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GDC YouTube Top 5: Mohawk Games' Soren Johnson

In this new monthly series we invite brilliant people from the game industry to curate their top 5 videos from the GDC YouTube archive.

For our first installment, we bring you top picks from Soren Johnson, founder of Mohawk Games (Offworld Trading Company), co-designer of Civilization III, lead designer on Civilization IV, and GDC Advisory Board member.

He's currently working on the 10 Crowns, an "epic-scale turn-based strategy game that lets players create the greatest dynasty in world history."

For more details on GDC 2020 - taking place March 16-20 in San Francisco - visit the show's official website, or subscribe to regular updates via FacebookTwitter, or RSS.

21 Games - Holly Gramazio

"If you watch only one GDC talk, make it this one. First of all, it's only five minutes, but more importantly, Gramazio somehow packs 21 provocative, hilarious, and heartfelt design concepts into those few minutes. It's an important reminder that the scope of game design is, if not perhaps infinite, at least larger than the seven billion of us here will ever map out. Be sure to stay for Splatter and Stone."

How I Got My Mom to Play Through Plants vs. Zombies - George Fan

"As a member of the GDC Advisory Board, I mentor a number of talks each year, and this one is always my favorite example to give on how to put together a great practical and entertaining talk. Fan explains why the best tutorial is no tutorial; instead, developers should build games that teach themselves to players by paying attention to how people learn and to what their games are saying, a fundamentally humanist perspective."

How Cameras in Side-Scrollers Work - Itay Keren 

"Keren gives a true master class in game design by taking one topic - cameras in side-scrollers - and then mining lessons from every conceivable camera system over decades of games. A developer with zero knowledge of 2D scrolling cameras before watching this talk could realistically start building a modern one afterwards, customized for his or her own specific take on the genre. (Keren gave the same treatment to boss battles in a follow-up talk.)"

Build Your Own Fan Club: How to Use Your Email List - Chris Zukowski

"While developers understand that community building and marketing are important parts of thriving in the games industry, most of us got into the business because we are passionate about game design, not sales outreach. Indeed, developers can sometimes feel a little embarrassed about the idea that we even need to sell our own games. Zukowski explains, in a surprisingly entertaining talk, how developers who don't maintain regular communication with their biggest fans are not just passing up more money but also doing a disservice to the fans themselves."

Why Make Games? Lessons from Frostpunk and This War of Mine - Przemyslaw Marszal and Michal Drozdowski

"There have been plenty of GDC talks over the years about how we need games to mean something, to actually matter to the world. Meanwhile, 11 Bit Studios has been quietly doing just that - not once, but twice, with This War of Mine and Frostpunk. In this talk, Marszal and Drozdowski explain how both games were transformed and deepened when the company decided to drop the games' original, prosaic themes for something that actually inspired them to care about what they were making."

Honorable Mentions

Meg Jayanth, '10 Ways to Make Your Game More Diverse

Mark Rosewater, 'Magic: the Gathering: Twenty Years, Twenty Lessons Learned

Leigh Alexander, 'Queens of the Phone Age: The Narrative Design of Reigns: Her Majesty'

Ian Bogost, 'Bogost's Taxonomy of Extinct Terrestrial Tribes' 

Jason Kapalka, 'Classic Game Postmortem - Bejeweled

Matt Leacock and Rob Daviau, 'Board Game Design Day: The Making of Pandemic Legacy'

Josh Sawyer, 'Pillars of Eternity and Proper Attribute Tuning'

Dain Saint, 'The Universe: How To Break The Game'

Luke Muscat, 'The Prototype that was Banned from Halfbrick'

Luke Muscat, 'The Jetpack Joyride Postmortem

Julia Keren-Detar, 'History Shaping Design: How Gender Roles As Shown In The History of Tabletop Games'

Bennett Foddy and Zach Gage, 'Put Your Name on Your Game, a Talk by Bennett Foddy and Zach Gage'

(Also, if you'll forgive the self-indulgence, I gave a GDC talk in 2010 on how choosing a theme for a game is insufficient to give it meaning. Only the game mechanics themselves can make the theme matter. Unfortunately, this talk, which is a personal favorite of mine, was not recorded visually, so I downloaded the audio and recreated the talk by matching the slides to the voice. You can see the results here.)

Soren Johnson runs an independent game studio called Mohawk Games, which released the economic RTS Offworld Trading Company in 2016 and is now working on 10 Crowns, a dynastic 4X strategy game. He was the co-designer of Civilization III and the lead designer of Civilization IV. Soren also records a podcast called Designer Notes in which he interviews designers on why they make games. (


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