Marlena Abraham

Game Designer for Schell Games

Marlena Abraham (they/them/theirs) is a game designer at Schell Games, where they work primarily in R&D. They’ve designed games and experiences for a variety of spaces including VR/AR, location based entertainment, education, and new technology. They’ve led teams as project director (HistoryMaker VR & Mechanisms Phase I), released titles as both a line and lead designer (e.g., LEGO BrickHeadz VR & WaterBears VR), and have worked on a variety of short-term explorations, internal development, and projects that they can’t talk about in public-facing speaker bios.

In their spare time, Marlena is also the lead organizer for Bit Bridge, a local community of independent game developers in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. They often speak at local game development events and workshops. They enjoy story-driven games and are developing one or two of them in their free time. When they aren’t making games, they play disaster characters in tabletop RPGs, bake elaborate cakes, make and drink experimental cocktails, and overscope the occasional LARP.

Talk Description:

Verb Trees: How an Evocative Phrase Became a Suite of Design Tools

Designers often use core verbs as a tool to help them strengthen the game’s key themes. When you’re pitching a new feature or designing a new system, focusing on a gameplay verb like “sneak” or “infiltrate” instead of a verb like “protect” can completely change everything about the game you’re building: its player fantasy, its game feel, its systems, its moment-to-moment gameplay.

Verbs are an excellent place to start defining the backbone of your game, but an unordered list of verbs is limited for day-to-day utility. The most important verbs in your game may change depending on whether you’re working on the first five minutes of the game or the gameplay ten hours in. They may be different if you’re talking about mechanics or meta, new or experienced players, or whether you’re talking about the narrative sections or the puzzle sections. Let’s add a bit of structure to that unordered list!

Verb trees can be a powerful design tool to help distill your player fantasy into a network of core gameplay concepts. In this talk, Marlena will go over a high-level definition of what verb trees are and what they’re used for. After that, they’ll break down several ways that you can leverage verb trees at different stages of the design process, including: brainstorming, pre-production, systems design, design documentation, tutorial progression, and mid- and post-production evaluation. They’ll touch on how you can use a verb tree in the short term (e.g. in a quick half-hour time slot to solve a specific gameplay problem) as well as how to use them long term throughout development (e.g. in conjunction with other team-wide tools like project pillars to help keep sight of your core vision). Verb trees have proven useful at Schell Games; a number of other project teams have begun to use them in a wide variety of contexts. We’re excited to see how other developers may benefit from their use on their own projects.