Creative practitioner case study - Derek Yu

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The game design industry has been around for decades, and yet while looking into it I was surprised to discover that there isn't a solid process for the creative practice that takes place when designing games. Big AAA companies may have process that work specifically for them (for example Halfbrick have a quarterly design submission process that all staff can work with) and there are plenty of ideas that revolve around prototyping, but compared to any other creative industry these ideas feel immature. It seems that the field almost requires you as a practitioner to find what works best for you by comparing and contrasting between practitioners who freely share their process, and seeing what works for you. Therefore, this post will focus on the work of Derek Yu, a developer who is really only known for a couple of games but is quite prolific in both his writing and interviews.

Derek Yu - A history

In order to understand how Derek Yu came to his current creative practice we need to look at the process he took to get there, as he also had to take this same journey of self discovery. Derek's first interaction with game design came to him at a very young age, where he would plot out ideas for games and level design on graph paper. He was still quite young when he first got his hands on an application called "Klik and Play", a simple but powerful creation tool that allowed the user to make lightweight games without any knowledge of programming. This tool paved the way for Derek by:

Klik and Play
Klik and Play

His first big project 'Eternal Daughter' saw him finding a programmer through the Klik and Play community and working for years on a single project for the first time. The game released in 2002 and was received fairly well, ending up on a list of the top 101 best free games on the web 4 years later (Gladstone, 2006). But with this game completed Derek thought it was best to put aside what he considered a dream, but not a serious career option.

Eternal Daughter splash screen
Eternal Daughter

It wasn't till years later after attempting to respond to activist Jack Thompson's open letter "A Modest Video Game Proposal" that Derek found himself thrust back into the world of game development (initially to defend the community that he loved). Finding his vigour and interest re-ignited Derek started working with Alec Holowka, a developer who he had worked with in his response to Jack Thompson's open letter, on a project based off Alec's prototype. This project eventually became Aquaria, a game received exceptionally well by the gaming community, going as far as to win the 2007 IGF Grand prize. But working on this project burnt Derek out, resulting in him stepping out of development to take some time to rejuvenate.

Aquaria splash

It was during this time that Derek moved back to the process he had been working on since he was a child. Instead of working on programming a grand engine for a new game, he found a program called Game Maker which was very similar in style to Klik and Play, allowing him to experiment and prototype at an incredible pace. Through experimentation, prototyping and peer sharing he eventually ended up with a prototype that became Spelunky.

Spelunky splash

Divergent and Convergent thinking through prototyping

Now that we have touched on Derek Yu's history, we need to break down some of the aspects of his process and how we can learn from them. When working on Spelunky (and prior to Eternal Daughter), Derek focused on a process of rapid prototyping in order to create ideas. This can be in essence seen as a form of Divergent thinking, which is the creation of a variety of solutions in an effort to find one which solves the problem (Runco & Acar, 2012). Derek's prototyping is the creation of a wide number of solutions to the problem "What game do I want to develop next", and in fact in his book he describes these prototypes and ideas as "puzzle pieces" that he can later connect in order to create a full game (which is a perfect example of convergent thinking).

While this is Derek's specific solution to this aspect of creation, it is not incredibly uncommon within the industry to use prototyping to this end. A style of game competitions known as a "Game Jam" has often led to the development of full games by forcing the designer to prototype within a brief window rather than let the prototype drag on (Francis, 2017). Some game companies even use limited game jams as their primary source of prototype development. Even in cases where prototyping isn't the primary form of the creative process, divergent thinking remains and important part of process. Erik Wolpaw and Marc Laidlaw of Valve Software both use a technique of divergent thinking over time, instead of prototyping ideas to develop this pattern they simple overlay their day to day lives on the ideas to see what fits.

"I don't know if this is true for all [creators], but it's a writing thing. If I were working on a story, and I just have a bunch of pieces floating around in my head, everything that I'm experiencing, like walking down the street, or reading, is filtered through that. Usually, that's where the missing pieces come from." - Marc Laidlaw (Laidlaw & Wolpaw, 2009)

"Part of that is setting up this filter in your brain that's like, "I'm working on this thing now." So, everything I read, everything I look at, and everything everybody says to me is put through this filter of the project I'm working on. "Is this useful?" Everything you're telling me right now is first going through a filter of, "Is there something in there that I can use on the project that I'm working on?" and then it passes through and I answer you." - Erik Wolpaw (Laidlaw & Wolpaw, 2009)

Minimising Experimentation time

Reading through interviews and his book, it was obvious that in order to come up with bigger, better ideas Derek required the ability to prototype rapidly. This ability to rapidly create ideas and play with concepts was in part thanks to the two applications that he used during this process, Game Maker and Klik and Play. In other creative fields (such as Web and Graphic Design) there are heavy creative processes and applications that exist to help facilitate such ventures, but while there is a focus on prototyping in game design there is not the same focus on developing applications to meet this need. The biggest example of this that is common in the games industry are game jams, which while work towards a fixed time window are not working towards the same rapid prototype feel that you would expect in other industries.

