There’s More Than Fun in Games

By Michelle Choate
Dave Rohrl '81 has been designing and creating online games for 24 years.
If you tell your friends or co-workers that you spent 13 hours of your weekend binge-watching the latest “it” television show, you’ll likely be greeted with understanding nods, and peppered with questions about your thoughts on the plot and characters. But if you told those same people you spent 13 hours playing video games, their reactions would likely be markedly different. Less curiosity, more judgment. Probably a few looks that clearly indicate, “What a useless waste of time!” It’s unfair, of course, but outside the bubble of the gaming world, video games—and those who play them—don’t get a lot of respect.

Spend a little time talking to Dave Rohrl ’81, however, and you’ll begin to see video games in an entirely new light. Rohrl has spent the past 24 years designing and producing online games for a mass audience. “Games, at least as I practice them, are an entertainment medium. By and large, what’s good and bad about games largely overlaps with what’s good or bad about movies and television,” explains Rohrl. “Games are media that allow for some interaction, for players to make decisions and have an impact on their experience. Games can also enlighten, edify and uplift. I have friends that are working on health-oriented games and games that teach disaster preparedness. Games can also be used for training simulations. But the vast majority of games are focused on entertainment.”

The Discipline of Design
While games are entertaining for those who play them, the work of designing them is detail-oriented and laborious. Coming up with a cool idea for a game is an important first step, but, as Rohrl explains, “Coming up with cool ideas isn’t that hard; making cool ideas work is incredibly hard and involves a great deal of effort and painstaking work.”

Rohrl performed that painstaking work for 20 years for a handful of gaming studios, before striking out on his own with Mobile Game Doctor in 2013. Mobile Game Doctor is a boutique design consulting firm that works with mobile game developers worldwide to improve their games, teams and processes.

With Mobile Game Doctor, Rohrl has brought together a freelance team of about half a dozen game design experts with an average of 20 years of experience. Rohrl has a very specific approach to his work, one in which he regularly communicates to his team. “I believe game design is an equal parts engineering form, driven by a design discipline, just like architecture or graphic design,” explains Rohrl. “Math and psychology are critical elements of that discipline.”

Math is essential for the creation and execution of a game’s economy. A game’s economy can best be explained as the stakes and pace of the game. Most games have resources that players earn through some activity and then expend to help them reach toward some goal. The player will kill monsters or complete missions, which will earn the player experience points or a monetary reward within the game. An important part of the game designer’s job is figuring out how the game is going to price out these rewards. Making sure the player has to play a particular amount of time to reach a specific goal—rather than racing through the game too fast or getting frustrated and abandoning it—is critical to a game’s success. 

In recent years, video games have evolved from something that players paid for once—like traditional console games on a PlayStation or Xbox—to something known as free-to-play, like Candy Crush, Clash Royale and Game of War. These games can be downloaded from an app store and played for free but also offer players the option to pay for elements within the game. Free-to-play games, which make up the majority of Mobile Game Doctor’s workload, require an exceptionally complex set of math skills.

“Whenever my company gets an inbound lead, the first thing I do is look at the skill sets of my team members to see who will best fit that project,” says Rohrl. “Then I make them play the game, at whatever stage of development it’s in at the time, to make sure they connect with it, feel that they can improve it, and that they understand the audience.” Understanding the audience is where the psychology comes in. To stay sharp and tuned in to consumer behavior and motivation, Rohrl asks the designers on his team to read books on marketing psychology, like Influence, by Robert Cialdini. He also recommends behavioral economics books, like Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner’s Freakonomics, so that the team can better comprehend how and why people make purchasing decisions.

But no matter what expertise and disciplines are necessary to produce a game, Rohrl believes that at their core, games are art, and game designers are artists.

“Designing a game is a lot like writing or directing a movie,” explains Rohrl. “You’re trying to provide people with a particular experience, to take them on an emotional journey. Game design is about your ability to move players into this toy world and get them invested in it. Get them to make choices and see their impact, and gain learning and mastery from that.”

The Doctor Is In—and He’s Very Good
For Rohrl, the project that best exemplifies the work of Mobile Game Doctor is a free-to-play game called Trailer Park Boys: Greasy Money. The game’s developer hired Mobile Game Doctor to assess the state of the game after having worked on its development for almost a year. Rohrl and his team took a look and pronounced the game unplayable in its current state. The developer then decided to reboot the game and take it in a new direction, with Mobile Game Doctor running the design.

“The game is very easy and fun to play, but it was very, very hard to do the math for,” says Rohrl.

Despite the many successful projects Rohrl has overseen, the one that has made him most famous—at least in gaming circles—is Plants vs. Zombies. He was head of the studio that built the game, and at the end of development, a character was needed to host the game and teach the players. The character of “Crazy Dave” was born, and gamer Rohrl has the honor of being immortalized in his favorite medium.

Games and All Their Forms
Rohrl has the knowledge and experience that comes from working in the industry for over two decades. He also has a passion for playing, finding joy in gaming. “I’ve loved games since before video games existed,” says Rohrl. “I was a little kid who wouldn’t let his parents go to bed without one more game of gin rummy. That passion was very much present in my Country Day years. I used to play games with my schoolmates, had some Dungeons and Dragons sessions at school, the occasional low-stakes poker game by the library. I’ve loved games in all their forms for a long time.”

At LJCDS, Rohrl also honed another skill that would be essential to his current career. “I had a real aptitude for computers and ended up teaching the school’s first-ever computer programming class as an after-school elective during my senior year,” says Rohrl. “Because LJCDS is small and intimate, it was really easy for any individual to have a big impact. If you took the initiative to do something—like teach a computer class— you were supported and encouraged to do it.”

The Importance of Passion
The international nature of gaming has allowed Rohrl to work for companies around the world, including in Germany, Finland, Poland, Brazil and the United Kingdom. But today, his actual workplace is virtual, allowing him to stay put in the San Francisco Bay Area with his family. His three daughters don’t have much interest in what their father does for a living, but his stepson is a passionate gamer. “He’s more of a console guy, and I’m more into mobile,” says Rohrl, “but we occasionally find middle ground and play Mario Kart together.”

After almost a quarter of a century, Rohrl is still as passionate about games as he was when he was a little boy, begging his parents for one more game of cards. “I love my work, and I wake up excited about it every day. I know I’m at my best when I’m really passionate about the products I’m working on. For me, having that passion is the most important part of my job.”
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