hen I think of my life, I tend to think of it as my having two roles in it. Part of the time, I'm Magic head designer, juggling various set designs from years in the future and trying to make sure all the designers and design teams have the direction they require to know what they need to do. The rest of the time, I'm a family man seeing to the needs of my wife Lora and my three children, Rachel, Adam, and Sarah.
Lora, Mark, Adam, Rachel, Sarah
But as I often explain, I'm a holistic thinker, so I don't see these two roles as being independent of one another. The lessons I learn in one role shape and guide the other. Today (and two weeks from now), I'm going to talk about some of the lesson I've learned as a parent and explain how those lessons have affected me as a designer. As you will see, the two skill sets aren't as far apart as one might expect.
Design is an act of creation, much like being a parent. You bring something into this world you are now responsible for protecting and nurturing. You are emotionally connected to it and it sucks up a lot of your time and attention. In the end it will outgrow you, hopefully to lead a happy life.
For those of you who enjoy my personal columns, here's the cream of the crop of my previous ones. It's not necessary to have read them to understand this article, but they do help fill out who I am as a person. If I talk about something that can be referenced from an article below, I will.
With the optional reading out of the way, let's get started.
Lesson #1: It's a Lot of Hard Work
I grew up in a family of four with a father; a mother; and a sister, named Alysse, a year younger than myself. While my school life wasn't all that calm (see my first life lesson in the link above), my home life was. My family was very loving and supportive and I grew up wanting one day to have a family of my own.
Flash forward a number of years. I met Lora at Wizards of the Coast (I'm hoping to do an article on our courtship next year for my fifteenth wedding anniversary) and we got married. Lora also wanted a family. We spent much time talking about it and realized we both wanted two kids, ideally a boy and a girl, but we knew we'd love whatever we got. Lora and I got married a little on the older side—we were both in our early thirties—so as soon as we were married, we were off to the races. Two years later, Rachel was born.
Let me stress that I wanted a family. I was as willing a participant as they come. So what was my first reaction to finally having a child? One, it was awesome. I've never loved something as fast or as completely as I loved Rachel (obviously, with the equal exceptions of Adam and Sarah). Two, it was a lot of work!
Our thought process was that two full-grown adults could easily handle one small baby. I took a few weeks off when Rachel was born and Lora took off several months (remember that we both worked for Wizards). On top of that, my mother came to help. That was three-on-one. It should have been a snap, but little baby Rachel knocked all three of us on our respective rears.
With time, we started building routines and things got easier, but here's the important thing—it's never stopped being a lot of work. Part of being a parent is opting in for being part of something bigger than yourself. It's a great experience. I've never regretted for one second having a family, but I've come to learn that it's a decision that requires sacrifices. Not just of time and money but of emotion and mind space. Having a child completely redefines who you are as a person.
What does this have to do with design? Everything! Each time I get a new designer, I get the same question: "How long before I can lead my own set?" Each one is itching to finally have a set that is his or hers. I feel much like I do when I learn someone is pregnant with a child for the first time. I'm happy for the parents and the experiences they will one day have, but I also know it is a lot more work than they realize and it will change who they are—for the better, hopefully.
The first thing that happens when a designer gets his or her own set is a similar feeling I had when we were leaving with Rachel from the hospital. "Really?" I thought, "They're just letting me take her? That's it? How do they know I'm qualified to be a parent?"
The scariest thing about design is what I call the blank page. A lot of people think the scariest thing is trying to make something out of nothing. No, most designers have signed up for that. What's very scary is not knowing what's supposed to be there. If you knew what was needed, you could make it, but how are you supposed to know what's not there? This is very similar to the thought I had early one morning (and by early I mean basically in the middle of the night—babies aren't sticklers to the clock) feeding Rachel. I wanted my daughter to grow up to be the best person she could be. I could steer her toward whatever that goal was, if only I knew it.
Lesson #2: At Times, They Will Fight You
I'm a reader, especially of nonfiction, so when I had a child, I read a lot of books about child rearing. I talked to a lot of parents. I tried to arm myself with as much information as I could so I could be the best parent possible.
The books always make everything look so easy. "When thing X happens, just do Y. Y will solve your problems." But what if Y doesn't work? A lot of books just assume it will and leave it at that. Anyway, I had read a book that stressed the importance of time-outs. For the non-parents who didn't have time-outs as children themselves, a time-out is an opportunity after a child misbehaves where you force the child to sit down in a non-stimulating place to have some time to reflect on what he or she has just done. It's a punishment (the child isn't supposed to like the time-out), but it's also trying to help give the child tools to learn. At the end of a time-out, by the way, you are supposed to go over with the child why he or she had a time-out and the child is supposed to inform you to ensure that he or she understands what action was deemed inappropriate.
