FableFriday: Ryan McNulty, Game Designer and Developer


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When I first met Ryan he had a sketchbook filled with boxes and numbers. Naturally, I thought he was an extreme Sudoku enthusiast. Then, during a staff meeting, I learned he was building (by hand) the different levels for Dig-It! Games’ Can U Dig It! app.

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Spend some time with him and you’ll realize how cerebral he is – the guy is all about strategy, he’s constantly thinking three steps (or turns) ahead of you. That’s how a game designer’s mind works. For September’s FableFriday we chatted with Ryan about developing games at FableVision, his past as a poker player, and his glow-in-the-dark board game.

What does a game designer actually do and what are some of the challenges?
A game designer is mostly concerned with the rules of the game. That’s my day-to-day product; a rule set, or document explaining how the game will behave. But the real goal is crafting the experience the players will have while they play — the tensions and emotions that result from those rules being put into motion.

Making that little leap of faith from the rules to expected game play is always a challenge, because there’s no way to know how players will respond until you watch them play. That’s why playtesting is so important.

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Another challenge for me is letting go enough to get that first version of a game down on paper. Brainstorming ideas is so free and inspiring, and that initial rough draft usually feels pathetic and ugly by comparison. I try to remind myself that "failing fast” is the best way to weed out what isn’t working and get to the good stuff, but that first step tends to feel like an impending train wreck. Somehow it always works out though.

How did you first get interested in games?
I played lots of board games with my father when I was growing up, and I think my love of games grew out of those memories. He taught me how to play chess, and we had home rules for Monopoly that lead to crazy games with huge rows of hotels. There were a few other go-to games like Stop Thief! and Crossbows and Catapults in the game cabinet, but whatever we played was always a blast.

When did you know that game design was something you wanted to do?
Probably college, but it was still subconscious at the time. Game design didn't really exist as a major like it does today—so I fell into art, which I had always been good at, and computer science, because I enjoyed the logic and puzzle solving aspect. My school treated them both as traditional academic programs — very pure, very separate. I knew that I wanted to put the two together, but I wasn’t exactly sure what that meant at the time. It wasn't until I went back to school a few years later that I found my first proper game design class, and realized that’s what I had been looking for all along.

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What was your involvement in the recently released “Think Tank” Fisheries Exhibit project for the Maritime Gloucester museum?
Think Tank” is a multiplayer game about the complexities of sustainable fishing, which I helped Maritime Gloucester design. It was done on a touch-table, which requires very different thinking than other projects I’ve worked on because of the physical layout. Players can approach the game from any side, and come-and-go like they would with any other museum exhibit. So beyond the content, we put a lot of thought into keeping the game inviting, and allowing guests to feel comfortable joining in even if a stranger was already playing.

What’s your favorite FableVision project?
Can U Dig It! on the iPhone and iPad was a great little puzzle game we made for Dig-It! Games. It’s a Sudoku-ish numbers game, but with an archeological dig theme that worked in a really natural way. That one was just really satisfying to create and play, and felt like we “got it right.”

You once played professional poker, what’s your favorite story from that time? Do you still play?
First of all, “professional” is definitely in quotes. It’s probably more accurate to say I was intentionally unemployed, and making enough money playing cards to get by. I took it very seriously though, and I worked really hard to get better. I don’t play much anymore and I definitely miss it, especially the thinking involved — it’s such a great mix of strict math and messy human decision-making.

I don’t have too many tall tales, but I did get blacklisted from Foxwoods for a year for underage gambling. They probably still have my mug shot on file somewhere.


More about Ryan:

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You recently made your own game, “The Night Harvest,” for our annual Creative Juices Art Show Open House. Tell us about it.

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The theme for our show this year was glow-in-the-dark, which was such a fun place to start brainstorming ideas. I made a game about Faeries competing to see who can harvest the most nightmares over three days and nights. There were switches and black lights built into the game board, so that during the night phase you played in the dark and everything glowed. It was a great theme and concept to work with, and people really seemed to enjoy playing.

Your son William is the cutest! What’s your favorite game to play with him?
William is only one-and-a-half, so our games are still fairly simple. He mostly likes to play “spice rack tasting” and “throw food on the floor while looking directly at you.” He did say “ogre” the other day while I was showing him some pieces from a miniatures game — that was a proud moment.

What is your favorite game to play now?
The Resistance is an excellent game that both my geeky and non-gamer friends really get into. Players are secretly assigned roles as either a member of the resistance, or a spy in their midst. Resistance members try to organize successful "missions" by determining which other players are on their team, while the spies try to join and sabotage the missions. The game almost always breaks down into everyone yelling "you're a spy", and spiraling into a frenzy of paranoia in the best possible way.

What was the first game you remember playing? Pretend.

Now for something not game related

Favorite snack: Ice cream. Most people consider it a dessert, but I think that’s a mistake.

Favorite TV show: Firefly

Favorite ’90s song: The Choice Is Yours – Black Sheep

Least favorite topping on a pizza: Smarties

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