Developing Development

Posted in Latest Developments on August 24, 2012

By Zac Hill

Zac is a former game designer/developer for Wizards of the Coast and was the lead developer for Dragon's Maze. His articles have appeared in The Huffington Post, The Believer, and on Currently he serves as the chief operating officer of The Future Project, a nonprofit education initiative, and holds a position as a research affiliate in the MIT Game Lab.

I've been at Wizards of the Coast for almost exactly three years now, and it's kind of mind-blowing to think about how many things have changed since I first showed up. In a comparatively short amount of time, we've made gigantic strides forward when it comes to process, organization, and ideology. Most of the stuff we talk about with you guys has to do with how we develop Magic sets, but we also spend a lot of time and energy "developing" the way we work internally. And that makes sense: after all, navigating all the hoops you have to jump through in order to put together a product as demanding and intricate as Magic is kind of like a game in and of itself. So I thought it might be cool to walk through a few of the ways we've shaken up our process over the last couple of years.

R&D: Research and... Design?

Perhaps the biggest change to hit R&D since I got here is that it's no longer R&D! Err... it's still R&D—but it's a different D! Maybe it should have like an asterisk or a little superscript 1 or something in the logo. I dunno. I'm sure our brilliant and capable graphic designers will get right on that.

Anyway, yeah: what was Research and Development is now Research and Design. It's a largely cosmetic change, to be sure, but I feel like it reflects a broader shift in philosophy that has a lot to do with why Magic has really taken off in recent years.

The thing is, development's job really isn't to tweak numbers and cost things. That's a part of what we do, and it's an important part, but what matters most is whether we're making Magic fun. In other words, we're not just trying to make sure stuff works—we're trying to make sure stuff works well. And the way we do that is to ensure the play experience is as good as it can possibly be. What that means is that development has started to spend more and more of its time on game-play design—to really ensure that the mechanics and themes and overall feel of a design file manage to express themselves satisfyingly when actual games are played.

In Innistrad, for example, a central pillar of the horror motif we were trying to get across involved suspense: tension, surprise, transformation, and excitement. Moreover, coming out of design we knew we wanted each tribe to actually feel like the trope it was supposed to represent—it wouldn't work, you know, if werewolves weren't both regular old dudes and giant ferocious monsters, or if zombies just kind of hung out by themselves and stayed put inside their graves when they died. The thing is, if development just sat around and re-jiggered some numbers, just playtested a bunch and found "bugs" (i.e., broken cards, overpowered strategies, dominant archetypes) and reported them, none of this feel would have ever come across. Design's specialty is to realize that, say, Vampires want to be an aggressive red-black tribe and some mechanics should exist that make you have to think about the graveyard. It's up to development to make sure that happens in-game—to encourage that aggression with the Slith ability, to have black and green care about death because of morbid, to have blue and red load up the graveyard to make use of flashback, etc., etc. They're two sides of the same coin. They're two similar kinds of game design, and I think the re-branding of "R&D" reflects an acknowledgment of that reality that only grows with time.

Call to the Kindred | Art by Jason A. Engle

Magic Digital

Different people have different answers about why Magic has been doing pretty well as of late. I like to think the most important reason is because we put a lot of passion and commitment into giving y'all something that's worth the time you invest in it, but it's also true that a big portion of that success involves breaking down the huge barriers to entry that come with figuring out how to play a game as complicated as ours. The most successful way we've managed to do that so far has been through the Duels of the Planeswalkers video game series.

When I first got here, the entire Duels team was made up of (a) interns or (b) people who could spare time from other projects. Fortunately, a lot of the people working on Duels were extremely committed to the project (in addition to being extremely talented in general), and our awesome partners over at Stainless Games really went the extra mile to make Duels extraordinary. So, despite being put together by a kind of skeleton crew, the game really managed to take off. We realized, though, that it was probably not the best idea to piece together a team for one of our most important projects out of whoever's calendar happened to have the most white space on it. Instead, we created an entirely new wing of the department: Magic Digital.

The Magic Digital R&D team shouldn't be confused with the Magic Online team, who is responsible for putting that game together. Instead, digital's job is to coordinate game design resources for our digital projects—so, doing things like building decks for Duels of the Planeswalkers or creating the list for the Magic Online Cube. Having this team is enabling us to design some really incredible media experiences for our upcoming paper releases, and also create editions of Duels that, in my opinion, are going to redefine what card games are capable of doing in the digital space.

None of this existed at all when I first showed up, but I really feel like some of the most exciting things in the pipeline are coming out of this team.

Team Spirit | Art by Terese Nielsen

We're All In This Together

Y'all have to have seen these at some point, I'm sure—Monty's done an Arcana, or they've surfaced in a Maro article, or something. R, 3. A blank white card with some text scribbled on it in Sharpie. 1U 3. W 2/1. Perhaps my favorite: UUBBBRR "Taste it!" The famous and/or infamous R&D playtesting proxies.

I've got to admit, these have a certain charm. In fact, I'm a holdout: I still can be found scribbling "1U 2/1 Flash LOLOLOLOL" onto white cardboard rectangles at my desk. But these cards have a massive problem: aside from the author, nobody has any idea what they do!