With all that set up, our story begins when Rachel was one and a half. I don't even remember what she did but it was something she wasn't supposed to do. Following the guidelines of the book, I took Rachel into our living room and informed her to sit down. She did. I then explained to her that she was having a time-out and that she had to sit for one minute. (The book suggested one minute per year as the length of the time-out.) In response to this, Rachel stood up.
Rachel didn't go anywhere. She just stood. I informed her that until she sat I couldn't start the minute for her time-out. She could stand as long as she liked, but until she sat for a minute, she couldn't have her time-out and thus she couldn't leave. Rachel kept standing. I looked at her and said sweetly, "Rachel, if you sit down and have your time-out, it will just be a minute and then you can go play." Rachel remained standing.
I repeated myself, once again, to no effect. So I just stood there waiting for Rachel to sit. After five minutes, I said to Rachel, "I'm tired of standing, so I'm going to sit." Rachel kept standing.
Ten minutes passed, Twenty. Thirty. Every once in a while, Lora would duck her head in the room, out of sight of Rachel, and I would shake my head. She'd duck back out.
About thirty-five minutes in, Rachel sat. I pulled out my watch and started counting. As soon as she realized I was counting, she stood back up.
Forty minutes. Fifty minutes. An hour. At about seventy minutes in, Rachel finally sat down and had her one-minute time-out. When she was done, I asked what she had done (mostly with me stating it and getting her to nod in agreement—she was under two) and she ran off to play.
Lora then appeared and said, "So what was that all about?" to which I replied, "I think we have a very stubborn child."
"Hmm," Lora said with a smirk, "I wonder where she gets that from."
Design is very similar. Oftentimes, when you're working on a set, it feels like your set is fighting against you. You have grand goals and a vision and things you need to make sure the set does. Well, the set's not aware of those things and it just goes where it wants to.
You see, a set is stubborn. It goes wherever it wanders and your job as the leader is to make sure you steer it in the right direction. You don't control its movement (we'll get more to that in a future lesson two weeks from now) but you are the one who gets to point it in the right direction.
The lesson here is that you have to understand that the set isn't going to think about the bigger picture. It will find the easiest solution and not the best one. It will be swayed by momentum and opportunity. Your job as its caretaker is to understand the things it cannot. You have to keep the big picture in mind and fight the set's impulses.
"But Mark," many of you are saying, "you're acting like the set is alive." In some ways, it is. The act of creation is tapping into a subconscious part of yourself. I'm an instinctive person, for example, but that doesn't mean I always understand my impulses. Most game designers will make decisions not because they understand them but because they're what feel right. They've interacted with the game enough that they have an intuitive sense of what it needs. It's that sense that I'm talking about.
Often, when you get stuck, you have to back up and figure out if the constraints you have given yourself are more than is defined by the needs of the game. I often find that I include bits of an answer along with the question, which causes problems when the better answer needs to be free of those bits of the initial answer.
Lesson #1 and Lesson #2 are very much entwined because one of the hardest things of being a caretaker is understanding that the thing you are caring for often is less worried about its own welfare. The baby fascinated by the light socket has no idea what he or she is in for.
Designers will have stand-offs with their sets, much like I had with Rachel, and they have to learn to hold their ground.
Lesson #3: Make the Difference Where You Can
I talked about this incident in Lesson #9 (in the second part) of my "Life Lessons" column. When Rachel was two, she was diagnosed with a kidney condition known as Nephrotic Syndrome. In brief, the kidneys function as sieves for the body, keeping in important nutrients and letting out waste. Rachel's kidneys were malfunctioning and not keeping in protein. This is bad, and left unchecked it will lead to organ failure and, ultimately, death.
Whenever her kidneys started to malfunction, we would have to give her a steroid known as prednisone. For those who don't know anything about drugs, prednisone is pretty heavy duty. It causes wild mood swings and a giant increase in appetite, and it can impact a growing body in all sorts of way. But it was the only thing that proved consistently effective, so every time Rachel would relapse we'd have to stick her back on the prednisone.
Two-year-olds naturally have wild mood swings. A two-year-old on steroids was unreal. Added to that, the vicious cycle included us watching her balloon up to twice her weight only to have her pee it all out a few days later. Each relapse was horrible to watch. But it gets worse. Over time, the body can build up immunity to prednisone, meaning that it takes higher dosages to work and there's always the threat that it stops working. This meant that even between relapses we lived in fear every day that another one would start, possibly the one where the medicine stopped working.
