WTF… Is Happening?

This is an edited manuscript of a wrap-up speech at Shared Gems seminar 2012 at Helsinki Metropolia University of Applied Sciences. The title was supposed to be a comment to the Petri Purho speech titled “WTF is… Game Design?”. He almost changed the title before the seminar, but I specifically asked him not to. So he only changed the speech… Kind of him not leaving me alone with a WTF-title.

So basically, what you are about to read, is a rant-type of summary of topics within the seminar (program here) targeted for game students, but also some kind of state of things from my perspective. The text is supposed to be provocative. I also tried to be funny, but I guess that is not my thing. I removed most of the jokes.


I teach and study games. My name is Annakaisa Kultima and I come from Tampere, the hot place in Finland when it comes to games at the moment.

This is my recorder. I have collected quite many interview data on developers both in Finland and abroad. But never enough. This area is so uncharted it hurts.

I do design research. This is a picture of my tequila shot at Mexico last autumn. Design research is similar to this drink. Some people take only the shot, some prepare the shot with lemon juice and some take the salty tomato juice to sooth everything at the end.

Design research works approximately on three levels too. You can study things that help you design better things, you can jump and design yourself to understand things better, or u can look things afterwards and analyze things that have already been done.

When I drank this drink, it was nice and warm night at the back yard of a local game designer’s house. It was a very good moment. I have similar fuzzy feelings for my research. And I try to cover all of the three steps.

However – one should remember that science and design by their nature are importantly different. Where science seeks general laws and tries to verify facts by repeating the experiments, design is interested in PARTICULAR and things that are not easy to repeat. That makes the relationship a bit uneasy. Sometimes design research is not considered science at all. And in some senses it is true.

I do design research, but perhaps correction is needed. I do GAME design research. One of my favorite sentences is this:

“Game design is a second-order design problem. A game designer designs the rules of the game directly but designs the player’s experience only indirectly.” – Salen & Zimmerman, Rules of Play 2004

It captures the pain and challenge of game development. Game designers try to build an experience that they can only bring alive through the rules and whatnots of the game. It is second order design.

You as a game designer do not come in a box – you don’t know how your audience is experiencing it all.

Since one cannot know how the game feels and how people response to it before it is done, it needs to be done. Several times. YOU don’t even know how it feels like. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. And usually it is the fifth or even sixth or seventh time when you get it right.

Your head can imagine so many things that are not possible. Don’t do game design in your head alone.

There is a lot of talk about how game designers and perhaps the rest of the developers are player’s advocates. I hear that. And we have a lot of tools and practices to follow that order too. But at the end the industry WAS and IS built on passion. There were no schools and the pioneers were high school dropouts or did not fit to the university. But they knew what they loved. And as they cared what they were doing, they did things that you care too.

This is a game idea from one of my game design courses.

Now, the struggles that game developers had on 80s or 90s or 2000 are not the same today. It was not easy and it is not easy nowadays, the support is now better, there are more attention and customers, but the competition is getting harder.

Things are also changing all the time. If you concentrate on making your game for a long period of time, let’s say 1-2 years, which is very rare these days, things have already changed. For the past 5 years things have changed drastically.

First of all is the casual games. And no, it is not as simple as “easy to learn and difficult to master.” It is all about the transformation of game design values and so to say “normalization of digital games”. And not only about Diner Dash, but it goes all the way to the triple A.

With “normalization of digital play” I mean the way that games have been there for thousand of years as part of the everyday life of different people. For grannies it is Bingo. For some it was chess. For so many people it is Lotto on Saturday nite. Practically everyone play games.

Then there is the social media. We chat with our parents and relatives on the same space where we play. There is normally a bit less zombies and radioactive goo. Immersion is not the only value. Routine is important for modern people in the middle of all these changes and instability.

We do have new approaches. Games that are connected all the time have the advantage to measure all of the clicks. But it is not heaven; it just creates yet another profession on games industry. We now need also the stats people. And now game devs are doing what web developers and advertisers have been doing a long time.

Games are big business. It is not only art skills nor the stats that you need. You need to know how to bring the bread on the table. It is serious now.

