Interview: Jason Rohrer, Video Game Designer

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Jason Rohrer is an independent video game designer. His most acclaimed video game, Passage, was added to the New York Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection of classic video games. Join us as Jason speaks on his interesting philosophies towards both practicing EDC and designing video games, his favorite tools for work, and making a living doing what you really want to do.

What’s in your everyday carry?

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I work from home making video games, so I don’t ever carry any of my work stuff with me. Thus, most of my carry is life and bike related.

For those not familiar with indie game development, could you give us a basic rundown about what you do and what it takes to make games?

I’m an independent video game designer and programmer. I work by myself, at home, making video games from scratch. When most people think of video games, they think of things that are primarily for kids (“Yeah, my kids play those.”) Instead, I make games for thinking adults. My games usually deal with real life themes and issues. I start on paper, writing down ideas for a new game, and hashing out design problems with pen and ink. After the design solidifies, I move to the computer and start programming to build the design. I also make the graphics, sound, and music as I go along.

On an average day, you’d probably find me typing computer code into a text editor, but on an off day, you might find me pulling out my analog synth to lay down some tracks or hooking up the microphone to record a voice-over for my game’s trailer video. My most recent game, Cordial Minuet, had me painting with ink and watercolors and making tea paper in my oven.

Contents from the special edition of Rohrer's Diamond Trust of London, featuring in-game world essentials.
Contents from the special edition of Rohrer’s Diamond Trust of London, featuring in-game world essentials.

How do you come up with the direction for your game design?

When I set out to make a new game, I think about the issues in my life and the world around me that seem the most pressing and interesting. In a good game, you are often pressed to make difficult choices, so the areas of life where we have to make those hard decisions are excellent fodder for game design.

What hobbies do you enjoy when you’re not working on your games?

I normally wear an old, hand-winding watch, but these watches eventually grind to a halt and need expensive cleaning and oiling. I realized that buying watch repair tools was cheaper than getting even a single watch fixed, so I took up watch repair as a hobby. I’ve broken a few of my patients along the way, but I’m getting close to trusting myself enough to actually tackle one of my favorite old watches.

Why do you EDC?

I like the idea of finding the very best version of some otherwise mundane object, settling on it, having that problem solved well, and then using that object for the rest of my life. This is my watch. This is my pen. This is my wallet. Some of these things last forever if you’re careful with them.  Others wear out but can be replaced identically.  I’ve been using my Lamy Vista fountain pen for over two years now.

Game designing with the Lamy Vista and Noodler Ink
Game designing with the Lamy Vista and Noodler’s Ink

Have you added anything cool to your EDC mix recently? And of all the gear you’ve tried, what would you recommend we check out for ourselves?

Field Notes was the most recent thing that I added, and I’m still kinda crushing on it — I’m embarrassed to say that I still take it out to show people now and again. I wanted a way to clear my head of little thoughts and ideas that pop up and distract me, and writing them down really helps. 

I don’t carry it everyday, because I don’t often need it, but Staedtler Lumocolor is the best “write on anything” permanent marker in the world. Smells like a martini instead of nail polish thanks to German safety standards, and it’s insanely fade-proof. I had to sign and number a collector’s edition of one of my games, so I actually tested a bunch of pens and markers against the California elements for several months. Sharpies and even “archival” art pens actually fade pretty quickly, but Lumocolor ink is there for the long haul.

What’s your most recent creation we should try to play?

My latest game, Cordial Minuet, is a two player strategy game that is played online for real money. The design and layout of the game is based on an ancient occult summoning ritual. Research during my design process unearthed deep historical connections between gambling, religion, and the occult.

Cordial Minuet being played for cash money at PAX South
Cordial Minuet being played for cash money at PAX South

Most people think that playing a game for real money outside of Vegas is illegal, but it turns out that only games of chance are illegal to play for money. With this in mind, Cordial Minuet was designed from the ground up as a game of skill — you win by reading your opponent and predicting what they are going to do. People think of Poker as a game of skill — the betting and the bluffing — but underneath that skill layer is a random number generator driving the whole thing, which is why online Poker is still illegal in the US. Cordial Minuet builds a game of Poker-like skill, but that skill goes all the way down. People can play for whatever stakes they want, even as small as a penny, and so far, most people have played for pretty small stakes. However, a couple of players started taking it more seriously last month and pushed their stakes up to $500. Those were some intense matches, for sure.

You’ve made making games sound like a dream job. What advice would you give to others trying to make a living out of what they love to do?

If you keep putting off doing what you really want to do, you’ll end up doing stuff you don’t really want to do your whole life. So make a plan, save some money up, and take that risky leap. The risk is real — I know loads of people who took the leap and didn’t make it. But I don’t know anyone who regrets trying.

See more of Jason’s games and other works at his website, and catch up with the latest from Jason on his Twitter.

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