This is an important aspect of the creative practice when mixed with the previous point on treating prototyping as a form of divergent thinking. While Derek is a competent programmer, he doesn't view it as a strong point and would rather focus on the abstraction of the design, an aspect that using programs like Game Maker allows him to focus on quickly and efficiently (Yu & Durham, 2017). In fact, one of the large draining aspects of creating Aquaria was the need to focus on the smaller details of the process, while being able to focus on the higher levels of game design helped solve that problem for him.

"I've tried programming a game engine from scratch before, surrounding myself with books like Tricks of the Game-Programming Gurus in an effort to "make games the right way," but when days of work yield as much as I could make in Game Maker in a few minutes, it's hard to stay motivated." - Derek Yu (Yu & Durham, 2017)

Spelunky classic
Derek's original prototype for Spelunky (Known as Spelunky Classic)

It is important to note however that these tools are not just limited to the ability to prototype, large scale games such as Hyperlight Drifter have used them to great success (Dief & Preston, 2017). If anything, we should take the importance of using the right tools for both the task and the individual. For some developers Game Maker is a limiter to what they could pull off, but time and time again it has led to some hugely successful works.

Sharing and social interaction

During both the creation of Eternal Daughter and Spelunky, Derek had a large focus on building a feedback cycle. During Eternal Daughter that feedback cycle happened through the Klik and Play community, allowing him to sharpen the vision he was creating as well as giving him ideas for future development, while during Spelunky it was thanks to TIGSource. TIGSource is a web portal for independent game developers working towards a similar goal and supporting each other, and it was in these forums that Derek shared ideas, builds and generaly got feedback. This feedback combined with his constant recording of the design process online hugely worked in Derek's favour in two major ways.

First, having an instant feedback mechanic allowed Derek to get feedback in a manner that let him constantly move forward. This meant that any issues that he had, or difficulty he had in being too close to the project was solved quickly. This also drove him forward, giving him motivation to continue and produce another release, which led to more feedback and so on, creating a motivation loop which pushed him onwards.

Second, the free and open nature Derek had with his development and processes allowed him to be more visible to the public, whic ultimately led him to be contacted by big names in the industry. It was thanks to this contact that he got his initial deal to publish Spelunky on the Xbox with Microsoft, pushing his then very indie scene games onto the mainstage of popular games (Yu, 2017).

What can we learn from this?

As I stated at the start of this post, the game industry feels immature in terms of what is expected from a creative practitioner within, and it is only through investigation of existing creative practitioners that we can start to develop our own process. Derek has a large focus on rapid prototyping and sharing of his ideas for wider feedback, and it really shows in the quality of his work.


Daunt, F. (2017). Derek Yu - Blogger, Designer, Editor. Campus Online. Retrieved 23 June 2017, from

Dief, T., & Preston, A. (2017). 'Hyper Light Drifter': Secrets of Kickstarter, Design, & Pizza. Retrieved 6 June 2017, from

Francis, B. (2017). Crucial lessons from 7 game jam prototypes that went commercial. Retrieved 18 June 2017, from

Frushtick, R. (2017). Spelunky: The everlasting platformer. Polygon. Retrieved 6 June 2017, from

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Gladstone, D. (2006). 101 Free Games: The Best Free Games on the Web. 1UP. Retrieved 16 September 2007, from

Laidlaw, M., & Wolpaw, E. (2009). Valve's Writers And The Creative Process.

O'Dwyer, D., & Jayne, J. (2017). Spelunky - Noclip Documentary. YouTube. Retrieved 21 June 2017, from

Runco, M., & Acar, S. (2012). Divergent Thinking as an Indicator of Creative Potential. Creativity Research Journal, 24(1), 66-75.

Wiltshire, A. (2017). How Inside’s levels were designed. Rock Paper Shotgun. Retrieved 7 June 2017, from

Yu, D. (2017). Mossmouth. Retrieved 5 June 2017, from

Yu, D. (2017). The Full Spelunky on Spelunky. Make Games. Retrieved 4 June 2017, from

Yu, D., & Durham, G. (2017). Spelunky (1st ed.). Boss Fight Books.

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