John Newcomer’s Unconventional Path to Video Game Design

John Newcomer video game designer

John Newcomer, a renowned video game designer, began his career in 1981 at Williams Electronics, later changing to Williams/Bally/Midway and Midway Games. He earned a Bachelor of Arts in Industrial and Product Design from the University of Notre Dame. Newcomer’s first game, Joust, gained cultural significance and is currently Creative Director at Cybiko, In-Fusio, MumboJumbo, and Reliance Games. His childhood motivations include working for a think company, dismantling objects, and playing chess and backgammon.

Since beginning his career in 1981 at Williams Electronics, which later changed its name to Williams/Bally/Midway and then Midway Games, John Newcomer has contributed to several video game titles. He earned a Bachelor of Arts in Industrial and Product Design from the University of Notre Dame. His first game was Joust, which is being played today and has gained cultural significance. Additionally, at Cybiko, In-Fusio, MumboJumbo, and most recently Reliance Games, Newcomer serves as Creative Director.

Can you simply outline your childhood motivations? Your decision to become interested in gaming may have been influenced by family or coworkers, or it may have come about independently.

I originally wanted to work for a think company as a toy and game maker. Most notable toy and game ideas from the 1960s through the 1980s came from think tanks, the biggest of which being Marvin Glass in Chicago, not far from where I grew up in Indiana.

To learn more about an object’s internal workings, I dismantled every thing I could get my hands on. I was a toy shop frequenter, and I knew every item in catalog wish books from companies like Montgomery Wards and Sears.

I was a major chess fanatic, and Bobby Fischer had a big effect on me when it came to video games. I gained a solid knowledge of strategy as well as the capacity to organize offenses and defenses as a result.

I also played Monopoly and poker against my closest friend. These were specific tactics that called a knowledge of probability. I spent a lot of time playing backgammon, which is a game that perfectly blends skill and probability.

I quickly mastered winning strategies when I bought games from toy stores, and my friend and I regularly changed the rules to make the games more challenging.

When I switched to video games, these foundations helped me. It helped with level creation, balancing, and AI fine-tuning.

It also enabled me to branch out and not be confined to a certain genre. I felt at ease in every genre.

Do you think that your degree in product and industrial design has helped you with game creation or given you a fresh outlook on overcoming certain difficulties?

Definitely. Everything, including video games, music, and even peer social interactions, is perceived to me in terms of design. I pay attention to and dissect the elements that either cause these things to work or fail.

In actuality, I do not consider myself a game designer and would advise other creators to take a more expansive approach and think of themselves as entertainment designers.

Learning the fundamentals of product design, especially for toys, gave me the skills I needed to find any genre enjoyable and to consider it fascinating. By placing myself in the target audience’s shoes and striving to perceive the world from their perspective, I try to make every game pleasant.

To build a game, you must understand that all types of entertainment compete for a customer’s free time. In comparison to watching a movie, listening to music, or watching television, the game must be more engaging.

The player’s annoyances must be taken into account while designing a game, and ways to include these components must be thought of.

You take into account more than simply the principal purpose when learning about product design. You take into account the sensation and look. In addition, I have studied a lot of psychology, which has helped me think about how to appeal to people’s emotions and understand the world from their point of view.

Newcomer learned from Mouse Trap’s developer.

I was wondering if you have any mentors or historical individuals who have influenced you and how, as I can think of a few teachers who have helped me grow.

In the actual world, Gordon Barlow was my mentor. He founded his own business in Skokie, Illinois after serving as a senior partner at Marvin Glass.

His most famous invention is the mousetrap. I was taken under Gordon’s wing, and within a few months, I had learnt more about technology and video games than I had in school.

He told me that the toy and gaming industries existed. You can’t let an idea stagnate; you need to come up with a strategy to go forward and never stop.

And he showed me the value of striking a balance between two goals. The first is to provide a product that the target market will appreciate, and the second is to make money for the company.