And so it is not all about triple A titles. The holy trinity of digital games are FPS, RPG and RTS. If you DONT know what that means, perhaps you have a chance, you might see the similarities between scratch ticket and online gaming, football and Quake, board games and iPad games. For the rest of you, I hope u play outside your own comfort zone.

At the game education we do have a problem. We attract the kids that are happy with current games. You come in as a gamer, not as a maker.

This is Seth Killian playing NY game student’s combat game that was made as a token for love for street fighter and such.

You might think that you are unique and you have unique ideas, but if you look at the mirror and see a guy wearing t-shirt, jeans, funky sneakers and a messenger bag with badges and you played Diablo and Skyrim last night, we got your type already covered.

This is a picture from this year GDC. It attracts 20 000 game professionals yearly. They all look pretty much the same. If there are girls, they also look a bit like that. But things are changing.

I have visited San Francisco now for four times from 2008, skipping one year. I love to go to game conferences. I have more serious reasons, but I have enjoyed the space at certain facilities. I never have to schedule to pee in time. Not before this year. Girls are taking over the industry, they need to pee too. But they now also have to wait in line.

This is actually at the restroom on the Moscone center, SF. Im ok.

As things are changing so fast – perhaps not that fast – but usually way too fast to ship perfect product. That creates a problem for the education. Should we teach what you need tomorrow or what you need next week?

This is a picture of a debate between, mostly between, Nick Fortugno and Chris Hecker; Manveer Heir from Bioware in the middle. They are passionately arguing which is more important for a game designer – to learn to program – or not. Nick, which I admire tremendously, he is one of the smartest people I have EVER met, is stating that he would be better designer if he would have programming skills, BUT, it would take all the time from reading and researching OTHER things that affect his craft.

Learning takes time and you have to make choices how you consume your time. The study credits that we, as educators, can offer you ARE WAY TOO LITTLE to make you a professional.

What we should do is to make you take the AGENCY of your own learning process. This is because it DOES NOT end when you enter a company, or you have shipped your first hit. Imagine this: most of the successful people on this industry have MADE their path, it was not given to them.

One of the things in the future is hybrid experiences – such products as Skylanders that surprised perhaps everyone on the 2011 Xmas markets. Or brave openings like Makielab’s 3D printed dolls where the previous lead designer of Habbo Sulka Haro went. Or Mechatars. Or things that LEGO is FINALLY doing. And this is now when we finally started to think that we are all online, virtual and with digital distributing.

And this is important. There are industries that know these things better. They know how to do stuff. I mean like objects and surfaces to touch. And they are older and not that sharing and caring like digital games industry.

This is Life of George from Lego and if you don’t know it, you should check it out.

But at the same time these all are domain of design. And it means that we are dealing with things that are in the future. And so many things are similar to game design. Perhaps even more than what we think.

This is me asking from Eric Zimmerman, the co-author of the Rules of Play, a book that you should actually read from cover to cover, about his notation of second order design. Some of the things that we are learning from game developing are universal.

But don’t despair, things are cool. As long as u REALLY love MAKING games, you will be fine. BUT if you are just another gamer, perhaps you have more fun watching.

These are the things I want u to remember:

You are not the audience.

So don’t stand in the crossroads waiting.

As long as u are young and not too cynical, when you don’t know all the limits and problems that all the veterans know, use this naivety to make something brave, something that shakes yourself if not others.

And even though it is fun to be part of the community, don’t be afraid to stand out.

This is Dustin Clingman. He organizes the annual Golden Gate run at GDC and he runs in a kilt. Yes, you heard me right: game developers exercise too. Those with best fit are the last men standing at the parties.

However, be prepared to fail a lot. Sometimes you are too early, sometimes too late. Like Apple game center. It is always combination of bravery and following, leading the way or timing right. Innovation is not easy, in order to success; you usually have to be the second, Like Zynga. Yeah: it is also compulsory to imitate in order to make things work.

You set the future: there are no princes or princesses. Your teachers are not your saviors. They have no FUCKING clue what they should teach you. We don’t have the FUCKING clue where this industry is going. Today’s veterans don’t have the clue.. It is like that movie Cube, where the system is built in pieces without the thorough understanding of the purpose of this all and the one that walks out of it is — fucking retarded. Excuse my language.


The original presentation slides can be found here: