Thursday, April 26, 2018

Meet the Top 8: Linus Ulysses Hamilton

Our series of interviews with the Top 8 contestants of the GDS3 continues with Linus Ulysses Hamilton, who was kind enough to answer a few questions.

Hey Linus. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, and your background with game/Magic design?

I'm just going to give you my answer to the first GDS essay prompt, which covers that:

I am Linus Hamilton, a graduate student in applied math at MIT specializing in machine learning. (Before you ask: yes, I have a local copy of the “RoboRosewater” neural network, and it’s awesome.)

So far, in college at Carnegie Mellon University and at MIT, I have taken four classes in game design and/or creation. One course analyzed interactive narratives. Two more focused on video game creation. (You can play a very simple computer game I created at Warning: it’s pretty hard.) Finally, at MIT, I took Introduction to Game Design Methods, a project-based class where I rapidly prototyped board games, playtested other groups’ games, and repeatedly iterated based on critical playtest feedback.

At CMU, I also joined the Playtesting Night group, where students shared game prototypes and gave feedback. With my friend Tom Vielott, I created a card game about dueling knights, with a twist that knights are too loyal to attack knights too much weaker than them. I’ve found that a mathematical background helps a lot with game design -- for example, being able to estimate probabilities, and knowing concepts like Nash equilibria, helps me build rapid prototypes that are fairly balanced. Unfortunately, Tom and I didn’t have the resources to bring the game to life.

I am an active contributor to /r/custommagic, but I have a file full of ideas that I haven’t submitted to a website.

So, yes, I love game design. I’ve watched about a dozen GDC lectures. But I’ve never been confident in myself to pursue it as a career. If I jumped ship on my current life, I would have to throw a lot away. I currently have a stable income as a graduate student, plenty of friends in Boston, and a Hertz Fellowship to support my research. I know I would love game design if I succeed, but what if I never get off the ground?

I decided that if I do exceptionally well in the Great Designer Search, then I will seriously pursue a career in game design. Here’s hoping.

What was your reaction when they announced GDS3 was happening?

"There's no way I can win this, but I know I would regret not trying."

Did you prepare in any way ahead of the essays, the multiple choice test, the design test?
No. For the essays/multiple choice test, we had enough time that it didn't make sense to prepare in advance. And for the design test, I was surprised enough to get in that I hadn't prepared beforehand. :)

What do you think the biggest mistake amateur designers make when they're starting out?
- Don't get attached to your ideas. My early designs had mechanics that, in retrospect, didn't add depth to the game. But I liked them too much to throw them out. Games have a limited amount of complexity. If you keep your cool mediocre ideas, you won't have space for new ideas later.

- Don't copy other game elements without realizing why they exist. For example, if you're making a tabletop RPG, don't automatically add a class system to the game. Instead, figure out why other games use a class system. What does it add to the experience? Once you answer that, you can make a class system that hones in on the good parts, instead of wandering randomly through design space. You might even find a superior replacement.

- Don't listen to the wrong parts of playtest feedback. In general, random playtesters are great at knowing when they like/don't like something; mediocre at knowing why; and bad at knowing what to change. Learn the 8 kinds of fun and learn how to match them to playtest comments.

That having been said, I believe the just-starting-out phase is valuable. New designers have a bunch of unique ideas. Later they can go back and harvest the best ones.

Outside of Magic, what game do you think is the best designed out there?
The Witness is the greatest-designed game I've ever played. If you're interested in game design, I recommend Jonathan Blow's talks. He has a very different perspective from Mark Rosewater on what makes a game good.

What do you do when you're not playing and designing games?
I go orienteering, do puzzle hunts, and square dance. (Oh, wait, I guess those are all at least half "playing games"...)


  1. What, no asking why Linus has such an awesome name?

    1. As the other top 8 hyphenate, I'm all about it.

  2. I am deeply amused that Linus and I literally work in the same building and have never met. (Though to be honest, MIT math is huge, and I only know a handful of the grad students.)