So many aspiring designers make the mistake of only producing entertaining objects. That may be effective if you or a tiny independent group are independently wealthy.

You must think about how to appeal to a bigger population if you want to be widely successful. Take into account, among other things, the possibilities for line expansions, your budget, and the feelings of the audience.

Although I never had the pleasure of working with George Lucas or Stephen Spielberg, they stand out for their originality, capacity for entertainment, and insight into human motivation. They are my ideal teachers. Both Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Wars had major roles in my life.

If the screenplay, special effects, and other components were removed, I could see how movies may be regarded as video games. As technology develops, they showed what video games may look like in the future.

The designer of Space Invaders, Tomohiro Nishikado, is the next. I changed my career aspirations from toys to video games after realizing that they were the future.

My three favorite illustrators—Frank Frazetta, Jack Davis (artist for MAD magazine), and James Bama—who created the packaging art for a series of Aurora monster models—are still my go-to people when I need a spark of inspiration.

Stan Lee and Jack Kirby deserve particular recognition for producing so many adored Marvel heroes. Designers with skill create comic books.

What old-school or modern video games or movies have inspired your artistic perspective or have you deemed essential viewing? Have you recently experienced anything that surprised or stunned you?

I keep an eye out for new film ideas. Designers may pick up a lot about plot, character growth, pace, and effects from them.

I refer to a group of movies as textbooks, and among them are Die Hard, Aliens, Inglourious Basterds, and most recently The Avengers.

If you want to understand how to create a game with a huge ensemble cast, look at how Joss Whedon handled the writing and balance of the characters in The Avengers.

If you’re making kid-friendly activities, you should look at what Pixar is doing.

And whence did gems like Despicable Me come from? They hardly scratch the surface.

I still think Robotron, a vintage arcade game, is the best game to play. It immediately stimulated your adrenaline with fantastic approaches, making you desire to try again out of the blue. You are put in what seems like an impossible predicament, yet you manage to get out of it and feel incredibly exhilarated.

The fact that I saw the full issue at once was significant. The challenge keeps coming at you and you have little idea of when it will finish since current games employ viewpoints where you are never confronted with the enormity of the work at once.

To select just a few games from the enormous selection would take a lot of time.

I’d start with the importance of World of Warcraft since it opened up a challenging genre to a larger audience.

All future first-person shooter games are built on Doom, which established the genre.

Because it shows that fun can be had without cutting-edge visuals and technology, Minecraft is important. Minecraft also understands the fundamentals of entertainment and understands that effects and technology are frosting on the cake. If your essence is unpleasant, icing will not be able to cover it forever.

I salute Angry Birds for adapting a typical flash game mechanic that we had all seen for years and balancing the game’s challenge to make it a resounding hit.

Candy Crush deserves praise for similar reasons. That game could have been made by any professional in the field, and they ought to have. King was the only one who correctly identified the details, thus no one else did. They realized the value of making new friends and that incredibly difficult levels were desirable.

One of Newcomer’s favorite coin-operated video games is Robotron.

Since you were the one who recruited me for my first job in the video game business, I must ask: Is it true that you cooked a rubber chicken in a crock pot during your interview with Williams Electronics? I vividly remember the squid animation that was necessary for the interview.

Actually, Ken Fedesna, my boss, recalls it differently. For the record, my explanation is that, during my interview, I jammed my résumé down a rubber chicken’s esophagus.

Ken fell unwell after I was hired, so I brought him slow-cooked rubber chicken soup. I took a risk in going to the interview in order to find out if the organization I would be working for appreciated humor, creativity, and boldness.

John Newcomer's video game design

Could you briefly discuss the differences between production then and today since you did land a job at Williams and nearly immediately created Joust?

Teams were smaller and resources were limited during the 1980s arcade game boom. On graph paper, I seem to have planned up character designs and level plans. There were 264 colors in our palette but we can only utilize 15 of them, plus one translucent color.

With the exception of the producers, all of the different talent sets were present. The Producer at the time was also the Principal Designer.

