Hi Reddit,

I’m Brian Tinsman, award-winning producer, current director of design at Zynga & former design manager at Wizards of the Coast where I worked on Magic: The Gathering and other popular collectible card games. I have a background in evolutionary psychology, which gives some unique perspectives into why games can be so compelling.

I have led design on more than 20 titles worth $500+ million in revenue. A list of my work can be found here: http://www.briantinsman.com/professional.htm. I also wrote a book on how to get your board game published.

At Zynga I worked on multiple titles for iOS and Android. My team and I just launched War of the Fallen, the company’s second card battle game, available from the App Store on iPhone, iPad and iPod touch. More info can be found here: https://www.facebook.com/WaroftheFallen

I’ll be here until about 2pm PT/5pm ET today and am ready to answer your questions on all things game design, Magic, card battle/collecting games, dopamine triggers, etc…

Proof: https://twitter.com/WaroftheFallen/status/323583630708453376

Edit: Thank you for the great questions everyone.

Comments: 327 • Responses: 28  • Date: 

Valkes36 karma

How do you approach designing a specific color for magic? How does that approach differ when designing an entire era of cards? What impact, or influences do previous generations of cards have on your decisions as a designer? How important is the "professional" scene regarding overall design in magic? Do you find that the fictional universe surrounding your cards has an impact on how you design? If so, how much weight is it given?

btinsman49 karma

There are a lot of good questions here. Designing for a certain color: A lot of Magic design builds on the deep 20-year history of each of the colors. The goal is to find the right balance between new and familiar. The first stage is to put together a rough skeleton for each color, with empty slots for each color and rarity. This makes you decide how many lands, mythics, etc. your set will have. Then you decide what each color's new twist is going to be. For example, in Scars of Mirrodin, only green and black got infect, but blue got to interact with poison counters once they were on the board. Players really like seeing twists on old favorites and it's actually quite rare to come up with a mechanic that's totally new. When this happens it has to go through many layers of vetting and playtesting before it's published. WotC has a team of about a dozen Magic pros who spend 6 months or more playtesting to get it polished as much as possible.

DemonDesroyer8926 karma

Well since you have a degree in psychology and worked with Magic the Gathering, then maybe you can answer a question that bothers me, a psych minor. WHY IS IT SO ADDICTING? Started playing last year using my friends deck, now I have 5 decks, 5 Fat Packs, 2 booster boxes, and countless booster packs. This is worse than smoking, albeit a cheaper addiction

btinsman100 karma

The amazing thing about CCGs is that they offer so many levels of interaction with the game. You've got 1) Playing the game. 2) Thinking about how to build your deck. 3) Guessing what your opponents might be playing. 4) Collecting the cards you need to build the deck. 5) Thinking about combos to try or new interactions between cards.

There's an economic principle called diminishing marginal utility. For most goods like cars and donuts, your 13th donut has less value to you than your 2nd donut. But for items with combinatorial potential like Lego pieces and Magic cards, your 100th Magic card actually gives you more value than your 10th card since it increases the number of things you can do with your other 99 cards. This is called increasing marginal utility. That's one of the secrets!

lso-isk25 karma

Why did you make blue the most fun to play in MTG?

btinsman46 karma

That's a matter of opinion of course, but blue has historically been the strongest color in older formats like Legacy. I think blue's character of manipulating the meta-rules of the game like deck manipulation, card draw, and countering are the hardest parts of the game to balance and there have been more overpowered cards in those areas over time. Note that the design team has been improving this issue a lot. You tend to see really good power balance between colors these days and you don't see powerful un-fun strategies like Stasis or land destruction.

johoso22 karma

Why is Ken Nagle always locking his trumpet in Ivory Tower? I can't remember the number of times I had to help him break into that meeting room to recover his brass.

btinsman33 karma

Lol, who is this? johoso is referring to an incident in WotC R&D where Magic designer and musician Ken Nagle saw that his trumpet was missing and reported the theft.

After much investigation it turned out to have been misplaced in one of our conference rooms named Ivory Tower. Thus the tradition of harassing him about the incident has now spread to the hallowed halls of Reddit.

sir_against_humanity13 karma

What inspired you to work with games?

btinsman51 karma

I had the game designer's curse, which is the affliction of thinking about game design all the time. I was designing Magic cards for fun during graduate business school lectures.

