- Name: Skaff Elias
- Job Title: Vice President of Three Donkeys LLC: a game design, development, and consulting company.
- Job Description: Game designer and consultant at Three Donkeys.
- Notable Achievements: Former designer, business and brand manager at Magic: The Gathering. Writer of Characteristics of Games. Interviewed by NPR. Cohost of Games With Garfield podcast.
- Age: 46
- Location: Redmond, Washington
Tell me about your background and how you got started.
A fellow math grad student (Richard Garfield) loved to invent his own games, which all of us in the department would play. Then one of his games became really successful (Magic: The Gathering) and he needed extra workers. It was total luck that I just happened to be sitting next to a guy that was brilliant.
This was in grad school?
Yes, I went undergrad to Princeton and majored in physics then I want to grad school for math at University of Pennsylvania.
What was your initial plan before this opportunity arose?
I was going to be a math professor.
Tell me about the early days at Magic. What was your role? When did you realize you might have something special?
I realized that the game was special the very first time I played it but I didn’t know what that meant in terms of being special in a business sense. It was probably about six months after it was released that we realized it would be special as a business.
At first I was in R&D which meant I helped design the game. Magic is the kind of game that has a lot of expansion to it — we had to keep making new cards. But everybody did everything. I would answer the phones sometimes, help with the typesetting, and other things like that but mostly it was working on new cards, new games, and rule writing. I worked part time on it while I was in grad school and then I had to eventually leave school because they wanted me full time. For the first six months I did just game design then I became the business and brand manager for Magic.
You had no background in game design?
No background in game design or brand management or business.
So you just taught yourself these skills?
Yes. The brand management was obviously easier to learn since there are books on it. But we were inventing a lot of the game design aspects as we went along. The guy who invented Magic, Richard Garfield, had been causally designing games since he was in middle school and he had a certain process so we really just learned from him.
What were the strategies that made this game so popular?
It was a totally new type of gaming. Sort of a combination between chess and baseball cards. There had been a lot of strategy games before but nothing with that baseball card element where you were really designing your own team to battle with. That in particular allowed for two things: a lot of personal creativity and no two games ever played alike. You had a really wide variation in the things that you saw so every game felt fresh.
And of course the other thing is the cards themselves. People really like collecting cards.
What are the most critical elements of a successful game?
For the last ten years I’ve been working on mainly video games, but in terms of all games, the number one element is luck. It’s hard for me to answer because different games do different things for different people so you could have a really successful game that only appeals to 5-8 years olds. The elements that make a game work for them is not going to be the same as what makes a game great for 20-30 year old athletic males — that’s going to be a completely different game. But in saying all that, the games that tend to be the most successful have a certain special hook that appeals to a certain audience. The ones that become super successful are the ones where everything outside that hook also appeals to the same audience. In other words, everything works well together for the people who are playing your game from what it looks like, how much is costs, what it takes to play — all of that works together. I think it all hangs on whatever the most important value is and then that’s going to appeal to a certain set of people and then everything else has to be convenient for them or at least not be distracting or unappealing.
Is there any sort of proven strategy that you use when you consult? Like a beginning, middle, and end type outline?
There is no single outline because the field of games is so varied because you’ll get anything from Candyland to basketball to Pokemon cards to chess to betting on horses — we’ve consulted on games that are that varied. And the question we always ask first is “who is your customer?” Usually these games have one great idea and then we need to figure out who it will appeal to. You identify who the customer is and then you do tons of research on that demographic. For example, will they pay to play? Do they only use mobile? Everything hinges on who the customer is.
When we go in to consult we also try to get people to think critically and not with their heart. They’ve already put the heart into it so our job is to get them to use their minds to help make critical decisions.
Can someone with an idea but not a huge budget realistically launch a game?
Not anymore. Those days are gone. When technology changes maybe it will be like that again. Right now the problem isn’t within making the game. Any average person can actually make a really good game with the technology available today. The real problem is getting people to see it. That’s why you need a gigantic company with a lot of marketing dollars. A large part of the value is not the game itself, it’s that other people are also playing the game. It’s really important for a multiplayer game obviously because you want someone to play against but it’s even true for games like Candy Crush. There are other games as good as Candy Crush but the fact that everyone is playing it creates a shared social experience where you can talk to people about what level your on or the difficulty or whatever else — that adds a huge level of value to the game. I don’t know what percentage of the value of the game is social experience but it’s a really high number that Joe Schmo on the street just can’t reach with the way today’s gaming market works. There’s so much good content and so many good games that are so cheap compared to what they used to be that it’s harder than ever to add that extra social experience benefit to your game
What personality traits or skills do the most impressive game designers typically possess?
We usually take the approach of more critical thinking but there’s been lots of hugely successful people who don’t have that skill set. It is a creative field so you may expect people to be more free willed opposed to thinking critically. Both have shown to be successful in various circumstances but I would say one of the most important qualities is being obsessive. I mean these people really care a lot about their game to the point where they can get almost manic about it. In general it’s just about playing your game a lot and play testing a lot with different people and then iterating on that. People who have games may have played it for a year or two on their own before they show anyone. Even the most successful companies in the world like Activision Blizzard have really long beta periods.
And then having lots of money helps too?