Because to a memory shortage, there weren’t many huge teams. Due to considerably improved technology, an increase in the demand for features, an increase in game complexity, and more memory capacity, modern games require larger development teams.

Large teams require more coordination and collaboration with the project’s business component. The Producer became into a need.

With greater resources, it becomes more important to keep everyone engaged and make sure that every part of the development pipeline is operating as it should. Agile is the greatest approach to oversee game development and produce a product that can be seen by all stakeholders over the course of several iterations.

The creation of a game is an expensive enterprise that calls for the use of strong business concepts. No longer are the tools produced internally. Let professionals build Maya, Unity, 3ds Max, Excel, and Visio.

Do you currently have any goals or demands for hiring designers?

The process of hiring designers is similar to other phases of my career. I want to be able to tell from the candidate’s eyes that they are working in this field because they want to.

It brings me joy and enthusiasm to create games and fun. I’m interested in finding out if the person is innovative and how extensive their gift is. They must be able to evaluate a game and justify why it is enjoyable or popular.

How does it work?

I respect the person’s variety of interests. Because they appreciate design in general, rather than simply first-person shooter or fighting game design, I want the designers to be able to switch genres.

Tool knowledge is essential since ideas must be shared with the entire team. For everyone, having the capacity to carry out a variety of tasks is helpful.

Additionally, I look for people that have excellent communication abilities. The best designers can communicate their ideas to every team member because teams are bigger and feature a diverse range of specialties. They also understand how to respect others, operate as a team, and make sure their opinions are heard.

Designers with more experience need to show that they are aware of design pillars and will make sure that they are upheld even if the timetable is uncertain. The game’s vision must be upheld by the creator during production in order to guarantee that it will be there when the game is published.

When it was first launched in 1982, Joust was a hit, and it still is. You must infer that some of the design choices you made for the game were wise when players like Lonnie McDonald keep breaking records. I’m aware of your previous professional achievements, and I was wondering if you could shed any light on how such well-known symbols were created.

It does validate, and I’m still astounded by the continued appeal of the vintage arcade classics. I think the elegant design played a big part in it. There wasn’t enough memory to hide behind a variety of levels and eye-catching effects; either the participants understood the topic or they didn’t. The core gameplay mechanic must be compelling.

Design now follows the lesson that was learned: get the fundamental cycle right. The core gameplay must be so captivating and compelling that a player is motivated to keep repeating the pattern.

Furthermore, if the controls are off, there is no way to save the game. True then and true now.

A couple of sentences on Lonnie and other record holders. Nobody in the arcade business ever foresaw players being so good that we would see tens of millions.

Lonnie easily exceeds the 9,999,999 that Joust had expected. Champion players wrapped the score numerals in their fingers because we did not put enough zeros on the scores.

Unexpected odd situations frequently happen in video games. I’m in love with these gifted athletes. It is quite amazing that this commitment resulted in such competence. It serves as a fantastic reminder to never underestimate a person’s potential.

You seem to have spent the most of your recent time playing mobile games; did you have any trouble making the switch from arcade/coin-op to mobile platform and free-to-play, or was it more of a natural progression?

The change for me from arcade to casual/mobile gaming was a logical one. In the early days of mobile, you had to work around poor hardware and constrained color sample web color schemes palettes. You also had to understand the foundations. There is where video game players first began. Console men struggled harder because many of them had never learnt to live without.

Everyone finds the move to Free to Play (F2P) challenging. It was easier to manage an arcade since we had to learn how to take 25 cents out of a player’s pocket every 2:30 minutes. The decision to play another quarter of your game might be made by a player.

Because many designers are used to creating only good enough to get a $60 sale, after which they don’t have to worry as much, the switch to a console backdrop is more challenging. I can remember paying between $35 and $60 on a game that I felt was a waste of money because it got boring or lacked enough substance.

Designers of massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) find it simpler to adapt since they are more aware of the need of community building and ongoing customer care. The player was treated unfairly on console, but F2P tilted the scales in the other direction.