When you're dealing with super-enfranchised developer-y Magic players who play in the Future Future League regularly, such ambiguity isn't that big of a deal; we're all basically familiar with the card file, and we all basically know what everything does. The trouble comes when you try to play with anyone at all besides that. Maybe someone from Kaijudo had some spare time and designed a cool new deck. Maybe Aaron has decided to stroll by and annihilate us with Shrine of Burning Rage, just to remind us who's the boss. Maybe someone from another department wants to know how a certain set plays so they can do a better job marketing it, or talking it up to distributors, or designing eye-popping packaging, or crafting branded play experiences, or whatever. They literally cannot play, no matter how much they want to. And as fun as it is to watch someone's eyes pop as they try to parse nothing but the phrase "XWWW CAT FESTIVAL," it's not really conducive to getting work done.

Fortunately, Dave Guskin designed a super-sweet tool that takes a text decklist and coverts it into printed stickers, replete with Oracle text for every card. All the considerate developers—yeah, everyone but me—now use that tool for most of their playtests, and it's managed to open up our process to the rest of the company on a frankly unparalleled scale.

Alter Reality | Art by Justin Sweet

Yeah, The Times, They Are A-Changin'

I'm doing design work now for "Huey," the fall set slated for release almost two years from now. The first set I contributed to was Rise of the Eldrazi, meaning that I've worked on six blocks' worth of sets in the span of just three years.

What gives?

So it turns out that for a long time, we kind of just kicked a set over the wall when we finished it and told people, "So, yeah, you want to make some packaging for these cards now? Maybe, I don't know, try and market it a little bit? Yeah, that would be awesome. No, I am not really sure what's important, but I bet you can figure it out. I'm sure you'll do fine. Oh, you've got like four months. Thanks."

Strangely, we started getting some pushback from other departments on this. What would work a lot better for them, they told us, was (a) if we could start doing our work earlier, to give them a far more sane amount of time to do theirs, and (b) if they could get involved in the process earlier, so they could have the perspective necessary to implement bigger and more comprehensive projects (say, a campaign that spanned a whole block).

All of this was fine and dandy and totally reasonable, but it wasn't as simple as just shifting back the schedule by a couple months. For one thing, obviously, the work that needs to be done inside the window getting pushed back still needed to get done somehow. That's a surmountable problem, though. The bigger issue was that a huge amount of development work depends on results that are coming in from the outside world. If some card—say, I don't know, Bitterblossom—is tearing up the tournament scene, we both (a) want to make sure some answers exist for that strategy and (b) probably don't want the next big set's theme to involve producing 1/1 token creatures every turn.

The solution was to split development into two parts. In the first segment, we paint in very broad strokes and do a lot of the context-independent work of making a set, say, playable in Limited, or ensuring the file contains enough diversity that we can work with the art concepts should something need to change. For the second segment, then, we wait a while—that is, there's a gap to work on other sets while the real world produces a metagame. Then, we adapt to those changes as much as possible before polishing off the file for good.


Mitzy, our friendly Lobby Dragon

Bye, Bye, Miss American Pie

All of these, of course, represent just a few of the things that have changed since I first rode up the elevator to kick it with our resident dragon back in 2009. By and large, of course, things mostly remain the same. We still strive to make awesome Magic sets, we still work with awesome people, and we're still proud to have one of the most passionate, dedicated fan bases in the industry.

If I seem unusually reflective about my history at Wizards—after all, who gets all misty-eyed and nostalgic at the three year mark, of all times—it's because, well, I kind of am. This'll be the last Latest Developments you guys read from me. I recently accepted a position as the Director of Research and Development for The Future Project, a New York-based education nonprofit, and I'll be headed out that-a-way in early September. As sad as I'll be to leave this amazing environment and this amazing dream of a job, there's a lot to look forward to as well. My background is in politics and policy, actually—I worked for an organization called the Centre for Independent Journalism in Kuala Lumpur before coming to Wizards, and held a position in Memphis as an advisor to the mayor—and I'm kind of excited to be diving back into the "real world," so to speak. There's a kind of surreal time-bubble we close over our heads when we step into the office at 1600 Lind Ave SW, and it's good to be able to stop for a while and take in some of the fresh air. Moreover, I have some other stuff going on. I'm going to be working a few weekends a month as a research associate at the MIT-Singapore GAMBIT Game Lab, doing some pretty cool research into the critical theory of games. My debut short story collection comes out this October (with an audiobook slated for release later this month!) via the awesome guys at Monarch Press. And I'm currently deferring enrollment for my JD/MPP at Berkeley, whenever the Future Project gig ends. So if your hearts are just aching to get some more Zac Hill into your lives—I know, I know, I can hear the wailing from here at my desk—I won't be too hard to find.

All of that non-Magic business aside, I've been playing the game since I was eight years old, and it's not as if I can front about it like it won't be a major part of my life. I still intend to participate in the community. I still intend to write about the game. I'll still be working for Wizards in a minor role doing some external consultation on sets, and I'll still be in the booth as part of the coverage team at Pro Tours for the foreseeable future. Most importantly, even though I can't exactly jump right back into high-level competitive play for a while, I'll be able to sleeve up some decks and battle with all you guys for the first time in entirely too long. I miss that like you wouldn't believe.

As for Latest Developments, my spot'll be filled by a rotating core of developers—Billy Moreno, Dave Humpherys, Tom LaPille, Sam Stoddard, and maybe a few by Erik Lauer—talking about set-specific topics in more or less the same format you're used to. Trick'll tell y'all more about that later, I'm sure. In the mean time, I can't express how meaningful it's been to me, how life-affirmingly enriching, to have the opportunity to earn a living creating the game I love. I've been scribbling cards down for as long as I can remember, notebook after notebook, and there's no feeling quite like doing that one day and seeing a conference room full of people playing with it the next. I've been immeasurably blessed. It's been a hell of a ride.

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