What Do They Do?
Developers: R&D, Trading Card Games
by Michael G. Ryan
Robert Gutschera didn't plan to spend his career playtesting Pokémon cards and comparing the costs of Harry Potter cards; in fact, his original plans took him along a far different path than one that might lead to R&D at Wizards of the Coast.
"I was a math major in college," he says, "and I went onto grad school at the University of Chicago. After I got my Ph.D., I taught at Wellesley College outside of Boston, where I was a junior faculty member. I was doing research and teaching, the standard thing that you do. But four or five years ago I tired of academia, and I went looking for some other kind of job. That was how I wound up in R&D."
Through William Jockusch, a friend who'd once been in the math world himself, Robert learned of a job opening at Wizards of the Coast on the Research and Development team. His technical background ended up serving him well when it came to landing the position of a non-Magic trading card game developer. "It varies, the background you need. I came in as a technical person. At the time I joined, many of us came from technical backgrounds. Jim Lin came from an engineering background, for instance. Tom Wylie was a linguist. The kinds of thought patterns you acquire in those sorts of backgrounds really help you analyze card powers, understand card templating, or actually design games. You might think that most people in R&D come from a gaming industry background, but that's not necessarily true."
The intensity of the interview process might have given Robert a hint of what the job itself might entail. After a particularly challenging test of analyzing a sampling of unpublished cards and declaring what was "good or bad" about them (a task that "shows how you think things through," Robert says, "and shows if you possess the patterns of reasoning that fit in this sort of job"), he was asked to write an essay along the lines of "what would you change about Magic and why."
"Oddly enough," he recalls, "I wrote my essay in defense of Serra Angel. She's since worked her way back into the game, though that might be more because of marketing pressure and brand influence, but I'd like to believe I contributed something to her return."
And then came the interviews. Some were routine sorts of encounters -- an interview with the person who would be Robert's supervisor or a meeting with a representative from the HR department. But in the end, he found himself at the center of a large group discussion with everyone from R&D who would "essentially assault you for your choices on the various cards you had said were good or bad," Robert says. "And you were expected to defend your answers."
The purpose of this seeming inquisition? To determine if a candidate for R&D is comfortable with the give-and-take nature of the job. "If you enjoy this sort of banter and discussion," Robert explains, "then that means you could potentially be working in R&D and that you would have something to contribute. If you're very defensive or a complete yes-man or yes-woman, you're probably not going to work out. Coming from an academic background, I was pretty comfortable with that kind of exchange. You need to be at ease with sorting ideas, changing your mind, analyzing arguments, and sometimes losing out while being able to move on."
Once he was in the department, Robert quickly discovered the full range of responsibilities that R&D carries at Wizards of the Coast. Card design and development are the two core responsibilities that everyone in the department shares. In the case of design, one or two people within the department create a new set of cards for a game, coming up with interesting, fun, or unusual mechanics. While the designers might take a bit of time to actually play the cards, they don't spend much effort on actually balancing the power of the set they've created. That responsibility falls to the developers, which consists of a team of four or five people in R&D who actually test the cards. Developers check the costs of cards against one another, eliminate mechanics that don't work, and occasionally fill in themes that seem to appear in a set's design. The two roles, design and development, are sufficiently different from one another that individuals coming into the department are often assigned to multiple teams to determine which role they better fit. "I've been on more development teams," Robert says. "Design is very creative, but in development you actually get to play a lot. You get to test the design, mess around with it, build decks for it. If you're a designer, you almost never build decks. Developers get to do most of the playing of the games." At any time, everyone in R&D is on two teams, whether design or development, in addition to a variety of different technical tasks that are spread throughout the department.
In addition to developing Netrunner when he first arrived at Wizards, Robert also wrote a guide to outside playtesters on how to playtest the game. "I wrote up all the secrets of how R&D playtested Netrunner," he says. R&D often carries the weight of writing rulebooks and determining card templates -- that is, the precise wording that appears in the rules text of individual cards. Robert did both for the card game BattleTech, for family games like Twitch, and for some one-shot games like Filthy Rich or What Were You Thinking? At the same time, he became involved in card collation, another task that falls on R&D's list of responsibilities.
"How you lay out cards on a grid determines what cards come in the boosters and in what order," Robert explains. "It was a very interesting job but fairly painstaking."
And then Pokémon hit.
"I was the first R&D lead for Pokémon," he recalls. "That first year was pretty wild. Things were chaotic. When I stepped up to take on Pokémon, I stopped doing collation. It was too much all at once." Despite the frantic pace of the new assignment, Robert remembers it as a turning point in his career as a member of R&D. "It was a lot of responsibility, and no one knew what was happening at first. It was very stressful but it was also a focal point for me."
That opportunity on Pokémon made it possible for Robert to shift gears and take on the role of team lead for the Harry Potter trading card game. Though both games were licensed TCGs with the same R&D member serving as team lead, the two games were as different as night and day. "Because we didn't do the Pokémon design and development in house," Robert points out, "we were much more restricted in what we could do. We never playtested Pokémon, for example. It came from Japan already tested. With Harry Potter, however, things were very different -- much more exciting. When you're the lead developer for a brand new game, the role becomes a hybrid of design and development. Like the designer, you're worried about the excitement and fun of the came and you're also checking card costs and looking for broken cards, but you're also thinking about the rules of the game."
Harry Potter stands, to date, as the project Robert has been most pleased with. "That was really my first baby," he says. "There really wasn't much I could do to Pokémon, but with Harry Potter I felt like I could make a difference in how it came out. R&D works very much on consensus -- everyone has to agree, and people are very good about that in general. If you're the team lead, however, you're probably the one thinking the most about the game. You're the one who has to figure out how to fix the troubles and how to really focus the team on the issues. You need to guide things to a solution. And with Harry Potter, it was a lot of fun to provide that direction and to finally see the game released."
Robert now works on a variety of development teams, including the one for Harry Potter, while serving as a member of the R&D rules council, which discusses rules issues for all of Wizards's trading card games. He's also been doing a great deal of work on a secret project -- one that he's not yet able to discuss but which will hit the streets is 2002. Looking back, he recalls his thoughts at the time he first spoke to William Jockusch about joining the Wizards of the Coast R&D team. "I thought that of all the people I knew, William certainly had the most interesting job," he says. "Now I know that I was absolutely right."
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