Publishers and developers receive unjust treatment. For the length of their favourite game, 98% of gamers can play your game for free forever at a cost of $0.00. Designers now need to make adjustments since the industry foresaw this.

The gamer must first and foremost find the game entertaining and interesting. You must consider the participant’s requirements and wants in addition to giving them a steady stream of easily downloaded material if you want them to stick around.

The designer needs to become a better marketer and psychologist if they want to make more money. To find out where people are quitting the game, you must evaluate the data, and then fix it. The participant then has to be turned into a paid player.

You need to show utility.

You need to understand what about the game is so alluring that the player will pay to play it. You must be aware of sales techniques and human psychology in order to persuade someone to spend more money. We study human behavior to understand what drives people to pay for a free activity in addition to studying games to understand how they function.

In the past, we were worried with reaching the broadest possible audience. Do you see any current trends that may be affecting the information in mobile games?

Through a succession of updates over the course of their existence, games must continue to develop. In general, games keep giving the player new tasks to complete. There are new game types and daily goals. PvP (player against player) components are being included into more games.

Before transitioning into multiplayer competition, the game starts as a single-player experience. Then, other community elements are included, such texting and unique events. The entire game has the atmosphere of a party.

Do you have a favorite game or project that you’ve just completed? If so, what made it so fun for you?

Throughout my employment, I’ve liked working on the bulk of the titles. As each genre has different difficulties, it’s fun to swap genres and learn how to appeal to players that like that particular style of game.

I have to select between several initiatives I’m working on concurrently because I’m a manager. I like working on the Real Steel video game series for Reliance because it’s fun to transform the movie’s intellectual property into a game about fighting robots.

Finding an audience and competing against some of the greatest brands in the combat game category is challenging for us. Machines have a tremendous deal of potential to carry out tasks that conventional human warriors cannot.

Several games from Reliance Games, the company Newcomer is now working for.

Exist any challenges that make creating mobile games particularly challenging?

There are various challenges, starting with attracting players to find and play your game. A publisher will pay for user acquisition (UA) if you have enough money. Organic download is a fantastic option when you label your game with keywords that consumers may independently search for.

Once you start recruiting people, you must keep them on board. To find out if players are quitting the game early for a variety of reasons, you often look at one-, three-, seven-, fifteen-, and thirty-day retention. F2P games extensively employ analytics that are active throughout the code to help designers and product managers understand how the game is being perceived.

Then, you must convert enough users to paying customers to bring in enough money to pay for development expenses and start turning a profit. For this reason, you must set up your game like a business and employ many of the same strategies to draw customers and persuade them to buy what you are offering.

In theory, free-to-play mobile games remain everlasting as long as players keep playing them. By paying attention to what they want and delivering fresh material every one to two months, you must attract new clients and retail customers.

Can you provide us with any information on the games Reliance is now working on or anything that will be released soon?

Our main products are the Real Steel franchise, which consists of the Real Steel paid game, Real Steel World Robot Boxing (WRB), and Real Steel Champions (RSC).

A year ago, Real Steel named Apple’s App of the Week. These games are still in use, and we keep introducing exciting new features. In the next months, we’ll be creating action brawlers in an effort to dominate that market and branching out into other categories like Match-3 and Builder games.

Can you estimate the proportion of Reliance’s excellent game portfolio that is produced in-house as opposed to being outsourced?

A key element of our approach to enter new fields is co-development. We have a lot of expertise in the action and action brawler genres, therefore they are the two that our in-house company specializes in.

The ratio of internal to external developers would only be a rough estimate as it would rely on the size of the projects on the current roadmap and the upkeep of already released games. Say 40 to 60.

The most recent game created by Reliance Games is Real Steel Champions.

Are there any aspects of the business that you would want to highlight?

Our most recent product, Real Steel Champions (RSC), released in March. People build their own automata just for the fighting arena. On the Reliance site at, check out our video!

You can also contact me on LinkedIn

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