When I first started at WotC I was managing marketing research and other business stuff. I decided to be bold and walk into the office of the head of design (Bill Rose) and show him the design work I'd done in my spare time. He politely waved me off and said no thanks. Here's the critical turning point in my career: I didn't walk out of there, I said "Tell me why." He later took the time to print out my work with correction in red pen all over it. I studied this feedback intently and returned with another proposal. After a few times through this routine he put me on a design team and my work turned out to be very successful. So the short answer is I was into it and I was persistent.

iamjamazing11 karma

When someone comes to you with an elevator pitch for a game, what do you look for? What do you look for from the presentor? Have you ever started a project or helped start a new game?

btinsman12 karma

I want to know that the person understands who the game is for and what experience the player is seeking in this kind of game.

I want a good fit between theme and mechanics. I want the right mix of familiar and new. Too much newness and players won't know what to make of it. Not enough newness and they won't see the point.

If the category has a lot of competition, the product usually needs a hook, or something that makes it memorable. Almost all pitching is about storytelling. In the venture capital world they advise you to tell a memorable story. Build a narrative in the audience's mind about how this game is going to succeed in the marketplace.

If the presenter has had any successful products that kicks them up a level or two in credibility. Public speaking and presenting skills really do make a difference.

I've started lots of projects. The Maple Story iTCG, the Curses Board Game, and a CCG called Angel Quest are a few.

YAYitsAndrew11 karma

Your board game book is rather old in internet years, do you think there have been any radical changes to the landscape in the last 5 years (kickstarter, print on demand) that makes self publishing easier than it previously was? Do you think staying 'indie' to promote your own brand and use your own tone when talking to your customers is worth trading away the distribution power of a larger publisher?

btinsman12 karma

Hey, it's my friend Andrew of horse/duck fame!

Andrew is referencing my book the Game Inventor's Guidebook which discusses how to get board games published.

Yes, great point. Because of Kickstarter and print-on-demand it's now much less risky to self-publish than it has been in the past. Previously you needed to outlay 20k to even get started in self publishing. The flip side is that it's now harder than ever to get distribution and mindshare with all the competition out there. I like staying indie if you have the time and energy to devote to a startup. It's not something you can do very well a few hours a week. There are lots of indies that are successful but eventually they reach a hard decision whether to start hiring people and quit their day job. With publishers your chance of success is probably lower but so is your risk, effort, and reward.

acusticthoughts11 karma

When you create a new 'something' - how do you judge giving it power? How do you manage not upsetting the balance between all the weapons, people, animals, etc etc and their powers with new pieces. Are you ever tempted to put a God Sword or something that, if ever found, would make someone all powerful...just for giggles?

btinsman18 karma

Costing and balancing happen relatively late in the design process. You can break design into 4 stages: System design, system development, set design, set development. In system design you are asking questions like "what are the basic player stats? How do you earn XP?" in system development you are adjusting and polishing those numbers "What should the starting health be? How much XP should it take to reach level 2?" In set design you are figuring out the content of monsters and items "How many kinds of flyers are there? What are the basic weapon types?" In set development you are balancing unit stats "How many HP should this dragon have? How much mana should this spell cost?" Having god items make the game un-fun pretty quickly, and when we come across them we nerf them fast. In playtesting Magic we would often change card stats mid-game so it was a crazy way to play.

the_way_of_the_road9 karma

Did you work on Magic the Gathering: 2013 for xbox arcade?

btinsman11 karma

The lead guy on that one I believe was Joe Huber, a great designer who reported to me at the beginning of that game's development. So I didn't ever directly touch it. Joe is a guy who exemplifies success in the games industry with brute force creativity and persistence. No degree in computers/games, but he kept building relationships and adding value to every team he touched until he made himself indispensable.

jshine13378 karma

What kind of impact do you think planeswalkers had on the mechanics of the game when they were introduced?

I started playing when the block with Time Spiral in it was a few months away from rotation, and I thought planeswalkers were a cool addition when they were released. A friend of mine who stopped playing much before when I started, and recently picked up the game again says he hates the idea of them.

btinsman18 karma

Magic is defined by its constant transformation. This creates a tremendous conflict between the need to introduce fresh ideas and the need to keep the game from being so complex nobody wants to learn it. Planeswalkers had a big impact on showcasing the characters of the Magic world and giving some relatable faces to the story. The mechanics were quite different from other card types in the past, so there was the danger of complexity creep. We pulled it off with the trick of making them rare and so freaking powerful that everyone really wanted to learn how they worked right away. There's no doubt now that they are a resounding success.

131ackknight8 karma

Hey Brian. You've been a really inspirational person in my career and I enjoyed working with you. How do you find your previous work at WotC influencing your work at Zynga?

btinsman14 karma

Thanks for the props, mystery colleague. Zynga hired me mainly because they wanted to bring some of that deep game play strategy to their games. Since I've been here they've started a new division called 'Mid-core' which are essentially a bridge between hardcore and casual games. There are a lot of players who love hardcore games like Magic, League of Legends, and WoW, but don't have time or space in their lives to really devote themselves. The goal is to build some high quality games that give some of the fun of hardcore games without the big time investment. That's one of the goals of our latest game War of the Fallen.

modestVmouse7 karma

What is your favorite MtG card?