That’s actually a fairly recent thing that is getting worse and worse. Today it’s probably the easiest for a guy alone in his house to make a great game but it’s also the hardest for him to get an audience and make money off the game without having incredible luck or a big company backing him.
What’s your favorite video game?
This changes all the time but right now my favorite video game is Dream Quest.
Favorite non-virtual game?
Probably still Magic but I don’t want to say that since I worked on it. My favorite one for kids is King of Tokyo but I also worked on that. My favorite one that I haven’t worked on is Hanabi.
What’s Hanabi like?
It’s a card game that’s a combination of Indian poker, bridge, and solitaire. It’s a co-op card game.
What project are you most proud of?
Certainly Magic and the Magic Pro Tour.
Tell me about your daily routine.
The daily routine changes so much because half the time we are designing a game and half the time we are consulting on someone else’s game. Those are two completely different jobs. They use the same knowledge base but not necessarily the same skill set. My schedule is totally driven by which of those I am doing. Sometimes I’m flying around to different places and giving lectures and other times I’m working from the office.
So you are designing internal games as well as consulting externally?
We design games for other companies as well. But yes sometimes the company already has a game and just wants us to give them advice. And then sometimes we speculatively design games on our own — we sit around and design and then go out and try to sell them to companies.
What’s the name of your company?
Three Donkeys LLC.
How many people are on that team?
Just two. Me and Richard. Some of the games we work on will have a few hundred people on the team but it’s always the two of us — we will either work alone or be inserted into a team.
This is the Richard that invented Magic?
Yes. It’s the same guy I met back in 1991.
What parts of your job do you like least?
I hate that there’s a lot of busy work but that’s why it’s a job. That’s why I get paid to do what I do. I’m sure every consultant feels this way but it can get redundant hearing the same thing from a different company week after week. It’s not horrible because there’s always a new project so there’s always a slightly new twist.
I also don’t like when people are arguing and they make an emotional-based argument. I really prefer the analytical side of things so it bothers me working in a creative field that people sometimes assume that they don’t have to think critically. You get your best results when those are combined.
What about people who are analytical but not emotional?
Well then you don’t really have anything to begin with so I would hate that as well. But usually with an analytical person, you can make the case to them that they need to creative emotion-based thinking and they may not be able to do it but because they are analytical, they’ll listen to your argument. The opposite isn’t always true. The creative people are almost always capable of being analytical, they just don’t always want to do it. They are more capable but less willing.
Favorite parts of your job?
My favorite part of the job is that there are a lot of puzzles. I get a little mini high every time there’s a question about what to do. A lot of the time you’ll suggest the correct answer but sometimes you’ll actually need to go figure out the correct answer and it’s a great feeling when you can do that.
What are your thoughts on coercive monetization as it relates to mobile gaming? Do you believe using these types of methods are justifiable, especially when they are targeted to individuals under the age of 24 who lack the mental development to avoid these strategies?
When you are making a product for people you want it to appeal to them. It’s the same if I’m making a game and put a really hot woman on the box. It’s going to trigger certain things in the brain depending on the developmental stage hormones are in, which can make the game more difficult to resist for a certain demographic. It’s the same thing if the game makes your adrenaline rush with violence and a level that’s really dark with strobe lights and a monster. So yes there are a lot of people who fall for the successive repeat purchasing but there are a lot of people that fall for gambling, the sexy lady on the box, the adrenaline rush, and even just the noises in the game. You’re attempting to appeal to all of these instincts and on one hand it can be viewed as exploitation and on the other hand it can be viewed as servicing your audience.
Do you think designers specifically create games targeting the more impulsive age range to profit more?
Once you identify your audience then yes, you want to make them as irrational about the game as you possibly can. And it’s different things for different people and yes, the 18-24 year olds have a lot of money to spend and more importantly, a lot of free time. But that’s not any different than appealing to 65-85 year old women with their slot machines. Believe me, they have way more money than the 18-24 year olds and they are way more obsessive so that’s just a whole different thing. You do different things to appeal to different people.
I mean down to the level of how often do you need to win at your slot machine — that’s all about your demographics. If it’s 18 year olds then they are probably going to sit there for 5 minutes before they are off. It’s all going to be different depending on the audience.
Do you see it more with mobile apps?
People are more data driven and scientific with mobile apps. I think it the past a game would hit one of those sweet spots by luck in terms of appealing to them and more and more it’s on purpose today. For example, we couldn’t get the kind of data for Magic that mobile apps can today. We could watch people play for days while apps can get data on 1,000 users within an hour.
What are you working on right now?
I can not reveal our biggest projects but we are working on new expansions for King of Tokyo. And then we are working on another board game from a Kickstarter. The electronic projects we are working on are all on NDA.
Question from the last interviewee: Are the bad days at your job still better than the good days at any other job?
Of course not. At any other job? Are my bad days better than when Neil Armstrong took his first steps on the moon? No, no my bad days are not better than that. I think I would rather win the Super Bowl than have a bad day at my job.
Fair enough. What one question do you want to ask the next interviewee on People With Cool Jobs?
Name 3 of your top 10 movies. (There’s a lot of pressure when you ask someone to name their top 3 so just name any 3 within the top 10.)