The lesson I learned through this horrible time was that, as a parent, I wasn't always in control. I could do everything in my power for my child but sometimes that just wouldn't matter. The one thing I could do was to accept what I couldn't control and focus on the things I could impact. I couldn't stop the kidney condition, but I could make sure she had a low-sodium diet that she enjoyed. I could be on top of everything so the moment a relapse started, we knew. I could help her the best I could when she was going through rough times.
Before I get to the design part of this lesson, let me end this part by telling you all the happy ending. Rachel's last relapse happened in kindergarten and she hasn't relapsed since. According to the doctors, she has outgrown the condition and we no longer need to fear another relapse. When I wrote the "Life Lessons" article, that wasn't yet true.
How does this apply to design? Well, game design is mostly a group creation. As the lead designer, I have more influence than most in the design, but there are many other influences that I have to deal with. At times, there are even factors I dislike that are going to impact the game. Sometimes these influences are from without, but sometimes they are from within.
Magic sets have to function within a larger context. For example, let's take a look at the dual lands from Innistrad. The Standard environment needed enemy dual lands. Innistrad, timing-wise, was the set that needed to have them. But the set had a strong ally theme. There was a significant tribal component tied around ally-connected monsters and humans. Rather than fight the dual lands, I focused instead of providing additional nonbasic lands that tied into the ally theme.
The lesson here is that I, or any designer, have to focus my energies into what I can control. If my set needs to have elements necessary for things outside my design, I need to work to find ways to incorporate them if possible. If outside forces make me have to rethink my vision, well then I'm going to spend my energies making those changes the best they can be rather than wasting my energies fighting what I cannot change. Part of being a good caretaker is taking care of what is rather than what you wish could be.
Lesson 4: Take Time to Enjoy It
When your child is little the holidays are more for the parents than the child. Yes, you give them gifts and buy them a cake and dress them in costumes, but you do it because it's fun for you, the parents, to start celebrating the traditions. Between the age of two and three, that starts to change. That's the age where the child starts to "get it."
For example, when Rachel was six months old, Lora found her a very cute bunny costume for Halloween. For the costume party we attended, Rachel was the Easter Bunny, Lora was the Tooth Fairy, and I was Santa Claus (by the way, it turns out it's very hard to find a Santa outfit in October). The next year, Lora found a cute lion outfit, so Rachel was a lion, Lora was a tiger, and I was a bear. (Oh my.) But when Rachel was two and a half, everything changed.
Now, remember, this is six months after her diagnosis with Nephrotic Syndrome. Rachel had had a second relapse immediately after the first, so things were a bit chaotic as we were trying everything to adapt to Rachel's new lifestyle. Anyway, one day we were in the costume store looking for a Halloween costume. I don't remember what it was but Lora found another cute costume for Rachel. Rachel, though, was going to have none of that, because Rachel had found her own costume—a mouse.
You see, this was the year where Rachel finally got what was going on. She understood that she was going to get to dress up in a costume and then people were going to give her candy (which, by the way, is pretty damn awesome, especially for a child). She was very excited by this. The shift was happening. We were changing from the leaders to the followers.
I don't know why Rachel wanted the mouse outfit. My memory was that Lora had found something much cuter, but this was something Rachel wanted. Really wanted. Lora was trying valiantly to sell her on the cuter costume but was having little luck. That's when I pulled Lora aside.
I said that I think we were thinking about this wrong. The cuteness of the costume didn't matter. Heck, the costume didn't matter. What mattered was we had a little girl who really needed to be happy. The last six months had been awful and what she needed more than anything was to be really happy about something. Also, we needed that. Part of being a parent, I said, was worrying and watching and stressing, but equally important was taking time to enjoy it. All of us, I said, needed that mouse costume because we needed the smile that went with it.
Of course we got the costume, and Rachel was the cutest mouse you ever saw, and it was a wonderful Halloween. I actually remember her laughing so hard at one point that I started crying. Parenthood (and life, really) is not a destination but a journey. You've got to find time to enjoy it along the way.
Design is no different. It's very easy to get caught up in the minutiae of a card file. There are so many issues to track and concerns to monitor. One of the things I tell my designers is the importance of taking a step back and just enjoying your set. Have a playtest where you don't take notes. Just play to play. Enjoy what your set has to offer without putting it under a microscope.
One technique to do this is to have a playtest where each person is just assigned a task. For example, pick two colors for each team member and tell everyone that's what they're going to play. Not having to worry about something is very freeing and it allows the players to focus on what they have rather than what they should have.