And my buddy built a drafting cube, want to come by sometime and draft with us?

btinsman11 karma

My favorite is Mind's Desire because it provides so much excitement and drama. Sometimes it flops, other times it's amazing. You can also see this love of dramatic moments in the Miracles from Avacyn Restored.

lolmonade7 karma

So, what attributes in your opinion does a collectible TCG have to have to provide a compelling and rewarding experience?

And what needs to be done to make video game versions just as compelling as the physical versions of these card games?

I have my own ideas, but would like to hear your opinion on the matter.

btinsman12 karma

The most important are: 1) A theme and interaction between mechanics and story/characters that resonates with the audience. The starting place for every new game design is "Who is your audience? What emotional experience are they seeking from a game? Do they want to feel smart, show off, make people laugh?" Look up Mark Rosewater's writings on Timmy, Johnny, and Spike for sure. 2) A system that can start out simple and naturally grow in complexity. Simplicity is for acquisition. Complexity is for retention. You need to move people through that progression. Look at Starcraft or Plants Vs. Zombies. You start off with only one or two units - and the key point is that to a noob, even that kindergarten version of the game is fun. After you've gone through the many levels you know how to use 40 units. 3) The right number of distinct strategies. Most players are comfortable choosing from about 3-5 options. More than that can become overwhelming. Notice how many character classes there are in Borderlands 2 and Mass Effect. Players should be able to clearly see how those paths to victory are different. 4) The right balancing, tuning, and collectability. Whenever a player opens a pack they should know exactly what they are hoping for. There's a huge amount of game play value in that pack opening moment.

System_Mangler6 karma

Hopefully I'll catch you just before you go.

I'm not a fan of CCGs like Magic because those with more money to spend on the game have a definite advantage. It's not crippling for an adult with a reasonable amount of disposable income, but it makes the booster packs feel irrellevant and "collecting" feel blase. I like Fantasy Flight's "living card game" solution.

Alternatively, if I were designing a CCG I would consider throwing game balance to the wind, making the rarity of cards proportional to their power, and print a huge number of different cards all at once. I would not publish set lists. There may be only a few thousand or even a few hundred copies of some cards in circulation. Also there would be no sets, and I would not announce when new cards have been released. Every time you open a booster pack, you may discover something new that noone has ever seen before! I'm interested in your thoughts on this model.

btinsman10 karma

I like some of the fresh thinking in your idea. It's really compelling for a player to think he might get a card that no one's ever seen before.

There are some problems though. If you throw game balance to the wind then you get games where most players have no chance of winning. In this scenario it's much more about collecting and your game mechanics become irrelevant. Not publishing set lists would bring disputes about fakes - there's no way to verify if a card is real or not. Plus, players compile card stats and information pretty fast on wikis and such. Not announcing new content would be a shame because players would miss out on the excitement and anticipation of upcoming releases and the company would miss out on the revenue of fans buying the new packs. But all this is really speculation. It would be cool to try it and see what happens.

Xiphwork6 karma

Question:(MTG) Did you ever get a practical reason why land destruction as an archtype will never return to the game?

What are your thoughts about MTG these days? Do you still play it?

Thanks for your AMA, always great to see folks come to reddit for a nice round of questions :)

btinsman8 karma

Yeah, strategies that outright stop opponents from being able to play most of their cards generate enough frustration and anger that the've been de-powered. You used to see viable tournament decks based on land destruction, discard, untap denial or prison, and really strong permission (counterspells.) Everyone ends up having a better time if they can mostly just play their damn cards.

I still play Magic, though not every day like I used to. I love draft and EDH and I try to keep up with Legacy a bit.

playboggle5 karma

Besides a few people that have been around a while, it feels like there's a lot of turnover in the people that work on Magic. Is this just the nature of the industry? Is it something about the culture at Wizards? Is it something about the intensity required to make Magic?

btinsman7 karma

I don't get that impression. I'm not sure what the average turnover rate at a game company is, but I think WotC's is relatively low. The core people like Bill Rose, Mark Rosewater, Aaron Forsythe, and Brady Dommermuth have all been there something like 12 years or more.

katsumichan5 karma

How did you get on the path of game design as a career? Where did you start?

