I met Mike Selinker backstage at the Seattle w00tstock event, where he and fellow game designer James Ernest (both of Lone Shark Games) performed an act that included both juggling, an interactive puzzle, which the audience was encouraged to solve and post about on Twitter, and more.
As a geek and hobby gamer of many years, I was immediately fascinated by the concept of making game design into a career, so I asked Mike if he would talk to me about it, and he said yes. Selinker is no mere hobbyist, mind you. He has worked on major titles such as Axis & Allies, Dungeons & Dragons and Risk Godstorm, and he has created everything from puzzles for Wired Magazine and New York Times to live events at Gen Con. The list goes on, but you get the idea.
AP: You’ve worked on pretty much every type of game there is. What do you get out of it? What fuels your passion?
MS: I think everybody collects something. I don’t like stuff much, so I collect styles. I try to do every kind of creative thing I can. Some things I plateaued at, like playing music, and some things I just simply can’t do, like juggling. But everything I can do, I want to do. On the down side, because I’m moderately good at many creative things, I don’t think I’m the best at any one thing. If I’d narrowcasted in my career a little more, maybe I’d have perfected something. But I’d probably be less entertained.
AP: Do you ever wish that you’d been more narrow-minded with your creative work and what is the advantage (besides fun) of having dabbled in many things?
MS: Fun’s not enough? Actually, sure, of course I do. I don’t exactly have a signature game or puzzle type like some of my friends do. But that’ll probably come. What I do have is the largest rolodex in the game business. That variety has led to knowing so many great people, and so many invitations to do cool things. That’s good enough for me.
AP: What are your own favorite games? Are there specific titles that helped spark your own interest or classics you keep coming back to?
MS: It’s hard to beat poker. Most games are about one thing, but poker’s about a lot of things: math, psychology, luck, skill, everything. Plus, if you play it well, it pays you back. Sometimes.
But I do play just about everything: video games, roleplaying games, board games, mind games. I’m a quick study, so I just jump in and try different strategies. I’m not very competitive, so I’d rather lose and learn something than win and learn nothing. Play is its own reward.
AP: What is your approach to creating a game? Where do you begin and how do you find the right mechanics to suit the feel of a game?
MS: The only real answer is “I begin somewhere.” Sometimes I wake up with a game in my head, like when I literally dreamed the Cthulhu mythos word game Unspeakable Words. But it’s usually just some fragmentary shard of something—a mechanic for drawing cards, or a thematic element, or a bit of entertaining interaction that sounds like it could expand into something bigger. I usually go running to my creative director Teeuwynn or my board game co-designer James, and if it sounds like a good idea to one of them, I’ll develop it further. And then we beat it to hell in the playtesting process, and it usually comes out an entirely different beast altogether.
AP: How does the playtesting process work? How do you stay open-minded enough to see what needs to be changed vs. what you’d like to keep?
MS: I try not to love anything too much. They’re just words, ideas, theories. So most times, I can put a bullet in their heads with reasonable callousness. I also don’t assume that, just because I understand what I say, that everyone does. So I give the games to other people and see what happens. And most importantly, my friends understand that if they tell me they love something when they don’t, I will hit them with a cricket bat. I have great playtesters who are seriously brutal.
AP: You’ve said you prefer playing other people’s games, because you always want to work on your own. Why do you think that is?
MS: I don’t think I’m ever done with a game. My revised version of Axis & Allies wasn’t even out and I wanted to keep messing with it. And it was hard for me to enjoy 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons because it was always in flux, and thus I was always analyzing rather than just playing. But somebody else’s game isn’t like that. I don’t want to fix other people’s games. I just want to play them. (Or, sometimes I don’t. Depends on the game.)
AP: After having worked for big game brands, you and James Ernest went solo and founded Lone Shark Games. Why is it important to you to run your own studio rather than working for a larger, well-established publisher?
MS: I’m probably the closest person in the game industry to saying, “I can do whatever I want.” When I was at Wizards, I worked on the best brands, but only those brands. Now I work on games for movies, for software companies, for advertising agencies (no, really, it’s fun), and for just about any game publisher out there. In one week this year, I was working on five different projects with Wired magazine alone. I get to go on tour with Wil Wheaton at w00tstock, write riddles for Alice in Wonderland, and create 12-foot floating runic obelisks at parties. I like that kind of variety, and the people I work with seem to like it too. (Plus, let’s be clear: the larger, well-established publishers won’t let me run them.)
AP: If you’re almost able to do whatever you want in the game industry, what then is the ultimate ambition? Are there projects you are still working towards being able to do?
MS: That “almost” is huge. I keep getting calls from more and more fascinating people. When Universal Studios asked us to make an interstate manhunt for the movie Repo Men, I certainly didn’t see that coming. And there’s always more stuff I can’t imagine will come yet. There are people who haven’t experienced one of my games or puzzles and said, “That’s the most awesome thing I’ve ever seen.” As long as there’s one person who hasn’t said that, there’s no need for more ambition than that.
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