Tyler Sigman

Tyler Sigman — Red Hook Studios

Co-founder and design director of the studio, which brought us the Darkest Dungeon.

Vancouver, Canada.

What led you to the game dev industry and how did you become a game designer?

A proper answer here would be very long and boring. But the short answer is: I have always been a game fanatic and I started making games on the side while I was working as an aircraft engineer. Eventually, I realized that I wanted to make games full-time more than I wanted to make airplanes full-time! After years of trying to break in to videogames, I finally did. My first videogame project was as the lead designer of Age of Empires for DS. That was a fortunate turn of events, but only made possible because I had already been designing my own boardgames on the side. (And making no money, doing it…but learning a lot.)

What does a typical day look like?

There is no typical day for me because my job spans a bunch of different functions (design, administration, production). However, it usually starts with reading email, which I really hate. But often I need to check it first because if there is a crisis, I have to attend to it. After that I try to focus on things that require a lot of thinking first, because I find I have the most energy for that during the first part of the day but also late at night. During the middle of the day, I am interrupted a lot by discussions with team members, and that makes it hard to just focus on things that require uninterrupted thought. My day often involves juggling several spreadsheets. We have many spreadsheets on Darkest Dungeon that we use to export data directly into the game. I also spend a lot of the day talking about game features with Chris, or coordinating with programmers or our other designer, Dana. 

What's your setup?

I prefer to work on my desktop PC because it has two large monitors, and ergonomic keyboard, a nice chair, and space for my snacks. 🙂 However, I have a Razer Blade laptop that I use a lot because I am often traveling and that enables me to work from any coffee shop.

Which apps and services do you use most to complete your main tasks?

Microsoft Excel is the single most common and important tool in my toolbox. I also use Tableau for better data analysis, but that is more rare and I’m still learning it. I use Sublime Text 3 as my text editor. I don’t program a lot but when I do or when I need to compile the game, I use Visual Studio. Adobe Illustrator is useful for diagrams, and I use Paint.net for marking up sketches and screenshots.

Where do you gain inspiration from?

I find most of my game inspiration comes from things besides games: traveling, movies, books, magazines. I get excited about an idea and then start trying to figure out how to make a game about it. As far as games themselves as inspiration, I am most inspired from classic C-64 and PC games.

Which games have you recently seen that made you think this is great design?

Dead Cells is a masterpiece — the controls, the structure, the pixel graphics… they are all incredible. Opus Magnum is super cool and makes me want to be a better programmer. The Witcher 3 blew me away with the scope and the quality of all the storytelling.

What achievements in your career are you most proud of?

Darkest Dungeon has been a life-changing experience and I’m proud of what we have been able to accomplish as a small team. The other games I’m most proud of design-wise are Age of Empires: the Age of Kings DS and HOARD.

If you could change one thing about your career, what would it be?

I didn’t become a full-time game designer until I was 30. The key thing that helped me break in was networking. I wish I had gone to GDC or done other networking before then.  The second thing I wish I could’ve changed is never having worked for a certain unnamed company that caused me a lot of heartache and stress! Sometimes it’s ok to realize that something is not a fit for you and then get out of it!

Which recent task turned out to be much difficult than you expected?

Designing trinkets in Darkest Dungeon is constantly difficult. We had a very good idea at the beginning to make trinkets always have a drawback. This was very much in-line with what Darkest Dungeon is about: nothing is ever perfect. But in practice, it is quite difficult to design good trinkets given how many other parts of the game need our attention a lot. The result is that some trinkets are very well-designed and some have been problematic. I think it’s an area we could have done better, but never seem to find enough time to properly fix them all.

How are the disputes about variants of feature design solved in your company?

We are a small team, so quite often everyone will weigh in on a feature. But ultimately it’s up to me as the Design Director and Chris Bourassa as the Creative Director and Game Director to decide. Chris and I discuss it and haggle and argue and play Devil’s Advocate until we can agree. We each have final veto power, but in practice that is very rare. I fight hard for the design side of things, but as Creative Director Chris does a great job of trying to make sure that any feature fulfills a greater role in terms of all the key pieces of the game together.

What do you do to self-improve in game design?

Keep practicing the craft. Read anything that interests you. Learn about economics, business, physics, programming, read Gamasutra articles, absorb as many post-mortems as you can.

What music do you listen to whilst designing?

I love a wide variety of music but I can’t listen to lyrics if I’m doing anything that requires tons of concentration. Lately I like to go to BeatPort.com and pick out things from Deep House / Minimal House / Trance.

If a game designer would want to apply to your company, what would you advise him?

You MUST have portfolio pieces to show. I don’t care how intelligent you are or how much you know about games. If you have not shown that you can create things (such as level editing, mods, prototypes, boardgames….anything), you have 0% chance of getting a job working in our design department. With all the free tools available to people these days, there is no excuse not to make something.

Any advice for game designers in general?

You cannot improve as a designer without making things. It’s like weightlifting: you can read books about it, but you will not get stronger without lifting weights. Make things.

How can people contact you?

Best thing is to find me on twitter: @tylersigman