How many years had you had experience with drawing before you were hired by Magic?

btinsman9 karma

I cultivated a love of learning. I studied language, statistics, history, martial arts, and technology just because I was curious. I've listened to about half the entire catalog of the Teaching Company, (college lectures on mp3.) I have a little bit of Tim Ferriss craziness in me.

I started by building relationships with people I knew in the industry. I went to school in Seattle partly because I knew there were a lot of game companies there. My undergrad major (anthropology) has actually been ranked dead last in employability, but I got an MBA and the anthro/business education turned out to be a massive combo in understanding why and how people seek out fun in games.

Above all, I kept designing games on my own. It didn't matter whether they would ever get published. I just enjoyed making them. No matter who you are, your first dozen games will be terrible. Make them and get them out of the way now so you can get to the good ones.

I didn't draw any of the cards. I just designed the rules and game play.

Ethereal873 karma

No matter who you are, your first dozen games will be terrible. Make them and get them out of the way now so you can get to the good ones.

Could you expand on this a bit? I get the idea of trying and failing with a lot of initial bad ideas, I'm asking more around how someone could create so many different game ideas that bomb. I'm having trouble imagining one idea that would likely be scuttled, let alone 12!

btinsman7 karma

I'm talking about the game design. You don't have to create an entire polished releasable product. Just a playable prototype of the core mechanics, either with Unity or similar, or even on paper. This happens in game companies on a regular basis. For every game that makes it out the door, there are half a dozen or more that get to prototype and are killed before the big art and development investment.

SpacePiratesInSpace5 karma

If you were starting out in game design today, would you try to work for an established company, or make your own game independently? If the latter, how would you pay the bills during your game's development process?

btinsman9 karma

Work for a company. It's worth it to have steady income and benefits. Plus you get exposure to lots of other talented people to learn from and network. I think there's a little truth to the idea that it's about who you know, but you can actually go out and get to know the right people if you care to. If you are going to start your own company you probably want some experience and connections under your belt.

greatgerm5 karma

Another MTG question.

We usually get to read about when the design team worked together harmoniously to get a set out. What were the times like when people on the design team were opposed about different cards/mechanics? Do certain designers usually win out? Is there a mechanic or card design that you feel like you really wanted to get out, but just didn't happen?

btinsman10 karma

Yeah those stories don't usually get put on the internet because it's easy to make your colleague look like a jerk. In a good company there's enough professional respect not to name names. That said, there have definitely been times when two sides are trying to build political support for their own view and someone suddenly switches sides. That person is then viewed as having great integrity or backstabbing disloyalty depending on your point of view.

I had several mechanics that I tried to get in for months but were killed for specious reasons (in my opinion.) I don't want to post them here though since I believe they are still property of WotC through the terms of my employment.

TheGutterPup5 karma

Thanks for doing this AMA!

I've recently changed my major and decided to dive head-first in pursuit of my dream: to produce artwork for MtG. Since I was twelve it's all I've ever wanted to do, and I'm almost thirty and using my GI Bill for education.

My question is: How familiar are you with the hiring practices involved with choosing the artists? What advice, if any, could you give me as far as getting in contact, and staying in contact, with relevant personalities and departments so when I am able to produce this type of work I'll be in the right place for it?

Again, thank you for doing this AMA! Magic helped me through lots of very dark times, and I honestly believe I owe my life and my (questionable) sanity to these stacks of cards, so anytime I get to speak at someone involved with it I just have to say that I think of all of you as some kind of enlightened demi-gods.

btinsman8 karma

Thanks TheGutterPup.

Most CCG artists don't work for a game company full-time. A company like Wizards will hire user interface artists and art directors, but card illustrators are freelance. (although you can work your way up to art director from illustrator.) Usually an artist will send a portfolio to the art director who will review it. Often you can make appointments to have portfolio reviews at shows like ComiCon, GenCon, or PAX. If they like your work their next big concern will be whether you actually deliver on deadline.

Some illustrators work at independent art studios, where they get contracts with video game companies, etc. do take on big jobs. In War of the Fallen we had about 600 illustrations so we had a big demand for many illustrators.

RayzrShrp4 karma

In your opinion what is the single most powerful card with all things considered and your extensive knowledge of balance/cost factors.

btinsman13 karma

The most powerful Magic card is Black Lotus.

zeebs1233 karma

Hi Brian - Thanks for doing this AMA. Couple of questions:

On your website it says you worked on games like ChefVille and Party Place. Wondering what the biggest difference between designing for those types of games vs. more serious/strategic games? How do you find passion to design for those when you're so rooted in MTG?

You obviously have a ton of experience so at Zynga are you allowed to pick and choose the games you work on or is it given to you?

btinsman6 karma

Designing games for gamers is like a hard but straightforward path. They have super high standards and there's always a push to do something that's a little better than last time. The great thing is that gamers know it's worth it to learn how to play, so they will stick around long enough to absorb all the complexity.

