Photo by Billy Huynh / Unsplash

For gaming enthusiasts, there’s nothing quite like the rush from a thoughtfully designed game that ignites the senses. Whether the objective is surpassing a high score or beating the final stage of a grueling adventure, the most exhilarating, entertaining games come down to original, carefully built experiences.

Game developer and Worcester Polytechnic Institute instructor Brian Moriarty has spent much of his career studying and fine-tuning the expressive art of game design. Known for authoring hit gaming titles such as LucasArts’ Loom, Moriarty sought to give developers a new game creation tool by inventing the Perlenspiel game engine. With an emphasis that deviates away from complex graphics and world-building gameplay of modern games, Perlenspiel is testament to the pure, minimalist gaming experiences first fashioned by classic board games like chess and sudoku, as well as retro games in the style of Super Mario Bros.

Contextualized within this straightforward design philosophy, Moriarty wants designers to stretch their creative limits by first working with simple tools, paving a foundation that prepares them for more advanced game programming. Featuring a 2D grid layout and small color palette, Perlenspiel provides game designers with the bare basics to imagine and build an inventive game concept.

We had a chat with Moriarty where he explains his development process and opinions on titles that exemplify rich gaming experiences with artistry and substance.

In your approach to teaching game design, you eventually landed on the idea of developing a “gameclavier.” Can you explain the process of building your vision of a gameclavier accessible for all students?

Most crafts employ one or more basic tools used to introduce beginners. Drawing is taught with paper and various markers; sewing with thread and needles. And for the past several centuries, composers of Western music have been taught using a clavier (keyboard), which affords immediate access to a wide range of notes, single or in groups.

Although there are many software engines available for making digital games, most of them have fairly steep learning curves, and require the production or acquisition of art and sound assets. I wanted an engine that was easy to learn and required no asset production, but powerful enough to support the creation of interesting, expressive work. My hope was to create a tool that would allow students to begin producing significant projects after just a few evenings of study, fingering out ideas like notes on a piano.

Some students are initially skeptical of Perlenspiel’s ultra-minimal design. I respond by reciting a list of classic games such as Go, Chess, Checkers, Othello, Crosswords, Rogue, Tetris and Sudoku, and point out that any one of them could have been invented with Perlenspiel.

You cite the novel The Glass Bead Game (Das Glasperlenspiel) by Hermann Hesse as one of your inspirations for digital game design. Which central concepts from the book, other than the title, played a role in the design of the Perlenspiel game engine?

The Glass Bead Game, set hundreds in years in the future, describes an elite academy devoted to the design and study of the ultimate game, a kind of super-Scrabble combining aspects of music, mathematics, linguistics, meditation and even calligraphy in a competitive ritual requiring a lifetime to master.

The rules of the Glass Bead Game are never fully explained (neither is the reason it came to be known as “The Glass Bead Game”). Hesse’s descriptions are deliberately elliptical, and have tantalized generations of readers.

Source: Brian Moriarty

Hesse’s vision of game design as a noble, highly regarded intellectual discipline has long been an inspiration to me. When the time came to name my engine for teaching game design, it seemed appropriate to invoke Hesse.

Before going into game design, you earned a BA in English. How did your literature background influence how you conceptualized the storytelling and structure of your early games?

In the early years of digital gaming, home computers offered very limited support for graphics and sound, in formats very specific to particular hardware. But nearly all computers could display text. The result was a brief period (roughly 1979 to 1985) when text-based games dominated the market.

The undisputed leader in that market was Infocom, which published text adventure games of extraordinary scope, technical sophistication and quality. I was fortunate enough to become a designer there, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to combine my academic training in literature and creative writing with my self-taught skills in programming. It was the perfect job. In fact, it never felt like “work” at all. I would have been making games like those even if I wasn’t getting paid for it.

Which aspects of Perlenspiel can students apply when they’re learning to program their own games? Which fundamental topics of game development should students first learn?

Most students introduced to Perlenspiel have been playing digital games since they were toddlers. They already know the basic terminology and genre conventions, and many have ideas for original games. Perlenspiel gives them a chance to express their ideas in functional code, though the use of game engine scripting.

Digital games are made of code. If a designer wants actual authority over their work, they must gain at least some familiarity with the substance of their creations.

I’ve hired a number of game designers over the years. If you put two designers with otherwise equal talent and credentials in front of me, I will always choose the one who knows how to realize their ideas in code.

You’re known for authoring LucasArts’ Loom as well as other titles for Infocom like Trinity. From your experience, what are tried and true principles for building a timeless game that are still applicable today?

The moment you stop and wonder, “Will people like/understand/buy this?” you cease to be an artist, you become a marketing person. If you ask a marketing person what they want, their answer is always the same: Give me something just like the last big hit, only better. You might make money-building games that way, but you are unlikely to create anything fresh, deep or memorable.

Source: Brian Moriarty

What are some of your favorite video games that exemplify brilliant game design (modern and/or retro)?

My favorite Infocom titles, Enchanter and Spellbreaker, are examples of brilliant craftsmanship using very limited means. Electronic Arts’ M.U.L.E. is undoubtedly one of the finest multiplayer games ever designed. And Lucasfilm’s Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis is about as flawless as a point-and-click adventure can get.

Thatgamecompany’s Journey demonstrates the potential for games and movies to fuse into a new art form greater than either. Jason Rohrer’s Passage, Cardboard Games’ Kentucky Route Zero, The Chinese Room’s Dear Esther and Jason Roberts’ Goragoa prove that important, beautiful work can still be produced by very small teams.

Jonathan Blow’s The Witness is the greatest digital game design I have encountered (he insists that Steven’s Sausage Roll is better, but I quit in despair at level two).

What do aspiring game developers need to know about breaking into the industry in 2018? What are some big developments or trends that have dramatically impacted the gaming world?

The industry is large and getting larger. There are plenty of opportunities for breaking in, but with hundreds of schools churning out thousands of graduates with “game development” diplomas every year, companies can afford to be very picky. Only the most skillful and/or distinctive are likely to get interviews.

The availability of extremely powerful, low-cost tools like Unity and Unreal make it easier to build digital games than ever before. But what is worth building? The answer depends on whether you’re an artist or a marketeer at heart.

Source: Brian Moriarty

Do you plan on creating more open-source tools in the future? What’s next for you?

A major revision of Perlenspiel (4.0) is nearing completion. It takes full advantage of new web technologies developed over the past several years. Its capabilities, performance and extensibility so far exceed the current version, I may have to rebrand the engine. Alpha release should be ready in Fall 2019.

Do you have any closing thoughts on game design that you want to share?

I scattered tidbits of advice, and possibly a few instances of actual wisdom, throughout my Kadenze courses. Check them out if you’re curious.

Think you have the skills to design and create a unique computer game? To learn more about building entertaining, intuitive game design, enroll in the program Digital Game Design: Getting Started With Perlenspiel, taught by Brian Moriarty:

Introduction: Elements of Microgame Design

Introduction: Elements of Microgame Design

Worcester Polytechnic Institute