn’t matter what your idea is, you can tweet about it, and no one’s going to be able to do it the same.

Maybe someone will. There’s been a couple games lately I’m like, “Did I somehow accidentally inspire that two years ago with my tweets?,” but that’s okay because that means it exists now, and I don’t have to make it, and I can just play it instead of having to make it. But yeah, I think hitting the three different skill levels, I don’t know if it’s anything unique to us, but since I have all experience working on Vast and the skill levels there, it just seems like such a natural segue. I also have a lot of people working. The design team is a bit wider than I’m used to, so there’s other people working on it with me, and that’s been helping a lot, too. Then when we get stuck, I’m always like…“How can the three of us who’ve all shipped games before not be coming up with a solution as readily as I thought we could?,” but that’s another issue.

We’ll get there. We’ll get there. The secret is play testing. We’re just going to playtest the heck out of it. So I’ll play a lot of games with one person at the junior level, and all the people at the junior level, and so on. And that’s why it has to be a simple game to get that testing to work.

Or you’re going to be playtesting for five years.

Or that, yeah.

What were you doing before you started making games?

I worked at a college that I had been working at for 10 years. After college, I fell into working for the school I’d worked for as an enterprise database programmer, which is a long way to say I ran the system that maintained the grades at the college. I had the database that tracked the grades for the people working in the registrar’s, so a very, very support role. And I liked it for a while, and I was good at it, and I’m pretty good at data analysis now because of it. So I did that for a while, and then I left, and just did mid-20 stuff in Japan, and came back, and consulted for a bit, and then I fell into another role at another college doing the same thing. I did that for 10 years.

But then I hit a wall where I was just like, “This is just maintenance. The users aren’t asking for things at a pace that I find interesting. I’m just babysitting this system,” or they asked me to do something that I’d just find frustrating and dull. And so I changed jobs within the school. Again, another database job. But when I got there, it was even more custodial than what I was doing in my previous role and I burned out on it really fast. I also gained knowledge on how to ask for money, such as doing Kickstarter, that helped.

Has becoming a dad influenced your creative work?

So do you know who Robin Williams is?

The actor?

The actor, yes. Before he had kids, he did cocaine, and his comedy was something an adult is going to appreciate. Mork and Mindy is in a very adult world, even if kids can watch it. And once he had kids, he started doing movies that met his comedy in the middle and could be for a family. He did Hook right after he had his first child. And Hook’s a great movie. I’m not discounting it, but it did change his relationship with his work, definitely. He did become more interested in making things that he could show to his children. Then later, he got back to adult roles. He made One Hour Photo. That was the most like, “Whoa, he’s back to doing adult stuff.” And it’s not a funny movie. He’s just playing a very scary person. And then he started making comedies with Bobcat Goldthwait, which are super dark if you’ve never seen them.

I worked on Vast, and that’s for kids. Kids could play it, but I have two products in the studio pipeline right now….and the furthest one out I have is definitely a game aimed at facilitating my oldest daughter playing it. She’s played it with me during play testing, and it’s great, and it works really well for her. Within each role in the asymmetric game, it’s not just there’s an easier version of the role in the sense of how Vast makes it so you can win easier, but you still have to know everything about playing that role to play that role, but it actually takes away actions, so it makes a simpler version of each role for children her age to be able to get into. And then there’s a version of each role that is more working parent, or a parent that’s not necessarily a gamer could play, and then there’s a version of each role that you or I could sink our teeth into and get into.

So my daughter and I could all sit down at the game and approach it from very different skill levels and still be playing on an even footing. And that’s what I’ve been working on. And that idea has been proposed to me before. People said, “Won’t it use the asymmetry to create roles that children could play?” And there are some floating out there for Root that are very simple and it’s specifically for children to play, but I wanted to have the same appeal so you could play any of the roles and hit it from each level.

Also, being a parent, and I’ve said this out loud during conventions, that I cannot stress how important having a child was to my career because everything I’d done before them was like, “Yeah, I’ll go to work, and I’ll earn a paycheck, and I’ll come home, and then I’ll have fun, and I’ll play World of Warcraft, or I’ll play role playing games on the weekend with my friends, or whatever, and I’ll occasionally design a game.” Once I had a child, I was in a part of my career that I considered to be a very dead end.

And so when my child came along and I realized I was just putting in the motions at work, I thought to myself, “This is not a good way to be an example to my child of what working is like,” and I needed to change something. And I didn’t do it right. I didn’t do it as mindfully as I should have. I just crashed that job working on games until that job came to me and said, “This clearly isn’t your priority in life anymore. You need to move on.” And fortunately, that switch worked. There are people who couldn’t have handled that transition. I didn’t even know I could handle the transition until I was there, but because I had a child, I made the transition work. And now I think I’m a good example of work to her and I’m doing what I love.

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