This, by the way, is one of the reasons the Mini-Master format is so much fun. In Mini-Master, you just shuffle three of each basic land into a booster without looking at the contents of the pack, shuffle, and play. It's very fun to have to improvise with what you have because it forces you to just accept things rather than fight them.
Game designers have to always remember that, at the end of the day, they are creating fun. A key part of doing that is to let go from time to time and just bask in your design. Don't think—just feel. Enjoy what you're creating. Because if you can't, how can you expect anyone else to?
Lesson 5: There are Going to be Surprises
I explained earlier that Lora and I had taken time before we got married to make sure we were on the same page on a number of relevant issues. One of the biggest was children. As I said, we agreed on two.
Shortly after Rachel turned three, Lora and I happily learned Lora was pregnant for a second time. About two months in, we had our first ultrasound. Having been through this before, we were old pros at the ultrasound. Lora knew the jelly was going to be cold on her belly. We knew we were going to see something we couldn't make out and the technician would point at spots on the screen and claim things we couldn't follow. At some point, we'd see a little heartbeat and let out a sigh.
Everything was going as expected when the technician made an odd statement. "As you can see," she said pointing to some spots on the screen, "the sacs are resting nicely."
I stopped her. "Can one baby have two sacs?" I questioned.
"No," she said.
Wow! We were being slow rolled by our technician. She had learned a piece of information which was going to shatter our world and rather than directly point it out, she hinted at it.
Lora, by the way, was oblivious to what had just been said, so I pointed it out. "Lora, do you understand what she just said?"
"We're having twins!"
There are many pieces of information that you learn in your life. Some of this information ends up being very important. What is rare, though, is having an important piece of information that you understand its importance when you first hear it. There's an expression about hearing information that makes your head explode. I never really understood the expression until that moment ,because that's the first time in my life that so much information rushed into my head at once.
You see, I had planned out my life. It was merely a first draft and I knew there were going to be a lot of rewrites, but I had a general sense of where the story was going. And I knew it had four major characters. Losing all of that in a moment was a bit more than my brain could handle.
Afterwards, Lora and I were at lunch just sitting across from each other, unable to say anything. We ate the entire lunch in silence when Lora finally said, Twins!" to which I replied, "I know!"
After the shock wore off, we began adapting. We started searching for a new house. I gave up going to the Pro Tours. We started talking to parents with twins. We remembered Lesson #1 and knew this was going to make us reevaluate what "a lot of work" meant. Life was throwing us a curveball but that didn't mean we couldn't try to hit it out of the park.
Design is no different. Time Spiral was a set all about time. That is, until it was a set about nostalgia. Ravnica was a block about hybrid. That is, until it was a block about guilds. I was the lead designer of Gatecrash. That is, until I learned I had to be the lead designer of "Friends" and had to pass the baton to Mark Gottlieb. Everything is expected until one day when it isn't.
An important skill for a designer is the ability to both plan and adapt. Create a vision, build a set skeleton, map out your mechanics, but never forget that design is all done in pencil. You have to be prepared for the best thing to happen to your design to be something you had ruled out days earlier. Surprises can be disorienting but they often lead to a better set, or life, in the end.
Putting the Kids to Bed
That's all for this first part. Join me in two weeks for Part 2, where I explore the second five lessons and share a few more parenting stories. I'm always interested in feedback but particularly when I write more personal columns like this one. What are your thoughts? You can email me, respond in the thread, or talk to me on any of my social media outlets (Twitter, Tumblr, and Google+).
Join me next week for my third guild theme week column. (Or is it?)
Until next week, may life illuminate as well as entertain.
But Wait, There's More!
Over the years, I've learned that you all love to hear when there are job openings here at Wizards of the Coast, so I've made it an ongoing quest to let you in on cool Magic-related jobs.
Today's job is for a Senior Business Manager for Magic Online. Here are the basic requirements:
- A minimum of a Bachelor's degree in Statistics, Business, or Marketing (or something related); an MBA or advanced math degree preferred
- Minimum 10 years experience in business management or marketing
- Strong presentation skills
- Familiarity with Magic
- Knowledge of other analog and digital games
- Ability to set strategy and vision based on deep, insightful consumer understanding
- Strong planning and organizational skills
- Ability to juggle multiple priorities under tight project deadlines
- Ability to lead diverse groups
- Knowledge/use of Microsoft SQL Service Reporting/Integration a plus
If this sounds up your alley, check out the job posting here.
Drive to Work #6 – Gold Cards
This week's podcast is about the design of Gold Cards.