JAY LITTLE: Guest of Honor Game Designer

Petrie’s is excited to bring you face-to-face with the folks who bring you your favorite game titles. Before attending GameFest March 11-13, we wanted to give you the time to get to know this year’s special guests. This time we have Jay Little, author of such titles as X-Wing Fighter, Star Wars Edge of the Empire, and his recent title Patient Zero.


What do you do to inspire your creation process?
Inspiration comes from a variety of sources. Some are just part of life – family, pop culture, other games, movies, listening to music… stuff like that. But there are a few that really help either jumpstart my creativity or help re-charge my batteries when I’m starting to run low on energy: binge watching an interesting show based on a related topic on Netflix, listening to classic Old Time Radio shows like Suspense, Box 13 or X-1, and being around other energetic people. I love brainstorming with other designers and teaching college students about game design — that always seems to do the trick, too.
Are there any exciting projects in the works?
I always have a few different things going on at the same time, but three are definitely closer to complete, market-ready games. Three Years of War is a bleak card-based hand and resource management game where the players have to choose the least terrible of constantly worsening horrible options. The Turing Test is a great 8-12 player social deduction game that was developed by some of my game design students where players are trying to determine who among the group are Artificial Intelligence and who are Human through interaction and conversation. Catastrophe! is an episodic roleplaying game where each player has an ensemble cast instead of a single character, as they recreate disaster stories like Lost, Walking Dead, or Day After Tomorrow.
How do you keep the game design process fresh and interesting?
I’m not sure I always do! But one way I try is to make sure I don’t close myself off from certain types of games. I can’t focus only on what my personal tastes and preferences may be — I have to be open to all types of games, formats, mechanics, and genres if I want to be a well-rounded game designer.
I use the analogy of being an art history enthusiast — even if Impressionism isn’t your favorite style, understanding and appreciating its importance and impact on art history helps you better appreciate art overall.
You have a new game coming to Kickstarter this year, Patient Zero.  It sounds like amazing fun, can you tell us a little bit about it?
Patient Zero is a cooperative survival dice game. Players work together gathering clues to try to track down the person responsible for unleashing the virus which has afflicted a large percent of the population with a disease that turned them into the zombies. Unlike other zombie settings, however, a cure is within reach — the players just need to conduct the research and track down Patient Zero. So they’re reluctant to kill the zombies because they know they’re people who can be saved!
What game theories do you find yourself applying to your everyday life?
So many that it’s impossible to separate them. I’m a strong believer that good, sound, fundamental design principles can be applied to all facets of life, all college majors, and all careers. There are so many great concepts that apply to critical thinking, open-mindedness, a broader understanding of how people think and evaluate the world around them, and tips and tricks to help manage tasks and overcome challenges.
Getting a game published can be difficult.  How do you advise budding game designers to proceed when they have an idea for a game?
If you want to be a game designer, design games! Complete a game — a great idea isn’t great if it’s still kicking around in your head. Create a physical prototype as soon as possible, even if it’s cobbled together with scraps of paper, index cards, and bits scavenged from other games. Get the bare minimum created you need to showcase your core idea — a “proof of concept” — and demo the idea to someone… anyone! The process of creating that first prototype and articulating the idea helps make that game idea real, and once it is an actual thing, it becomes something you can adjust, tweak, change, and improve.
Which aspect of game design do you enjoy the most?
All of it. I love when inspiration strikes and I furiously channel ideas in those earliest stages. I love brainstorming and spit-balling ideas on all the different approaches and ways to attack mechanical problems. I love the challenge of developing mechanics and systems that will help express the desired play experience and game concepts. I love getting player feedback and seeing what I got right, what I was way off on, and what I can do to improve the design. I just love designing games.
If we were to sit down at the table to play a game right now, what new or old favorite would you choose?
A six player game of Cosmic Encounter. Probably my favorite game of all-time, especially a full table of six players. So much table talk, schmoozing, deal-making, deal-breaking, back stabbing, and outright lying. All things I excel at. Except for the lying, obviously. (ahem)
What is your favorite thing about playing games?
There is no one favorite thing, because I approach and enjoy games from so many different points of view. When I play a game, I’m playing as a game designer, a teacher, and a player. And I can’t turn any of them “off” when I play.
You have such an amazing outlook on life and are a joy to play games with.  What advice would you give to gamers to help them have the best game play experience?
Well, thank you – I appreciate that. For me, I have the advantage of appreciating games from many different perspectives. If I’m not doing well in a game as a player (because I’m losing terribly), I can still enjoy the game as a designer (analyzing its mechanics), and as a teacher (what I would share with my students).
More than that, I try to enjoy games as a friend, even with people I don’t know. We all have limited time to play games, and I’d personally like that time to be a positive experience, and hope it is for others, too. Gaming is such an important part of my life and has been so good to me over the years, one way I can help give back is to be the best possible ambassador for the hobby that I can be. Plus, being negative is just so exhausting. I’ve already wasted too much of my life on that.
You have such a diverse gaming portfolio. How is designing for RPG, miniatures and board/card games different? And in what ways are they the same?
I’ve played all sorts of games from the very beginning so I don’t see as big a difference between them as some gamers may have. They were all just cool ways to spend time with my friends that stretched my imagination and challenged my thinking. But they do have different structures, so they do require different approaches.
All of the games I’ve designed so far have had clear resolution mechanics that define what you can do, to an extent. But for RPGs, the ultimate goal is very different – rather than a finite win condition or end game, designing for an open-ended or ongoing experience does influence how I design the rules. I need to make sure the rules are flexible enough to support a game that may be played an especially long time.
By contrast, a board game often has a discrete ending point and I can build to that point, but I also want to leave space to make sure I can add more content later. But with more discrete limits, I can shape a more specific experience toward a specific goal. While having those limits may seem restrictive, it can help make sure the gameplay remains focused.
Both have their opportunities and challenges. Both are an awful lot of fun to design. Both are an awful lot of fun to play.