SimCity Designer Lovingly Crafts Handmade ‘Christmas Games’

Stone Librande has made a one-of-a-kind board game for his kids every Christmas for the last 17 years., December 21, 2012

While most dads cruise the GameStop aisles to find the perfect gaming gift for their kids, Stone Librande, lead designer on the next installment of SimCity, has a more personal plan.

For the last 17 years, Librande has taken a busman’s holiday to dream up, design and lovingly handcraft an original board game to give to his two sons on Christmas morning. Though he never intended it when he first got out the sparkle glue and hid a wooden reindeer underneath an empty toilet paper tube, Librande’s “Christmas games” have since become a tradition.

“I’ve always been making games, since as young as I can remember,” Librande says. “So it was natural when I had kids to just make games with them all the time.”

That first year’s game was developed as little more than an amusing diversion for a 3-year-old. But it wasn’t until his wife dragged out the beat-up copy of “Hidden Reindeer” the following Christmas that Librande realized there could be lasting value in his creations. Now the Christmas games, like Junkyard Bots, Alpha Zoo-tauri, Roboball, Kong-Zilla and more, have become an exercise in producing heirloom-quality artisanal entertainment on an annual basis for a captive audience — captive until they left for college, that is.

Librande, whose credits include Diablo 3 and Spore, says he never intended to become a game designer. But when executives from Blizzard Entertainment played a game of “Monster Hunter,” his 2002 Christmas gift, they called him a few days later asking if he’d be interested in coming to work with them.

Though Librande now works for industry behemoth Electronic Arts, he still doesn’t have a dedicated workshop for the Christmas games. Instead, he pulls his car out of his garage, occasionally borrows a laser cutter from a friend, and frequents Bay Area TechShops to work on more serious pieces of equipment.

“Everything I do comes down to a sketchbook and a pencil,” he says. “The process of getting it out of your head as fast as possible and putting it into some form of reality is super important.”

His Christmas design habit has informed his professional work, Librande says, but more importantly, it gives free rein to his inner designer in a way that commercial games may not. Dollar signs bring compromises, Librande says; he exhorts amateur designers not to try to make money but just to try to make a good game — and not necessarily on the first try. Christmas is just the beginning of a long process of revision for Librande’s games. “Enjoy the fact that you don’t have a deadline,” he says. “Iterate forever. Make your own personal games.”

“For me, Christmas is somewhat of a joke these days,” he says. “Why does Christmas have to be this commercial experience? Can’t it be about something personal and emotional and close? I would much rather spend zero dollars at the mall and just hide in my studio and crank out games, with the hope that when I’m gone, these things are still living on in some form. It’s more fun, and a better philosophy of life. And it makes for better games.”