“Great games keep the player in the space between frustration and boredom.” – Ed Fries

Ed Fries knows what it takes to make a great video game. In addition to being the brains behind the legendary Xbox, he cut his teeth in the 1980s designing games for the Atari 800 and working at Microsoft, where he worked as an early developer of a couple of programs you may have heard of, Excel and Word. Fries then moved on to create Microsoft Game Studios, which became one of the leaders in the video game business with 100s of games published and more than a dozen million dollar+ sellers.

Since “retiring” in 2004, Fries has been a board member and advisor to a broad range of independent game publishers and developers.  He also launched his own startup, FigurePrints, which uses color 3D printing technology to bring video game characters to life.

In 2010, he released Halo 2600 (a “remake” of the Halo video game series) for Atari 2600, which became one of the first two video games to be added to the permanent collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

For our Young Video Game Developer Workbook, we were lucky enough to speak to Ed to ask him how he first got started and what suggestions he would make for new game developers.
Aside from Frogger, what are some of your all-time favorite games?

My favorite old-school game is called “M.U.L.E.” for the Atari 800 computer. It’s a 4-player simulation where you have to build a successful colony on an alien world. Really fun with friends!

What first got you interested in computers and games?

My parents are both engineers so I grew up around lots of technology. My dad would bring home programmable calculators before there were personal computers and my mom would bring home a printing terminal we could use to dialup to a computer so I could play text adventure games. Eventually I started to learn how to program so I could create my own.

Do you see any links between engineering and game design?

In my mind, engineering is just making stuff…whether it’s a spreadsheet or a video game. You have to have an idea, and then try to turn that idea into something real. The more things you build the easier it gets.

What do you think are the most important elements of designing a great game?

Great games keep the player in the space between frustration and boredom. If it’s too easy, the player gets bored. If it’s too hard, they get frustrated.

How do you work when you’re first working on a new game concept – what are the key steps of taking it from idea to a finished game?

Whenever you are making something you want to have a vision for what the final thing should look like, but it shouldn’t be too clear. As you build it you need to stay open to new ideas that improve on your original idea. If the first idea is too fixed you will miss the chance to make it great.

What tools do you use?

I tend to work in C++ or assembly language, depending on if I’m doing something for new machines or for the old consoles like the Atari 2600. But that’s kind of an old fashioned way to make games. Kids today should probably use a game engine like Unity or Unreal.

What Platform should game developers design for now? PC, Xbox, phone?

All of these are good choices, although the PC is the easiest place to start. If you use something like Unity, you can easily target the other platforms later.

How do you test games? Have you ever made any major changes in the past to a game after testing it?

Testing is all about having other people play your game and then being open to their feedback. They usually can’t tell you how to make it better, but they can tell you what they don’t like.

Have you ever given up on a game idea or hit a major roadblock when developing a game? How did you handle it?

I like to think about problems when I go to sleep. Sometimes answers come in dreams or in the shower the next morning.

What do you think the most valuable thing about having a Computer Science degree is?

To me a CS degree gives you the techniques you need to make stuff. It’s the programming equivalent of an artist learning how to paint.

What would your top suggestion be for a young person interested in getting into the game industry?

Make stuff. The industry is about creating things. The more things you make, even if they are bad at first, the better off you will be.

So, game developers, if you get stumped, always remember that dreaming up a good idea might literally mean going to bed! Science has proven that solutions to problems often come while we sleep, and good ideas are likely to come while we wash our hair. Be sure to keep a notebook under the pillow and even in the bathtub, and always remember Ed’s top 3 tips when designing your game:

  • Be open to the possibility of changing your plan as you go
  • Test the game to make sure it isn’t too easy or hard
  • Keep at it: the more you build, the easier it gets

Please register to download a copy of our Young Video Game Inventor Workbook, where you will find great tips like these from Ed Fries and many other video game industry professionals who have so graciously donated their time and experience to provide key information for Video Game Palooza and the people we are fortunate to serve.