Skip to main content

Reiner Knizia: "I think people will come back to full-price games"

With over 500 games to his name, Knizia is still finding new horizons

Who's the most prolific game designer you can name? Molyneux, perhaps? Around 30 games. Maybe Mark Cerny? About the same. What about the grandmaster, Miyamoto? Credited on an incredible 100 or so titles. Small potatoes. Chump change. Dr Reiner Knizia, who only gave up his banking job to work as a full time designer in 1997, has over 500 games to his name.

Mostly, though, they're board games, not video games. Knizia's is a name spoken in hallowed tones by dice jockeys and cardboard collectors worldwide - a man who has been so productive that several board-gaming conventions host tournaments dedicated purely to his titles. He's produced games all across the spectrum, from complex strategy to family-based electronic crossover games. Now, at 57, he's still exploring new frontiers, eager to understand the possibilities offered by evolving technology and new markets.

When I sit down over lunch with him at the Nordic Game Conference in Malmo, I half expect to find a man watching the App Store with trepidation, fearing his empire's crumble, but I am very much mistaken. Remarkably, for a man who has always spoken about game design as an art-form rather than a business, he's very eager to attend a presentation by Candy Crush publisher King, a company famous for its extremely analytical approach to design.

"Well, I wanted to hear their philosophy," Knizia smiles. "How they approach their games and their users, how they monetise things. If you look at some of their games, and Farm Heroes is the one I like best, they're largely match-three games, with nothing particularly new about them. They've been around for a very long time, there are endless clones of them - so why are they so successful? What are they doing differently?

On King's success: "The people who say they're not doing anything new, well, why don't they make the same amount of money by doing nothing new as well?"

"It's about understanding that philosophy. There's a bit of luck involved, but you make your own luck. I want new mechanics and innovative designs, but sometimes I see things that succeed without those, so I want to understand them, what are their other parameters for success.

"Don't get me wrong, when I say there's nothing very new in their games from a mechanical viewpoint - I have nothing but respect for what they're doing. The people who say they're not doing anything new, well, why don't they make the same amount of money by doing nothing new as well?"

Are there really many mysteries to Candy Crush or Farm Heroes for a man of Knizia's standing, though? Doesn't his encyclopaedic knowledge of design and mechanics make something as simple as match-three games utterly transparent?

"I think one important thing is that you can play them at many levels. First of all, it's very simple to understand - there are no rules, really. I can get it from just one example and I can play it in a very primitive fashion - just picking them out where I see them. Then I can start thinking about it more strategically, seeing where I can get four in a row, five in a row, or multiple lines. Things which get you bigger rewards. In Farm Hero, you see that - you have to collect certain items, you have other tasks. There's a lot of depth you can introduce just through very simple mechanics. People can play them very simply or they can become great experts. Everyone can find their level."

That analytical frankness is typical of Knizia's approach. He speaks openly and with honesty, perhaps the hallmark of a man with a reputation established enough to be relatively unconcerned by the opinions of others. I press him a little on the nature of data-driven design, on the importance of metrics, focus-testing, retention. It's a the lifeblood of a huge section of, not just gaming, but modern society and economics - but is it healthy?

On the dangers of poorly implemented free-to-play "You lose a lot of people in that process, people wake up to it and go somewhere else, often somewhere else where it's not happening."

"It's quite a dangerous direction for the whole world to move in," he exclaims. "I find myself, not fascinated, but surprised by how pervasive things like advertising are. I look at a book on Amazon and then later I'm browsing something else and an advert for that book appears, apparently completely out of the blue - except of course it's not. The whole world is ruled by big data, everything is analysed - our environment is trimmed to our needs, our requirements. That's positive. But we're also constantly marketed at, targeted exactly. You might say manipulated exactly, all for commercial purposes. That's not to our benefit, but to the benefit of those trying to get money from us.

"It's a development, one of many in our history. The world will be able to cope, it will adjust. There might be counter-movements, people who want to break free of it, people who want privacy or a more sterile environment. We're seeing that movement at the moment in people's response to big data. But games are watching, gathering data on how users behave. They create big data to try and optimise monetisation.

"But gamers are not that stupid. I say a lot of good things about Farm Heroes, but here's the critical part: you play Heroes. In the beginning it's fun, you play it for quite a while. Later you see that it becomes more and more tedious if you play without spending money because they keep turning the screw. It's designed to use all of the features that cost money. So I have spoken to a lot of people who have started playing it, found it an interesting game and enjoyed it, but have then given up. They've realised that they either need to pay, or be extremely lucky, to continue to enjoy it and that's not what they want to do.

