Video game designer has replaced web designer and film director as one
of today’s most desirable jobs. With video game sales rapidly expanding
in proportion to the industry’s range of jaw-dropping graphics, the pixel-based
medium is at an all-time high, making seasoned designers like Tom Sloper
men in demand.
With nearly 25 years in the video game industry, Sloper has parlayed his
experiences as a designer, developer and consultant into several teaching
positions, where he helps the next wave of designers bring their imaginations
to life on the computer screen. Sloper has designed games for several different
companies, including giants Atari and Activision.
All total, he has created and/or developed dozens of titles that have sold
more than 5.5 million units. Sloper has also recently contributed his expertise
to a pair of books about the gaming industry: Game Design Perspectives
and Secrets of the Game Business.
Unlike many of his students at the Academy of Game Entertainment
Technology and California State University—Dominguez
Hills, Sloper never set out to become a video game designer.
The first job he landed upon arriving in Los Angeles in 1979 was a position
at Western Technologies, a seminal “toy think tank” and the maker of the
much-celebrated Vectrex gaming system. Sloper had originally hoped to
find work building sets in the film business but was soon lending his
technical talents to designing the LCDs of Vectrex’s proto-Game Boy handheld
electronics and early game cartridges.
In the early 1980s, most gaming designers doubled as programmers, but
Sloper’s gaming instincts outweighed his lack of programming experience.
“I had a very good game sense because when I was a kid, we used to play
a lot of a board games and card games around the kitchen table,” Sloper
says. “For the most part, when you look at the early 1980s when I made
these games [for Vectrex], game designers were usually the programmers
themselves -- they made their own graphics, they had their own ideas,
they did it all. [The first games that I designed] my friend could program
them; he just needed to know what to do. I learned that I had to explain
the games in great detail.”
Today’s designers, ironically enough, find themselves returning to Sloper’s
original design prerogatives.
“Game designers today are the guys that define how the game is going to
work,” he says. “He’s not the same guy as the programmer or the artist.”
Sloper counts Shanghai, a variation of mahjong he developed
and designed for Activision, as one of his greatest successes. According
to Sloper, the game was instrumental in adding to his understanding of
“You know you’ve done a good job when people e-mail you, ‘I sat down
to fiddle around with the game and the next thing I knew, it was three
o’clock in the morning,’” Sloper says. “Simple games with simple strategies
like Shanghai let you relax and open up your thoughts.”
The simple nature of new games designed for cell phones and other portable
devices may not match the complexity of the latest PlayStation 2 title,
but these games may be nearly as influential, according to Sloper.
“We’re seeing games that go back to an early kind of simplicity,"
Sloper says. "You really have to think about the user now [when designing].
People are using these portable games while they’re waiting [in line]
or after they’re done checking their e-mail.”
The popularity of cell-phone games defies the conventional wisdom that
hard-core gamers are the only audience worth courting.
“A hardcore gamer is going to play the latest GTA [Grand Theft Auto] adventure,”
he says. “But those aren’t necessarily the people we’re making our cell
phone games for. This is a completely different audience. While we’re
seeing a huge increase in complexity and depth, we’re also seeing a revitalization
of simplicity and pure game play.”
Sloper thinks success for today’s designers may depend more upon understanding
the psychology of game players than on high-speed graphics.
“It surprises a lot of aspiring game designers to realize how much of
the fun of a game depends on the user interface and the intuitive ease
of just going into the game and getting to the thing you want and fiddling
with it -- making the whole process transparent,” he says.
“Games are all about limitations,” Sloper continues. “A game is a set
of limitations that you can have fun in. That’s what game design is all
about, too. Most of the real life of a video game designer is not sitting
around coming up with ideas; it’s about getting an assignment and then
taking that assignment and turning that into something fun for other people.”
Games designed by Tom Sloper
When students approach Sloper with ambitions of designing a video game,
he says many are caught up in the spectacle of the latest PlayStation
title and overlook the fundamentals of being a video game designer.
“People ask me all the time, ‘What software should I get to do game design?’
I tell them Microsoft word and Microsoft Paint, which probably comes with
your computer,” says Sloper. “That’s all you need. A designer is basically
someone who's communicating an idea through writing and pictures. Some
designers -- if they don’t have the graphical abilities -- as long as
they have access to an artist who’s good enough to draw in order to illustrate
what they want, they’ll be able to get their idea across.”