Designing for casual players is much less straightforward. A lot of those players only sorta maybe want to play a game in the first place so you have to hit them with as much fun as you can up front and hope that's enough to keep them interested enough to learn the rules. We spend a ton of time experimenting with ways to ramp up player interest. This is a less-well understood area of design so the best practices here are still inchoate.

Nicolettecage243 karma

What has been the best moment of your career so far?

btinsman14 karma

A few great moments: I got to playtest my board game Curses! with Magic greats Richard Garfield and Mark Rosewater. It went on to be very successful. Going to Pro Tour Puerto Rico for Rise of the Eldrazi where players wanted me to autograph their cards. My wife got to come with me and we had a great time there. I wanted to work on Zynga's Mid-core team but my family was moving to Austin, which seemed like a deal-breaker. My boss said "I don't care. I want you on the team anyway." That made me feel really valued. Probably the very best though has been lying in bed or sitting in a coffee shop daydreaming of a new creature idea or game mechanic and then seeing it released and people playing with it shortly after. That's what happened with Guild Force in War of the Fallen and it's just amazing to me how an idea can jump out of your head and people will start having fun with it just like you imagined.

jkalltheway2 karma

Power creep is an issue that exists in all games, i'm of the opinion that it has gotten kind of bad in Magic... but what do you think about that?

btinsman10 karma

I think it's a well-crafted illusion. Power creep isn't currently a bad problem. You can actually verify this for yourself if you take a look at winning Modern and Legacy deck lists on Star City Games and see what proportion of those cards are from recent sets. WotC is good at making the latest release seem very powerful without upsetting the long term balance.

INeedPoolNoodles2 karma

In regards to Zynga's general design strategy, energy for certain actions that regenerates over time or can be bought with in-app purchases, do you feel like this is limiting the appeal of the games? It certainly adds what I guess you could call replay value, but I feel that it makes all of Zynga's games that I've encountered feel exploitative. Are there any other techniques to add replay value without having to open the app, do 30 seconds of tapping, and repeat 30 minutes later?

btinsman7 karma

Yeah, I agree that from one perspective the energy mechanic seems like an unnecessary limitation, but it's hard to argue with success. Lots of games that use it do very well. Energy does help make money but it also helps act as a signal that it's time to do something else in the game, which helps guide the player to a more diverse and therefore less boring play session.

I agree that I'd love to see more mechanics that accomplish the same thing in more natural ways, and Zynga does have many mobile games that do this well. The bottom line is that the game marketplace is very Darwinian. The mechanics which are successful tend to spread rapidly.

INeedPoolNoodles1 karma

Thanks for the reply. I just think its a shame that unless you are willing to put months of attention into plants vs zombies, FarmVille, etc. the way to progress is through in-app purchase. I realize that ad revenue is hugely overestimated as a way to keep a game afloat, but I wish there was some other way. Even the console games have gotten in on the whole "buy your way up" thing. Map packs, DLC, all that shit that is exorbitantly priced and once widely adopted, becomes the only option to get all you can out of the game.

I like the sound of these mid-core games. I've always been intimidated by LoL, but bored out of my mind by the various "tap paradise" shit. My friend and I had a conversation last night about the way that these mindless tap games have become what Pokemon cards used to be. Shallow gameplay, only without the huge entry price of Pokemon. You can now start playing for free, but to progress at any reasonable pace you basically have to pay.

Magic, on the other hand, was a very complicated game, with a well done checks and balances system. Never played, but I remember looking in on many games in the local gameshop (something which has sadly gone the way of the dodo.) When an argument came up about some nearly forgotten rule they may as well have been debating particle physics to my ears, but I could readily tell that it was a well thought out, highly competitive game.

I'd definitely like to see more of that.

btinsman3 karma

This is an interesting thread because you get pretty different game experiences depending on your expectations when you start playing a free to play game. If you go in with the expectation 'I already pay for my phone, why should I pay anything more?' you'll often end up feeling like you have to defend against attacks on your wallet to get the true game experience. If you go in with the attitude "If it's worth an hour of my time it's probably worth spending five bucks" you'll have a different expectation of what the true game experience should be. We have to tune the game for both kinds of players.

chickendudu2 karma

Would you rather fight 100 duck-sized horses or 1 horse-sized duck?

btinsman15 karma

100 duck-sized horses. It seems like they might be vulnerable to a jumping, stomping strategy.

My friend and Zynga alum Andrew Pellerano actually helped make a video game about this on Kongregate. Super Duck Punch if I recall.