"So you lose a lot of people in that process. People wake up to it and go somewhere else, often somewhere else where it's not happening."

His thoughts echo those of others I meet at Nordic Game, and two weeks later at E3: the fear that the app store gold rush, and the rise of free-to-play particularly, is exemplified by a short-term vision of profit and high player churn, leaving people disillusioned by both individual titles and games more generally. Bridges are being burned and players who are experiencing the medium for the first time are being sent away with a feeling of having been exploited. Knizia sees that, but he's confident that the industry can weather a few storms.

He's happy to embrace new technology, but boxes, cards and plastic pieces will always have a place in Knizia's heart.

"I think there's already a counter-movement to it," he says. "When I go to the app store and I look at a game, I look at the screenshots to get an impression of what it's about, but as soon as I see details of in-app purchases then I know that's how the game is geared up. I get away from it. I don't download it because I know the cycles at play and I don't want to be in those cycles. You can't hide that model - people see it. If there are no in-application purposes, no credits to be bought, it's a different game.

"I think people will come back to full-price games, even though it's difficult to sell something on the app-store that's full-price at the moment."

We're side-tracked slightly into a discussion of what might be the defining distinction between board and video games, the presence of the physical. It's a line being blurred by Skylanders, Disney Infinity, Nintendo's Amiibos and Knizia's own work, but I suggest that they'll always be something a little suspect about the rolling of virtual dice, as opposed to real ones, a feeling that, perhaps, you're being cheated. With dice - or bones or the runes of the Vikings - the element of unpredictability, of chaos and chance was seen as divine, as utterly intangible. That still holds a fascination which can't be easily reproduced by the digital, I argue.

"Times have changed a lot, with the understanding of probabilities, the ability to analyse what's happening in a game, but that doesn't take away that fascination - in fact it deepens it," Knizia counters. "It's also the haptic element. There's still a difference between holding physical dice and virtual ones. Physical dice give me something I can roll myself, they put me in charge of my own physical destiny, even though I can't influence it. I'll try, by holding them or throwing them differently, blowing on them, etc. It makes me feel in control, even though I'm not. It won't give you better results, but it's very satisfactory. With the same thing happening on a screen, where you push a button and it tells you you've rolled a seven, that's not as satisfactory.

"Logically it's exactly the same, but psychologically it's completely different. The psychology of how you're involved is very important.

"People like to try out new things, new challenges. They like having a good time with other people, so you might just do it to enjoy yourself. Or you might take a few bones as dice and gamble for something, like the Roman soldiers did. Again, there's that range in the gaming environment - heavy gambling, idle play, deep strategy. I think it's these battles of the mind that makes games so popular, as well as the social factor.

"When we're children we have the ability to freely play, with anything that falls into our hands. As we grow up we seem to lose this a little bit, we have to replace it with more formal rulesets, paradoxically, to replace that playful, imaginative environment. A formalised, shared imagination."

"When we're children we have the ability to freely play, with anything that falls into our hands. As we grow up we seem to lose this a little bit, we have to replace it with more formal rulesets, paradoxically, to replace that playful, imaginative environment. A formalised, shared imagination."

He might be forgiven for a little cynicism over the current trend for small session, short-loop design, given the very obvious passion for deep systems and understanding of play which burns within him. Does his background leave him a little inhospitable to new developments, especially when they seem to run contrary to what he holds dear? I'm quickly corrected.

"I find it highly exciting," he says, of his transition to mobile titles. "As a mathematician I had a bit of computer science and programming experience at University. I'd worked in the computing side of banking, so I have an IT background. But I think the most important thing is that I and my team are creatives. We generate ideas and prototypes and then we work with publishers to bring them to market. For us the worst thing that can happen is the world being stable, maintaining status quo, because where do you find innovation then? At the moment we're going through radical changes in our world, which opens enormous opportunities for creative people to set their minds differently and do new things.

"Creative people have the best opportunities in times of upheaval. When I decided to become a full-time game-designer, it was very clear to me that I didn't want to just dig deeper and deeper into the same thing, because you eventually start repeating yourself. So I was and always have been fascinated by new areas, new technologies, better production. They bring completely new elements to games. It's an enormous opportunity and a new challenge.

"First I started with the games I like - deep strategy games. Then I changed to do more family-friendly games - you need to rethink the whole approach, the same with children's games. I've always welcomed change with open arms."

Read this next